Reviews

Yesterday

Yesterday

Of all the possible director/writer combinations that the world of cinema could possible throw together, the pairing of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) and Richard Curtis (About Time, Love Actually, Blackadder) wouldn’t have occurred to me if you’d left me alone in a room for a couple of years with nothing but access to IMDb. So, it’s no real surprise that Yesterday—a new fantasy/romantic comedy with a preposterously adorable premise—feels so unlike anything either man has created to date.

 

Boyle, for all of his kinetic style, generally seems to make films that lack tenderness, whereas Curtis has the magical ability to throw a bunch of clichés in a bag, shake them up, and always pull out something sweet and unforgettable. But his films are rarely noteworthy in terms of aesthetic panache.

 

Despite not being the best work of either Boyle or Curtis (those would be Trainspotting and About Time in my book), Yesterday does manage to bring out the best of each man’s strengths. Boyle’s visual palette for the film, while certainly energetic at times, is admirably reserved at others. That balance takes a little of the saccharine out of Curtis’ story and

characters. (Saccharine that I enjoy, mind you; I’ll watch Love Actually any minute of any day. But let’s be honest: That movie is dessert, not a healthy meal.)

 

Yesterday also happens to be one of the simplest stories either Boyle or Curtis has committed to film, despite it’s convoluted-sounding premise. It goes a little something like this: Singer/songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) is on the verge of giving up on his musical career, 

despite the protestations of his manager and longtime friend Ellie Appleton (played by an almost unrecognizable Lily James, who distances herself from her famous Downton Abbey character not through accent or wardrobe, but in the very way she carries herself—her facial expressions, her body language, her laugh, even her smile).

 

Then fate intervenes. A 12-second blackout mysteriously envelops the entire world. When the power comes back on, Jack is lying on the side of the road, having been struck by a bus. He awakes in the hospital to discover that he alone remembers the Beatles. And, oddly enough, Coca-Cola. And, not so oddly given the initial premise, the band Oasis. As such, he sets out to recreate the Beatles catalog, taking credit for writing these forgotten songs, and becomes an international superstar.

 

I could go on, but as I said, aside from one half-hearted attempt at a plot twist that’s really more of a red herring, Yesterday is ultimately a simple tale. A fairy tale, almost. At its heart, it’s really the story of a girl who loves a boy but wants him to make the first move, and a boy who loves a girl, but thinks himself unworthy of her until he’s the biggest star in the world, at which point she can’t imagine him being with a simple middle-class girl.

 

Franky, if it weren’t such a straightforward narrative, Yesterday would probably collapse under its own weight. But by ignoring the historical significance of the Beatles’ catalog or the organic evolution thereof, and simply focusing on the inherent brilliance of this body of work one song a time, it works as a sweet and infectious modern fable that whizzes right by, despite its nearly two-hour length.

 

My only real beef with the film is that Kate McKinnon, whom I normally love as an actor and comedian, is woefully miscast in the minor role of Jack’s new agent. I can’t help but imagine that if Curtis were still directing his own screenplays, this part would have been played by regular collaborator Bill Nighy, as it seems to have been written for him. For what it’s worth, though, Ed Sheeran is perfect in the role of Ed Sheeran. The rest of the cast also excels—especially Patel, who has to perform the greatest hits of the Beatles in a way that’s not slavish, yet still faithful to the originals in spirit and also believable as modern popular music.

A few minutes into the film, I jotted down in the notebook I keep beside my seat: “Sound mix is too aggressive.” I quickly changed my mind, though. It’s true, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included with the 4K/HDR Kaleidescape download of the film leans on the surround speakers and subwoofers way more than is generally my preference for feel-good comedies. But it works for Yesterday, especially in the way it uses samples, remixes, and remakes of Beatles hooks as a replacement for a more traditional score. Concert sequences, of which there are plenty, also benefit from the big, bold, dynamic sound design.

 

I also have to eat an early note I made about the 4K/HDR presentation. My first impression was that the film would work just as well in HD. Some quick comparisons between the 4K and 1080p versions did reveal, though, that the former is sharper, more nuanced in its contrasts, and is just generally less distracting and more engaging overall, even if its black levels are a little uneven.

 

That’s nitpicking, though. My one substantial grump about this early digital release is that it lacks the alternate ending and deleted scenes exclusive to the upcoming UHD Blu-ray release, as well as a couple of featurettes. The disc also promises to include a Dolby Atmos sound mix, which the download lacks. It remains to be

Yesterday

seen whether any of those bonuses and niceties are worth the wait. I can say this for certain, though: Yesterday isn’t a renter. It’s one to own, no doubt, even despite the fact that it’s not exactly high art. This is going to be my go-to watch on sick days or just when I need a pick-me-up for quite some time.

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 Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There isn’t anyone (my parents excluded) who made quite the same long-term indelible impression on my life as Jim Henson did. Fred Rogers is close, but with Henson I’ve continued being entranced by his work, and the work of his company, far beyond my formative childhood years. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol every December, Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I’ve recently introduced my four-year-old son to Fraggle Rock. And of course he loves the lessons learned on Sesame Street.

 

But there was something about the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982 that had an even deeper impact. Maybe it was the fantasy setting or the incredible world-building of Thra, the world of the film. Or maybe the painstaking detail put into the terrifying Skeksis or the relatable Gelfling named Jen. Whatever it was, when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was announced as a prequel to the movie, I was part ecstatic and part scared. Would the Netflix series be able to capture the magic I felt from the film? And prequels can be problematic, as we already know what the outcome is going to be—at least in a broad sense.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There was no need for me to worry. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautifully-crafted example of storytelling that builds on the mythology of the movie. The first couple episodes are a bit slow moving as there’s a decent amount of exposition covered and there are multiple storylines that need to be addressed and followed, but things soon get moving. And all the while we are treated to the expansive landscape of Thra, more so than what was presented in the movie.

 

Landscapes are full and lush, with intricate detail that’s on full display in the 4K Dolby Vision presentation. The characters are wonderfully unique—from the Skeksis to Gelflings to Podlings—and the HDR highlights the depth of the puppet designs. The

characters are brought to life with an all-star cast that includes Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Lena Headey. I was fully invested in their stories. The voice acting and puppetry kept me engaged throughout.

 

The vast majority of the series uses practical effects, but there are a few 

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

moments when CGI is employed that don’t quite match and can be mildly distracting when viewed in 4K HDR. Luckily these moments are few.

 

The Atmos audio is done tastefully. For the most part, surround channels are used to enhance the atmosphere with ambient effects sent to the rears. There are a couple choice moments with motion through the Atmos height channels that could draw your attention from the screen, but I didn’t find the mix to be excessive in any way.

 

Considering that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is building upon an existing mythology, I could understand some concern that someone coming to the series fresh might feel lost. Luckily that isn’t the case. There’s plenty of information to bring in new visitors to Thra while keeping those of us who have spent years there enthralled. It’s an adventure for new and old alike.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Mindhunter: Season Two

Mindhunter: Season Two

There is a deep fascination in American culture with crime stories, and in particular, serial killers. We’ve had award-winning movies like Silence of the Lambs, which was based on an amalgamation of serial killers, award-winning TV shows like Dexter that portrayed its lead character as a sympathetic serial killer, and documentaries like Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes that aim to give us a glimpse inside the mind of a serial killer. That isn’t to say America holds a monopoly on serial killers or the fascination therewith, but we certainly have more than our fair share.

 

In the 1970s, this led to the creation of the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The unit was originally comprised of 10 agents, and a few years after its formation, they began to visit and interview captured serial killers in prison to try and profile them and discover their motives. The Netflix series Mindhunter is based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, which was co-written by one of the members of the BSU, John E. Douglas, and its first season was a fictionalization of the creation of that unit.

 

That first season focused primarily on Agents Holdon Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they dealt with setting up the BSU in an FBI whose views on their psychological work were at best dismissive and at worst severely hindering. They were joined by psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) to try and bring some legitimacy to their work. Peppered throughout the season is the development of Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti) into the BTK Killer. In addition to the excellent performances by Groff, McCallany, Torv, and Valicenti, there are dynamite breakthrough performances by Cameron 

Britton as Ed Kemper and Happy Anderson as Jerry Brudos, both serial killers interviewed by Ford and Tench.

 

After a long hiatus (which made me wonder if the show was ever going to return), Season Two takes everything from Season One to another level. The interviewing of serial killers continues, as does the outstanding performances by the actors portraying 

Mindhunter: Season Two

them. Damon Herriman as Charles Manson is particularly captivating (incidentally, he plays the same role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). While the story of BTK continues throughout, the season’s central incident ends up being the Atlanta Child Murders that happened at the end of the ’70s and into the ’80s.

 

During the nine episodes, the lead actors are able to exercise their acting chops as we get character studies of them. And they all deliver. Ford tries to come to terms with a mental breakdown he experienced at the hands of Kemper at the end of Season One, Tench has an incident happen with his family that leads him to question how his job affects his personal life, and Carr struggles with the harsh realities of having to be closeted and trying to have a life while working for the Bureau in the ‘70s. The addition of Michael Cerveris as the new FBI Assistant Director means that, perhaps, they now have someone of power in their corner.

 

David Fincher, who is one of the executive producers, masterfully directs the first three episodes, setting an ominous and stark tone for the rest of the season. Visuals have excellent detail and the set dressing and props work perfectly to build the late ‘70s/early ‘80s timeframe. The 1080p version is very good, but the episodes really shine with 4K HDR. There isn’t anything exceptionally flashy in the show, but the HDR adds excellent depth to the darker scenes and causes an overall grittier presentation. In a good way.

 

There is some very interesting, subtle sound work throughout the episodes, especially in how the atmosphere of the backgrounds amplify the mood of the scenes. This is the majority of how the surrounds are used in the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix. There is no Atmos version available.

 

Both seasons of Mindhunter are available for streaming through Netflix. Season Two could stand on its own, but you’ll miss a bunch of backstory. I’d recommend binging the entire 19-episode series.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

John Wick 3: Parabellum

John Wick 3

The John Wick series manages to do something I’m not sure any other film trilogy/franchise has been able to pull off—each film has scored a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than the previous one, with John Wick 3: Parabellum garnering a trilogy-high of 90%.

 

Think of that for a moment—not Star Wars, Toy Story, The Godfather, Alien, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Matrix, or Hunger Games can boast continued improvement across their initial three films. (Though, Toy Story did score a tough-to-beat 100/100/98, and Rings managed a similarly impressive 91/95/93.)

 

What that means is that if you’re a fan of the Wick franchise, the story just keeps getting better, and this latest installment is more of what you love, with amped-up story, stunts, exotic locales, and, of course, tons of Wick-fu.

 

In many ways, John Wick is the perfect character for Keanu Reeves. Wick is a man of few words, and Reeves often comes across best (and least reminiscent of Ted Theodore Logan) when he isn’t delivering lots of dialogue. Reeves is also quite accomplished in mixed martial arts, with Wick’s fighting style and combat moves tailored to Reeves’ actual strengths. And Reeves is an avid motorcycle collector and rider, making him comfortable zooming around New York streets in Wick’s black suit. And damn, John Wick is just so cool.

 

If you are new to the John Wick franchise, definitely start with the first film as it will give you the much-needed background as to why John Wick is the man he is, a top-shelf retired assassin, and why crossing the Baba Yaga is such a terrible thing to fear. Also, it’s just a fun film, introducing you to a great underworld where assassins live and work amongst us, trading gold coins for a variety of services and favors.

 

The pattern of the series keeps building in intensity as we have Wick reluctantly forced “back to work,” on the run and doing what he does best. The first film begins with John retired and living a solitary life. However, after the son of a Russian crime boss murders a puppy Wick was given by his dying wife, Wick seeks revenge, killing all that stand between him and the puppy killer.

 

In the second film, John is once again forced to return to work after an Italian crime lord, Santino, calls in a old marker, a blood oath that can be exchanged for any favor or request, and which cannot be ignored by the rules of the underground. John fulfills the terms of the marker, but then Santino puts a $7 million contract on him, forcing Wick to kill him to once again gain his freedom.

 

If you’re up to speed on Wick 1 and 2 then this exchange at the very end of John Wick 2 is really all you need to know about Parabellum:

 

John Wick: “Tell them. Tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all.”

Winston: “Of course you will.”

 

Parabellum begins immediately following the events of John Wick 2, with Wick being excommunicado for “working” on the grounds of the Continental and on the run in New York with a $14 million global bounty on his head from the members of the High Table. Cut off from all “privileges” of the Continental and any other underworld resources, Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) has given John a one-hour head start before his contract is open and every killer in New York starts coming to cash in.

 

With ruthless attackers closing in from all sides, John is forced to call in some old favors to find safe passage out of the city and locate the one man above the High Table who can call off the contract, allowing John to return to his life. This leads John to Casablanca, Morocco where old “friend” Sofia (Halle Berry) reluctantly agrees to help him.

 

JW3 takes the Latin adage from its title—Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”)—to heart, and the 2 hour and 11 minute run time is almost non-stop action, with even the few quiet bits filled with tension and some bit of storytelling that moves the film forward or fills in some bit of John’s past.

 

The fight scenes are lightning quick, brutal, and choreographed to perfection, often involving multiple people, usually with a variety of weapons, with Wick using anything and everything at his disposal to dispatch those coming after him. This includes knives, an axe, a book, a belt, a horse, a dog, a motorcycle, and guns. Lots of guns. (To be fair, he did say he’d kill them all . . .)

 

While shot on ARRIRAW at 3.2K resolution and taken from a 2K digital intermediate, I never felt the image wanted for detail or resolution. Images were consistently sharp and detailed throughout, whether it is the weave in fabric, the texture in walls and surfaces, or the lines and pores in actors’ faces, JW3 looks great throughout.

 

Even better than the resolution is what HDR does for this movie. With much of the film either in dark exteriors or interiors, or at the far opposite end of the spectrum in the brightly lit desert or harsh fluorescent lighting, HDR makes images in Wick pop. Blacks—of which there are many and, in many shades and degrees throughout—look consistently clean, noise-free and true black. For example, John’s signature black ensemble—including jacket, shirt, tie, belt, and shoes—is distinctly visible even in

dark rooms. The film’s early night scenes over New York look especially terrific, with the black night sky punctuated by the bright city lights reminding me a bit of an Apple 4K screensaver.

 

Colors are also pushed, such as the bright yellow of taxis in the city, or the deep red of brake- and taillights, or the cool blue of interiors. During a night fight in Casablanca, there are multiple torches burning brightly against a black night sky and dark interiors, something that could definitely cause banding, but the image remained stable and solid. Another interior of a large ballet theater had sumptuous red and ornate gold designs, reminding me of a Theo Kalomirakis design brought to life on a grand scale.

 

Sonically, the Atmos mix is also first rate, with the sound designers taking every opportunity to fill the room with sound, whether it is the massive report of gunshots, a pouring rainstorm, the squeal of tires and engines, or ambient street and outdoor sounds.

 

New York here seems to be under a perpetual deluge, and the room is drenched in audio as rain splashes down all around you. The dynamics of gunshots also

John Wick 3

add serious realism, with you feeling several concussive bass waves blast you in the chest, and wood and stone splinter and shatter debris around you from near misses.

 

Music has also been an integral part to the feeling of the Wick series, and that continues here. One great example is, as John is preparing for one of the big gun battles at the end in the Continental, Vivaldi’s “Winter” plays loudly through the speaker channels, adding an interesting score as he prepares to go on the hunt.

 

The film’s conclusion couldn’t scream, “There will be a fourth movie!” any louder if it had been printed in neon letters in the closing credits, and Wick fans will be happy to know that following Parabellum’s success, John Wick: Chapter 4 has already been announced with a May 2021 release date.

 

John Wick 3: Parabellum is available now for early download prior to its disc release on September 10.

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.

Aquarela

Aquarela

I recently saw Victor Kossakovsky’s astonishing Aquarela (Portuguese for “watercolor”) at The Landmark theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan. This is not your typical documentary.

 

First off, it’s filmed at a frame rate of 96 frames per second. Projectors capable of showing it at this speed are extremely rare, but many theaters, including The Landmark, are showing it at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the typical 24). This

translated to incredible detail, especially of water spray, ice crystals, any kind of small particles. It also provided very smooth, seamless camera pans that felt very natural.

 

This visually breathtaking nature documentary contains zero voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, and very little music score. What scoring there is is original rock 

music, which was not my favorite, but worked whenever used (which was sparingly, fortunately). The sound (in Dolby Atmos), though not the star of the film, was a vital supporting player and was especially effective in the sequence of Greenland’s calving glaciers. Hearing glacial shifts, cracks, and bellows all around you was very powerful. I suspect this will be equally effective experienced in a reference-quality home theater, when Aquarela receive its inevitable UHD Blu-ray and streaming release.

 

But the true star of this film is water, captured in its many different forms all around the world.

 

The first sequence takes place atop a frozen lake in Siberia, where, during the coldest months, people drive across to get from one place to another. What we soon discover, however, is that the ice has begun to melt (three weeks earlier than usual,

Aquarela

according to one victim of the thaw) and cars are actually falling through the ice while people are driving them! It is one of the scariest parts of the film, and an unexpected choice to open with. I found myself on the edge of my seat; and the matter of life and death, juxtaposed with the calmness of the expanse of glass-like ice, was chilling (pardon the expression).

 

The next sequence, possibly my favorite, showed the glaciers of Greenland as they calved then fell, bobbed, rolled, and floated in the icy waters below. Their dramatic, smooth, and graceful movements made me feel like I was watching a well-choreographed ballet. Also, as the ice emerged from the water, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from a film I watched over and over as a kid, Superman: The Movie, specifically the moment when the Fortress of Solitude was being created, with shards of ice rising to the surface. But, astonishingly, Aquarela is real. No special effects here.

 

A calmer moment showed icebergs silently drifting in the sea. Like one might when looking at the clouds, I found myself seeing things in their shapes. One iceberg looked like a dragon, for example, as it slithered past a sailboat with a busy crew

that took no notice of the creature. On a side note, the floating bergs also reminded me of the incredible pastel art of Zaria Forman (shown at right).

 

At times I found it difficult to tell the scale of what I was looking at, but that is part of Aquarela’s magic. And, like many great magic tricks, the solution is even more impressive than the 

Aquarela

trick itself. Kossakovsky masterfully keeps us guessing until he gives us a long shot of a large sailing vessel anchored alongside an immense, mountainous glacier. The sailboat resembles a tiny toy next to it.

 

Next, we see icebergs from a vantage I had never seen before, neither in film nor photograph. Shot from underneath, along their crystalline surfaces, are some of the most beautiful closeups in the film, of which there are many. This portion is probably the most abstract of the entire film and it’s like a visual fantasy straight out of Fantasia. The color and quality of the light glowing through the ice and water is something to behold.

 

Subsequent sequences include more man versus nature (a theme sprinkled throughout) including a crew of two navigating a sailboat in a storm, evacuation and devastation from the Oroville Dam crisis in California, and a riveting drive through the streets of Miami in the heart of Hurricane Irma.

Aquarela

The film ends with gorgeous shots of Angel Falls in Veneruela, but my other favorite sequence (and certainly one of the more magnificent moments in the film) comes about 3/4 of the way through, consisting of beautiful closeups of ocean waves. The detail of the sea spray, the fluidity of the water, and the crispness of the image (the high frame rate certainly helps here) are truly mesmerizing. And again, what is the scale? Are these waves actually just tiny ripples or giant tsunamis?

 

My overall reaction to Aquarela was one of wonder, amazement, and fear. Wonder of how the actual filming of it is, in and of itself, man versus nature. Amazement at how very small we as humans are and how much of our world is water. And fear of what’s happening to our planet and how delicate the balance between man and nature really is.

 

This film offers us the chance to witness nature in a way that few ever can, and I think it will translate well to Blu-ray. This will be something to watch on your biggest screen with your best playback system when it does become available for home viewing. And if you can catch it in the theaters, check the movie listing for HFR (high frame rate) to see it at 48 frames per second.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett is a bit of a Renaissance man (designer, artist, writer, director, and actor) living
in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats, Bruno and Roxy. Most recently, he was
production designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed
Tanner
. Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an 
original
musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper, which had a developmental reading last year starring Tony
Award-winner Alice Ripley. He is currently designing the set for Salt Marsh Opera 
Company’s
fall production of Pagliacci.

Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin (2019)

Has any studio mastered the art of the re-release better than Disney? Between their “vault,” where films would disappear from circulation for years, to Diamond Collection disc re-releases with new bonus features, to newly re-mastered 4K Ultra HD titles, Disney knows how to wring the most dollars from its catalog of titles. One of its most successful re-release strategies in recent years is remaking hit animated films into live-action titles. Recent examples include Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), Aladdin (2019), and the wildly successful The Lion King (2019).

 

While admittedly a huge Disney fan, I was skeptical about Aladdin, and skipped the theatrical release. I was a big fan of Robin Williams’ role as the genie from the 1992 original animated version, and I thought that anyone trying to fill his manic-comic shoes would just sully the role. Also, I’m equally not a Will Smith fan (though I am optimistic about his upcoming Gemini Man . . .), so it just seemed to be piling on. But when the movie dropped this week at the Kaleidescape Store—a full two weeks before the disc release—it seemed like the perfect opportunity to rub the lamp.

 

While not germane to this review, one thought I had as I purchased this movie was, “Will this be the final Disney movie I actually buy?” With Disney’s new streaming service imminently approaching, and with the studio’s entire catalog supposedly being available in the highest resolution possible (4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos) for a mere $6.99 a month, is the company going to be cutting off its faithful disc buyers in the process? For little more than the price of Aladdin, I could get six months of Disney’s entire catalog. Food for thought . . .

 

If you’re familiar with the 1992 movie, then you know all the plot points of this re-telling. “Street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) wanders the streets and alleys of Agrabah, living by stealing what he and his monkey, Abu, need to survive. One day he stumbles across Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who is bored with her life in the castle and wanders the streets in disguise, and he becomes smitten. Aladdin is tricked into going into the Cave of Wonder to retrieve a magic lamp by the Sultan’s evil counselor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Inside, he discovers a magic carpet and a lamp that causes the Genie (Will Smith) to appear, granting him three wishes. Aladdin uses his wishes to become a prince to win Jasmine’s heart, but he must contend with Jafar, who has his own nefarious plans for the lamp.

 

Two things made the original Aladdin so successful: The soundtrack and Williams’ performance as Genie. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “A Whole New World,” and all of the hits—including “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali”—are featured here.

 

While Williams’ performance was widely praised and loved, some at the time criticized it because his jokes were too current and thought not to be timeless. (How wrong they were!) As skeptical as I was about Smith, he manages to make the Genie his own, and he does a lot to carry the film and add much-needed fun and humor—the film feels far more like a drama until Genie arrives. Smith’s Genie is far more subtle than Williams’, and his performance works very well here. Of course, Smith’s Fresh Prince musical background also serves him quite well during the musical numbers.

 

Aladdin reminded me a lot of a musical, with many of the song lyrics delivered in a more dialogue manner to drive the story as opposed to just straight singing. Also, they did a nice job of making the characters more believable, especially the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who comes across as a bumbling idiot for most of the animated film. Disney has also proved itself quite adept at making digital animals, and both Abu and Rajah (Jasmine’s Bengal tiger) appear quite realistic. This live-action version is also 38 minutes longer than the animated one, giving the story a bit more room to develop.

 

Filmed in ARRIRAW at 2.8 and 3.4K, I felt like Aladdin rarely bristled with as much detail as I’ve seen from other modern blockbusters. Not to say that the video doesn’t look good or feature detail, with sharp-edged images. It’s more like I often wasn’t seeing that ultra-pixel micro-level detail that some full-4K Digital Intermediates can resolve. Even with that nit, there 

are many closeups where you can examine the threads and ornate stitching in the costumes, or the texture in walls and rocks.

 

The HDR image does a lot to help the night and dark scenes, such as the city lights when flying over Agrabah on the magic carpet or the dark interior of the Cave of Wonders. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, with no noise. Golds and jewels shimmer and sparkle with colors that leap off the screen, as do fireworks and the many brightly colored costumes, specifically Genie’s rich, deep purple. This is a very colorful film featuring Bollywood-esque costume design, and the images are definitely bright and punchy, but never at the expense of skin tones. (Well, except the Genie, who is cerulean for much of the film.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix feels mostly restrained, with the vast majority of audio presented from the front of the room. Some ambient sounds and the music are mixed up into the front height channels to add spaciousness, but most of the film is heavily focused to the screen. There are some scenes where the overhead speakers are called in to good effect, such as the Genie flying around the room, zipping front and back and swirling about in the Cave of Wonders, or Iago, the bright red macaw (not voiced here by Gilbert Godfrey, which just seems wrong), flying around, and some nice echoes that bounce off the walls in the Cave. The  

Aladdin (2019)

whole “Never Had a Friend Like Me” sequence is a great example of the film’s more dynamic audio moments. But for most of the film, the sound mixers definitely err on the side of subtlety, as opposed to looking for opportunities to get aggressive and push the sonic boundaries. Bass is mostly reserved throughout, but the sub channel is called into play nicely when the action calls for it. Fortunately, for a movie where singing and talking are key, dialogue is always clear and intelligible.

 

I enjoyed Aladdin much more than I thought I would, and it is a film I can see returning to. Also, with a Common Sense Media rating of 8+, Aladdin is a movie you can absolutely enjoy with family members of all ages.

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.

The Chef Show

The Chef Show

The Chef Show is pretty much definitive proof that Netflix’ recommendation algorithms can’t quite figure me out. I’ll watch pretty much any food show the service slings in my direction, no matter the sub-genre. Food as culture? Gimme. Food as process? I’m taking notes. Food as an excuse to travel? Love every minute of it. Food as social glue? That may well be my favorite food sub-genre of all.

 

When you get right down to it, The Chef Show is all of those things in some sense, but it’s not really any of them at its heart. But getting to the gooey center of what this series actually is proves to be difficult. Which may be why Netflix didn’t shove it

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down my throat from the time it dropped back in June of this year, despite the fact that I’m its prime audience. 

 

To get to the sense of what I mean, consider a scene in the first episode, in which Gwyneth Paltrow, sort of befuddled, it seems, by what’s going on, asks, “What is this TV show for?” To which its hosts, Jon Favreau and Roy Choi sort of shrug and say, “We don’t know. Nobody knows. We just started filming.”

 

Favreau and Choi, of course, worked together on the 2014 indie film Chef, and The Chef Show at times feels like an excuse for the duo to recreate the magic of that amazing 

film without making a pointless sequel. Instead, they simply hang out with their friends and cook and chat. And since their friends happen to be people like Paltrow, Robert Rodriguez, and Robert Downey, Jr., you’ll see a good number of celebrity faces. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a celebrity showcase.

 

But there I go again, trying to define The Chef Show by telling you what it’s not, rather than what it is. I think the reason for that is that the series never really figures out for itself what it wants to be. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it refuses 

to be forced into some preconceived box, and instead just does its own thing. There’s no template, no real structure, no actual recurring elements aside from the cute stop-motion animated interstitials that serve to segue between segments.

 

You kind of get the sense the footage that comprises the show—which was captured over the course of three years and not even pitched to Netflix until a season’s worth of shows had 

The Chef Show

been assembled from it—could have just as easily been dropped on YouTube five or 10 or 30 minutes at a time, a fact reflected in the lack of HDR, despite the 4K presentation.

 

That may sound like a diss on my part, but nothing could be further from the truth. The freeform, unstructured, internet-y nature of the show is what I love about it most. Ultimately, it’s something of a metaphor for Favreau and Choi’s approach to cooking. One phrase that pops up time and time again when the two are hashing out new dishes is, “Sure, why not?” There’s no real recipe, just an understanding of what makes food tastes good, and a desire to mix things up and see what works.

 

At any rate, the result of all this experimentation is that, on the one hand, The Chef Show is probably the most food-like food show of any I’ve seen. And on the other hand, it’s not really about food at all. One gets the sense that if Favreau and Choi shared a love of cars, this would be a car show. If they had bonded over sailing, it would be a sailing show. In the end, their love for one another is really the glue that holds this little experiment together, and I think that gives them the liberty to break some rules.

The Chef Show

To give you one example of the rules they break: Early in the series the duo attempts to make beignets from a box of Cafe Du Monde mix, only to fail spectacularly and realize after the fact that they’ve used an expired mix. In most food shows, that would have been left on the cutting-room floor. In The Chef Show, it’s kind of the point, because that shared experience is so much more important than the results of their efforts.

 

I’m reminded of the big Sunday dinners my meemaw (for you Yankees in the audience, that’s southern for “grandmother”) used to make when I was a kid. The entire family would come together after church and stuff our faces on some of the best country cooking to ever cross my palate, then unbutton our pants and talk about the week for a few hours before going home for a nap.

 

It wasn’t until I was much older and my meemaw had died that I realized something: As much as those gigantic weekly meals were the superficial excuse for our Sunday gatherings, and as much as we still sit around and reminisce about her mashed potatoes and fried chicken livers and purple-hull peas, the food was never the point. For as much as she slaved over a stove every Sunday to feed 10 to 15 people, all of that cooking was really just an excuse to bring together the people she loved most in the world.

 

The Chef Show is pretty much exactly that. The delicious-looking dishes are just the pretense. The process is just a necessity, no matter how much love and mindfulness they pour into it. The real magic of this show is in the conversations—the ones that revolve around art and filmmaking and family as much as the ones that revolve around food—and if there were the faintest whiff of inauthenticity to any of it, it just wouldn’t work on any level.

 

But work it does. Brilliantly so. So much so that another “volume” of episodes is slated to drop in mid-September, barely three months after the first batch of eight. And I can say this for certain: I won’t be late to the party this time. I’m looking forward to Volume Two with a level of anticipation normally reserved for Star Wars movies and new episodes of Critical Role.

 

If anything, though, it makes me wonder what other little gems exist in the Netflix catalog, just sitting there waiting to be my new favorite thing, but failing to pop up on my radar because they don’t necessarily fit into the service’s A.I.-driven algorithm, designed to hack my viewing habits into component parts that can be used to predict what formula will appeal to me next.

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.

Men in Black: International

Men in Black: International

Released this past summer, Men in Black: International (MiB:I, going forward) is the fourth film in the MiB franchise, but actually serves more as a reboot/spinoff as opposed to an actual film in the series. The movie was released on digital in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack from Kaleidescape on August 20, well ahead of its disc release on September 3.

 

Instead of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprising their roles from the original trilogy, MiB:I offers essentially an entirely new cast in the form of Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Agent M), and Liam Neeson (Agent High T). The only real continuity in actors is Emma Thompson reprising her role of Agent O from MiB: 3 and Tim Blaney returning to voice Frank the Pug in one brief scene. (There is a “blink and miss it” painting shown in a boardroom that appears to feature Smith and Jones in battle, the only actual nod to their characters.)

 

Now, this is not to say that spinoffs can’t be successful and work on their own. 20th Century Fox did a great job with Wolverine’s character from the X-Men series, the new Creed films have done a fantastic job of lighting new fire and continuing the Rocky saga, and Disney/Lucasfilm will be giving us new tales from the Star Wars universe long into the foreseeable future. But one of the things that makes a spinoff work is when the new film offers a solid connection to the rest of the series, and this is where MiB:I fails. And, unfortunately, it just isn’t a strong enough film to be able to stand on its own.

 

Still present are the memory-wiping neuralyzers, the ubiquitous black suits and ties, Rayban sunglasses, and Hamilton Ventura watches, advanced alien weaponry, modified vehicles, and a plethora of various alien creatures wandering around intent on reeking planetary havoc. But what seems to be missing is the actual fun found in the first films, with many scenes feeling like retreads.

 

Largely this is because the first three films gave us great chemistry and humor by juxtaposing the young and brash Smith against the old and grumpy Jones, while here the relationship between Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson just doesn’t work on the same level. While the interaction and repartee between these two is the highpoint of the film—which is actually the fourth time these actors have shared screen time (previously in Thor: Ragnorak and both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame)—they just aren’t given enough to work with to carry it solely on their own. Even Hemsworth, who has shown great comic ability in his role as Thor, feels a bit forced here.

 

According to Wikipedia, the film had a “troubled production,” with clashes between the director and producer, resulting in multiple rewrites and edits, and it comes across a bit meandering and uninspired, and frankly left me feeling a bit like I’d been neuralyzed afterwards, unable to really recall any of specific points the following day.

 

What isn’t missing is a quality audio and video production, something for which Sony has come to be known for in its home releases. While filmed in a combination of ARRIRAW 3.4 and 6.5K, this is taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-laden films. Even still, the video quality is terrific throughout, with tons of detail. Images are

always sharp and clear, both in closeups and wide shots. Blacks—of which there are a lot—are always deep, clean, and noise-free. Images like black ties against black jackets with black pocket squares are clearly visible.

 

HDR is also used to good effect throughout, pumping the bright lights, while keeping the dark night sky and the agents’ uniforms in deep black. The opening shot of the Eiffel Tower is a great example, with the Tower brightly illuminated against the black Paris night. The MiB offices are also brightly lit in white, with many colorful screens, and the HDR presentation really makes them pop. The Alien Twins, who bristle with energy, also benefit from HDR’s added brightness and color space, especially during their first fight with H and M.

 

Equally impressive is the Dolby Atmos soundmix, which is incredibly dynamic and immersive. The sound designers take every opportunity to expand the audio around the room and overhead, and this is a film that offers the kind of wow-factor home theater owners crave. There is also a ton of bass energy when appropriate, with explosions generating loads of ultra-low frequency that you’ll feel in your chest. Dialogue is also well recorded, clean, and clearly understandable even at reference-volume playback.

Men in Black: International

And while the big action scenes definitely benefit from the expanded and aggressive audio mix, quieter scenes also have a lot of ambient effects to capture the onscreen atmosphere. There were several instances where I turned around to investigate a sound behind me, thinking it was our cat or my daughter, when it was some audio effect.

 

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 22%, MiB:I likely isn’t going to be the best film you see this year, though my 12-year-old really enjoyed it. However, what it lacks in story, it more than makes up for in effects and bombast, and looks and sounds fantastic while doing it.

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.

After Life

After Life

If you appreciate a show that grabs you by the hands and pulls you through all the feels in a short amount of time, After Life is for you. Ricky Gervais writes, directs, and stars in this series about a man who has lost his wife to cancer and is trying to find a reason to keep slogging through this life. He can’t bring himself to commit suicide, yet he sees no hope for joy. So he has decided to embrace bitterness and hopelessness as superpowers that allow him to do and say anything. His resulting interactions with the people in his life swing between funny, heartbreaking, wickedly off-color, and even downright sappy. 

 

After Life is British to the core—a quiet little show filled with quirky people talking to each other a lot. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightfully honest and poignant. If you only know Gervais for his more acerbic wit, you might be surprised how unapologetically sentimental he can be at times, and those opposing forces mesh perfectly here. It’s like brewing Kuding to make sweet tea.

After Life

Season One consists of just six 30-minute episodes, so you can easily binge this one in a weekend. Netflix presents the show in Dolby Vision and HDR10, with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. The picture quality through my Apple TV was very good—it’s a clean, nicely detailed image that goes for a natural look, so don’t expect a lot of stylized shots to exploit the HDR. Overall, the improved dynamic range just lends a better sense of realism. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is primarily dialogue through the center channel, with some music filling out the soundstage. Overall, it’s not an AV presentation to show off your system, but it suits the subject matter.

 

I was surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed to see that a second season of After Life is in the works. This one seemed perfect as a limited-run series—six episodes that tell a complete story, capturing a time of painful transition in someone’s life. But Season One proved to be such a sweet surprise to me that I’m also intrigued to see what the show has in store in its next life.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Air Force One

Air Force One

Here we are with another classic Sony Pictures Home Entertainment film getting the 20-year-plus 4K HDR makeover—and I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Air Force One.

 

Sony gave the film a full 4K HDR restoration from the original 35mm print, along with retooling the soundtrack for a dynamic new Dolby Atmos mix. While it was released on 4K Blu-ray disc last November, the new 4K HDR version recently arrived at the Kaleidescape Store. Because I already owned the film on Blu-ray, I was able to upgrade to the 4K HDR version for only $11.99, making it an easy decision.

 

It’s hard to think of another actor who would have been more perfectly suited to play President James Marshall than Harrison Ford, and the film largely succeeds because of his likability and believability, essentially being the type of commander-in-chief everyone could get behind.

 

When the film came out in 1997, we were already well familiar with Ford in the role of leading-man action star from such films as the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Fugitive, and Blade Runner. More appropriately, Ford had also taken over the mantle of portraying Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Clancy fans will know that as Ryan’s story arc progresses, he eventually moves up the ranks to become President of the United States, so in some ways you could consider AF1 a not-so-distant relative to the Clancy stories.

 

Besides his physicality, Ford was the right age to still be believable as someone capable of holding his own in a scuffle, and had the gravitas to pull off the role of commander-in-chief in the non-fight scenes. He was also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Glenn Close, and Gary Oldman as ultra-loyalist Russian baddy, Ivan Korshunov.

 

The film opens with special forces parachuting into a compound to capture Kazakhstan dictator General Alexander Radek (Jürgen Prochnow) in a nighttime raid, and then cuts to a banquet in Moscow where President Marshall declares the US’s new “zero-tolerance” policy toward terrorism. He and his family (and the presidential entourage) then board Air Force One to return to the States, but during the flight, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek and led by Korshunov take over the plane, killing many of the Secret Service detail aboard. Instead of escaping the plane in a specially designed pod, President Marshall stays aboard trying to use his ex-military skills to save the hostages and retake the plane.

 

This all happens in roughly the first 20 minutes, leaving a lot of time to build drama and play out the cat-and-mouse hunt aboard the plane as well as the political turmoil back in Washington as the assembled cabinet tries to come to terms with the fact that the President is possibly dead along with having a hijacked AF1 full of high-value passengers quickly flying its way back toward enemy territory.

 

Video quality is greatly improved throughout, with sharp and defined edges. Closeups especially benefit from the restoration, clearly revealing more details, such as individual strands of hair. Overall the film has a nice layer of cleanness to the print,

Air Force One

The same shot from Air Force One, from the Blu-ray version (above)
and the 4K HDR version (below)

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

There was definitely a regrading of the color for this release, which is especially noticeable in the opening scenes. In the Blu-ray version, the sky is a dusky blueish purple, with some shots looking near daytime bright—not a time when you’d do an airborne assault on a compound. In the new HDR version, the sky is much darker, with the action clearly taking place at night, making it more believable.

 

While they didn’t push the HDR grading too aggressively, it’s definitely used to nice effect to 

improve images overall, which results in the film having greater depth and pop than the Blu-ray version. Many scenes benefit from the added pop of brightness and expanded white level and shadow detail.

 

Notice the detail in the parachute canopy in the opening raid compared to how blown out the white levels are in the Blu-ray version, or the detail in the shadows under AF1 and around the MOCKBA sign as the Presidential party is boarding to leave Moscow. You also get far more impact from the displays and sensors in the plane’s communications room, the bright lights around Moscow at night, and the jet’s afterburners. And when a big KC-10 tanker explodes, the flames have bright, vivid red-orange colors.

 

But a 20-plus-year-old film will never look as sharp and clean as a modern digital image, and there is some occasional noise and excessive grain, especially in the dark night scenes like the opening parachute attack. Also, some of the visual effects look truly dated and are almost laughable by current standards—for example, as the staffers escape by parachute and the big tumbling crash at the end.

 

As nice as the new video transfer is, the new Dolby Atmos soundmix is the real gem here. They clearly took every opportunity to have fun with the mix, and the results are phenomenal. Years ago—in 1999, I believe—I attended a CEDIA Expo where many manufacturers were using the airplane takeover scene from AF1 as a demo. That meant I got to experience the same scene on many systems, giving me a real sense of how it sounded. Polk Audio and Cinepro built a system designed to deliver realistic, lifelike audio levels, with every speaker having a minimum of 1,000 watts of power sent to it. I can remember 

watching that demo, and even though I’d seen it multiple times already, hearing Korshunov rack the slide on his weapon sounded like he was right next to you, and when he fired the first shot, everyone in the room jumped. The dynamics were so insane, you felt like a gun had gone off right next to you.

 

This new Dolby Atmos mix got me back to that experience.

 

You can hear the difference right from the beginning as the title score swells over the opening credits with far more space and width to the presentation. The score is also gently mixed into the front height speakers to expand the soundstage. The opening commando raid also reveals that this is going to be a fun mix, with shouts, echoes, and gunshots filling the room along with fairly serious LFE engagement from your subwoofer.

 

The sound mixer also uses the speakers to put you into different acoustic environments, such as the President’s opening speech in the Moscow banquet hall, which has tons of ambience and reverb to accurately place you in that acoustic space, and the subtle ambient sounds aboard AF1.

 

Probably nothing benefits from the improved audio more than the F-15 fighter jets

Air Force One

scrambled to protect/escort AF1, which sound absolutely awesome whenever they’re on screen, with their engine sounds mixed at a high and realistic level. The jets go ripping through the room, tearing overhead and to the front of the room with incredibly powerful deep bass you feel in your chest from their afterburners.

 

Air Force One is just a fun popcorn movie that holds up incredibly well 20 years later, and it makes for a terrific evening in your home theater.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.