Reviews

Review: 300

300 (2006)

Hollywood loves a great underdog story, even when the underdog ultimately fails, showing those standing defiantly and refusing to bow in the face of what is certain defeat. There is probably no greater historical battle of a small force resisting an overwhelming force than the Greek Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

 

Most of what we know about this battle—which is still studied today for military strategy and tactics, and is especially beloved by Special Forces operators—is from the Greek historian Herodotus. And while 300 is certainly a fictionalized, heavily 

fantasized retelling of this battle, it gets a surprising amount of the history of both the battle and Spartan culture right.

 

The Spartans were trained warriors nearly from birth. When a child was born, he was examined for any defect that would make him unfit to be a warrior, and if any was found, he was put to death. At age seven, all male Spartan citizens were pulled from their families to undergo a rigorous training and education program known as agoge. Sparta was a warrior society. The occupation of all Spartan men was soldier, and they devoted their lives to military service and improving their fighting skills to serve the state, with the motto that “Spartans never retreat; Spartans never surrender!”

 

Persian Emperor Xerxes amassed a significant army and navy (estimated by Herodotus to be over 1 million men, but thought to be between 120,000 and 300,000 by modern 

300 AT A GLANCE

This glories-of-battle graphic novel come to gory life gets the 4K HDR treatment with a new Atmos mix to fill your home with the din of combat.

 

PICTURE     

The extremely stylized images have tons of detail but can also be a little soft, thanks to the heavy reliance on blue screen.

 

SOUND     

The mix enhances the sense of wall-to-wall carnage, aided by the atmospheric use of the height channels.

accounts) in order to invade Greece. In response, Spartan King Leonidas took a small group of 300 Spartan soldiers and met up with a Greek force to block Xerxes’ invasion at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (also known as “The Hot Gates”) where the mountain terrain narrows to a funnel, effectively neutralizing the advantage of Xerxes’ far larger army, and working perfectly for the Spartans’ phalanx fighting strategy.

 

The battle lasted just three days, but through superior tactics, training, and skilled use of the terrain, the Spartans managed to inflict massive casualties on the Persian army. The film presents this series of battles in almost videogame-like stages, with increasingly difficult—and more fantastical—levels of soldiers leading each wave. Ultimately, the Spartans were betrayed by a citizen who informed Xerxes of a path around Thermopylae that allowed his army to flank and defeat the Spartans.

 

300 relies so heavily on Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel of the same name that it likely served as a ready-made storyboard for writer and director Zack Snyder. Many of the panels and much of the dialogue are lifted straight from Miller’s novel, and this new 4K HDR transfer delivers the inky blacks and bright crimsons of Miller’s work. In lieu of any expository text bubbles, we get occasional dialogue from Dilios (David Wenham), the sole surviving member of the 300 Spartans, who serves as narrator. It also features a lot of stylized and graphic violence, with many dead bodies, and severed limbs and heads, along with enough blood splattering and spraying that you’ll likely want to mop your theater when it’s all over.

 

King Leonidas is the perfect role for Gerard Butler, as he is able to bark-growl most of his dialogue and put his physicality—and physique—to use in the many battles. We also get to see Lena Headey playing another queen—Leonidas’ wife Gorgo, who wants to save the Spartans by sending an army north, and who is willing to make some Cersei Lannister-like moves to get her way.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, 300 is now offered in 4K HDR from a transfer taken from a 2K digital intermediate. The movie has also been given a new TrueHD Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

Wanting to have the look of Miller’s novel, images throughout are heavily colorized and enhanced. Many scenes are tinged in golden hues, sepia-toned, or colored in steely blues, whereas others are almost completely desaturated to just blacks and greys. Some scenes—especially those that are brightly lit—have not only a lot of film grain but also what looks like digital noise or possible overexposure. This was far more noticeable viewing on a 115-inch screen via my JVC 4K projector than on a 65-inch Sony LED, to the point that it was a bit distracting at times. (Even still, I’d trade a bit of more noticeable grain for the far more cinematic presentation of 115 inches!)

 

Images have tons of edge sharpness, and there is plenty of facial detail in closeups, revealing all the stubble, dirt, lines, and creases of the Spartans—or the unnatural smoothness of Xerxes (an unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro), and the texture of

fabrics or the battle-wear on weapons, helmets and armor. But much of the movie was filmed against blue screen with the look heavily engineered in post-production—razor-sharp clarity is not what 300 strives for.

 

What really makes this new transfer shine is the HDR grading, which gives ultra-contrast to nearly every frame. Blacks are inky-black and clean, and whites are pushed to their brightest limits, with specular highlights of sun sparking off shields or streaming into rooms glinting brightly. Many scenes are filmed in extreme lighting conditions, either lit by moon- or torchlight, and have massive contrast. The wider color gamut also provides greater punch for the crimson of the Spartan cloaks and the gold-pushed images.

 

The new Atmos mix also gives 300 more room to fight around your listening room, and offers a lot of demo-worthy moments. Beyond the big fight scenes, there are plenty of hard-panned effects throughout, along with loads of atmospherics to place you in the scene. For example, as Leonidas goes to meet the Persian emissary, he pushes open and walks through some heavy doors that creak and then crash into walls behind you.

 

The height speakers are also used extensively to not only elevate the musical 

300 (2006)

score, but provide appropriate sounds like swirling winds, crackling fires, or falling rocks. During combat, the room comes alive with the din of battle: Cries and screams are heard from all around, along with the sounds of shields clanging, swords striking, spears thrusting, and blood spurting. The Persian army’s promise to fire so many arrows it would blot out the sun is a great demo, as it has arrows whistling all around and thunking into protective shields overhead.

 

Bass is also appropriately deep and weighty when called for, such as the Persian army marching, or their large creatures charging, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.

 

300 is a heavily-stylized telling of an incredible historical last-stand battle, and for those not squeamish about some brutal combat, it makes for an entertaining night at the movies, especially with the new Atmos soundtrack and ultra-contrasty HDR transfer. Forget your old Blu-ray, this is Sparta!

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: Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, is not so much a scary horror movie as it is an all-consuming series of shape-shifting dark moods and nightmarish vignettes that are somehow interrelated. For your ultimate Halloween film festival, it will either pull you in, creeping and freaking you out, or it may make you laugh. Or both! While it’s not a comedy, Eraserhead certainly has its moments of levity, which help to make it an engaging and unique cinematic experience (usually best viewed late at night in a fully darkened room!).

 

Simultaneously spooky and spectacular, Eraserhead is a beautiful film to look at, a labor of love that took many years to make while Lynch was struggling as a first-time filmmaker, bootstrapping its production and supplementing his income managing a 

paper route. Every shot, every actor’s movement, and every line of dialogue was painstakingly planned out and executed. Filmed in black & white like the best of film noir and silents, lighting plays a big role in creating the look and feel of this mesmerizing movie.

 

I first saw Eraserhead when I was in college in the early 1980s on a double bill with Tod Browning’s more unsettling 1932 career-killer, Freaks. The “story,” I was told beforehand, was that the movie basically proceeds like a series of bad dreams. I found that to be simple sage guidance that enabled me to enjoy and embrace the film fully early on.

 

Lynch himself has never fully explained what it is about—

ERASERHEAD AT A GLANCE

The film that pretty much started the whole “dark & creepy” thing receives the typically excellent Criterion treatment, thanks mainly to a new, David Lynch-approved 4K transfer.

 

PICTURE
The often disturbing imagery has gone through an extensive digital cleanup, and can be better appreciated thanks to a Lynch-supplied calibration drill.

there are interviews in the Criterion-edition bonus features where you can see him steadfastly and calmly refusing to define the movie for querying reporters. He would rather leave the interpretation to the viewer, making it an individual experience.

 

In a way, Eraserhead is akin to an adult version of the classic childhood fear of the boogeyman in the closet—a concept it explores exponentially within the context of a unique group of characters living within a very distinct, dark universe. They all reside in an industrial area where the sound and lighting is as important and impactful as the shocking images. 

 

The film revolves around the hapless Henry, who—beyond having an instantly iconic hairdo and image that is one part Bride of Frankenstein, one part goth-punk/new-wave outsider, and one part techie uber-nerd—never seems to have anything go quite right for him.

 

Along the way, you meet his weird (likely prostitute) neighbor across the hall and his girlfriend Mary, her disturbing parents, and her comatose cigarette-smoking grandmother (who helps mix the dinner salad!). Other entities such as “The Man in the Planet” and “The Lady in the Radiator” may or may not be part of Henry’s reality. They may be a dream within his dream. Again, that is for you to decide . . .

 

Eventually, you meet “The Baby,” one of the more disturbing images in cinema—simultaneously horrifying and sweetly innocent. Humor raises its strange head at times like these as Henry muddles along with the twisted turns of his life. When Mary leaves him, she blames him for this strange creature. (She cries at one point, “We’re still not sure it is a baby”). Seriously, it is one of the creepiest, most unsettling images you’ll ever see as it looks incomplete. Imagine if E.T. had a prematurely-born legless sibling, and you get the idea of where this is going.

 

The pacing is slow and eerily quiet—the only sounds pretty much are the ever-present murmuring sturm und drang of the industrial complex in which Henry’s universe exists. Dark sounds ebb and flow with the strange rhythm of his life. Occasionally, you’ll hear deeply echo-chambered recordings of Fats Waller playing a pipe organ (Henry has an old Victrola in his claustrophobic studio apartment) adding an old-time horror-film aesthetic.

 

The one vocal musical moment breaking up the whirr of the film happens when Henry is lying on his bed staring into the radiator in front of him. His attention zooms into the heart of the steaming old metal structure to reveal a stage where we are treated to a performance by a strange lady who looks like a deformed cousin to Marilyn Monroe. “The Lady in the Radiator” has bad skin, wears severe makeup that would make Bette Davis’ Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) envious, and sports haunting hamster cheeks that would make Dizzy Gillespie run from the room screaming. 

 

Accompanied only by a distant moody organ, she sings the haunting “In Heaven Everything is Fine” (which some of you alt-rockers out there might recognize from The Pixies’ cover of it).  She also does a sort of dark slow-dance while gleefully squishing what look like either giant sperm cells or umbilical cords or—more likely—the recurring worm-fetus-like visions of The Baby, all seemingly falling from the heavens above.

 

The new Criterion edition of Eraserhead, based on a 4K transfer of the original camera negative, was supervised and approved by Lynch. The look and feel of the movie is more powerful than ever. All of the digital cleanup—compensating for “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, jitter, and shrinkage”—was performed manually, according to the detailed booklet included with the Blu-ray Disc. A new stereo soundtrack was created from the original mono mix stems.

 

Visually, Eraserhead is a dark film—so dark in fact that Lynch has provided reference images in the bonus features, with step by step onscreen instructions, so you can make sure your TV is properly calibrated.

 

Some of the other bonus materials may give you additional spooks and thrills. Lynch’s original short films (dating back as early as 1967)—including The Alphabet, The Grandmother, Six Men Get Sick, The Amputee, and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed—are fascinating and disturbing. The Grandmother especially has some super-creepy imagery that must be seen to be appreciated—particularly the wire-pulled faces of the child’s abusive parents as barking attack dogs. Lynch provides explanations of what these shorts are roughly about (or at least trying to accomplish), which helps the viewer take a step back and watch these for the art films they are. Creepy for sure, but artistic visions nonetheless.

 

And that really sums up the brilliance of Eraserhead. In one fully realized film, Lynch combined nightmarish dreams with art-school sensibilities to craft a timeless movie that is as intellectually challenging as it is freaky, funny, and frightening. It may make you laugh. It may give you goosebumps and nightmares.

 

For Halloween 2020, what more can you ask for?

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T. He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The critics hated The Shining. Some of the more prominent, and dubious, ones put it on their “Worst of the Year” lists. Some pointed to the first Friday the 13th installment, released around the same time, as the future of horror and dismissed Kubrick’s effort as quaint and out of touch. Stephen King famously damned the film—then went on with his own adaptation to prove that he knows nothing about filmmaking.

 

The Shining has, of course, since become a classic. But films are usually deemed “classic” more for their ability to pander to mass taste than for any inherent worth. The more important question is: Is it Kubrick’s best film?

I’m not completely sure about that, but I would tend to argue yes. In The Shining, his technique is in perfect sync with his ambitions, his execution fully, inventively, and surprisingly realizes his themes, and he dives deep enough into the much-abused but still fecund roots of the culture and returns with enough gold to craft something that might still survive when almost every other movie has been forgotten. The Shining is so well done it makes even the best of Kubrick’s previous efforts seem a little callow.

 

There’s no point in hashing out its merits as a traditional horror movie. While he does deploy some conventional elements, Kubrick primarily pursues horror through other, more effective, means—by using the very nature of film technique to keep the audience uneasy and to pull them into the action against their will.

 

The most obvious instances are well known by now, the two most famous being seeing the hyper-realistic manifestation of the old woman rising out of the bathtub at the same time 

SHINING AT A GLANCE

This 1980 horror classic is arguably Kubrick’s greatest film, presented here in an inarguably stunning transfer that’s one of the best 4K HDR efforts to date.

 

PICTURE     

Absolutely faithful to the original film, filling the frame with so much sharp detail and so accurately evoking the cold winter light that you feel like you’re trapped in The Overlook with the Torrances.

 

SOUND     

The appropriately subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix enhances the various sonic signatures within the hotel and convincingly creates the sense of an enveloping winter storm.

her cackling horror-movie double is already chasing Jack Nicholson from the room, and Nicholson asking Shelly Duvall “Which room was it?” only to have the film cut to a cold open of a Miami newscast. (Kubrick intentionally placed that cut at a reel change so the audience would think the projectionist had screwed up.)

 

Things like that and the infamous title cards make you wonder “Is this supposed to be joke?” while baffling you why it should be, eventually inducing a skittish sense of “I can’t trust anybody here.” Taking a puppet-master’s delight in messing with the audience, Kubrick’s cunning runs the gamut from puckish to perverse, dancing right up to the edge of sadistic.

 

More relevant for our purposes is his astonishingly successful effort to transport the viewer into the film. It’s a cliché to say that The Overlook is a character in The Shining, but going there kind of misses the point. Kubrick took the strategies Roman Polanski used in Rosemary’s Baby to give The Black Bramford a palpable presence and seriously upped the ante by grafting them onto the medieval Art of Memory to achieve not just the sense of being lost in the film but trapped inside a labyrinthine hotel with a madman.

 

But anyone who’s only seen The Shining at less than 4K resolution—even on a cinematic home theater screen—has never had this experience—which means they’ve never really seen this film. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that this 4K HDR release is the first time anyone has had the chance to experience The Shining at home with the impact Kubrick intended.

 

That impact hinges on a number of things, but primarily on accurately reproducing the naturalness of the artificially created outdoor light, matching the resolution of the original film print so all of the detail—especially in the landscape shots—is faithfully reproduced, and having enough resolution so the movie can be experienced from the proper viewing distance, without distractions.

 

That last point is the most key: Sit at the right distance, and you begin to experience The Overlook the way the characters do. You accurately feel the scale of both the large and smaller spaces and can mentally navigate the corridors the same way they do—even when they’re not around. After a while, you begin to have this sensation independently of the action on the screen. You feel haunted, in real-time—which is what makes the film uncanny and horrific in a way no other movie has been able to achieve.

 

None of that would be possible at home without this transfer, which is the most beautifully done, and faithful, 4K HDR translation I’ve seen of any movie. Nothing is overemphasized; all of it is in the service of the film.

The Shining (1980)

And you can feel the full impact from the very first shot, where the faint ripples on the surface of the lake create the sense the small island is rushing toward you, and where the detail deep in the landscape makes the shot seem almost 3D—an effect maintained throughout the opening sequence, where the images have so much detail in the distance that they border on vertiginous. With HDR, the landscapes seem not just grand but crisp and cold and almost nasty.

 

This carries over to the interiors, where the ability to perceive even the smallest details reinforces the reality of The Overlook, adding to that sense of being trapped within it. I was especially awed by the wide shots of the gold ballroom, where you can clearly see the variations in the metallic surfaces and on the parquet walls way in the back of the room, and where all the lighting sources and reflections are properly balanced without being blown out. The movie hasn’t looked this good since the pristine prints from its initial release.

 

The quality of the transfer is just as important in the many striking closeups, with their natural skin tones and often uncomfortable intimacy. Letting yourself get lost in those shots helps reinforce the sense of being a complicit member of the highly dysfunctional Torrance family.

 

I really can’t fault the transfer for anything—except two somewhat inadvertent things. The HDR is so revealing that it gives away how Kubrick was able to achieve the seemingly impossible overhead shot of Wendy and Danny walking through the middle of an improbably elaborate version of the hedge maze. And Kubrick relied on the random variations of film grain and the motion of the film through the projector gate to sell the shot of Jack sitting frozen in the snow. Seen as it is here, with no film or grain movement, it’s all too obviously a photo still.

 

I don’t mean to shortchange the film’s soundtrack, but the images are so beguiling that you have to force yourself to really focus on what’s going on there. First off, the music score is to be savored. Without question the most effective use of existing cues in any film ever, Kubrick so carefully wedded and molded its elements that most viewers probably assume it’s an original score.

 

As for chest-thumping explosions, window-rattling gunfire, and the other aesthetically dubious bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary surround mix, there’s none of that here. Kubrick was too much a master of his craft to resort to gratuitous jolts. Intent on keeping you inside the action, he wouldn’t have wanted viewers thinking about the potential seismic damage to their homes.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as deft as the visual transfer, enhancing the atmospheric sense of inevitability without drawing attention to itself or doing anything that would make you wince. The best stuff is the most subtle—the contrasting sonic signatures of the hotel’s rooms, lobby, ballroom, and other spaces, and the first hints, and then rising presence, of the winter storm. It’s like a perverse twist on New Age pablum, using the sounds of nature to lull you into a nightmare.

 

I feel obligated to mention the extras while kind of dreading it. To save the best for first, there’s “Making The Shining,” a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian that Kubrick suppressed during his lifetime but couldn’t keep from popping up on

YouTube and elsewhere from time to time. Because of his daughter’s unrivaled access and her skill, even at 17, as a filmmaker, it’s really the only portrait we have of Kubrick as a director. It’s also surprisingly revealing about Nicholson, Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, and the whole dynamic on the set. If you’re even casually interested in Kubrick or The Shining, it’s a must-see.

 

“Wendy Carlos, Composer,” available only on the DVD version, is mildly interesting for both the casually curious and for students of Carlos’ work. The audio commentary, also only available on the DVD download, is a very mixed bag. Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has a decent number of insightful remarks about his work on The Shining, but Kubrick biographer John Baxter is nothing but a train wreck. You’d think a biographer would be strong on details, but he gets so much wrong you get the sense he’s just making it all up as he goes along. And his Felix the Cat recounting of the action while we’re watching it play out on the screen is so dumb and pointless that it becomes funny after a while. It’s like he’s narrating the film for a group of incredibly gullible blind people.

 

“View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining” and “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick,” by the same team that perpetrated Full Metal Jacket’s “Between Good and Evil,” manage to neutralize the impact of any interesting comments by 

The Shining (1980)

various actors, directors, studio executives, and authors through their appallingly inept editing of footage from the film. Like the Full Metal Jacket travesty, they’re a textbook example of what happens when you give people with no discernible taste or talent free rein to butcher brilliant material.

 

But don’t let any of that cause you to hesitate to download this film. This release of The Shining will quickly become the jewel of any serious film collection. But it’s not there to be revered but watched. This film’s impact hasn’t diminished a jot since the day of its release. And this 4K HDR version takes us all the way back to that first day without compromise. It’s kind of like the movie just keeps repeating itself in an infinite loop without ever aging. Right . . ?

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: Rocco Schiavone: Ice Cold Murders

Ice Cold Murders

Every crime-solver has a routine, from Holmes puffing on his pipe as he ponders the perfidies of Moriarty to Harry Bosch at his home on stilts overlooking L.A., chilling over cold cases present and past listening to his perfectly maintained vinyl collection of the coolish jazz of George Cables and Art Pepper.

 

Inspector Rocco Schiavone has his routine as well. To underlings, colleagues, or superiors, he has tried to make clear that he is not to be disturbed in his office at police headquarters in Aosta in the Italian Alps until he has closed his door, opened his drawer, emptied a cigarette of its tobacco, filled it with marijuana, and taken a few deep hits of his makeshift joint.

 

The weed takes the edge off, but rarely lifts Schiavone out of his crankiness. The first thing we learn about this medium-boiled police detective is that he maintains a 10-point “pain in the arse” scale, which he discloses to his capable but naive junior partner Italo on their first day together. The viewer never 

learns what the first five are, but the idiosyncratic ethos begins with six (browsing shops or paying rent). Seventh-level pains in the arse (according to the English subtitles of this Italian-language show) include shopping centers and accountants. Level Eight is giving a speech, or reporting to a magistrate, as he often must in the chain of command of Italian law enforcement. Heavy-smoker Schiavone’s ninth circle of hell is closed tobacco shops, and being on duty with colleagues who don’t wash. If you freeze the frame 

ICE COLD AT A GLANCE

This Italian whodunnit, flying under the PBS Masterpiece banner, features a cranky fish-out-of-water detective with the usual complement of eccentricities banished to a mountain town and haunted by the murder of his wife.

here, you can see the grizzled Schiavone, in the passenger seat, giving his Clint Eastwood squint, with cigarette in mouth rather than the Man With No Name cheroot, and just the slight hint of a “Come on, kid, I’m pulling your leg” smile as he looks over at Italo, driving. Italo, of course, sniffs himself to check for body odor.

 

There is only one Level Ten in the world according to Rocco: “Having to deal with murder. That’s a tenth-level pain in the arse.” Since investigating murders is his specialty, he spends a great deal of the 12 episodes in Season One of Rocco Schiavone in metaphorical need of a proctologist.

 

Played with gruff humor by 57-year-old Italian film and TV star Marco Giallini (Perfect Strangers and God Willing) and based on a series of novels by Antonio Manzini, Schiavone’s origin story is from the same template as most good European crime fiction: An outstanding cop with contempt for formalities crosses an ethical line in the capital and is exiled to the provinces. For Schiavone, a sophisticate who loved Rome, its food, coffee, culture, and climate, it is especially difficult to be assigned to Aosta, where he has trouble adjusting to the mountain climate and small-town ways.

 

Rocco has some specifically Italian dilemmas. Clothes, specifically shoes, are a problem. When a bloody body is found mangled in the snowy mountains of this ski-resort town, Schiavone begins his investigation with his stylish Roman footwear and a hip lightweight jacket, which are useless keeping his feet dry and body warm. Having to adapt with an insulated mountain jacket and snow boots (which he refers to disdainfully as “dinghies”) results in a sixth-level pain in the arse, because he must browse a shop to purchase the survival gear.

 

It also brings him down a peg, since Schiavone detests the required collegiality required to be a good cop in a small town. He is, nevertheless, a grumpy but good mentor. But though Schiavone is a master at solving murders, he is not exactly an honest cop. He is corrupt to a degree, but which level of corruption he will not countenance is based on some internal measure that is never certain.

 

We get a glimpse of it early when, based on a tip from one of his semi-crooked buddies in Rome, he induces his new protégé Italo to join him in a scheme to seize a truck carrying cannabis. The idea is to take the weed and whatever cash the truckers have. It looks like an easy knockover, but the inside info is inaccurate—the truck also contains a large amount of cocaine, as well as a large number of African migrants being smuggled from the Netherlands en route to somewhere else in Italy. Rocco disapproves of coke—he spills it out on the snowy highway. He and his buddies share the cash, Rocco keeps the weed, but there is some ambiguity whether Rocco is forwarding the immigrants to be intercepted by Interpol or callously sending them along to whatever misfortune awaits them.

 

Schiavone is also a ladies man, a fact complicated by the fact that he appears to be married to a woman he adores. In the first episode, he is forced out of bed with a winsome young woman to attend to the bloody corpse in the mountains (you will enjoy the red-on-white contrasts), but first he stops at home to talk to his lovely and understanding wife Marina. It takes a 

little time to sink in that the wife is a ghost, and that Rocco is both obsessed with avenging her death and refusing to let go of the love for her. Rocco sleeps with a lot of women in Aosta, but he lives, miserably, pining for the late Marina, who talks to him in each episode and tries to keep his head straight.

 

In addition to the scenic contrasts of this lovely small town set against the snowy peaks of the mountains, the musical backing by Corrado Carosio 

and Pierangelo Fornado is moody and elegant enough to stand alone as soundtrack albums released by Rai. And the song that kicks off each episode, “Mescalito,” by Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees) and Duke Garwood, is as haunting an opening track you’ll find this side of “Woke Up This Morning” by the Alabama 3 for The Sopranos. You can hear the full six-minute version of “Mescalito” on You Tube and other streaming services.

—Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History of Rock . . . Off the Record, and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and criticism at Newsday (1975–1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.

Review: Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket

It’s obvious in retrospect that, sometime around 1962, Stanley Kubrick sold his soul to the devil. In Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, he was able to tap into a level of filmmaking no mortal had been able to access before, and none have come even close to since. His work during that period made every other movie, no matter how seemingly well-done, feel cliché, compromised, and inept.

 

Then, in the early ‘80s, his deal with the Dark Prince began to go sour. By the early ‘90s, they had clearly parted ways, and with Eyes Wide Shut, Satan exacted his revenge.

With Full Metal Jacket (1987), you can clearly sense the Master failing—but keep in mind that’s compared to the best of his own work. He was still way ahead of what any other mainstream director was doing.

 

During the Strangelove-to-Shining period, you might not have always been able to fathom some of his creative choices but, even when they were inexplicable, they felt like they were somehow a part of the whole. With Full Metal Jacket, you have entire passages that, both upon viewing and reflection, feel inert, like they’re keeping the movie from being what it wants to be.

 

Just to be clear: Jacket is a great film—it’s just not quite one of the greatest Kubrick films. The boot-camp sequence, from the second R. Lee Ermey appears on the screen though Vincent D’Onofrio’s self-inflicted head wound, is, if 

JACKET AT A GLANCE

Vincent D’Onofrio’s and R. Lee Ermey’s breakout performances continue to provide the fuel for Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny anticipation of the age of urban warfare.

 

PICTURE     

An astonishing 4K HDR transfer that might be just a touch too pretty, given the film’s gritty documentary aesthetic.

 

SOUND     

Jacket has an unusually subtle mix for a war film, and this version presents it clearly and crisply without overhyping the gunfire and explosions.

not flawless, undeniably compelling and even exhilarating. But the movie then sputters throughout the second act, trying out various stuff just to see what will stick, before recovering its stride for the conclusion in Hue.

 

It’s easy to re-edit Jacket in your head, removing the dead spots, and seeing it as a much tighter 90-minute affair that wouldn’t have been any less sardonic or bleak or exhausting, but wouldn’t have so many things that would make you cringe. (“Paint it Black”? Really?!)

 

I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t watch it—in fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to put it above anything you currently have on your Watch list. It’s worth it just to savor Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman and D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Pyle, two of the most iconic film performances ever. Kubrick is often shortchanged as an actor’s director, but you just need to consider that D’Onofrio had never acted in a film before and Ermey had never had a major role to appreciate just how masterful he was.

 

It’s also worth watching for its (and I’m about to say a dirty word here) ambiguity. At a time when you’d be hard pressed to name a film that doesn’t ultimately reinforce accepted beliefs, no matter how convoluted it might be in getting there, it can be bracing to watch something that pushes back so hard against the status quo.

 

Consider Pvt. Pyle’s blanket party. Kubrick has been using Matthew Modine, with his Wonder Bread blandness, as the traditional point of audience identification, but he’s been increasingly making Pyle’s plight the focus of the action. And, for all his abuse, Ermey has been serving as comic relief and the volcanic source of the film’s energy. By the time of the assault on Pyle, Kubrick has put the audience in an untenable position where Pyle’s suffering, the recruits’ contempt for him, and the Corps’ impersonal need for steely discipline all have equal weight. If you can watch that scene and not feel that wrenching tension, and not be thrown by it, you should probably just stick with Wes Anderson.

 

The other main reason Jacket is worth revisiting is for its intimacy—a term that’s hardly ever used in connection with war films, but it defines Jacket and sets it apart from almost every other entry in the genre. There are no epic battle scenes, never the sense of massed forces colliding, and none of the fetishistic portrayal of war machinery that’s defined the genre (and practically every other genre) since militarization, weaponization, and armoring became de facto cultural norms. You are in close quarters with every character here for the duration, and since this isn’t a particularly warm and fuzzy, or even articulate, bunch, it can be an incredibly uncomfortable feeling.

Full Metal Jacket

Finally, Jacket is worth watching just to appreciate that something like this could never be made today. It features an unvarnished, unromanticized, and unblinking portrayal of racial and sexual attitudes no contemporary filmmaker, too busy anticipating the outraged squeals of various pressure groups, would ever have the balls to attempt. If Jacket was in heavier rotation on cable, it would probably get slapped with the kind of silly, titillating, reality-denying warning labels that now precede any film that doesn’t toe any number of faddish political lines.

 

And, O yeah, one more thing—Kubrick had the stupefying ability to make his films look like they were created from somewhere beyond their era. Jacket was made in the mid ‘80s, but it has none of the excessive grain, contrast, saturation, or softness of most films from that time. The 4K HDR transfer faithfully reproduces what he wrought—which isn’t always easy, especially in the final third, most of which was shot during the Magic Hour and is filled with smoke and flames.

 

I do have two nits, though. The HDR tends to overemphasize the gold rims of Joker’s glasses and the silver dog-tag chains, especially during the boot-camp sequence, which can briefly pull you out of those shots. And I have to wonder if, given what Kubrick was going for here, the film doesn’t look just a little too pretty. Watching the Blu-ray version to check out the audio commentary, I couldn’t help pondering if that flatter, more documentary look wasn’t closer to what he was after. But that’s not really a criticism—more a matter of taste. And I don’t think I would ever opt for the Blu-ray over the 4K HDR, especially for the finale in Hue.

 

The sound mix is so subtle—especially for a war film—that it’s hard to appreciate just how good it is. There are no elaborate surround effects, mainly because Kubrick tends to keep the action squarely in front of you. Where it really pays off is with

the steady, almost subliminal, succession of explosions heard at a distance once you’re in Hue. Often little more than muffled thumps, they’re meant, like the breathing in 2001 and the heartbeat in The Shining, to represent the pulse of the film.

 

All of that is presented cleanly and effectively. My only criticism is with the distortion in some of the dialogue tracks. I suspect this stems from the original tracks recorded on location, but it’s hard to believe Kubrick ever signed off on the results.

 

The extras can be summed up in two words: Don’t bother. The promotional film “Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil” has some interesting comments from Kubrick’s collaborators, but you have to fight your way through a lot of annoying, and often silly, manipulation of footage from the film and strictly amateur motion graphics.

 

The commentary is a slice-and-dice affair involving D’Onofrio, Ermey, Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), and critic Jay Cocks, with everyone in isolation and no one getting a chance to speak at length. And it just gets painful once Ermey drifts away and D’Onofio goes off to the sidelines and you’re stuck with the obsequious 

Full Metal Jacket

Cocks for most of the duration. If you really want to know more about the film, read Modine’s Full Metal Jacket Diary or check out the extremely uneven Netflix documentary Filmworker.

 

It was once a big deal to try to figure out who had created “the” Vietnam film. Given how big a trauma that war was, I can kind of see why that used to be important. Ironically, no one has ever made a truly great Vietnam film. Full Metal Jacket isn’t really about Vietnam but about America’s obsession with war, and its whole second half feels much more relevant to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent exercises in empire than it ever did to the jungles of Southeast Asia. It’s worth a good, long look for anyone who can handle a little truth.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire

In the pantheon of directors who truly understand/understood how to use music in films, there are a few obvious names that immediately spring to mind: John Hughes, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and, of course, Cameron Crowe.

 

Crowe famously started his career as a journalist for Rolling Stone, and his love for music is evident in his films, which frequently feature iconic musical moments, such as John Cusack’s boombox serenade in Say Anything, the band singing 

“Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and arguably helping launch Seattle’s grunge scene with Singles.

 

Another element that runs deep through Crowe’s films is heart, loyalty, and discovering what is truly important, which is the central theme of Jerry Maguire.

 

I took my wife to see Maguire when it came out theatrically in 1996, and we loved it. In fact, it was actually the first DVD I purchased. (Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, “It is the best-selling non-Disney VHS tape of all time, with over 3 million copies sold on the first day and another 1 million on the second day.”)

 

Sports agent Jerry Maguire (Cruise) grows a conscience at 2 a.m. while on a junket after meeting with a client suffering yet another concussion who only cares about getting back on the ice to meet his playing bonus. Maguire’s epiphany leads him to write a 25-page mission statement about the state of the industry and taking on fewer clients to develop

MAGUIRE AT A GLANCE

Cameron Crowe’s Tom Cruise-fueled sports-laced romcom dramedy still holds up in this 4K HDR release, famous catch phrases and all.

 

PICTURE     

Not exactly demo-worthy, with HDR sometimes making faces look overexposed and the transfer emphasizing the softness of some scenes, but overall looking great for a 25-year-old film.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is surprisingly effective for such a dialogue-heavy movie, adding ambience that pulls you further into the film and mixing the songs big and full across the front channels.

more personal relationships, which he has printed with a Salinger-esque cover and puts in the In box of every member of his firm. This call for fewer clients/less money gets him sacked from his job, but after an impassioned plea, he convinces office assistant Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) to come join him in his new startup, where they’ll make a difference.

 

Maguire loses all of his clients—and income—save one athlete: Arizona Cardinals star receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Unfortunately, Tidwell’s me-first, get-what’s-mine attitude off the field wins him no friends, the big contract he wants, or the Kwan he desperately craves.

 

After Maguire loses star prospect Cushman (Jerry O’Connell) as a client the night before the NFL draft, the impending doom of his career leads to an argument between Maguire and his fiancée Avery (Kelly Preston), which, of course, opens the door for a relationship with Dorothy and her overly-cute son, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki).

 

It’s pretty easy to sum up Jerry Maguire by saying that a great story with great actors makes a great film, and the film holds up terrifically well, still giving all the laughs and feels at all the right moments. Not only did it grab Academy Award nominations for Picture, Actor (Tom Cruise), Original Screenplay, and Editing, it also earned a Supporting Actor win for Cuba Gooding Jr. And its still-quotable lines such as, “Show me the money!” “You had me at ‘hello’,” “You complete me,” and “Help me, help you!” still ring true, as well as Bruce Springsteen’s perfectly chosen “Secret Garden.” (I also had no idea that The Simpsons legend James L. Brooks has a producing credit for Maguire.)

 

A 4K scan was made of the original 35mm negative for the film’s 20th anniversary, which was used for the Blu-ray re-release back in 2017, and a 4K Blu-ray taken from the new 4K digital intermediate was released as part of the Columbia Classics Collection: Vol. 1 (along with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and A League of Their Own) in June. For those wanting to enjoy Maguire in its full 4K HDR glory without having to purchase the box set, it is available for download from Kaleidescape as an individual film.

 

The image retains the look of film, with grain visible throughout but not objectionable. I did notice a few scenes where the bumped-brightness from HDR made some faces look a bit over-exposed and grainy, but these were not often. There are also a few scenes—notably in the hotel lobby post mission-statement delivery—that looked incredibly soft, or “that looks like a VHS tape” according to my wife. These defocused moments are more noticeable because the rest of the film has so much sharpness and detail.

 

Closeups feature tons of facial detail or patterns and texture in fabric such as the loops in the knit sweater Dorothy wears on the plane or a tight check pattern in a suit Maguire wears. The film doesn’t feature an excessive color palette, but the cardinal-

red of the Cardinals’ jerseys look deeply saturated and realistic, and skin tones and the grass in the football scenes look natural.

 

While not used aggressively, HDR does add some pop to the white shirts Maguire seems to always wear, and we get some nice specular highlights from sun glinting off car windshields or sunlight streaming in through windows. The film has nice and inky black levels when called for, with no hints of noise or banding, making the night scenes really pop. While Jerry Maguire won’t be in your “must-demo video” playlist, images look terrific for a nearly 25-year-old title, and this is certainly the definitive version of the film to own and enjoy.

 

Another bonus is a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. For a primarily dialogue-driven film, I wasn’t expecting much from this mix, but it pleasantly surprised me. Mixers used the additional channels to add appropriate ambience to scenes, greatly expanding the soundstage and placing you in the environment. Interiors like the hotel lobby, airport baggage claim, restaurant, and Jerry’s office all come alive with the sounds of background chatter and scene-appropriate sounds. You will especially notice how the pandemonium in Jerry’s office—with sounds of phones ringing, keyboards clattering, and voices chattering—erupts after he concludes his “I’m leaving” speech. We also get some nice use of the height 

Jerry Maguire

channels from the voices that haunt Jerry prior to his mission-statement epiphany or in airport PA announcements.

 

Every important line of dialogue is clear and anchored to the center, but the Atmos mix gives room for the soundtrack to breathe, and songs are mixed big and full across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Both the 4K Blu-ray and Kaleidescape download include a host of special features, including commentary tracks, some small featurettes, and a host of deleted scenes, many of which feature pretty abysmal picture quality, but are fun to see what was trimmed from the final cut.

 

Jerry Maguire is a great, genre-spanning film with elements of comedy, drama, romance, and sports that offers a bit of something for everyone. If you haven’t given it a watch for a few years, this new transfer provides the perfect opportunity to revisit a real gem.   

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: Rear Window

Rear Window

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, more has been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker—and more has probably been written about Rear Window (1954) than any other film. It and Vertigo (1958) are often considered his most accomplished efforts—a conclusion I would vigorously dispute, but not here. Rear Window has gotten the most attention because, between the two, it’s the squeakier wheel.

 

It’s undeniable that this hubristic exercise in artifice, or stagecraft as cinema, would have completely unravelled in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. And it remains impressive how much Hitchcock is able to make the pure contrivance of his elaborate 

set a big part of what makes the film so engaging. You almost don’t care that it’s the somewhat clunky epitome of mid-’50s Broadway stage design. There’s something about its sheer physicality that makes everything that’s presented on it feel convincing.

 

Because Hitchcock was relentlessly ambitious, his reach constantly exceeded his grasp, so Rear Window has more than its share of shots that don’t quite work, storyboard concepts that had to be triaged in post, characters that could have used a little more development. Thelma Ritter’s part is ridiculously overwritten, and you can feel her pausing for laughs that forever faded it into the void more than five decades ago. Grace Kelly is just a little too Grace Kelly, with a patrician accent that can’t help but grate on modern ears.

 

The film works mainly because of the ingenious way Hitchcock makes the set, with its vignettes, convincing as projections of Jimmy Stewart’s various states of mind, 

REAR WINDOW AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation gives Hitchcock’s quintessential exercise in pure cinema an immediacy and sense of engagement it’s lacked in every previous home-video incarnation.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is applied subtly, for the most part, but gives the finale an impact the film has likely lacked since its first run in theaters.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix respects Hitchcock’s innovative original mix, with its uncanny evocation of space.

making the film from early on feel dreamlike. And it works because of Stewart’s performance. He, pre-World War II, was a good, even great, actor—his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is jawdropping, even today. But he was also kind of lightweight, sometimes clownish. After the war, there’s an undeniable sense of experience behind his eyes that he was able to employ deftly in his best roles—like in the Anthony Mann westerns, in Vertigo, and here.

 

Not that his performance is flawless. As always with Hitchcock, there are weak moments in the script and in the direction that cause Stewart, adrift, to lapse into his patented Stewartisms. But in the hands of a more traditional Hollywood pretty boy type, L. B. Jefferies snooping out of the back of his apartment could have seemed just comic, or even warped. Stewart creates a perfect tension between making it all seem justified and also the dangerous preoccupations of a troubled soul.

Rear Window

The 4K HDR presentation is a must-have for anybody who even thinks they care about movies—not because it smooths over the flaws but because it presents everything honestly, the good and the bad. Seeing Rear Window in any other format inevitably puts you at a distance from the film, which inevitably places you at too great of a distance from what’s going on in the apartments across the way. You need to see it at this resolution to get pulled back into the film, so it stops feeling quaint and again becomes relevant and compelling.

 

The flaws are pretty egregious. Hitchcock, of course, endlessly obsessed over how to present Kelly, but there’s a shot at 29:51, during a sequence meant to scream “beguiling beauty,” where she looks like a walking corpse. Even more jarring is a closeup at 1:50:29 of the hapless Wendell Corey that looks like it was originally part of a wider shot that was ruthlessly enlarged on an optical printer.

 

For whatever reason, cinematographer Robert Burks didn’t do as good a job here as he would on Vertigo, but for everything that takes you out of the film, there’s plenty to keep you engaged. Probably no other movie has better conveyed the feel of New York at sunset, or especially at three in the morning. And, while the HDR makes its presence felt just here and there, it is 

an absolute revelation during the climax. Anyone who knows Rear Window will know exactly where I’m going with this, but Raymond Burr being blinded by Stewart’s flashbulbs fell solidly into the “suspension of disbelief” camp until now. Presented in HDR, those white flashes become searing, making you feel Burr’s disorientation and sense of absolute loss. Rear Window is worth seeing in this form just for that moment alone.

 

The audio is “only” DTS-HD Master Audio stereo. I used quotes because the thought of somebody mucking around with Hitchcock’s innovative and masterful sound mix to take

it into the land of Atmos is both terrifying and nauseating. In the right hands, it could definitely enhance the experience—but who’s got the right hands? And I think there’s a good chance an enhanced sense of spaciousness could actually end up emphasizing the one-dimensionality of a lot of the stagecraft.

 

The mix here does a great job of allowing you to savor what Hitchcock originally wrought, where he used mainly volume, timing, and reverb to convey the sense of voices and other sounds heard in various spaces and from various distances away. 

The soundtrack, as is, is so strong it could almost stand on its own as a radio play.

 

But allow me just a brief swipe at Franz Waxman’s score, which is the weakest link in the film. It’s not that I don’t like Waxman—his work on Sunset Boulevard represents the pinnacle of the film-scoring art—but he’s just not in sync with this film at all. The opening theme—if you can call it that—is a hackneyed pastiche of Gershwin clichés—42nd Street meets The Naked City. But what makes it really fall flat is the sense of complete disconnection from the evocative use of source cues that makes up the rest of the soundtrack. I know Hitchcock was aiming for a kind of overture as the curtains literally went up, but he missed the mark.

 

And then there’s that song. Another of Hitchcock’s offerings placed on the altar of Grace Kelly, it was a great idea in concept—show a composer struggling to write a song to parallel Jimmy Stewart’s conflicted feelings about Kelly and then have it all come together as an example of songwriting perfection. Problem is, the song sounds fully worked out—and not very good—from the start. Had it been great, it could have elevated the whole film—and not made the salvation of Miss Lonelyhearts look like the worst kind of Victorian contrivance. But “Lisa” is a real stinker.

Rear Window

I’m not a big fan of Top 10 or Top 100 or whatever lists—they’re almost all laughable when they’re not outright dangerous. So let’s just say that Rear Window, for too many reasons to ignore, is an essential. Not only does it stand on its own as entertainment for all but the most jaded contemporary viewers (and let’s not go there), but its reverberations can still be strongly felt in present-day film. In 4K HDR, it becomes not just another movie, but the very definition of cinema.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. Frustrating because it has a really important message to convey, but sometimes undermines that message with cutesy animation and heavy-handed musical accompaniment. Frustrating because it wants to be equal parts documentary and drama, but fails in the latter respect. Frustrating because I wanted to write it off entirely, but ended up being won over despite my better judgment. But most of all, frustrating because it relies on some of the same tactics it decries.

 

As you could probably ascertain from its title, The Social Dilemma is about the dual-edged sword of social media and the impact it’s having on society. What makes the documentary aspect of the film work as well as it does is the reliance on 

Silicon Valley experts like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, who helped create the very tools that they’re now warning us about.

 

Harris—co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” according to The Atlantic—dominates the film with a series of cogent explanations about how the algorithms that drive everything from Google searches to Facebook interactions work. On the upside, he’s given a lot more room to breathe here than in his famous TED Talk on the subject, allowing him to connect some dots I’ve never seen connected before, at least not in the way they’re connected here.

 

But for every illuminating observation from Harris, The Social Dilemma feels compelled to spoon-feed the viewer a disjointed dramatic narrative that feels like the mutant child of an ABC Afterschool Special and one of those awful Chick Tracts that used to litter the gutters of New Orleans.

SOCIAL DILEMMA AT A GLANCE

This often penetrating look at the ill effects of social media is effective when it sticks to interviews but goes astray with inappropriate music, animation, and dramatic vignettes.

 

PICTURE     

This image displayed none of the artifact problems you would have expected from a UHD image being streamed without HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 mix has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score but doesn’t overwhelm the all-important dialogue.

It’s in these dramatizations that The Social Dilemma commits its greatest sin: Assuming the stupidity of the viewer. The story here is about a family whose two youngest children are being harmed by social media—one child whose entire sense of self-worth is based on “Likes” in response to photos she posts, the other who ends up sliding down the slippery slope of fake news and becoming radicalized.

 

Handled well, I suppose it could have worked. But in attempting to explain how the algorithms that encourage engagement trap users in a dopamine-driven feedback loop, the filmmakers decided to anthropomorphize these algorithms and give

them dialogue, à la a twisted techie version of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This takes what is genuinely a malignant phenomenon and turns it into a seemingly malicious one, which undermines a lot of the film’s messaging. It also directly contradicts the views of the experts, who do a much better job of explaining the nuances of these wholly impersonal 

algorithms and the way they manipulate users to generate revenue, engagement, and growth. But nuance doesn’t suffice these days, I suppose, so we end up with these wholly unnecessary abstract dramatizations that do little more than confuse the uninitiated and drag down the film.

 

By the time its closing credits rolled, though, The Social Dilemma won me back with a well-developed conclusion that cuts straight to the heart of the divisiveness, anxiety, depression, suicide, social upheaval, and general discord sowed by social media—as well as some of the upsides of this technology. I wish some of this balance had been sprinkled more evenly through the rest of the film, because we can’t have an honest conversation about the impact of social media without covering the good as well as the bad (although, full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this respect since Facebook was responsible for my reunion with my daughter).

 

If the entire 94-minute running time of The Social Dilemma had lived up to the quality of the last 10 minutes or so, it would be much easier to recommend. But I’m left with a dilemma of my own here, because I think the message of the film is so important that you should view it despite its flaws. Just go in armed with the knowledge that director Jeff Orlowski employs some of the same psychological sleight-of-hand the film warns us about.

 

As for the presentation of the film itself, Netflix delivers The Social Dilemma in Ultra HD without HDR10 or Dolby Vision high dynamic range. As soon as I noticed this, I deliberately kept an eye out for the sort of visual artifacts inherent in high-efficiency streaming without HDR: Banding, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail, etc. Surprisingly, I couldn’t see them, which makes me think Netflix may be employing a higher-than-usual bitrate for the film, but I’m just speculating. Whatever the explanation, it points to the fact that streaming services are constantly evolving in terms of quality of presentation. Even just a couple years ago, Netflix would have had to stick this SDR film in an HDR container to deliver a stream this artifact-free.

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score that could have easily gotten out of hand with the wrong sound mixer. Thankfully, it’s a mostly front-channel affair, and dialogue clarity

is topnotch. It should sound fine whether you’re watching on a full-fledged home cinema system or a simple soundbar.

 

In the end, as I said, I’m of two minds here: I want you to watch The Social Dilemma, but I also want you to know what you’re getting into here. It’s a significantly flawed film, but it’s also an important one. If the hypnotic animation 

and ham-fisted dramatizations are too much for you to stomach, though, I highly recommend watching Tristan Harris’ TED Talk instead. It doesn’t connect the dots nearly as effectively as does The Social Dilemma, and it isn’t nearly as well-produced, but it also isn’t burdened by all the saccharine fluff that mires this docu-drama.

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: Inception

Inception

After the mental calisthenics of watching and trying to unpack Tenet, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to another of my favorite Christopher Nolan time-bending films, Inception. This was especially the case after my 13-year-old daughter—whose introduction to Nolan was Tenet—asked if all of his films were “that confusing and hard to understand,” and after I saw that a 4K HDR transfer was available for download from Kaleidescape.

 

Scoring an impressive 87% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score and 91% audience score, Inception made over $825 million at the box office, and was a critical success as well, winning four Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, with additional nominations for Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, and Best Picture.

The core plot of Inception is actually fairly simple—getting someone to do something you want them to by planting a simple idea in their subconscious that they believe is their own. But it is the path of getting there that is so complex and visually stunning to watch, as Nolan creates dream worlds within worlds within worlds, with time expanding exponentially the further down you go. What takes seconds in “real life” might equate to hours or even decades multiple dream-levels deep.

 

Similar to lucid dreaming—a dream where the person is aware they are dreaming and can then exert control over the dream universe—Inception allows for group dreaming where an architect designs and builds the dream world, which is then populated by others who can control the dream, with the actual dreamer filling out the world with the characters of his subconscious mind. (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand; if you haven’t, trust me that it actually makes a lot of sense.)

INCEPTION AT A GLANCE

In the wake of his mindbending Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s dream-world thriller Inception gets the 4K HDR treatment, with a slew of bonus features to help you figure out what it all means.

 

PICTURE     

Tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame, with plenty of opportunities for HDR to make things pop from the film’s muted palette.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix features plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to place you in the action, and massive low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits.

Besides the striking visuals and stunt sequences, another element that really elevates Inception is the fantastic cast, with practically every role handled by A-list talent. This includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine. DiCaprio does an especially good job here, as do Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe.

 

The film revolves around Cobb (DiCaprio), an expert “extractor” who is able to steal valuable information from someone’s subconscious while they are dreaming, being hired by Saito (Watanabe) to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Murphy)—the newly appointed CEO of a multi-billion-dollar energy concern—in order to plant the idea in his head to break up his company to avoid a future monopoly. In return, Saito promises he can arrange for Cobb—who has been on the run for years after having been wrongfully accused of killing his wife Mal (Cotillard)—to be able to come home to see his children.

 

Cobb’s subconscious is haunted by memories of Mal—with whom he spent a decade in the abyss of their shared subconscious and where she ultimately lost track of reality—and any dreamworlds he now creates are quickly corrupted and 

overrun by her. He hires one of his father’s (Caine) top students, Ariadne (Page), whom he teaches how to design and construct elaborate labyrinthian dream worlds that will give his team more time to move about before they are discovered and attacked by the dreamer’s subconscious. (Again, this all makes sense when you see the film.)

 

The dream worlds are often filled with fascinating Escher-like architecture—entire city blocks that twist upwards at 90 degrees to fold back onto the world, rooms filled with never-ending staircases, topsy-turvy gravity, and cities disintegrating as the dreamworld collapses.

 

You’ll likely find yourself asking, “How did they do that?” 

and fortunately there is a slew of featurettes included with the download that provide answers to many of your questions. It is especially impressive when you see that many of these are actually in-camera practical effects as opposed to CGI trickery. Especially interesting is a short animated graphic-novel-esque prequel film, The Cobol Job, which gives some interesting backstory on how Cobb ends up encountering Saito in Inception.

 

While I don’t think of Inception as an action film, it actually has a surprising amount of action, with the dreamworlds filled with car chases and numerous shootouts. One of the final dream levels—a heavily fortified hospital on top of a snow-covered mountain—always reminds me of a level of a Bond-like video game, using snipers, stealth, and force to overcome a large force on skis and in tracked vehicles to infiltrate a massive complex and achieve the objective.

 

Originally shot on 35mm and 65mm film, there is no information on the resolution of the digital intermediate used here, but there is tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame. Closeups reveal loads of facial detail, and you can especially appreciate the detail, design, and fabric texture in the actors’ clothing. For example, in the opening moments, we see Cobb lying in the surf, and there is sharp line texture and detail in the fabric of his jacket. Later, in the snow-mountain scene, you can appreciate the slightly pebbled texture on the leather accents of Cobb’s teams’ uniforms, or a delicate white-on-white pattern on one of Saito’s shirts. Long shots of Paris and Mombasa are also sharp and full of detail, as are the busy city streets of the Paris dream world, where every building edge is sharp and defined. There are the occasional shots in soft focus, but this appears to be more a limit of the original material.

 

While the film has a generally muted greyish, overcast, or steely-blue color palette, there are still plenty of opportunities for the HDR grading to improve the viewing experience. One big difference I noticed over the Blu-ray transfer was the enhanced pop of the white shirts worn by many of the actors, and the brightness of the overhead lighting in rooms. The early scene in Saito’s castle especially benefits from this, with the lighting looking far more realistic and bathing the room in a rich, warm, golden glow. Interior scenes also benefit from rich shadow detail while still delivering bright highlights either from light streaming in through windows or internal lighting, and the added contrast also benefits the snowy scenes, providing more detail and depth to the white-covered landscape.

 

Nolan famously eschews next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos, and we are once again “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix here. Even so, it is pretty dynamic, with plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to

place you in the action. From street sounds at a Paris café, to a freight train whizzing past in the side surrounds, to the creaking and groaning of an elevator shaft and cabling, to dynamic gun fire and bullet strikes discreetly placed around the room, to the distinct sounds of objects exploding in air, Inception’s sound mix is active and entertaining.

 

The film also features some truly massive and immense low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits. From the opening scene, the sounds of waves crashing at the beach pound your room with bass. Even more aggressive are the deep—and lengthy—bass signals when a dreamworld is collapsing, or the crashing of an avalanche.

 

Another thing Nolan is becoming infamous for is difficult-to-understand dialogue. This was a real complaint of mine from his two most recent films—Tenet and Dunkirk—where dialogue was completely unintelligible for many key sequences, often drowned out by effects and music mixed significantly louder (and characters mumbling behind masks in the case of Tenet). While most of Inception isn’t plagued with this, there are still a few moments where dialogue is buried beneath other sounds.

 

Nolan re-teams with frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer for the score here, and it 

Inception

is often an aggressive, dynamic, stress-filled mix that comes at you from all corners of the room. The film’s finale is heightened by the score, which is like a constant assault on the senses and will get your heart pumping. One of the songs, “Mombasa,” reminded me of the frenetic electronica and bass assault of a Blue Man Group track.

 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Inception remains incredibly entertaining, and as visually exciting and entertaining as any modern film. With a new 4K HDR transfer, the film looks better than ever, making it the perfect time to revisit this modern classic.

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: Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

This was supposed to be a review of Rear Window. But I had such a strong reaction to watching Psycho in 4K that Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic quickly pushed its way to the front of the reviewing queue.

 

More has probably been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker, most of it boxing him in so tightly that he’s ended up as badly embalmed as Norman Bates’s mother. So I’m going to try to avoid retreading any of that ground here. My comments will be mainly about why you should care about Psycho in 2020—and why you should care about it in 4K.

 

First off, there’s Anthony Perkins. Sure, people have praised his performance before, but I didn’t realize exactly how groundbreaking it was, and how much it still reverberates today, until this most recent viewing. Hitchcock was notorious for

putting blinders on his performers, so while there are some exceptional breakout performances in his films (I’m thinking of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train in particular), they’re rare, and tend to happen not because the actor was given extraordinary latitude but because he figured out how to roll within Hitchcock’s often stifling restrictions.

 

Perkins turns that straitjacket into a virtue, offering the most direct, nuanced, and startling performance in any Hitchcock film. (His bursting in on Vera Miles at the end always seems so comical because he has kept Norman on a such a believably tight leash until then.) There are many things in Psycho that are unique for a Hitchcock film (I’ll get to that in a minute), but this is the most unusual. As soon as Perkins says his first lines to Janet Leigh, Psycho pivots from a traditional studio-era production into the cinematic unknown.

 

And then there’s the enduring influence of his performance, which has become the standard for any actor attempting to explore the extreme edges of dissociation. It’s hard to 

PSYCHO AT A GLANCE

This 4K version of Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic helps show how much the director used this film to reinvent himself and also helps showcase Anthony Perkins’ groundbreaking performance.

 

PICTURE     

Being able to watch Psycho at the equivalent of 35mm resolution is a huge leap over earlier home video incarnations, restoring some of the impact the film had for audiences at the time of its release.

 

SOUND     

While the stereo and 5.1 mixes are only adequate, they both do an excellent job of presenting Bernard Herrmann’s justly famous score.

watch his Norman Bates and not see De Niro’s Travis Bickle—or even Rupert Pupkin. To watch Perkins in this film is to watch him actively and radically reinvent film acting—all while under his director’s unblinking gaze.

 

But Hitchcock ventured into all kinds of new territory in Psycho, and it’s fascinating to see him trying to reinvent himself as he grapples with the collapse of the studio system and the realization of how tightly he was bound to it. The tragic thing about Psycho was that he found it impossible to build on the new ground he carved out here, instead retreating to what he already knew, which is why all of his later films feel half-baked and out of touch.

A lot has been made about Hitchcock using a TV crew to shoot this film, but that kind of misses the point. Psycho, on the moviemaking level, is mainly about Hitchcock grappling with his increasing bitterness, cynicism, disorientation, and misogyny in a world where he could feel his influence as a filmmaker and a personality waning, and figuring out what the hell to make of his unmistakable attraction to La Nouvelle Vague, a movement that worshipped his work but that couldn’t have been further removed from his Hollywood-machine style of filmmaking.

 

Any balanced consideration of Hitchcock’s misogyny in the 

age of the New Puritanism is guaranteed to fall on deaf ears—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. His take on women was far more deft and complex than he’s usually given credit for (consider, for instance, that the two most assertive and courageous characters in Rear Window are Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly, and how Eva Marie Saint makes Cary Grant look like a dope in North by Northwest). Yes, the sense of personal aggression in his handling of the Marion Crane character is troubling, but the film hinges on being able to see her through Norman’s eyes from the second he first encounters her in the rain at the Bates Motel.

 

That’s one of the more New Wave elements in this very New Wave-y film, that not only is Marion not very likable—nobody in this film is, which is what forces you to gravitate toward Norman and feel some uncomfortably complex emotions about him as it all plays out.

 

As for the shock factor—it’s there, but not in the broad strokes that enticed and repelled audiences at the time. Probably the two most disturbing images now are Janet Leigh staring out at the audience with her face flattened against the bathroom floor and Perkins mounting Martin Balsam, butcher knife aloft, while Balsam lies on his back squealing like a stuck pig.

Psycho (1960)

What’s more disturbing are the droller, more perverse touches, like forcing the audience to suffer John Gavin through the whole second half of the film, and the justly infamous penultimate scene where the smug psychiatrist explains all. But it’s worth enduring that to get to the brilliant Godardian shot of Norman in confinement, leading to him giving the camera what would become the patented Kubrick crazy stare, with that almost subliminal superimposition of Mother’s rotting face.

 

What 4K brings to all this is distressing—as in, you can see all the little nicks and scuff marks and tears and stains that evoke the shabby decay of the Bates Motel. It’s hard to emphasize how much this heightens the experience of the film. Given Hitchcock’s horror of any kind of filth, the idea of a place—and a mind—that rundown was probably truly terrifying for him, and it takes all the clarity of UHD resolution to faithfully convey that.

 

Strangely, capturing the full impact of 35mm film makes the subtle verbal duel between Perkins and Balsam that begins in the motel office and continues out on the walkway far more intense than it felt in earlier home video incarnations. This is another scene where Hitchcock went well outside his comfort zone, not only in the way he allowed the actors to fence, but in the way he turned it into a duel of acting styles that had until then been foreign to his work. This scene had always felt kind of flat seen anywhere other than in a movie theater, until now.

 

But 4K both giveth and taketh away. This transfer does its best with some occasionally bad film elements, the worst instance probably being a POV shot through Marion’s windshield at the 24:11 mark where the resolution and image enhancement create a giant swarm of digital gnats that make it feel like you’re watching the opening to Men in Black.

 

Also, without getting pulled into any sweeping generalizations, it needs to be pointed out that while the HDR version bests the UHD version, the differences are so subtle they’ll probably only register with hyper-critical viewers. Spot-checking scenes with

a lot of gradation, like Marion and Norman in the lobby parlor (Chapter 8) or Norman burying evidence in the swamp (Chapter 12), showed only the slightest difference between versions.

 

But it’s hard to emphasize how much 4K does to revive Psycho and make it feel vital, instead of like some vaguely appreciated but permanently filed-away relic. And experiencing it in either UHD or HDR brings a new respect for its mostly restrained black & white cinematography. Color would have been too distracting, visually drowning out the impact of the film’s brutally pared-down main elements. And we can only shudder at the thought of 4K colorization.

 

As for the sound, you’re probably best off experiencing Psycho with the DTS HD Master Audio stereo track. The Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t make the film more engaging, just different. That’s not to say that someone someday couldn’t do a compelling Dolby Atmos remix, but they would have to be an absolute virtuoso to make their efforts dovetail with Hitchcock’s aesthetic.

 

And let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score, which is well served by both mixes. I had never really appreciated until I heard it here just how much Herrmann relied on the primal 

Psycho (1960)

physicality of the bows scraping across the strings and the rough resonance of the string instruments’ body cavities—the cellos and basses in particular. Sure, that impression had always been there, on the verge of recognition, but this time that naked musical aggression seemed far more crucial to the impact of the score than the notes themselves.

 

Anybody who cares about movies beyond junk-food event flicks needs to make the pilgrimage to Hitchcock at some point in their lives, and there are far worse places to start than Psycho (like, say, Family Plot). Whether it gets under your skin on your first viewing is a matter of blind luck, but it will stick with you. If you haven’t seen it in a while, your best chance beyond the local revival house (do they even have those anymore?) will be these UHD and HDR releases. And if you’re a rabid fan of the film, you should have already hit the download button by now.

Michael Gaughn

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