Movies

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.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Most good geeks will tell you 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series is not only the greatest cartoon of all time but also the best rendition of the Dark Knight. I’m not inclined to disagree with them, but my favorite riff on the Caped Crusader is actually the oft-forgotten 2008 animated series The Brave and the Bold. Unlike every interpretation of the Batman mythos before it, The Brave and the Bold manages to integrate every contradictory aspect of the character and synthesize it into a perplexing and intriguing whole. Yes, it acknowledges the darker, broodier side of the characterbut also the campy, goofier side. It puts some of Batman’s silliest escapades on equal footing with the grimmest tales in the character’s history. It’s a celebration of everything Batman has ever been. And, somehow, it simply works.

 

Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggsthe latest film from the Coen Brothers—has absolutely nothing to do with Batman, of course. But it reminds me a lot of The Brave and the Bold in that Joel and Ethan Coen, with their quirky old-west anthology, have managed to create a homage to cowboy cinema that embraces all its disparate aspects—from the singing cowboys of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to the grimdark western revival films of the ‘90s like Clint Eastwood’s brutal Unforgiven, and everything in between.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”

The resulting pastiche definitely wouldn’t work in the hands of less capable filmmakers, and it certainly wouldn’t work as a single narrative. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six disconnected vignettes, each with its own style and tone, and each—it seems—intended to riff on different tropes from the history of old-west cinema, alternately exalting, tweaking, or subverting them. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the middle of “All Gold Canyon” (ostensibly starring Tom Waits, but more accurately starring some of the most gorgeous unspoiled vistas I’ve ever laid eyes on) why the film wasn’t shot in a wider aspect ratio, indebted as it is to some of John Ford’s later VistaVision masterpieces.

 

Put a moment’s thought into it, though, and that question seems silly. Ultra-wide aspect ratios, though possible at home, are the stuff of commercial cinemas, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was made for the small screen. It’s a film no major film

studio would have ever bankrolled. And that fact alone is one of the major reasons for the increasing cultural insignificance of commercial cinemas.

 

Does that mean we’ll see more films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime become the 800-Pound Gorillas of the film industry? One can only hope. It’s a quirky, weird,

wonderful work that ranks amongst the Coens’ best since The Big Lebowksi.

 

It’s also worth noting that the film’s use of high dynamic range is amongst the most compelling I’ve seen in ages. You no doubt have access to a few different sources capable of playing Netflix in your home entertainment system. If any of those support Dolby Vision, go that route. The luscious landscapes—and even the obvious soundstage settings of the final vignette—benefit beautifully from the enhanced contrast, shadow detail, and lighting effects.

 

And, yes, in this case that really matters. The substance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs emerges in large part from its style. That’s not a knock against it, mind you. It’s simply that you could easily sum up the narrative of any of these six episodes in a sentence or two. What makes the film work isn’t its narrative depth. It’s the artistry of its cinematography, the quality of its performances, and of course the inimitably ridiculous brilliance of the Coen Brothers’ too-clever-to-be-believable dialogue.

 

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.

Mission: Impossible–Fallout

Like scotch, red wine, and balsamic vinegar, the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to be one of those rare entities that actually improves with age. The latest installment, Fallout, is the sixth in the franchise (they dropped the number in the title following III), and it managed to not only bring in the most money—both foreign and domestic—of any of the films, but also receive the highest review scores of the series from Rotten Tomatoes (97%), Metacritic (86), and CinemaScore (A).

 

While I wouldn’t brand myself a Tom Cruise fan, I have to hand it to the guy—he definitely picks fantastic projects to be involved in. And, six films in, he has IMF agent Ethan Hunt down pat. Also, he sure appears to do all his own stunts, whether it’s racing motorcycles or cars, jumping off buildings (where he actually broke his ankle while filming Fallout), or learning how to fly a frickin’ helicopter for one of the film’s key scenes!

Mission: Impossible--Fallout

Part of what makes the Impossible franchise work is familiarity. We know we’re going to be in for some major action set pieces, we know we’ll be whisked to exotic locales, we know there will be crosses and double-crosses, and we know there will be rubber masks, and Fallout doesn’t stray from that formula. We also have a returning cadre of IMF agents helping Hunt in the form of Simon Pegg, playing Benji Dunn for the fourth straight film, and Luther Stickell, played by a Ving Rhames, who has appeared alongside Cruise in every MI film. Christopher McQuarrie follows up his writing and directing efforts from the previous Impossible film, Rogue Nationwhich is fitting as Fallout is a sequel of sorts.

 

Eager to check out this latest entry, I downloaded it as soon as it appeared on Kaleidescape, where it was available months before the disc release.

 

The film begins roughly two years after the action in Rogue Nation, which ended, you might recall, with head Syndicate bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) being lured into a sealed glass cell, where he was gassed unconscious and taken into custody. (While not a prerequisite, Fallout does assume some level of MI film knowledge, and watching—or re-watching—Rogue Nation would definitely help stave off some confusion—or at least add to the enjoyment of the film.)

 

Lane’s capture was not the end of the Syndicate. Rather, the group’s loyalists have reorganized into a splinter cell, calling themselves the Apostles, with a terror-for-hire philosophy that has been wreaking havoc around the globe. Fallout begins with—and the plot revolves around—Hunt and team trying to track down and recover three stolen plutonium cores that new

mystery-terrorist John Lark wants to make into nuclear weapons and bring destruction to the current world order.

 

Most of the movie was shot on 35mm film, and the amount of grain and noise is sometimes a tad excessive in dark scenes, and in brightly lit scenes such as the all-white bathroom at the club. It isn’t a bad transfer by any

means—rather, it looks like film instead of video. But several scenes were filmed in IMAX, and these look simply gorgeous in 4K, with an absolutely stunning amount of detail.

 

The Dolby Atmos track on Fallout is fantastic and reference quality in every way. Just the opening title sequence, with the iconic theme pulsing from every speaker, is a terrific audio demo in itself. Dialogue is clear and easily understandable throughout, no matter how frantic the action gets. Bass is deep and loud when it should be, with explosions rocking your listening room and gunshots carrying the appropriate degree of crack and sizzle.

 

Fallout is also one of the more impressive Atmos soundtracks I can recall lately, with the full complement of surround and height speakers used extensively to provide immersion and ambient effects. For example, in the beginning of the film, Hunt and crew have a meeting in a tunnel in Berlin, and the audio reflects this acoustic space perfectly, with rumbles and echoes happening all around, including overhead.

 

The last 30 minutes of the movie are sheer action, with the majority presented in IMAX video quality. Visually and sonically, it’s the stuff of absolute home theater legend, and reference in every respect. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that helicopters make for some terrific overhead Atmos audio, and Fallout’s conclusion in the mountains of Kashmir doesn’t disappoint.

 

At nearly two and a half hours, this movie is lengthy, and packed with twists, turns, and character introductions (and reintroductions) throughout, so you’ll want to keep your wits about you and actively watch this instead of trying to monitor a cellphone or iPad and just checking in when you hear an explosion. (I dare say you’ll pick up things and understand the film better on a second viewing.) Fallout is one of those rare mega-dollar blockbuster films that really pays off, and really shines in a luxury home cinema!

John Sciacca

Mission: Impossible--Fallout

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.

Filmworker

Two hundred years from now, the equivalent of the medieval monks—be they human, cyborg, robot, or virtual mass—will look back at this slice of time and decide Stanley Kubrick was the best American movie director and Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest filmmaker. They’ll then chuckle for a moment over the absurdity of the immense energy and emotion our culture invested in the fleeting and ultimately silly phenomenon of film, and then—assuming there’s any worth left—shift their attention to weightier things.

Or at least one can hope.

 

Leon Vitali was Kubrick’s steadfastly loyal No. 2 from the time Kubrick cast him to play, exquisitely, Barry Lyndon’s petulant nemesis Lord Bullingdon, through Kubrick’s death during post production on the unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut, and apparently up to the present. The Netflix documentary Filmworker 

Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon

seems to want to paint Vitali as somehow delusional, someone deeply oppressed, a fashionable victim. But Vitali, thankfully, won’t have any part of that.

 

Anyone who’s ever paid any real attention to Kubrick and his work is already aware of, and grateful for, Vitali’s extraordinary efforts on the director’s behalf. So why, then, try to shine a bright enough light on him that he’s seen by a broader audience of the merely curious?

 

“Masochism” would be the simplest answer. Vitali is an apt poster child for an age when everyone’s a victim and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions. And the roots of that go back farther than the current “I’m strong because I’m weak”

Filmworker

Vitali (left) with Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining

fetishism to the Soviet era and the apparatchiks, determined to obliterate all extraordinary efforts and ensure no one could ever rise above the mediocre middle.

 

So, yeah, you can feel bad about some of the hell Vitali must have gone through at his boss’s hands. But then there are those brief, tantalizing clips from Kubrick’s movies—and from Barry Lyndon in 

particular—and you realize, yeah, that’s worth whatever pain and neglect and slights and abuse it took to get there.

 

This isn’t a particularly well-made film, relying on redundancies and cliches that run completely counter to Kubrick’s whole aesthetic, a documentary more concerned with fashionable truths than The Truth. But it’s worth a look—if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of a wilder, messier, more fruitful and forgiving age, before a vast army of J Crew models took over filmmaking, when the ambiguity of depths mattered more than the distracting glitter of the surface.

Michael Gaughn

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