Reviews

Review: Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)

With the horror show that was 2020 finally behind us, a lighthearted post-apocalypse film with a different take on the genre might just be the perfect thing for your next movie night. Originally slated for a theatrical release, Love and Monsters instead debuted on VOD via digital retailers on October 16, as well as seeing a small (just 387 theaters) theatrical release for the October 16-18 weekend. Like many VOD titles, this one didn’t get a lot of press, so unless you’ve been cruising the digital-release updates on your favorite provider—iTunes, Fandango, Vudu, Kaleidescape—you probably missed it.

Post-apocalypse films typically follow one of two themes: Hordes of zombies relentlessly attacking the survivors or survivors forced to fight against each other for the few remaining resources. Love takes a different approach to this, giving us a new but entirely relatable “enemy,” making for a far more light-hearted journey, as well as a fresher take on this “love” story.

 

In the opening moments we’re told the governments on Earth decided to launch a massive rocket barrage in order to ward off a planet-killing asteroid. While they destroyed the asteroid, no one counted on all of the chemical fallout causing massive mutations among earth’s insect and reptile populations, with these creatures growing hundreds of times their normal size, with increased appetites to boot.

 

In the seven years following the fallout, 95% of Earth’s population has been wiped out, with the remainder joining up in colonies and living underground in shelters to survive. 

MONSTERS AT A GLANCE

Populated with mutant insects instead of zombies, this lighthearted post-apocalyptic tale is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

 

PICTURE     

While not the last word in sharpness or detail, the images are clean and clear with some shots looking almost 3D and with HDR giving them punch and realism.

 

SOUND     

The videogame-like 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack is immersive and exciting, with the surrounds used throughout to help establish environments.

It’s in one of these colonies where we meet our unlikely hero, Joel (Dylan O’Brien, best known from his starring role as Thomas from The Maze Runner trilogy). While well liked in his colony for his skill at repairing the radio and making a mean minestrone, he is worthless when it comes to fighting against the creepy-crawlies, completely freezing up on any encounter.

 

After discovering that his old high-school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), is living in a colony just 85 miles—or 7 days walk—away, he decides he’s tired of hiding underground and that he’s going to risk the journey for love.

 

Along the way, Joel befriends a dog, meets up with two seasoned survivors, Clyde (the excellent Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who give him some much-needed training, gets attacked by a variety of mutated critters, and learns what it takes to survive and actually live again.

 

While zombie films essentially have waves of the same kinds of undead hordes, Joel is confronted with a constant variety of insects, with different looks and attack patterns that keep it visually interesting and exciting, with Joel never knowing where the next attack is coming from. (Though, spoiler, it’s almost always from below . . .) Also, the violence and gore here is decidedly “family-friendly;” Instead of humanoid creatures getting brains blown out in a shower of gore or chewing on human flesh, we get insects dying in mostly bloodless manners. Other than several uses of sh–, the film is pretty unobjectionable, and definitely something you could enjoy with a teenaged crowd.

 

The filmmakers also did a nice job of worldbuilding, littering the landscape with old, wrecked military weaponry and remnants of giant insect corpses as well as abandoned vehicles and shelters, and the insects have enough detail to make them both gross and creepy.

 

Information on the technical specifications of Love and Monsters’ transfer wasn’t available, but images are clean, clear, and sharp throughout. Though it didn’t have the constant tack-sharpness and hyper-detail of some modern transfers—making me think it is maybe a 2K digital intermediate—there is still tons of detail in closeups, revealing the micro-stubble and texture in Joel’s face. What I really noticed was the image focus and depth of field, with some shots having a near three-dimensional quality. Even with groups of people together—such as inside Joel’s bunker—all of the characters are distinct, captured in sharp, clear focus.

 

With images alternating between the stark, fluorescent- and flashlight-lit darkness of bunkers and the bright, sun-filled outdoors, HDR really helps to give images punch and realism. Lighting and shadows in the dark interiors also look 

appropriately dark, with clean dark blacks, punctuated by the bright fluorescent lighting. Outdoor scenes are filled with vibrant and realistic looking earth tones, with beaming sunlight that will make you squint against the light coming off your screen.

 

While “just” a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack, I was impressed with how immersive and exciting the mix was played with Dolby Surround upmixing through my Marantz processor. In fact, far more of my viewing notes were about the audio than the picture quality, with sound used throughout to establish environments like inside Joel’s bunker with lots of metallic groans and echoes or sounds of dripping water, or deep metallic thunks and clanks as heavy doors are opening/closing, or the wind rustling through grasses and trees in outdoor areas.

 

The surrounds are used extensively to help locate an imminent insect attack, with the creatures slithering and skittering in from the side or back of the room, or the sounds of weapons whisking past, reminding me a bit of the way a good videogame mix helps you to localize the threat. While not an immersive mix with true discreet height effects, the height speakers are fed sounds of flares popping and jets streaking overhead, sounds of rain and thunder during a storm, as well as creature sounds during some of the insect battles.

Love and Monsters (2020)

Your subwoofer adds weight to the explosions, metallic collisions, and insect burrowing, and dialogue remains clear and intelligible.

 

While Love and Monsters doesn’t break any new ground—handsome boy risks death to go and get pretty girl—it’s just fun to watch, due in large part to O’Brien’s charming turn as Joel and the variety of critters he runs across, as well as some dry humor injected from Clyde, whose survival lessons reminded me a bit of Zombieland‘s “Rules.” If you’re looking for a slightly edgy film you can watch with the family—my 14-year-old daughter, Lauryn, really enjoyed it, with just enough tension and sudden scares to keep her engaged and entertained—that isn’t animated or doesn’t involve superheroes, Love and Monsters is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

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 Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Even with theaters still closed across much of the country, this has been a big past few days for movie releases, with three big-budget titles hitting streaming services. Christmas Day saw the release of Soul on Disney+ and Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max as well as in theaters, along with the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, showing theatrically here in the States but available for streaming on Netflix in some international territories. And on December 23rd, Netflix released the George Clooney directed and starring sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

 

Unlike films that were destined for the big screen and then re-routed to streamers as a theatrical release proved unsafe (or unprofitable), it appears Sky was destined for Netflix from the get-go—though it did see a very limited theatrical release in a total of 232 theaters in the Netherlands and South Korea. With an estimated budget of nearly $100 million, Sky is one of the 

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

Most recently known for playing himself in ads pitching Nespresso coffee machines and the billion-dollar sale of his co-founded tequila brand, Casamigos, Clooney’s legacy of bankability and choosing good roles—his turn in the dismal Batman & Robin notwithstanding—still gives him quite a bit of star power, and his involvement was my primary reason for being interested in Sky.

 

Based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Sky opens in February 2049, three weeks after some unspecified cataclysmic event has poisoned the planet with radiation, wiping out most of life on Earth and rendering it uninhabitable. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the sole person at the remote Barbeau Observatory scientific base in the Arctic Circle, suffering from a terminal illness and spending his remaining days drinking, monitoring deteriorating world conditions, and performing transfusion treatments to prolong his life.

SKY AT A GLANCE

This George Clooney directed & starring straight-to-Netflix space epic will intrigue sci-fi and Clooney fans but will probably be pretty slow going for everyone else.

 

PICTURE     

Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail. There are lots of bright highlights that benefit from the HDR grading.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments with their own unique sounds.

Lofthouse discovers there is still a single active space mission, the Aether, which is returning from having explored the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23—a moon that had been discovered years before by Lofthouse. Knowing that the ship returning means a death sentence for its crew, Lofthouse attempts to contact the Aether to warn them off, but the antenna at his station isn’t powerful enough to reach the ship. One evening, he encounters a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inside the station, who refuses (or is unable) to speak but identifies herself as Iris through a drawing. Lofthouse decides to take Iris and head to another base with a larger antenna to warn off and save Aether’s crew.

 

The film bounces back and forth between Lofthouse and Iris on earth and the small five-man crew aboard the Aether, headed by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Interspersed with these events, we have flashbacks where a younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) remembers an old girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), who left him to pursue his science after a pregnancy scare.

 

Just shy of a two-hour runtime, The Midnight Sky feels a bit slow and plodding and almost like two different movies, with Lofthouse struggling on Earth and the astronauts off doing their thing in space. While Clooney—who lost 30 pounds to play the role and sports a David Letterman-esque shaggy beard—does his best, I just never felt connected to the characters enough to care about them. We find out he’s terminal in the film’s opening moments, so it isn’t like his character’s arc is a real mystery. And we barely get to know anything about the astronauts, and not caring or being invested in the six characters makes for a slow journey.

 

Clooney is essentially by himself the entire time, and the scenes between him and Iris before going on their trek to the other station are all one-sided bits of dialogue in the confines of the Observatory that wear on and don’t create the mystery I think Clooney was going for.

 

The film tries to create additional drama along the way, both on Earth and in space. Lofthouse and Iris are caught in blizzards, circled by wolves, and experience the almost requisite fall-through-ice, which, let’s be honest, would have left them dead of hypothermia within minutes in the extreme frigid conditions. In space, the ship experiences a trajectory deviation that puts them into uncharted space where they are bombarded with meteorite ice crystals that destroy critical parts that require a spacewalk to repair. And, well, if Clooney’s previous space film, Gravity, taught us anything about spacewalks, it’s that they can be . . . hazardous.

 

With the big budget, the special effects look first-rate, specifically life aboard the Aether and the exterior shots of the ship, which you get to see in great detail during the spacewalk. Had these scenes not been believable, the movie would be a real #Fail. Also, the freezing exteriors were shot on location at the top of an Icelandic glacier with sub-40-degree temps and 50 MPH winds, so Clooney’s misery and frozen beard are all real.

 

One interesting choice was having a younger actor play young Lofthouse, but with his voice mixed in with Clooney’s. Having just watched the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, where one character is digitally de-aged to questionable effect, my wife and I debated which more pulled you out of the story: The obvious CGI de-aging or the distraction of having the wrong voice come out of a real face. Ultimately, I think they were equally distracting in their own ways.

 

Framed in an unusual 2.11:1 aspect ratio, Sky was shot digitally in a combination of 4.5 and 5.1K, and the Netflix transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail, such as tight shots on Clooney’s face where you can (for better or worse) see every strand of hair in his beard, or see the fine pattern in his plaid flannel shirt.

 

There are lots of bright highlights throughout that benefit from the HDR grading, such as the constant glowing white lights and consoles aboard the Aether along with its pulsing blue engines (thrusters?), and the bright monitors and screens in the Observatory. One scene inside a crashed airplane is a darkened interior lit by the bright probing beam of a flashlight with really nice shadows and detail. K-23 also has a bright, rust-orange color that gets a boost from the wider color gamut.

 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments—inside the Observatory, inside the Aether, outside on the Arctic—with their own unique sounds. Besides the overhead speakers being used to expand the music’s soundstage, there are some nice, hard-panned height effects, such as helicopters flying overhead, swirling and howling winds, or the echoing report of gunshots. There aren’t many gunshots (three, I believe), but they are loud and dynamic, the first making my wife jump, and the meteorite strikes have some decent bass impact.

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score of 53%, and Audience Score of just 25%, The Midnight Sky isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or Clooney, there are certainly worse ways you could pass two hours. If you need your sci-fi to be filled with action and adventure—with a definitive resolution and conclusion—you’ll want to give this one a pass. Fortunately, if you do give it a go, the cost is $0 (on top of your Netflix subscription) and the movie at least looks and sounds good.

John Sciacca

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

Review: Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

1984 AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Soul

Soul (2020)

Disney’s gift to families arrived on Disney+ yesterday in the form of Pixar’s 23rd feature-length film, Soul, which is arguably the largest title to debut on the streaming service without requiring the purchased premium access of the recent live-action Mulan remake. (Onward had a brief theatrical release before being moved to the streaming site.)

 

Soul definitely tackles Pixar’s biggest, most complex, and heady adult ideas and themes to date. While other Pixar films have dealt with the death of a main character (notably the loss of a parent in Onward), here we get a version of both the afterlife and pre-existence—and I’d say despite the pleasing visuals (especially in the vibrant and colorful Great Before) and big-eyed 

cuteness of the ever-smiling new souls, it isn’t really a children’s movie at all. But the genius of Pixar films has always been that they are able to entertain and appeal to viewers across large age groups, and the jokes and themes here are certainly geared towards an older audience, such as what some of those sign-spinners are really up to, what happens to hedge-fund managers, and why the Knicks keep losing.

 

Jazz—or “black improvisation music” as Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) father calls it—also plays a prominent role throughout the film, a musical genre that isn’t typically kid-friendly, and it also features “real,” poignant adult conversations between characters, such as the chat Joe has with his longtime barber Dez (Donnell Rawlings).

 

You could consider Soul to be the final (?) film in director Pete Docter’s reverse life-cycle trilogy, which began with 2009’s Up that focused on a person nearing the end of his life, followed by 2015’s Inside Out, which put us in the

SOUL AT A GLANCE

Pixar’s 23rd feature—debuting on Disney+ without a theatrical release—is a very adult take on life and the before- and afterlife.

 

PICTURE     

Image quality is reference-quality throughout (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos audio does a great job of presenting the film’s jazz score, with music swirling overhead and around the room, and with plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout.

mind of a pre-teenager figuring out her emotions. With Soul, we actually roll back to pre-existence, discovering how people get their unique personality traits and find that “spark” that motivates, excites, and inspires them.

 

The movie begins with Joe, a part-time middle-school band instructor, getting hired on full-time at the school. While his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), is thrilled at the prospect of Joe having a steady paycheck, insurance, and security instead of his gigging lifestyle, Joe feels he’s turning his back on his dream of being a jazz musician. When one of his former students, Curley (Questlove), calls him to see if he’s available to audition to play piano with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) Quartet that evening, Joe nails the try-out and leaves on Cloud Nine, oblivious to everything going on around him. This leads to him walking into an open manhole, and, well, coming around as a soul ascending towards the great white light of the Great Beyond. But Joe isn’t willing to accept that he has died on the night of his big break, so he fights to get back to his body on earth.

 

And that is just the first 11 minutes of the movie.

 

From here, we transition to the Great Before—rebranded as the You Seminar—where mentors work with new souls who are given unique and individual personalities to prepare them for life on Earth. (One soul proclaims, “I’m a manipulative 

megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic.”)  Another group of souls is sent to become self-absorbed, causing one of the counselors to say, “We really should stop sending so many people through that pavilion.”

 

The final step in a soul receiving its full personality—and getting its Earth pass—is for it to find its “spark,” or that thing that 

drives you. Joe is assigned to Mentor 22 (Tina Fey), who has been stuck as a new soul for years with no desire to go to Earth, having broken previous mentors such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mohammed Ali.

 

With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral traveler who sails about The Zone, a place between the spiritual and physical, in a tie-dye-sailed ship listening to Bob Dylan and helping lost souls find their way, 22 and Joe make it back to Earth, but not exactly in the way the Joe is hoping. I thought the film was going to take a Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin All of Me turn, but it doesn’t. Without spoiling, I’ll say Joe comes back in a way where he can still communicate with 22 but with no one else.

 

The movie has three distinct animation styles and looks defining the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and life on Earth. The Beyond is rendered in very contrasty black and white with just the color of the souls headed towards the ultra-bright light (a scene that reminded me of Carousel from Logan’s Run, whether intentional or not), whereas the Great Before is vibrant, filled with glowing blue, pink, and purple pastels and almost neon-tube drawings with things glowing bright around outlined edges and having a very ethereal look. Earth is hyper-realistic with a more muted, natural color scheme.

 

Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at. While the Great Before has colors that leap off the screen (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), it is the scenes on Earth that really show off Pixar’s animation prowess, with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on. The texture, layering, and fading colors in street graffiti, the floor of the barbershop and look of Dez’s shoes, the distressing in iron railings, the sweat that appears on musicians’ faces after a long gig, the variety of people walking around the streets of New York, the micro-bits of fabric at the edges of Joe’s sweater, or the reflection off a glossy piano lid revealing the workings inside. Remembering that every . . . single . . . pixel of detail, every micro imperfection, every scratch and nick, every reflection, every subtle lighting effect, has been painstakingly created by deliberate artistic choice takes appreciation to the next level.

 

You can also really notice the choices the Pixar artists make in how they animate different things. While they’ve settled on the look of people, other items like buildings, backgrounds, and furniture get near-photo realistic detail. Other things like photos of jazz greats in a stairwell, or the stage at the club, land somewhere in between.

 

As mentioned, jazz music is a prominent, recurring theme throughout the film, and the Dolby Atmos audio does a great job presenting this, especially when Joe is really grooving and in-the-zone, where music swirls overhead and around the room. Voices in the Great Before are echoey, while the street sounds and cacophony of New York sound appropriately overwhelming. There are also plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout, such as the flatter, low-ceilinged sound of music in the Half Note, the clack of tracks aboard the subway, or the buzz overhead as Joe stands under a neon light. Most important, dialogue is always clear and perfectly intelligible.

 

Soul is a deep story that actually takes a bit of unpacking, and it looks so good you’ll likely want to revisit it more than once, where you’ll likely discover plenty of new things to appreciate—and possibly pause to try and pick out the Easter eggs scattered throughout. Finding out what things make a life, and learning to enjoy the simple pleasures and experiences life has to offer is the real heart of Soul, and this is another win for Pixar.

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: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

With the dearth of new content available to release to the home market, studios have been mining their catalogs of older titles, giving them fresh, new 4K HDR video remasters and (frequently) Dolby Atmos immersive audio tracks to entice viewers to purchase—or repurchase—a classic. The latest film to get a (gasp!—has it actually been that long?!) 30th-Anniversary remaster release is Total Recall.

 

I actually saw Recall in the theater in 1990. That was right in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as king of the big-screen blockbuster, following his roles in two Conan films, The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, and the comedy Twins (followed shortly thereafter by Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, and Eraser). Arnie in a film all but 

guaranteed audiences that they were in for a big-budget, wild action ride.

 

Besides his imposing physicality and quasi-believability of being able to wipe out hordes of bad guys, Arnold also managed to bring some humor to the big action role, proving to have surprising comic timing and dryly delivering one-liners that brought another facet to the action genre.

 

Based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick (who also penned “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the basis for Blade Runner), Recall is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and it definitely has his stylistic thumbprint all over it, especially in the over-the-top gun violence and massive bullet wounds and in-film adverts, which are heavily reminiscent of his other films RoboCop and Starship Troopers.

 

The sci-fi plot actually has a bit of depth and complexity to 

RECALL AT A GLANCE

This sci-fi actioner from the height of Schwarzenegger’s fame receives the 30th-anniversary 4K HDR treatment.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is true to the movie’s 35mm origins, retaining a respectable amount of grain, while HDR makes the saturated, neon Martian reds pop.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is mainly restrained and front-forward, with the surround channels used extensively to expand the music score.

it, thanks to Dick’s source material. Taking place in 2084, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is continually plagued by dreams of being on Mars with a mysterious woman. Thinking that a virtual trip to Mars might satisfy him, Quaid heads over to Rekall, where they implant memories in your brain. These implanted memories are indistinguishable from actual memories, and Rekall promises to make you feel like you’ve had a luxury vacation experience without ever leaving Earth and for a fraction of the price.

 

Complications arise during the implant process, and Quaid is quickly sedated and dumped in a cab. His life turns upside down when people—including his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone)—start attacking him. Lori tells him that his life and memories are all fake and just implants from The Agency, and she has been assigned to watch over him. This leads to Arnold delivering one of the film’s iconic lines, “If I’m not me, who the Hell am I?” Narrowly avoiding a raid, Quaid is given a briefcase with money, papers, gadgets, and a video message from himself, but as someone named Carl Hauser who tells him that he, as Hauser, underwent a memory wipe to escape The Agency after discovering an alien artifact on Mars. After Hauser walks Quaid through the process of removing a tracking device, Quaid heads to Mars.

 

Is Quaid still on the table at Rekall, stuck in his dreams, living implanted memories? Is he actually Hauser? What memories are real and can be trusted? And if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

 

With a huge (for the day) budget of $65 million, the movie features elaborate sets, makeup, costume design, and world building. Mars feels like a fleshed-out, alien world that has been colonized by humans, including various mutations from intense radiation, and the interiors—especially the location of the alien artifact—seem appropriately huge. Further, practical special effects abound throughout—as well as some relatively new for the time CGI. Recall actually won an Academy Award for Visual Effects. (It was also nominated for Sound and for Sound Effects Editing.)

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Some film grain remains visible throughout, but it is never distracting. The film certainly didn’t receive the massive grain reduction smoothening Terminator 2 did. In general, most scenes—especially those filmed in the bright outdoors—are clear and sharp. Don’t expect the ultra clarity, sharpness, and detail of modern digital images, but you’ll definitely appreciate all the detail the source material has to offer.

 

I remember being especially impressed with the scene of Quaid pulling the tracker roughly the size of a golf ball out of his nose, wondering how they pulled that off. While this would have certainly been a CGI effect today, it was accomplished with the use of an elaborate, incredibly realistic-looking puppet, and the effect still holds up, even under 4K’s enhanced resolution, where you can really appreciate the detail that went into it. The same goes for the mutant Kuato.

 

Some scenes—such as on board the subway—look a bit soft. Even within scenes, there can be a bit of inconsistency. When Quaid is in the Rekall offices, the fine check print in McClane’s (Ray Baker) jacket can alternate between being crisp and defined to looking soft and unstable. The added resolution also reveals the limitations of the video screens used at the time. 

(Anyone remember the Proton and Curtis Mathis brand names?)

 

What really pops from this new HDR color grading are the vibrant, deeply saturated reds of Mars. From the opening credits, you get these searing, neon reds, giving a glimpse into what is to come. HDR also gives pop to the bright lights on the subway, and the neon lights and signs in Venusville, Mars’ red-light district. Blacks are also deep and clean, providing a solid background for the rest of the images to pop.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos mix is fairly reserved, certainly by modern standards, with most of the mix taking place in the front of the room. Even with a mainly LCR mix, you get a lot of width across the front, with action spread far left and right. The mix also does a great job with the dialogue, which is clear and understandable throughout.

 

The height and surround channels are used pretty extensively to expand the musical score, using the additional speakers for a far more room-filling experience, especially inside the Last Resort Club on Mars where loud music booms from all around.

 

The sound mixers did take some opportunities to extend sound effects into the 

Total Recall (1990)

room to heighten certain moments. Aboard the robot-driven “Johnny Cab,” we get some nice creaks and groans happening overhead, during gunfights there are some ricochets into the surround speakers, subway announcements emanate from the height speakers, reverb sounds in the mine shafts, and wind swirls and blows overhead when there is a atmosphere breach.

 

While Total Recall shows its age in parts—some of the scenes between Schwarzenegger and Stone are a bit groany—it remains a fun action ride, driven forward with near constant action and a good bit of depth to the story. If your only experience with Total Recall is the disappointing 2012 Colin Farrell remake or from watching the original film on DVD, this new 4K HDR remaster is a must-see. 

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 Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that The Nightmare Before Christmas works at all. The film, after all, wasn’t really based on a story so much as it was cobbled together from some poetry and sketches and ideas from Tim Burton, who intended to turn it into a half-hour TV special à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or maybe a children’s book. Or maybe something else altogether. There’s also the fact that the screenplay by Caroline Thompson ended up serving almost more as a skeleton for the film than an actual script, given that much of the final product was developed visually by director Henry Selick and was constantly in flux.

Honestly, if anyone deserves the utmost praise for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it would be Danny Elfman, who worked with Burton to flesh out something resembling the major story beats, then wrote the soundtrack that, in the end, actually serves as the story rather than merely as accompaniment. So much so that Chris Sarandon, who was cast in the role of the speaking voice of Jack Skellington—the film’s protagonist—has very little to do. Elfman ends up being the primary voice of Jack, the spirit of Jack, and the driving force for the film, while Selick filters Burton’s aesthetic through his own similar style and every other aspect of the production just gets dragged along for the ride.

NIGHTMARE AT A GLANCE

Given its genesis, Nightmare ought to be a mess, but it remains one of the most charming and heartfelt of all holiday films.

 

PICTURE     

Even though it’s only in HD, the transfer looks flawless on Disney+. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are rich, highlights don’t clip, midtones are subtle, and the level of detail is incredible.

Truthfully, it ought to be a mess. And yet, Nightmare remains to this day one of the most charming and heartfelt holiday films I’ve ever seen. And, yes, it would be more accurate to call Nightmare a “holiday” film than a Christmas film per se because although it appropriates all the trappings of our modern commercialized, paganized melting-pot celebration of the nativity, the story makes it abundantly clear that the trappings of Christmas are hardly the point.

 

Instead, Nightmare cuts to the heart of why this time of year has been the center of celebration for millennia, from Saturnalia to Yule to Hanukkah to Ayyappan to Calan Gaeaf to Yaldā Night to Christmas and so many other holy and secular holidays that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s a recognition of the fact that this holiday season represents the return of the light after a period of encroaching darkness beginning around the harvest/Halloween/Samhain/Día de los Muertos. It goes straight to the cyclical and seasonal reasons for these festivals that far too many of us have forgotten, living as we do indoors and disconnected from the earth.

 

There’s also a thematic aspect of Nightmare that resonates outside of its connection to the holiday season, and it’s a theme few storytellers have explored so effectively. (Really, only Tolkien comes to mind, most notably with the story of Míriel from the Quenta Silmarillion and Morgoth’s Ring.) It’s the simple lesson that when we attempt to be who we are not, to defy our true nature, nothing good can possibly come of it. In attempting to assume the role of “Sandy Claws” merely as a means of 

rejecting or pacifying his own dissatisfaction with the doom and gloom of Halloween, without truly understanding why or how people celebrate Christmas, Jack makes a mess of pretty much everything. And yes, the resolution of this story thread is all wrapped up a little too tidily, but what more do you expect from a 76-minute cartoon?

Honestly, though, any fan of the film probably already realizes all of the above. So why am I going on about it all? Frankly, because the original premise of this review fell out from under me. I had every intention of writing a scathing (and perhaps pleading) criticism about the fact that The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a 4K HDR remaster more than just about any of the Disney animated films that have already received such.

 

But when I sat down to watch the film again—mostly to take notes on all the scenes I thought would be improved by a modern home video transfer—I realized the current HD master (which has been with us since 2008) is pretty much flawless. Fans revolted when Disney dropped a 25th-anniversary re-release on the marketplace in 2018 with nothing more than a new singalong mode and a bit of extra bandwidth for the film itself. And I was right there, pitchfork raised alongside theirs.

 

But truth be told, even the HD version of the film on Disney+ looks flawless. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are richer than liquid gold and there’s nary a hint of crush to be found. Highlights don’t clip, midtones don’t seem in any way lacking in subtlety, and the level of detail is incredible. Simply put, all of the shortcomings we now associate with HD video are pretty much nowhere to be seen in this film. I think I’ve seen Nightmare on the big screen at least 10 times, and frankly even the Disney+ stream looks better than any of those commercial exhibitions, revealing fine textures and little visual Easter eggs I didn’t even notice in IMAX from the fourth row.

 

Granted, the Disney+ version doesn’t include all of the supplemental material that has appeared on various home video releases through the years. It does include several deleted scenes and storyboards, along with a few other goodies. But it lacks a couple of essential gems, namely the audio commentary by Selick, Burton, and Elfman, as well as Christopher Lee’s reading of Burton’s original “Nightmare Before Christmas” poem. You can find those on Kaleidescape, though, and they’re all worth a watch/listen.

 

More than anything, though, I just wanted to point out that if you’ve been waiting on a UHD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you should probably stop. If it were going to happen anytime soon, it would have been two years ago. Given Disney’s penchant for tying home video releases to anniversaries, our next shot at a remaster probably comes in 2023. And that’s simply too long to wait before diving into this charming little holiday gem again.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Elf

Elf (2003)

You’re going to need to bear with me here because I will get around to recommending that you watch Elf. But I first need to point out that it’s just not a very good movie.

 

The story is contrived and soulless, the casting—with one very obvious exception—is tone deaf, it’s badly shot, and the practical effects are so unconvincing that they would have been better off going with early-‘00s CGI instead.

 

Every character except Will Ferrell’s is one-dimensional and pretty much interchangeable. Any irascible middle-aged actor could have played the James Caan role, Mary Steenburgen is just there to be stereotypically empathetic, the kid that plays their son is just unpleasant, and a very anemic and kind of homely (before she went full Kabuki and became an “It” girl) 

Zooey Deschanel is just there to admire Ferrell—Nicoletta Braschi’s thankless job vis-à-vis Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, although not quite that bad.

 

Everything about this film feels half-baked, like a Tim Burton movie. The ending is a completely botched deus ex machina, with every kind of contrivance thrown at the audience, all but forgetting about Buddy, ladling on a ton of fake drama because the filmmakers hadn’t been able to generate any real drama before then—the kind of thing that happens when the so-called creatives only have other movies to draw on for tactical support because they don’t have any bearings in real life.

 

It might seem misguided to beat up on a 17-year-old film, but I’m trying to make a point about why we watch Elf, and should watch Elf.

ELF AT A GLANCE

Elf isn’t so much a fully fledged movie as it is a 90-minute one-man show—but Will Ferrell’s performance is so brilliant that it’s worth making some time for over the holidays.

 

PICTURE     

Aside from some creepy crawlers whenever there’s a blown-out white patch, the movie looks surprisingly good in HD on Kaleidescape.

 

SOUND     

An unexceptional mix—but at least it never gets in the way of Ferrell’s schtick.

This movie has become a tradition because it’s great holiday wallpaper, meant to be played in the background during Yuletide celebrations, but liberally sprinkled with “O wait!” moments that momentarily draw your attention back to the screen—like “O wait! This is the scene where he eats the Pop Tarts with the spaghetti,” and “O wait! Here’s that thing where he gets attacked by the midget.” In other words, A Christmas Story, except made with some intelligence and a modicum of taste.

 

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Elf anticipated and helped create the current age of maximum repetition and redundancy where the last thing we want from a movie or a series is to be shown anything challenging or new. It’s meant to be big, warm, and fuzzy like a well-worn security blanket, something utterly predictable and familiar you can wrap yourself in so you don’t have to feel anything, except coddled.

 

What would seem to be the movie’s greatest vice is actually its saving virtue. Elf is ultimately nothing but a Will Ferrell vehicle—he doesn’t just carry the film, he is the film. And that’s not a bad thing but a great thing—a cause for celebration—because 

he’s able to pull it off, and in spades, turning an otherwise by-the-book studio hack job into a virtuoso one-man show.

 

Ferrell has Peter Sellers’ ability to make cartoonish, completely impossible, characters feel more real than than the more realistic characters around him. And his investment in Buddy is so complete that he’s able to rise above the incredibly tepid and inept script (which apparently everybody but the gaffers worked on) and energize enough scenes to make it worth tolerating all the many areas where the movie sags.

 

I know that’s a really back-handed recommendation, but it’s a very sincere one. It’s definitely worth anyone’s time to watch Elf and just hone in on and savor and sit in amazement of what Ferrell is able to bring forth. He makes Buddy so completely embody Christmas that Santa, the elves, the North Pole, and all the other traditional trappings seem not just threadbare but unnecessary.

 

Elf looks surprisingly good viewed in HD on Kaleidescape. I can’t see any point in rushing this movie into a 4K HDR upgrade—it would likely just make it look even more poorly executed than it already does. The only real flaw in HD is the crawling corpuscles that appear whenever there’s a bright white patch, like the 

Elf (2003)

blownout sunlight seen through the doors at Gimbels or the lighting under the kitchen cabinets in Caan’s apartment.

 

The soundtrack is nothing special, just serviceable, but you can hear all the lines so I’ve got to give it credit for that. The extras? (of which there are many). Let’s not go there.

 

Nothing I’ve said here is going to make even the slightest dent in Elf’s reputation as a latter-day Christmas classic. But hopefully I can jog the perception of it just enough that it seems less like an obligation, like fruitcake, sweaters, and socks, and more like a genuine source of holiday cheer.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Tenet

Tenet (2020)

I don’t believe I’ve written more about any single subject this year at Cineluxe than I have about Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet. Nolan has been quite vocal about his preference that his films be seen on the largest screen (i.e., IMAX) possible, and was insistent Tenet receive a theatrical release rather than bow on a PVOD streaming service. In accordance with his wishes, it was one of the first films to show theatrically in the States after closing restrictions were lifted, but it had a pretty dismal performance at the box office, grossing under $58 million in the US and Canada—not great for a film that had a production budget of $200 million.

As a fan of Nolan’s work, I went and saw Tenet at a theater, renting out the entire auditorium for a private watch party, and I had been looking forward to its home video release ever sense. I left that first viewing . . . confused. The story is incredibly complex, with physics concepts like entropy (“a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system”) and inverting (or reversing) entropy being key plot points.

 

Further complicating Tenet is Ludwig Goransson’s often aggressive, kinetic soundmix and blasting sound effects that pummel you almost constantly, especially during key sequences when you’re struggling to keep up with who is where (and when). Add to that the fact that characters are

TENET AT A GLANCE

Christopher Nolan’s big & loud cerebral spy thriller arrives on home screens—which means you don’t have to risk your life anymore to go see it.

 

PICTURE     

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX, Tenet looks gorgeous, with reference-quality video throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio mix is both fantastic and—thanks to some overly emphatic bass and hard-to-hear dialogue—damnably frustrating.

frequently speaking behind masks, which makes some of the dialogue all but impossible to understand. And it just adds to the frustration when you’re constantly asking yourself, “What did (s)he say?”

 

As I wrote after my first viewing:

 

Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. It will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.

 

Prior to watching for the second time, I did a bit of homework. Googling “Understanding Tenet” produces quite a few results of blogs, theories, threads, and videos from people who have really dug into the film and tried to dissect it to make it a bit more 

viewer friendly.

 

Concepts like the Sator Square were new to me, and discovering how Nolan weaved this into the story added to my appreciation. You’ll notice that the words below read forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, forming a palindrome in both directions, playing into Nolan’s forwards-backwards time concept with Tenet.

 

SATOR

AREPO

TENET

OPERA

ROTAS

 

While there is still a good bit of the film I don’t fully understand—maybe on a third or fourth viewing!—I will say I got far more out of a second viewing, thanks to the foreknowledge of why people were doing things and some other visual clues Nolan throws in if you know what to look for. And, with apologies to Mr. Nolan, I think Tenet actually works better at home.

 

Of course, if this is your first viewing, I’d suggest going in “blind.” Part of the fun is being thrown into this world and trying to figure out how to make your way in it. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy) says to our hero, the Protagonist (John David Washington), “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

 

Nolan has said that while Inception was his heist film, Tenet is his version of a spy thriller. When boiled down to its essence, it’s about The Protagonist trying to stop Russian Oligarch/arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. How the Protagonist goes about uncovering Sator’s plans and draws close to him, how Sator intends on destroying the world, and how the Protagonist goes about stopping him are what make the story so twisty-turny and visually compelling. The film also benefits from the strong performances of Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s suffering wife, Kat, and Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s partner, Neil. And Pattinson’s handling of Neil also makes me think that he is up to the task of playing Bruce Wayne whenever the next Batman film is released.

 

There are a couple of ways to watch Tenet, and depending how you do so will also affect your viewing experience. With the 4K HDR version from digital retailers like Kaleidescape or Vudu, you will see a constant 2.2:1 aspect ratio film. However, those watching the physical disc (4K or standard

Blu-ray) or watching the HD version of the film from Kaleidescape will see the film alternating between 1.78:1 and 2.2:1 ratios, switching to 1.78:1 for the scenes shot on IMAX. If you’re watching on a traditional direct-view TV, or have a 16:9 aspect-ratio projection screen, you will likely enjoy the alternating ratios, as the big action scenes will get bigger, filling your entire screen. But if you own a widescreen projection system—as I do—the constant 2.2:1 ratio is likely preferable and less disruptive to the viewing experience.

 

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, Tenet looks gorgeous. It doesn’t have that tack-sharpness of movies shot digitally, but looks like a movie shot on film in all the right ways. Grain is absolutely minimal, and the images on screen just look natural and terrific. In looking through my viewing notes, I wrote down the words “clean,” “clear,” and “crisp” repeatedly.

 

Edges are sharp and defined, and closeups bristle with detail. Much of Tenet takes place in the world of billionaires, and the trappings of luxury are beautifully displayed. You can really see and appreciate the character styling in the fine detail, texture, patterns, and prints in the clothing worn by the main characters. One scene where the characters are dining aboard Sator’s mega-yacht had so much fine detail to appreciate in the tablecloth and linens and other bits on the yacht that it was almost distracting. Daylight shots of the Amalfi Coast are also just stunning to look at, with the beautiful array of colors and sharply defined buildings contrasted against the craggy cliffs and water.

 

Blacks are clean, clear, and dark, and we get plenty of bright highlights in the form of explosions or bright lighting. Colors are bright and punchy when called for, like bright yellows of safety vests, or the red-orange of fireballs, or the warm, golden hues of a candlelit dinner. Throughout, Tenet delivers reference-quality video, with images that look incredibly natural, sharp, and detailed. While it might have been impressive on an IMAX screen, it absolutely looks fantastic viewed on a high-quality home theater.

 

As much as I wrote down about Tenet’s video quality, I have more notes about the audio. Presented in 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (Nolan famously eschews immersive mixes like Dolby Atmos), the mix is both fantastic and damnably frustrating.

 

It’s fantastic in the way it is just filled with atmospheric sounds both subtle and overt in virtually every scene. Interiors are densely layered with little sounds—echoes, ocean sounds, machinery noises, background chatter, etc.—that fully place you in that space. While not an immersive mix, my Marantz’s processor did a wonderful job of upmixing the 5.1-channel track to provide a fully hemispherical presentation. A scene where gas is filling a room literally fills your room with the hissing jets of gas coming from all around. Another scene has the Protagonist in the middle of a train yard, and when the trains pass by left and right of him, the cacophony of the squealing and groaning and clacking of the wheels makes you experience what the characters is experiencng.

 

Dynamic sounds are dynamic and loud. Gunshots sound fantastic, having appropriate weight that engages the subwoofer and delivers the zip and snap of close misses, with bullets slamming into things with appropriate force. Wood splinters, metal thunks, glass shatters. Both the opening opera scene and later gun battle on the highway are perfect audio demos to show off your system. 

You’ll also never need to wonder if your subs are working, which is a part of why the audio mix can be so frustrating. Bass is frequently on the verge of being overwhelming—I wrote down “bombastic”—or crossing over into just walloping you with low-end for no apparent reason, often from the musical score, which frequently is filled with a steady, deep, low-frequency hum, pulse, and throb. But when things blow up, your sub needs to be there to deliver, and it will produce couch-rattling, chest-stomping bass.

 

Dialogue intelligibility is still a very mixed bag. At its best, you can understand what characters are saying; at its worst, dialogue is so drowned out by background effects and music that it’s impossible to understand, or even hear at all in some cases. I’d say most of the film’s dialogue—spoken behind oxygen masks or just in very noisy environments—is challenging. On this second viewing, I decided to not to struggle and opted to just turn the subtitles on from the get-go, and that made for a much more entertaining experience. If you want to argue that you shouldn’t have to turn subtitles on to fully understand a film, you’ll get no argument from me.

Tenet (2020)

But this is the audio mix Nolan wanted, and it’s the audio mix we’re stuck with, warts and all. Nolan says he likes viewers to experience the confusion and disorientation his characters would be feeling, and that he uses “dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.” Fortunately, at home you have the option of enabling subtitles—and rewinding—in case you missed something.

 

Whether you love it, hate it, are confounded by it, or just curious over the hype, Tenet is an experience that plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. And seeing giant practical effects play out on a big screen—yes, they literally blew up that 747—in pristine quality is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, unlocking the “I understand Tenet” achievement demands multiple viewings, which provide more appreciation and understanding over subtle details, giving it huge points for replayability.

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 Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: The Muppet Christmas Carol is not exactly the creative apex of the Muppets franchise. As the first film in the series to be made after the death of Jim Henson, it lacks a lot of the creator’s bohemian funkiness and marks the beginning of a transition period in which the Muppets became a little more kid-friendly and a little less clever. (Although, to be fair, you could just as easily level some of the same criticism at The Great Muppet Caper.)

But—and this is a pretty huge “but”—it’s still my all-time favorite interpretation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, just nudging out Richard Donner’s Scrooged and the excellent made-for-TV version from 1984 starring George C. Scott. A lot of that can be attributed to Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge, in which he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his co-stars almost all have hands up their butts. Instead, he plays the role straight, leaving the winking and nodding mostly to Gonzo the Great, who plays the role of Dickens himself.

 

There’s also the lovely soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams, who didn’t quite turn in as many memorable

MUPPET CAROL AT A GLANCE

The Muppets’ shockingly faithful take on Dickens’ oft-adapted holiday classic is a must-see for every Christmas season.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K version appears to be upscaled from the HD master, but HDR helps to soften any over-saturation, bringing some needed subtlety to the presentation.

ditties as he did for The Muppet Movie or Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but still gives the movie an extra heaping helping of charm.

 

Oddly enough, despite the songs and despite the puppetry, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book, abridged though it may be. And as such, it’s a must-see for me every Christmas season.

 

But as with It’s a Wonderful Life, one must ask whether or not this movie is actually worth owning. And for now—and only for now—I say probably not. That’s primarily because it’s available for free on Disney+—in Dolby Vision no less. The service was, as best I can tell, the first to offer The Muppet Christmas Carol in 4K, and although other digital providers have caught up, I 

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can’t imagine it looking any better on any of those services than it does on Disney+.

 

Honestly, the 4K resolution does very little to add detail or definition to the cinematography, and unless my eyes deceive me, the current 4K master wasn’t sourced from the original camera negative. It frankly looks like an upscale from an HD master taken from a print (or at best an interpositive), with the only noteworthy resolution differences coming in the form of enhanced (but very inconsistent) film grain.

 

The HDR does add a lot to the presentation, mostly by 

toning down the over-saturation seen in the HD version, leaving the most vibrant hues for those spots with pure primary colors, like the inside of Kermit’s mouth. The HDR also brings more consistency and subtlety to contrasts, making blacks a good bit more consistent and eliminating some crush.

 

So, yes, this is definitely the best The Muppet Christmas Carol has looked to date. But hang on. In recent weeks, it was actually revealed that the original camera negative for the deleted musical number “When Love Is Gone” had been 

discovered and would be included in a new ground-up 4K restoration of the film sourced from the original elements.

 

If you’re not familiar with “When Love Is Gone,” that’s probably because the song was cut from the theatrical version of the film at the insistence of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney, for fear that it was too emotionally sophisticated for a children’s film (something I can’t imagine Jim 

Henson ever allowing, but it was his son Brian’s cinematic directorial debut). The song was integrated into the LaserDisc and VHS releases, as well some DVD versions, but has disappeared from higher-quality releases due, one would assume, to quality concerns.

 

Whether you’re particularly interested in that song or not (for my money, it’s one of the film’s best, and thankfully it’s included as a deleted scene on Disney+ and elsewhere), the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol is getting a proper restoration is enough to warrant holding off on a purchase for now.

 

But if you’ve got Disney+, you should still add the movie to your holiday viewing rotation this year. For all its flaws, it’s an incredibly charming children’s classic with tons of genuinely funny moments and some wonderful performances throughout, from humans and Muppets alike. And for what it’s worth, it’s the only cinematic adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has genuinely made me shed a tear over the death of Tiny Tim.

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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

While translating the three volumes of The Lord of the RingsThe Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—into three films made perfect sense, being the only way to try and bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy to the screen with any semblance of being faithful to its beloved source material, turning The Hobbit, or There and Back Again into a movie trilogy—An Unexpected Journey (reviewed here), The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies—seemed more like an effort to re-cash-in on the massive success of Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy. Especially when you consider that the Hobbit was only about 300 pages.

 

Yes, the Hobbit trilogy feels a bit long and plodding in parts, with the relatively straightforward story from the book heavily padded and expanded by weaving in bits from Tolkien’s later writings, as well as fabricating completely non-canon subplots 

and a love triangle at the studio’s insistence, and returning popular characters from the Rings trilogy to appeal to fans and to more closely tie the two trilogies together. And, yes, the Hobbit trilogy relies far more heavily on CGI effects and trickery than the practical effects of the Rings films. And, yes, it pales in comparison to the spectacular achievement Jackson achieved with his Rings trilogy.

 

And yet, I so loved the world of Middle Earth that Jackson brought to the big screen that I am happy to let him take me on another journey—or three, as the case may be. And with the incredible box office success of the Hobbit films—out-earning Rings—it’s clear many others were also happy to be able to spend more time in Middle Earth.

 

Plus, if you have agreed to follow Jackson on the nearly eight-hour journey of completing The Hobbit trilogy, why would you not just go all-in and watch the nine hours of the Extended Editions, which flesh out scenes and add a 

JOURNEY AT A GLANCE

A bit of a forced exercise, The Hobbit trilogy still represents a satisfying return to Middle Earth for fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

 

PICTURE     

An Unexpected Journey translates well to 4K HDR, with crisp, detail-filled images and an HDR grade that adds warm and depth to candle and firelight scenes.

 

SOUND     

An incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to upgrade to Atmos.

bit more to the storytelling? Granted, these Extended Editions don’t add nearly as much as the Rings versions, where Two Towers got an extra 44 minutes and Return of the King a whopping 51 extra minutes. But still the added footage expands some scenes and gives us a more complete look at the characters and the story. With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson restored only 13 minutes to the theatrical release, giving us a run time of just over three hours.

 

Journey’s opening 10 minutes set up the quest the party is about to undertake. Sixty years ago, the Dwarves of Erebor lived in Lonely Mountain, led by Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas), the King under the Mountain. These dwarves were legendary miners and grew incredibly wealthy off gold and diamonds. However, those mountains of gold and riches attract the fire-breathing dragon

Smaug, who destroys the nearby town of Dale and drives the Dwarves from their mountain and takes their treasure.

 

Through signs and portents, Thrór’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), determines it is time to retake the mountain and reclaim the treasure for his people. From his people, Thorin forms a company of 13—an unlucky number—and Great Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arranges for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a simple stay-at-home Hobbit from Hobbiton, to join their company as the 14th member . . . and also as their burglar.

 

But this comes as a complete surprise to Bilbo, especially when 13 Dwarves arrive one night unannounced and eat and drink him out of house and home. Bilbo is reluctant at first—especially when hearing about Smaug—but ultimately the call of adventure is too much and he joins the quest.

 

Since we are in Middle Earth, there is constant danger and peril along the way. The company encounters Trolls, Orcs, Goblins, and Wargs intent on killing them—and eating them—before they get anywhere near the Lonely Mountain. The group also gets help from the Elves of Rivendell, including Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), some giant eagles, and another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).

 

Unexpected Journey also delivers the pivotal moment that sets up the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: When Bilbo happens to discover a certain magical ring forged in the fires of Mount Doom and thought to be lost forever after it is accidentally dropped by Gollum (Andy Serkis).

 

While entertaining on its own, Journey definitely doesn’t feel complete and is clearly meant as just the beginning of the quest, ending with our characters in sight of their goal and giving a tease of the events that are to come in the (more exciting and entertaining, in my opinion) second part, The Desolation of Smaug

 

Shot digitally and using modern color-correction techniques, The Hobbit didn’t require the lengthy restoration of the 

Rings films, but it definitely still benefits from the enhanced 4K resolution, HDR grading, and new Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

The film looks fantastic, with reference-quality video throughout. Images are clean, sharp, detailed, and noise-free. Closeups reveal all of the fine detail you could ask for, from the wispy, single strands of hair in Gandalf’s beard to the scratches, wear, and engraving on swords and axes to the texture, layering, and detail in the costumes. You can really appreciate the beautifully smooth complexion and perfect texture of Elven skin (“All high cheekbones and creamy skin. Not enough facial hair,” according to Dwarf Kili) compared to all the other characters. And I never noticed the delicate blue and silver flecks in Gandalf’s grey robes or the fine detail and patterns in Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) silvery-white robes until now.

 

Beyond delivering bright highlights, the new HDR grading adds depth and realism to dark and lowlight scenes lit by candle- or firelight. Early on in Bilbo’s house, the interior glows in rich, warm, golden lighting and shadows from candles. We also get glorious, vibrant shades of green throughout the Shire, as well as gleaming piles of gold, bright white moonbeams, a rich palette of fiery reds, and the ethereal glow of the Arkenstone. Blacks are also deep, and we get terrific shadow depth and detail.

Journey also has an incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to make that Atmos speaker upgrade. The height speakers are almost constantly in use playing some bit of ambient sound like birds singing and trees blowing, or filling the room with music or other sounds of Middle Earth.

 

The mixers seemed to take every opportunity to create an immersive experience, placing sounds overhead and all around the room whenever appropriate. During the opening, we are immersed in the mining operations of the Dwarves, with hammering and the pulleys moving gold whirring all about and up overhead. The surrounds and height speakers are also frequently engaged for dialogue, either to locate a character behind you or overhead, or to give a booming “Thou shall obey!” quality to Gandalf’s voice. Gollum’s home is filled with all kinds of reverb and echo, with water drips, and noises around. And you can hear spiders scuttling up overhead and just outside of Radagast’s house.

 

When action is called for, the mix gets kicked up another level. From the opening we hear Smaug swooping and flying around, the rustling of winds whipping 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

through the room, and Smaug spewing fire and carnage into every corner with couch-rattling bass. A fight between Stone Giants during a pouring thunderstorm also has boulders smashing around, with appropriately massive low end.

 

I don’t recall having any dialogue issues with An Unexpected Journey, so I can’t say that the new Atmos mix improves on this, but I can say that dialogue comes through loud and clear—even when not emanating from the center channel speaker.

 

They say that time heals all wounds, and maybe the eight years since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released is enough for you to give it another chance if you weren’t impressed the first time. Regardless of your initial theatrical impressions—or thoughts on the film itself—I can say it looks and sounds fantastic, and certainly completes and fills out Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, giving us the backstory of events that led to Frodo taking on his quest to destroy The One True Ring.

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.