Movies

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.

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

To show that home theater and media rooms are for much more than just movie and TV watching, this week I’m reviewing Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague, available on Blu-ray Disc or for HD download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store (the version I watched).

 

If you’re a film fan, you’re likely familiar with Zimmer’s work, since it’s spanned the past 30 years. He has scored more than 150 films, including many for Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. Zimmer has received numerous Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Score for The Lion King.

 

Filmed in Prague, this concert captures an evening during Zimmer’s 2016 European concert tour where he plays 35 songs spanning decades of his work and includes music from Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception. (Sadly, this concert pre-dates Zimmer’s fascinating and intense score for Nolan’s recent Dunkirk.)

 

An interesting (in a good way) twist is the concert’s Dolby Atmos mix, meaning it’s recorded to really shine in a luxury home surround setup. Now, you might or might not love the decisions made in this very aggressive mix, but no one will watch this and leave wondering whether all of their speakers were active or not. 

 

Years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Star Wars in Concert in person, an event that brought together the 86-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus along with a giant high-def LED screen, measuring some 60-feet wide by 30-feet tall. This two-hour performance featured music spanning all six Star Wars films, blending music, film, lasers, pyrotechnics, and spectacle into a fantastically memorable evening.

That experience set my expectations for this concert, so I assumed there would be video and effects accompanying the score, but I was wrong. In fact, the concert opens with no dialogue or introduction whatsoever. It merely begins with Zimmer alone on stage at a piano playing the opening notes from “Driving” (Driving Miss Daisy). He is soon joined by another musician on flute, and then another on accordion, and soon there is a full stage of musicians, along with a full orchestra, and backing vocals provided by the

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

Czech national choir, making 72 musicians in all—including Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame on guitar.

 

After playing the opening three songs, and at various points throughout the concert’s 138-minute run time, Zimmer steps to the mic to say a few words, introducing members of the band, and sharing some memories or anecdotes about the compositions.

 

Shot digitally on Arri Alexa, the 16:9 image looks beautiful. Colors are bright and punchy, black levels are deep and solid with no banding or noise, showing off clear differences between the different shades of black in the performers’ outfits, and there is plenty of detail.

 

While there are no laser effects and very little accompanying video (some pulsing lights and symbols that enhance the beat, rhythm, and mood of the score, not displaying any movie footage), the show features plenty of dramatic lighting to illuminate the performers and punctuate the intensity of various tracks.

 

One great benefit of owning the Kaleidescape version is that all of the songs are bookmarked, allowing you to easily jump to your favorite moments, or just press the “Info” button to bring up the title listing to identify what you’re listening to.

 

Like Zimmer’s scoring style, the audio from this concert is big and bombastic. It also differs from the original works in that it has more of a rock concert, electronic vibe to it, which arguably works better, and is more entertaining, for a live show. “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight is one of my favorite Zimmer works, and here it plays a bit like a Blue Man Group performance, with heavy percussion and an intense light show that well capture the Joker’s manic personality.

 

Played at reference volumes, this concert is quite loud, and has a surprising amount of deep low-frequency information, especially the opening notes of “Half Remembered Dream” from Inception. In fact, while watching this I had to remove the filter on my SVS sub that boosts bass at 32 Hz to give a bit of punch to films because it created just too much low-end bloat.

 

As mentioned before, the Atmos mix is highly immersive and aggressive, but also . . . interesting. Often concert or performance mixes are done from either an on-stage or in-crowd perspective, but for most of this show, you’re positioned primarily in the middle of the mix, with instrumentation and vocals frequently wrapping all around the room. The primary instruments and backing vocals are mixed heavily into the front channels, but also spread overhead and into the sides. If you find yourself too overwhelmed by the Atmos soundtrack, the Blu-ray also features a two-channel PCM mix. 

 

For fans of Zimmer’s works, this is an absolute must-get. For those who love watching live performances, or are looking for an entertaining evening at home that doesn’t involve explosions, jump scares, or the latest rom-com, this belongs on the shortlist.

John Sciacca

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

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.

Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie

Let’s talk about courage for a moment. Not the courage it took for Ilya and Alexander Salkind to make a sentimental and sincere big-budget superhero film when there was no precedent for that sort of thing at the time. Nor the courage it took for director Richard Donner and casting director Lynn Stalmaster to take a risk on unknown Christopher Reeve for the lead role, when so many other famous names were contending for the red cape and spit curl. You’ve no doubt heard those stories before.

 

Let’s talk instead about the courage it took for Warner Bros. to release a 4K HDR version of the film in 2018 that preserves all of the celluloid flaws (and charms) of the original cinematic release, in an era where so many studios are glossing up, de-noising, sharpening, and generally attempting to modernize the standouts in their classic film catalogs.

 

Superman: The Movie is one of those films I buy on any new home video format the day it’s released. Which isn’t to say that every home video release has been a major improvement over the ones before it. This is an intentionally soft and heavily filtered film, after all. It lacks rock-solid blacks. There’s a prominent graininess to the image, especially in special effects shots.

 

If Kaleidescape’s new 4K HDR release of the film weren’t true to all of that, it would be a bit of a betrayal. So why release it in 4K HDR at all? What stands out most in this release as compared with previous efforts (including the Blu-ray-quality 1080p version of the film, also 

included with the Kaleidescape download of this one) is the richness and saturation of its colors, especially in those early sequences in Smallville.

 

Before that, the scenes on Krypton also get a nice boost from the enhanced brightness afforded by 

Superman: The Movie

HDR. I finally think I get what Donner was going for with those silly reflective suits that Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) wear as they ponder the fate of their infant child before rocketing him off to earth. They have a pop and sizzle here that they’ve simply never had on home video before.

 

Other than that, it’s as if a layer of haze has been wiped off of the film. Granted, what was buried under the haze was a late-70s work of photochemical film. It’s fuzzy. It’s muted. Its effects shots look kinda laughable. But that’s long been part of the charm of this film, so kudos to Warner for having the cajones to release it as such, and kudos to Kaleidescape for delivering it with all of its textures and nuances intact. This isn’t the movie you’re going to whip out if you simply want to show off all of your projector’s or TV’s pixel-pumping, high-contrast capabilities. Still, it’s hard to deny that this is the best that Superman: The Movie has ever looked or will likely ever look. I daresay the original 70mm print didn’t shine this brilliantly the first time it was spindled through the projector on opening night in 1978.

 

One thing worth noting is that the Kaleidescape version of the film doesn’t include the new Atmos remix included with the UHD Blu-ray disc. I’m not sure how you feel about that, dear reader, but I don’t miss it. The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download is a big step up from previous efforts, especially in terms of its rich, bombastic delivery of John Williams’ iconic score. The fidelity here is simply flawless, yet it isn’t an outright betrayal of the film’s original aesthetic.

 

Am I alone in this, though? Would you rather see a classic like Superman: The Movie presented as a product of its time, in the best possible light of today’s home video technology? Or would you prefer that the studio iron out the grain, sharpen up the edges, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and try to make the film look (and sound!) more like the current crop of superhero flicks that owe so much to this cherished classic?

Dennis Burger

Superman: The Movie

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.

Papillon (2017)

One of my favorite, truly epic “inspired by actual events” films is Papillon. Released in 1973, it stars Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker framed for murder and condemned to a life of hard labor at the notorious French Guiana penal colony on Devil’s Island. The film is balanced by a terrific performance from Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who agrees to finance Papillon’s escape in exchange for protection.

 

I can clearly remember the first time I saw this movie, watching a late-night cable presentation at my grandmother’s house on a 20-inch tube TV, where the marathon tale of survival and escape from the brutalizing French penal system seemed like it ran for four hours.

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Whether you saw and remember the original Papillon, I’m betting you weren’t aware it was recently remade. The new version came to theaters in a very limited release this past August with little to no fanfare, and moved on to home video shortly thereafter. When I saw that both versions were available for purchase on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in HD quality, I downloaded them to see how they compared.

 

Both films are based on Charrière’s international best-selling autobiographies, Papillon and Banco. (It’s interesting to note that the 1973 film features a screenwriting credit by Dalton Trumbo, whose own incredible life was the basis for the film Trumbo.) Whereas most “prison break” films spend the majority of time following the plotting of the escape, Papillon instead focuses on the characters and their daily nightmarish existence on Devil’s Island, where treachery lurks around every corner and 40% of prisoners died within the first years, with only two prisoners successfully escaping.

Papillon (2017)

Papillon (2017)

The remake is based on the 1973 screenplay, and thus borrows heavily from the original film’s storyline. Here, the titular character of Papillon (which means “butterfly” in French, for a prominent tattoo) is played by Charlie Hunnam, with Rami Malek (of recent Bohemian Rhapsody fame) taking over Hoffman’s role of Louis Dega. 

 

At 133 minutes, the new film certainly isn’t short, but is 18 minutes shorter than the original. This helps it feel faster paced, with less time spent on the solitary-confinement scenes, and quicker transitions to the film’s many dramatic moments. It also excises scenes from the original (notably the visit to the leper colony), but offers a bit of backstory at the beginning showing Papillon’s life outside of prison, in a very Gatsby-esque Paris.

 

In many ways, the new version reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s (in)famous Psycho remake. While Papillon isn’t a shot-for-shot remake like Van Sant’s Psycho, it leans so heavily on the original storyline, and even dialogue, that it ends up feeling like the same film. Hunnam does an admirable job portraying Pappy, but never seems to hit the same level of rock-bottom despair and suffering McQueen portrayed. Malek, however, does a fantastic job filling Hoffman’s shoes as the out-of-play and overwhelmed Dega just trying to survive to the next day.

 

One thing that can’t be faulted with the new film is the picture and sound quality. While not available in 4K HDR, it has nice detail and solid black levels. The color palette is mostly restrained by design, with drab prison and guard uniforms and hardscrabble landscape. But the images are natural looking, and outdoor scenes are bright, showing off the vibrant blues of the inviting waters surrounding the island. The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio track is also quite active and does a great job keeping dialogue intelligible. It also upmixes wonderfully to a Dolby Atmos speaker layout, with nice overhead fill from the score and well-placed ambient effects, such as aboard the prison transport ship or during exterior scenes.

 

Critics and audiences alike greatly preferred the original film, with the 1973 version scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90% audience rating, while the new film only mustered 52% on RT with a 69% audience score. While I’d agree that the original is the superior film—and certainly the one to watch if Papillon is new to you—the remake is far from unenjoyable, and provides a great way to revisit an old favorite in a spruced-up manner. 

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2 review

Incredibles 2 shouldn’t work. At least not as well as it does. It’s been 14 years since the original film, after all, and the world—our world, the real one without superheroes—has changed. A lot. Socially. Politically. Cinematically. So, to pick up this sequel right after the end of the original film seems a myopic decision. One can’t help but wonder—as the film opens on the familiar closing scenes of its forebear—if Incredibles 2 will ever rise above the level of nostalgic romp.

 

Thankfully those apprehensions are unfounded. Perhaps it’s due to the retro-futuristic tone, style, and aesthetic of the Incredibles universe, but somehow the film manages to catch up with a decade-and-a-half worth of sociopolitical progress and regression while also managing to feel like a fluid and organic extension of the original. And it does so while somehow managing to be less preachy and more nuanced.

 

Another reason Incredibles 2 feels like something of a risky move is the fact that it has the courage to be a lot of films at once. It’s an unabashed superhero flick, sure. It’s also a girl-power anthem and a slapstick masterpiece rolled up into one, with a side-helping of commentary on all forms of media (new, social, and mainstream). There’s teenage romance. There’s thrilling action. There are poop jokes and technological warnings that are about as subtle as a 1958 Pontiac Parisienne. There’s also an epic (and epically hilarious) battle between a trash panda and an infant, for goodness’ sake. But somehow this mélange of themes and tones and styles coalesces into something that works wonderfully and cohesively.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the film, it’s that from 30,000 feet its main plot is sort of just a gender-inversion of the original film’s main storyline. In many ways that works to its advantage, though. It gives the longtime fan something to latch onto—a sense of comforting familiarity that in many ways makes this film’s narrative and thematic departures hit home with a little more oomph.

 

More than anything, though, the themes of Incredibles 2 build on those of the original in a seemingly seamless way. Whereas the first film dealt largely with issues of individuality, the sequel in many ways wraps its arms around the internal struggle between defining ourselves as individuals and accepting that who we are as people is often a function of who we are to the other people in our lives, especially when viewed through the lens of the family.

 

That isn’t really any sort of insightful observation on my part, mind you. It mainly comes from the film’s exceptional collection of bonus features. If you saw Incredibles 2 in cinemas and thought you were done with it, you owe it to yourself to explore the shockingly revelatory and honest supplemental material included with the film. If you’re on Kaleidescape, that means downloading the Blu-ray-quality version of the film as well as the 4K HDR, since the extras are limited to the former.

 

It’s well worth downloading both, though. The Kaleidescape HDR version of the film sets itself apart from the other home video releases thanks to unique color grading that focuses less on the absolute blacks and eye-reactive highlights and more on subtlety and richness of shadows that simply look more cinematic to my eyes. Kaleidescape’s TrueHD Atmos soundtrack (otherwise found only on the film’s UHD Blu-ray release) also has a leg up on the Dolby Digital+ soundtrack found on streaming versions of the film. Not necessarily in the booming bass of big action sequences (of which there are many, with oodles of sonic impact, something Disney hasn’t always gotten right as of late), but more in the subtle details that deliver ambience and atmospherics. And above all else, Incredibles 2 is nothing if not atmospheric.

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.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp review

The Disney/Marvel team really has the formula dialed in when it comes to creating successful and enjoyable superhero movies. Through a deft mix of writing, casting, humor, big action pieces, and a 10-year storyline that both lives on its own and weaves between all films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel films are entertaining and re-watchable, making them fantastic for viewing at home. And while many carry a PG-13 rating, as does Ant-Man and the Wasp, they are very family friendly in nature.

 

While technically a sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, don’t worry that you’ll be lost if you are diving in here. The opening scene lays the groundwork for the primary plot of this film: Years ago, the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer) went sub-atomic to disable a missile, and she was thought to be lost forever to the Quantum Realm. Now her husband, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) think there is a way to bring her back. Of course, doing so requires dealing with some shady characters to obtain illegal, black-market tech, causing mayhem to ensue.

 

The film’s big hook is that Dr. Pym’s tech can shrink—and grow—a variety of objects, adding another layer to fight and chase scenes. These Honey, I Shrunk the Kids moments work very well, both visually and for moving the story forward, as well as providing some comedic moments.

 

Paul Rudd—the titular Ant-Man/Scott Lang—carries most of the film, balancing his roles as superhero and father while under house arrest for events that happened in Captain America: Civil War. (This is all explained early on by FBI agent Jimmy Woo, played with great comedic effect by Randall Park.) Rudd is just incredibly likable and easy to watch, similar—but far less foul-mouthed—to Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool, with an ability to organically inject humor into scenes without making it feel forced. Lilly is also fantastic as the Wasp, demonstrating she’s picked up some fierce fighting skills since leaving the island. (That’s a Lost reference, for those who missed it.)

 

The movie was filmed on a variety of Red and Arri cameras at resolutions ranging from 3.4K to 8K, while the home release comes from a 2K Digital Intermediate. This means that it doesn’t mine every bit of resolution possible, but still looks pretty terrific. A great example is the early scene where Jimmy Woo explains why Lang is under house arrest. He’s wearing a shirt with incredibly fine pinstripes that are almost a 1:1 4K resolution test. Other scenes reveal the pebbled texture and detail in Ant-Man and Wasp’s uniforms. The film’s color palette is mostly muted and natural, with a more restrained HDR pass. But the image still pops when it needs to—for example when heading into the Quantum Realm, or the computer screens in Dr. Pym’s lab. Black levels are also deep and noise free, with lots of shadow detail.

 

There has been quite a bit of angst over recent Disney/Marvel home releases with their sub-standard, heavily compressed audio mixes. In fact, a petition was started to get Disney to change the audio quality in future releases, currently with over 1,000 supporters. I’m happy to say that the Dolby Atmos audio quality on Ant-Man and the Wasp is far improved over recent D/M fare. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout, but more importantly to luxury home cinema owners, the sound mix is far more dynamic, with the overhead speakers used wisely and frequently throughout. This height layer is used for creating ambience and space in the scene, as well as creating directional cues—for example, The Wasp and other insects zipping around the room. If I had one complaint about the audio mix, it would be that they were a little light-handed in the deep bass department, with moments—such as during a big chase and fight scene near the end—that would have benefitted from some extra dBs in the LFE channel.

 

Two scenes that really show off the strength of the audio mix are “Lost in the Quantum Realm” at just over 11 minutes in, as well as Lang’s first visit to Dr. Pym’s lab at the 16 minute mark. “Lost” has audio that swirls and shifts all around the room, simulating Lang’s travel through the realm, with voices mixed in all channels to simulate a dream state. The lab scene wonderfully uses subtle cues like buzzing fluorescent lights, flying and crawling insects, and cavernous echoes to place you smack in the middle of the screen environment.

 

Oh, and without spoiling anything, definitely watch through the credits, as the team does a fantastic job of tying this film into the Infinity War timeline.

 

The film also includes a host of extra features including a director’s commentary, a variety of making-of featurettes, outtakes, and deleted scenes

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: ‘The Last Jedi’ UHD Blu-ray

I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.

 

That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.

 

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.

 

If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.

 

Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.

 

It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.

 

The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.

 

At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.

 

In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.

The Last Jedi

But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.

 

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.

 

It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.

 

In my 2018 Wishlist published on the Rayva Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.

The Last Jedi

In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.

 

The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.

 

Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.

 

But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.

 

As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort. 

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.

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 1)

underrated entertainment

I don’t care who you are, or what sorts of entertainment you consume on a regular basis, I guarantee you there’s a TV series or movie out there somewhere that broke your heart. And I don’t mean in a Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias sort of way—I mean it spoke to your unique aesthetic so thoroughly that its cancellation or box-office failure hit you on a deep level. A personal affront, if you will.

 

For me, it’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The cancellation of this sci-fi-action-comedy-western, which debuted in the nascent days of the Fox broadcast network, still stings in a way matched only by Firefly.

 

But I’m not here to talk about cult classics. I’m here instead to talk about under-appreciated works of art with near-universal appeal that, for whatever reason, just never caught on. Maybe they were before their time. Maybe they were marketed poorly. Maybe humans just have crappy taste, I don’t know. Whatever the reasons may be, the lack of recognition for these gems doesn’t just offend me personally—it speaks, I think, to a fundamental fragmentation of our media-consuming culture that these massively appealing works don’t have mass appeal.

Take My So-Called Life, for instance. I know it may seem like a cheat, since this Claire Danes classic is one of the most critically acclaimed series in the history of the Internet. But have you seen it? No, be honest. Have you really sat down and watched it? MSCL broke new ground in the mid-90s by having teens, played by teens, actually act like teens. Seriously, that was shocking at the time. Of course, My So-Called Life has been so thoroughly mimicked by now that if you’re just watching it for the first time, it might not seem so fresh. Give it a shot anyway. It’s one of the best TV series ever made, and It’s available in its all-too-brief entirety on Hulu.

Before there was The West Wing, before The Newsroom or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (shut up—that show was amazing), there was Sports Night, a forgotten slice of brilliance that represents Aaron Sorkin at his Aarony Sorkinest, with all the impeccable timing, social commentary, and way-too-intelligent-for-humans-to-actually-utter dialogue that have made his followup efforts such critical darlings. I don’t care if you loathe the sports (because goodness knows, I do—GTLM motorsports being the rare exception), Sports Night is simply amazing television: Beautifully written, amazingly directed, perfectly performed, and infuriatingly unavailable for streaming on Netflix or Hulu. You can buy it an episode at a time on iTunes or Amazon, though.

I have two types of friends: Those who think Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time, and those who think Love Actually is the best Christmas movie of all time. For the record, I cast my lot with the latter camp, but I don’t think Love Actually is actually Richard Curtis’ best film. Sacrilege, I know, but that distinction actually belongs to About Time, perhaps one of the most misunderstood films I’ve ever seen. Misunderstood, because the handful of critics who saw it felt the need to pick nits with the rules governing this time-traveling rom-com’s temporal shenanigans, as if it were some sort of science-fiction flick. It’s not. Far from it. About Time is actually a modern-day fairy tale, whose violations of its own internal rules are actually kinda part of the point. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I silently judge people who’ve seen this film and didn’t love every frame of it.

Speaking of judgment—if you’re one of the millions of people who didn’t watch last summer’s Downward Dog when ABC snuck it onto the airwaves and left it hanging with no real support, I’m still angry with you. It wasn’t merely the best show of the summer—it was the best new comedy on TV in at least a decade. Think of it as a (sometimes) lighthearted, (often) cheeky, but nonetheless just-as-philosophically deep episodic riff on The Art of Racing in the Rain, but with a strong female lead (Fargo’s criminally under-appreciated Allison Tolman). Yes, it starred a talking dog with computer-animated lips, but this was one of the most human TV shows I think I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it too is missing from all the major streaming services. Episodes are available for download from iTunes and Vudu, though.

So, yeah, you likely missed all of the above in their heyday, but there’s one under-the-radar series airing right now that you still have a chance to catch while the getting’s good. Drunk History began its life as a series of Funny or Die clips online, but has since moved to full-length episodes on Comedy Central, where most people seem to be completely ignoring it. Seriously, when I pester my friends about whether or not they’ve seen the most recent episode, most of them squint or give me a pug head-tilt. How on earth a series in which inebriated narrators do their best to slur through some of history’s most interesting stories while some of the best actors in the world reenact their sloshed narratives isn’t the most highly rated thing on the boob tube is just beyond me. Do yourself a favor and set your DVR (new and repeats!) posthaste. You can thank me later.

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.