Reviews

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

By now, you’ve no doubt heard what a technological marvel Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old truly is. On the off-chance that you haven’t, what sets this important film apart from previous such efforts is that Jackson and his team took hundreds of hours of raw footage from the Imperial War Museums’ film archives, cleaned it up, colorized it, and used video processing technology to transform the choppy, hand-cranked stock into smooth 24-frame-per-second film. That fact alone is what originally drew me to this documentary, although I never had the opportunity to see it in its brief run in American cinemas.

 

Despite that—despite having watched all of the behind-the-scenes material I could get my hands on, despite having seen many an A/B comparison between the stock footage and the restored film—I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional impact 

trailer

behind-the-scenes documentary

transition to color

of this technological wizardry. There’s a scene, about 25 minutes into the film, in which the grainy, torn, jerky black-and-white transitions into artfully colorized, naturally fluid high-definition video. In that instant, a switch flips in your brain. The historical characters on the screen suddenly become living, breathing men. Or boys, to be more precise. They magically transform from flat artifacts to three-dimensional human beings. And the psychological impact of that phase transition is equal parts wonder, empathy, and horror.

 

That’s really your first clue that these restoration efforts have nothing to do with spectacle or presentation. The goal here isn’t to make your display come alive with pretty pictures. It’s to bring the men who fought the “the war to end all wars” to life in a way that’s never been possible before.

 

That fact is borne out in every other aspect of the film, most pointedly in the fact that there is no overarching narration here, no real historical perspective. The footage focuses solely on the efforts of the British infantry on the western front, but that’s never explained. Aside from reenacted dialogue created to match the footage, the only voices we hear here are taken from interviews of the survivors of these battles.

 

And the story they tell is a complex one. Yes, we get insight into the horrors they faced. But we also get some shockingly honest recollections 

of pleasant memories. One interviewee describes the early days of the war as something akin to a camping trip. And the dark humor that these men and boys relied on to take the edge off of their squalid conditions permeates the film as well.

 

But more than anything else, what’s shocking about the narration is how blunt the survivors of WWI are in coming to terms with their own experiences in the war. There’s a strange dichotomy that arises from the fact that, for the first time, we as viewers feel that we can relate to these brave warriors, only to have them explain in their own words why any attempt at empathy on our part is ultimately futile, because the only people who truly understood them were their own brothers-in-arms.

 

At any rate, for all of the fuss that I and others have made about the technical aspects of the film, it may come as a surprise that it’s only being released to the home in 1080p, not 4K with HDR. After seeing the film, I can understand why. Despite the impressive cleanup job done to the footage, we’re still talking about 100-year-old film here. There almost certainly weren’t any additional pixels to be extracted from the source material. And the colorization, while truly stunning, always errs toward the side of subtlety. A wider color palette would simply be wasted here, driving up the price for no good reason.

 

What’s more, even in HD, you can see some occasional imperfections introduced by the restoration process: Skin sometimes looks waxy, eyes and mustaches occasionally morph and jump in a really wonky way as the computers try to recreate frames that never existed or were damaged beyond repair, and occasionally the textures are a little off. That’s not a criticism, mind you, especially given that Jackson and his team made a 140-minute film on a budget allocated for thirty minutes tops. (They also restored a total of 100 hours of footage for the Imperial War Museums, pro bono.) It’s simply to reiterate that you shouldn’t view They Shall Not Grow Old as an AV demo.

 

But you should enjoy it on the best home cinema system possible, nonetheless—especially to appreciate the work that Jackson et al. did in recreating the sonic landscape of the war. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying Kaleidescape’s release of the film does a wonderful job of complementing the video in its efforts to bring this old (silent) footage to life.

 

Also accompanying the Kaleidescape release is an important bonus feature that seems to be missing from the Vudu release: A 28-minute interview with Peter Jackson conducted at the BFI London Film Festival. The personal and historical perspective that this interview brings to the table is welcome, but it isn’t necessary. The film really speaks for itself.

Dennis Burger

They Shall Not Grow Old

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.

Aquaman

Aquaman

I grew up a fan of DC Comics—which is the other universe outside of Marvel—that includes the Justice League comprised of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. And while I’m assuming Aquaman was given his fair share of ink over the years, I can’t really remember anything about his backstory, or him doing anything stand-out. Thus, his storyline never really resonated with me, and I remember him as just being kind of an “extra” figure who only really came into the action when things moved to the water.

 

Starting with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC looked to “Marvel-ize” its extended universe of heroes by introducing other characters. In that film, Wonder Woman was introduced and given a fairly significant role, but we were also given glimpses of other heroes, namely The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. Those heroes would ultimately be brought together to make up the recent Justice League film. While B v S was generally panned, we can thank it for at least one thing: It gave us Wonder Woman, a fantastic film that showed our favorite Amazon warrior princess’ origin story perfectly portrayed by Gal Gadot.

 

Looking to capitalize on Wonder Woman’s momentum, DC delivers the second spinoff of its Extended Universe with Aquaman. As is the recent trend, Aquaman was available for digital download in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack as of March 5, a full three weeks before it is released on physical media.

 

Aquaman was one of those films on my “definitely want to see” radar, but not high enough that I wanted to go through the hassle of seeing it in a movie theater. I thought Jason Mamoa’s portrayal of Atlantis’ rightful heir-to-the-throne, Arthur Curry, in Justice League, was pretty great. He was about as reluctant a hero as possible, wanting nothing to do with the limelight, and spending his days saving wayward fishermen and drinking at the local pub.

 

This movie begins by introducing us to Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), queen of Atlantis who is rescued by a lighthouse keeper. They fall in love, and young Arthur is born. However, Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, and she entrusts Arthur’s training to her advisor, Vulko (Willem Defoe). When Arthur learns his mother was executed for having a half-breed son with a human, he swears off Atlantis, and returns to his unassuming life of protecting sailors. Arthur is ultimately drawn into a battle between his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants the sea kingdoms to unite and declare war on the surface world. To claim his rightful place on Atlantis’ throne and prevent this all-out war, Arthur begins a quest to find the Trident of Atlan. He is aided along the way by Mera (Amber Heard), who ultimately becomes his queen.

 

At 2 hours 23 minutes, Aquaman is not a short film, but there’s no shortage of action and beautiful onscreen visuals and sonic mayhem to keep you engaged along the way. In fact, it almost feels like James Wan’s (Furious 7, Saw) directorial direction was, “That looks great, but is there any way we could work a fight scene or some other bit of action in here?” The result for me was a movie that was entertaining to watch, but a tad short on substance, so that I’m not left remembering a lot of specifics or story in between all the mayhem and destruction.

 

You’ve got to hand it to Mamoa in that the dude sure looks like he can fight. The fight scenes with him really look like he is utterly smashing people with crushing blows, and when he picks up some massive object (say, a Russian nuclear submarine), you have the impression that he could actually do it. Also, who knew Aquaman was bulletproof? Mamoa does a good job injecting some sarcastic humor into the role, and, like Gadot as Wonder Woman, it is difficult to imagine another actor that could have pulled off Aquaman.

 

While taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, I never felt the image lacked detail. In fact, far from it. Water is one of those things that can really benefit from HDR’s wider color gamut, and the underwater scenes all look gorgeous, with lots of bright and delineated blues and greens. There is a lot of phosphorescence in the undersea kingdoms, with colors that pop off the screen. You also get excellent shadow detail and no banding issues. The various characters’ hair all flows and gently waves around their heads while they are underwater, further adding to the illusion. Closeups have a ton of detail, like the detailing in the characters’ costumes or individual water droplets. There is nary a bit of grain, and black levels are deep and solid. One of the many fight scenes takes place outside in Sicily, and has several long shots where the camera pulls back to see the housetops. It looks fantastic—edge detail is sharp and the HDR highlights really come through.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is quite aggressive and plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. There is a lot of deep, seismic bass info to keep your subs happy, and the surround channels are used frequently and effectively to put you in the action. The sound design team also uses the height speakers to frequent and good effect, placing appropriate sounds above you like rain and footsteps. Also, I’ve noticed many recent films are over-mixing action into the center channel, which can make dialogue difficult to understand, but I (happily) didn’t have any issues with dialogue intelligibility here.

 

While some of the talk about sea kingdoms and rulers reminded me of the Senate redistricting mess of Star Wars: Episode I, and some of the underwater alien battle scenes were reminiscent of Starship Troopers, and visually I was often reminded of Pandora from Avatar, overall Aquaman makes for a fun night in the home theater. And after raking in over $1.14 billion at the box office, a sequel is already in the works.

John Sciacca

Aquaman

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.

Forever

Amazon Prime "Forever"

I’m late to the party on this one, I know. But I have to assume that if I, a massive Fred Armisen fan, somehow just found out about the 2018 Amazon-original series Forever, there must be at least a few of you out there who would love this delightfully weird and wonderful series, if only you knew it existed.

 

Here’s the problem, though: Talking about Forever isn’t easy. Even explaining what the series is about isn’t easy. But to understand its charms, you really have to look no further than its opening five minutes. The show starts with what plays like an homage to the introductory scenes of Pixar’s Up. With nary a line of dialogue, we see the relationship between two awkward lovebirds—embodied delightfully by Armisen and fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph—grow and mature and become what it eventually becomes.

 

What’s great about this silent-movie sequence is that you understand everything you need to know about these characters before ever hearing them utter a word to one another. Armisen’s Oscar is the sort of chap who was likely nicknamed “Grandpa” before he was twenty. He’s a creature of habit and longs for the stability of til-death-do-us-part. Rudolph’s June is a free spirit who’s stifled by routine and perhaps indeed the very notion of security. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt within her, but she is repelled by it. Or perhaps she’s repulsed by her need for it. It’s an important but ambiguous distinction that the show explores but never fully resolves.

As wonderful as these opening moments are, though, Forever doesn’t really come into its own until the banter between Oscar and June takes centerstage. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any movie or TV show so perfectly capture the almost-secret shared language that develops between mates. At times, watching Forever feels almost like an act of voyeurism, even if the conversation we’re snooping on is as mundane as the perfect beach food or the best position in which to sit.

Amazon Prime "Forever"

And, yes, conversations like that are plentiful throughout the show’s brief eight-episode run. But they aren’t the point. Forever ultimately serves to grapple with the question of what happens when two wholly incompatible weirdos are nonetheless perfect for each other and committed to spending eternity together, when the notion of eternity terrifies one of them and is taken for granted by the other. And what makes it work is that the series explores interpersonal conflict in such a way that there are no good guys or bad guys in the

impasse between commitment and wanderlust, comfort and excitement, routine and spice. Writers Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang have the courage to explore their subject matter with refreshing nuance.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the show, it’s that after all of that nuance, Forever comes to a tidy (though wacky) conclusion a little too quickly, and in choosing where to end this weird adventure, Hubbard and Yang do put their thumbs on the scales a little. Armisen—much as I love him as a comedian—also struggles to bring the same level of gravity to serious scenes as does Rudolph, whose talent for navigating complex emotional shifts is awe-inspiring throughout.

 

Those are minor criticisms, though. If you love quirky love stories with a heaping helping of metaphor and metaphysics, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

 

The bigger criticism is that once again, Amazon makes it nearly impossible to find the 4K version of the series via streaming devices. Your best bet is to search for it on your computer and add it to your watchlist. Not that Forever needs to be seen in 4K HDR to be enjoyed, mind you. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about its cinematography or presentation for most of its roughly four-hour runtime. But still, if you’re going to watch it, one assumes you’d like to watch it in the best quality possible.

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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really have a lot of desire to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when it was in movie theaters. Nothing about the trailer really grabbed me, but when it started getting rave reviews both from critics (97% on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “It is a game changer”) and audiences (94% positive), I figured maybe the trailer didn’t resonate with me but that the film would. Then, when it took home the Academy Award this year for Best Animated Feature Film, that clinched it.

 

Fortunately, Kaleidescape owners were able to get the film on February 26, a full three weeks before it’s released on disc on March 19, so I downloaded the film and settled in to enjoy.

 

This is and also totally isn’t the Spider-Man story that you know. It begins with the Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) we’ve always known, and has animated versions of several of the marquee scenes you’ll likely remember from the multiple live-action Spider-Man movies from recent years. But the real star of this movie is teenaged Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who was unknowingly bitten by a radioactive spider (don’t you hate when that happens?) and then crosses paths with Parker while he is in the midst of battling some baddies to save Brooklyn (again). During the battle, a particle accelerator opens up portals to alternate universes, bringing five alternate Spider-people into Brooklyn, where they all work together to stop Kingpin from unleashing the accelerator that could destroy not only our world, but the entire universe.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming for a few of reasons. One, it didn’t get bogged down in its own origin story, forcing us to relive —once again—how Spider-Man becomes Spider-Man. At this point we all know the story, and this was a theme that Spider-Verse repeatedly poked fun at. Two, after the recent Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield outings, Tom Holland’s Spidey just felt fresh and new, more wide-eyed and trying to figure things out. Three, it gave us

 a great sidekick in Ned (Jacob Batalon), who provided a much needed second personality as well as adding enough Tony Stark/Iron Man to keep the film feeling bigger than just “another Spider-Man” movie, while also giving it a place in the much larger Marvel universe.

 

I say all of that because I think those things equally apply to Spider-Verse which feels both the same (but in a good way) and yet totally new and fresh.

 

What really sets Spider-Verse apart is its totally unique visual style. And as much as I loved Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Incredibles 2also nominated in the Best Animated Feature category—after watching Spider-Verse, it’s not a surprise that it took home the Oscar as it has an innovative style and look that is really unlike anything that has come before it. You can tell you’re in for something different right from the opening Columbia title screen.

 

Animation always looks fantastic in 4K HDR and this is no different. The colors are bright and vivid and pushed to the boundaries, with the reds of Spidey’s suit particularly vibrant and heavily saturated. The blacks are also deep, with HDR used throughout to provide extra punch.

The visual look and style of Spider-Verse constantly changes throughout the movie, often during the same scene, and it definitely embraces its comic-book roots, with a style that often feels like comic panels have been brought to life. Images are

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

near photo-realistic, then switch to a cartoon panel-style, then to the Pop Art style of Roy Lichtenstein. The image has an incredible depth of focus that looks truly 3D at times. Frequently, things in the near- or background are heavily blurred to make you focus on specific portions of the frame. The style in some scenes reminded me of the film noir storytelling style of the Max Payne video game from years ago.

 

Beyond the visuals, a modern animated film often succeeds or fails based on the quality of the story and voice acting. While the theme of a band of strangers coming together to defeat a common enemy is nothing new, Spider-Verse never feels like a retread and manages to work in enough pop culture references to be clever.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The voicing is great, with Nicholas Cage as the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir, a private eye from 1933 who likes to drink egg creams and fight Nazis. Jake Johnson brings his hilarious Nick Miller New Girl vibe and mannerisms to Peter B. Parker, a Spidey who has gone through a nasty breakup and let himself go. You even get Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor

Mahersala Ali as Miles’ Uncle Aaron. John Mulaney does a good job with Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham, though something about his delivery reminded me of Nathan Lane’s Timon from The Lion King. (Also, I couldn’t get “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider Pig does. . .” out of my head whenever I saw Spider-Ham.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix is very aggressive throughout, with many discrete effects routed to all

channels and lots of height-channel information. There is also some serious low-frequency information that will rattle your windows and slam you in the chest. Dialogue is well recorded and remains easy to understand regardless what world-ending event is happening onscreen.

 

Spider-Verse is a fresh take on the superhero genre, and a visually stunning film that will look fantastic in a home theater, and is sure to entertain family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

A few years back, YouTuber Patrick H. Willems made a mock trailer for an imaginary X-Men film helmed by Wes Anderson. I’m honestly not sure if the video was intended to poke fun at Wes Anderson’s films or the whole concept of the X-Men, but I also kinda don’t care. I just want to see that movie. And in a weird way, I felt like I had come close to seeing it play out in reality as I watched the first episode of the new Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more to this stunning new series than that. After a bit, it starts to feel more like, “What if Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro teamed up to write and direct a mashup of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen?” Don’t worry if you have no idea what any of that means, by the way. All you really need to know is that The Umbrella Academy is a fun and introspective comic-book romp with lovably flawed 

characters, delicious action, and a wonderfully weird sense of humor. And as with all good pastiche, it manages to synthesize all of its comic book inspiration into something delightfully new and captivating.

 

The premise goes something like this: In 1989, forty-three women around the world mysteriously give birth despite having not been pregnant earlier that day. One mysterious billionaire tries to adopt them all, but only manages to assemble seven of them, six of whom he trains to become masked crimefighters. Fast-forward to today, and said billionaire has died, bringing this dysfunctional family back together to solve the mysterious circumstances of his passing.

What I love most about The Umbrella Academy is that it manages to do far more with its premise than you might expect (unless you’ve read the comics on which the series is based). Yes, part of the appeal here is watching super people do super things. But at its heart, the show manages to be both grander in its scope and far more personal. It tackles big questions, yes—questions about determinism vs. free will, about nature vs. nurture—but also grapples with issues like what happens when the repressed demons of our past start to break their restraints. (We’re talking metaphorical demons here. The show is weird and supernatural, but not that weird and supernatural.)

 

I also love the fact that showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Legion, Altered Carbon) resists the urge to lean on heavy exposition. The world of The Umbrella Academy isn’t our own, but it always errs on the side of letting the viewer get

The Umbrella Academy

immersed in the world rather than dragging us through it with CliffsNotes. There’s absolutely no explanation for why there’s a talking chimpanzee butler, for example, because it’s the most normal thing in the world to the inhabitants of the series. You just have to roll with it. And other mysteries that unfold do so mostly organically.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch simply as a display torture test. Despite the fact that

the resolution is limited to 1080p (likely a result of all the special effects, which would have been tough to render in 4K on a TV show budget), the stunning Dolby Vision high dynamic range proves that contrast and color vibrancy are more important than pixel count when it comes to rendering a jaw-dropping image.

 

If I have one nit to pick with The Umbrella Academy’s AV presentation, it’s that the compressed audio just doesn’t quite do the show justice at times. That’s largely due to the fact that it boasts the best pop-music soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of this wonderful music would rock so much harder in full-bandwidth Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.

 

That’s only something you’ll really notice if you have a truly high-fidelity sound system, though. And it’s seriously no reason to skip this brilliantly dark, hilariously weird, and wonderfully acted superhero romp.

—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.

Mortal Engines

On paper, Mortal Engines seems like a can’t-miss film. It’s an adaptation of the well-received Young Adult novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, comes from a screenplay by the writing team behind the epic The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, including Peter Jackson, and included a trailer with striking visuals. But with mostly weak reviews, scoring a meager 26% on Rotten Tomatoes (audiences were slightly more kind with a 56% rating), and a paltry $16 million box office take in the US and Canada, this Engine was perhaps a little too Mortal.

 

But I’m not one to let a bad review dictate what I’ll watch, and my faith in Peter Jackson was enough to have me eager to give this a view at home. As is often the case recently, ME was released on digital download a full three weeks before the disc version, so I downloaded the film from the Kaleidescape store in 4K HDR.

 

There are, of course, three ways to approach a movie based on a popular book: Read it before, read it after, or don’t read it at all. With The Hunger Games trilogy, I devoured the books prior to watching the movies, and this built a lot of anticipation for the films, which didn’t disappoint, IMO. With Ready Player One, I was inspired to read the book after watching, and felt that while the two works were markedly different in many respects, they both worked for their medium. My wife started reading ME but the story didn’t grab her, so I went into the film knowing very little.

 

The 128-minute movie starts off with just a bit of exposition to explain how mankind arrived at its current state. Some untold number of years ago—enough for people in our time period to be referred to as “the ancients”—a 60-minute war involving a Quantum energy weapon known as MEDUSA effectively destroyed most of the world, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. Out of the toxic remnants, a new age arose—the age of the great predator cities of the west. Of these cities, one of the largest is London, which roams around the Great Hunting Grounds of continental Europe practicing a philosophy known as “Municipal Darwinism,” where large cities on immense treads hunt down, ingest, and dismantle smaller cities for food, fuel, and any salvaged technology that can be repurposed.

 

Within the first 10 minutes you’re introduced to the main players which include Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is out to avenge her mother’s killer; Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of recent The Umbrella Academy fame), a historian who gets (literally) kicked off the London and is forced to bond with Hester to survive; and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and the Hobbit and Rings trilogies), London’s power-hungry head science engineer who is searching for old-tech in order to secure a new power source for London’s future and oppose the anti-traction league, a group of static cities that sit protected behind a giant shield wall.

Mortal Engines

The film’s opening scene is action packed, as the enormous London chases, captures, and ingests a smaller city. The film has massive scope, scale, and world building, with convincing CGI that shows how something on the scale of London-on-tracks would function from a technical level, and makes it appear these giant tracked cities are actually driving around. I’m not sure to what extent the sets were of practical design versus created inside a computer with CGI, but the visuals are impressive, presenting these immense mobile locations that drive around carving out huge ruts in the land with their enormous tracks. Some of my favorite parts of the film were just admiring the inner-working and design of London.

 

The film was shot in Redcode RAW at 8K and the home release is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate and looks terrific.The film is a feast for the eyes, and items have terrific texture and detail. Whether it is the fabric in actors’ clothing, the various states of disrepair on walls and items around the very Steampunk-inspired London, or the multiple bits of machinery, ME offers tons of detail in every frame. There are several closeups where you can see the individual strands of hair on an actor’s head.

 

The film spends almost equal parts in dark and light environments, and HDR is used to good effect throughout to produce images that pop with detail. London at night, various searchlights piercing the darkness, and various lights and gauges inside cockpits all retain deep, rich black with appropriately bright highlights. The fires inside London’s engine room also particularly benefit from the HDR color grading.

 

Sonically, ME is the stuff home theater owners live for. The bass is big and weighty, carrying the proper amount of heft for something the size of London driving around and smashing into things. There are also a lot of textural sounds—engines thrumming, gears turning, cables moving—giving life to scenes. Sound effects have tons of directionality, putting the full soundstage to use to create an immersive experience. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout, even in the big action pieces, something some recent films have been missing.

 

My only complaint with the audio is that the Kaleidescape digital download didn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie with such a dynamic and textured soundtrack, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with NBC Universal, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films in 4K HDR. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

While not perfect, and a bit light on plot, I found Mortal Engines engaging and entertaining, and it definitely looks and sounds fantastic on a proper system. 

John Sciacca

Mortal Engines

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—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.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

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.

Castle Rock

Castle Rock

“There is a lot of history in this town. Not all of it good . . .”

 

You might recall my post “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy” (or you might not—in which case, feel free to click that link and then come back to join me here in a bit . . .) where I opined how all of these streaming providers coming up with their own content was really frustrating viewers. One of the shows that inspired that post was Castle Rock, a new Hulu original series that takes place in the Stephen King multiverse.

 

Now, this is a show I really wanted to see when it was announced, as it checked all of my must-see programming boxes. J. J. Abrams involved? Check. Stephen King an executive producer? Check. Set in the Stephen King world with tons of King Easter eggs? Check. A solid cast featuring several actors who’ve previously been in King adaptations? Check.

 

But, as much as I wanted to see Castle Rock, I was not willing to add another streaming subscription to my monthly credit-card statement.

 

Fortunately, you can now experience Castle Rock without a Hulu subscription by purchasing the series on disc (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, or DVD) or via digital download in HD quality at the Kaleidescape store (which is how I watched).

 

So, before I get into my Castle Rock review, we need a little background . . .

Castle Rock

I am a really big Stephen King fan—or Uncle Stevie, as he likes to call himself. I’ve read all of his books, and seen many of the movies that have been adapted from them. The quality of King movies ranges from the fantastic (Shawshank Redemption, It, Misery, Stand by Me)* to the pretty good (The Green Mile, Thinner, Firestarter) to the abysmal (Cell, Lawnmower Man).

The problem with turning a Stephen King novel into a film is that when you try to compress 800-plus pages into a two-hour runtime, you end up chopping out so much material that the results are often just pale reflections of the original. Or you go the other way, trying to stretch something that worked well as a 10- to 20-page short story into a two-hour feature that just blunders around lost. (Two of King’s best adaptations—Shawshank and Stand by Me—were actually novellas, providing just the right amount of source material.)

 

The recent The Dark Tower film is a perfect example. Tower wasn’t a book but rather a magnum opus made up of seven books totaling nearly 4,000 pages. Trying to condense that much story into a single 95-minute film was an impossible task that only ended up angering and insulting fans.

 

King adaptations tend to work especially well as miniseries, where the source material can be given the room it needs to develop story and characters over multiple hours. Hulu showed they knew how to handle this perfectly with its 2016 eight-episode miniseries 11.22.63, which also happened to be the first pairing of Abrams and King. (Another outstanding example is Mr. Mercedes on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.)

 

Castle Rock is a ten-episode series that takes place in a small, fictional Maine town that will be familiar to King fans. Other King works set there include The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Mist. It’s important to stress that while King does get an executive producer credit, he wasn’t involved in crafting this story, or apparently much with the production, and it isn’t based on any of his stories.

 

Rather, Castle Rock is a new tale set in King’s established world and features numerous subtle and overt connections and allusions to previous King works. These include Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Diane “Jackie” Torrance (Jane Levy), niece of The Shining’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance, references to a certain rabid dog, events from The Body (which became Stand by Me), the Juniper Hill Psychiatric Hospital, and a certain prison no one wants to visit called Shawshank.

 

The opening episode, “Severance,” does a nice job laying the groundwork for what to expect from the series along with introducing us to several principal characters, including death row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who has his own troubled past connections with Castle Rock. He returns to the town after mysterious prisoner The Kid (Bill Skarsgard), who has apparently been kept locked in solitary confinement in a hidden section of Shawshank for years, utters Deaver’s name and nothing else. And there’s recently retired Shawshank warden Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who had been keeping The

Kid locked away for reasons known only to himself.

 

The series is slow in parts, but definitely picks up for the final episodes, with Episode 7, “The Queen,” being especially good and featuring a fantastic performance by Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver that really deserved some kind of award nomination. Another standout was the gore-filled eighth episode, “Past Perfect,” that actually had my wife scream out.

 

There are some nice King-esque jump

Castle Rock

scares along the way, along with tons of general creepiness as we slowly move towards solving the mystery of who is The Kid and how did he get here, along with the overall question of, “Why is Castle Rock so rotten?”

 

The video is mainly a palette of muted browns, greys, and cool blues, but images are clean and detailed. Even better is the 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix, which does a wonderful job of keeping dialogue understandable while still delivering a lot of sonic atmospherics that certainly add to the experience when watched on a surround system.

 

I appreciated the brief “Inside the Episode” rundowns for each episode by the series creators/writers, which offered some explanations and pointed out some of the Easter eggs. The download also includes two new features: “Castle Rock: Blood on the Page” and “Clockwork of Horror.”

 

Be sure to watch a couple of minutes into the credits after the final episode, “Romans,” as you get a nice glimpse into what might be in store for the second season that Hulu has already committed to.

John Sciacca

 

* I’m sure some of you noticed that I didn’t include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this list of fantastic King adaptations. Well, the truth is, while The Shining is indeed a great movie, it veers way away from the original source material, almost to the point of being a completely different work.

Castle Rock

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.