Reviews

Review: Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a prime candidate for a 4K/HDR remaster. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the film itself, of course. In fact, I would rank it as the second-best “goth” film of all time (right after Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, of course). It’s just never been a film that made for decent home theater demo material. The DVD release looked like a skit performed for public-access TV, and the Blu-ray—while a huge improvement—was still a blown-out, garish, overly saturated mess of a thing that could be categorized as “watchable” at best.

 

That kind of thing sticks with you. For the past 32 years, the home video presentation of Beetlejuice has left a lasting impression in the mind of viewers of how this quirky and adorably dark film is supposed to look. My only hope here is that 

enough people give the UHD/HDR release enough attention to undo some of the damage done by previous home video efforts.

 

To be frank, you don’t really notice the advantages of the new HDR color grade at first. And I suspect that’s because the opening credits sequence—with its sweeping overhead view of the village of Winter River, CT, which morphs into a model thereof—seems to have been taken from a print, not the original film negative. So while you immediately get a sense of the enhanced resolution of this new restoration, the color palette is still a little limited and the overall quality of the image is ever-so-slightly dupe-y.

 

As soon as the last title fades away, though, we quite obviously move to a scan of the original negative, and from here on out the image takes on all the qualities of beautifully restored (or perhaps lovingly preserved) 35mm film.

 

Maybe the most startling thing about this new presentation is how nuanced the colors are. Gone are the ridiculously 

BEETLEJUICE AT A GLANCE

This 4K transfer of Tim Burton’s surprisingly affirmative romp through goth darkness shows what a boon HDR can be for ’80s films—when it’s done right.

 

PICTURE     

This 4K HDR version avoids the garishness of, and restores a lot of the detail missing from, earlier home video incarnations.

 

SOUND     

The tastefully done Dolby Atmos mix results in audio that sounds better than the original soundtrack sounded on the mixing stage, enhancing the clarity of the dialogue and giving Danny Elfman’s score plenty of room to breathe.

ruddy skin tones and the Hulk-Smash green of the foliage (both outdoors and in the scale model of Winter River that dominates the plot of the film). Yes, as the lovely Geena Davis and a surprisingly sufferable Alec Baldwin make their trek into the idyllic little town toward the beginning of the film, the image is still peppered with vibrant primary hues—the sign on the hardware store, the covered bridge where Davis and Baldwin’s characters lose their lives—but because of the wider color gamut of HDR10, the saturation of the overall image doesn’t have to be cranked to 11 to allow for such vivid chromaticity when and where it’s appropriate.

 

The second thing you notice is that there’s just so much detail in the image that has been lost in previous home video transfers, and not wholly as a function of resolution. Take the short scene in which the pushy real-estate agent played by Annie McEnroe surprises Baldwin’s character at the window in a desperate push to talk him out of his home. Even on Blu-ray, the scenery behind her is a white-hot blur, devoid of depth or detail. And that makes sense, given the 8-bit limitations of HD video. The choice had to be made whether to overexpose the world outside that window or underexpose the interior and risk

losing Baldwin in the shadows.

 

In this new 10-bit transfer, both interior and exterior are perfectly exposed. Baldwin exists in the shadows, yes, but doesn’t get lost in them, while the depth and detail of the foliage behind McEnroe still shines through.

 

That’s one scene out of dozens I could point to in 

extolling the virtues of this new UHD/HDR restoration and its ability to breathe life into this tale of the dead. Other details that come to mind are the imperfections of Winona Ryder’s teenaged complexion and the fine filigree lace of Davis’s bridal gown, both of which are resolved beautifully. The film grain is also perfectly organic throughout—not too noisy, not too overbearing, but never artificially smoothed over.

 

But perhaps my favorite thing about this new transfer is the way it handles the scenes in the bureaucratic Neitherworld, which have always been the worst-looking aspect of the film’s home video releases. Here, the HDR gets to flex its muscles with no concern for lifelike skin tones or believable greenery. Simply put, these sequences now glow and iridize like a fluorescent

blacklight poster, which is how they’ve always looked in my memory of seeing the film far too many times to count on the big screen in the spring of ’88.

 

The sound on the other hand? I think it’s safe to say Beetlejuice didn’t sound as good on the mixing stage as it does here. Aside from a few cute and subtle exceptions, the new Dolby Atmos remix doesn’t get too carried away with repositioning sound elements or making the film sound like a modern blockbuster, mind you. And thank goodness it doesn’t include any re-recorded sound effects, as does the travesty of a remix included with the new 4K/HDR remaster of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The mix mostly serves to simply give more space to Danny Elfman’s delicious score and the wonderfully uplifting Harry Belafonte soundtrack. But it’s also apparent that there’s also been some equalization done to the audio. There’s an enhanced richness and fidelity I don’t recall ever hearing before, and dialogue clarity is among the best of any home video release. Like, ever.

 

There’s nothing much by way of extras here, aside from three episodes of the Beetlejuice Saturday-morning cartoon that ran from 1989 to 1991. These haven’t been restored and are horribly compressed, so they likely aren’t worth your time. The Kaleidescape download, unlike the recent UHD Blu-ray release, also includes an isolated music track—that is to say, a version of the film devoid of dialogue or 

Beetlejuice

sound effects. But it’s unfortunately married to the pan & scan standard-definition transfer of the film, so its value is debatable at best.

 

But don’t let the lack of supplemental goodies bum you out. Beetlejuice is one of the worthiest UHD/HDR remasters I’ve seen to date (almost on par with The Wizard of Oz), and the film itself is such a joyous (and ironic) celebration of life that it stands on its own.

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.

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)

If any movie has had a more complex and rambling release timeline than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it would be Disney’s latest live-action remake, Mulan. After its initial Hollywood premiere on March 9, the film was slated for a wide theatrical release on March 27. But those plans were scrubbed after commercial cinemas around the world were forced to close because of the coronavirus. For months, Disney stood firm that Mulan would debut theatrically, and the release date continued to move back a week at a time in lockstep with Tenet, with many looking to these two tentpole films as the official relaunch of commercial cinema.

 

After months of “will it/won’t it?” release-date shuffling, Warner decided to seek an international release of Tenet before opening here in the States. Disney, however, made the radical decision to forego a commercial release of Mulan in the U.S.

entirely, instead trying a new strategy with its Disney+ streaming service, offering Mulan to all subscribers for a one-time $29.99 fee for “Premier Access.”

 

Shortly before Mulan’s September 4 release to Disney+, Disney clarified that the Premier Access offer would only be available until November 2, 2020. “Once you have Premier Access to Mulan, you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available. Your access to Mulan will continue as long as you are an active Disney+ subscriber. Mulan will be available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4, 2020 for no additional cost.”

 

So, with a major title costing an estimated $200 million to produce, and initially expected to bring in close to a billion worldwide, Disney is not only gambling heavily on Premium Access, but also seemingly stacking the deck against itself by telling subscribers that if they jut hold off a few months, they can get it for free.

MULAN AT A GLANCE

Another in Disney’s series of live-action remakes of animated titles, this straight-to-Disney+ effort sheds the musical numbers and most of the humor to tell the tale of Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to become a soldier.

 

PICTURE     

Streamed in 4K, the film looks gorgeous—especially when seen on a flagship video display—taking full advantage of HDR’s wider color gamut.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is disappointing, but its restraint might be due in part to being streamed over AppleTV.

My family was planning on seeing Mulan in the theater, so I gladly ponied up the $29.99. (Still cheaper than buying three tickets, and with the added benefit of watching in my own home theater as many times as I want!) Disney sent subscribers an email with instructions for unlocking Premier Access, and a link took me to a page where I could enter payment details. Once submitted, a gold Premier Access banner appears by Mulan along with, “You have Premier Access to this movie.”

 

Unlike previous Disney live-action remakesBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin—Mulan doesn’t strictly adhere to the original animated material, and where the 1998 animated film was G-rated with a lot of musical numbers, this remake is a decidedly more adult PG-13 film. Also, there’s no singing or any musical numbers. There are some definite nods to the big 

musical numbers “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection,” with those instrumental themes clearly playing, and some of the lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are used as lines of dialogue.

 

Also gone are the bickering ancestors and Mushu, the protector ancestral dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, which is replaced by a CGI Phoenix, the family’s ancestral guardian, that appears when Mulan needs strength or guidance. Also, for historical accuracy, the Huns have been replaced by the Rouran army.

 

The film opens with Mulan as a young girl performing fighting moves with a staff in an open field, and we are told “Chi is the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” But only a son can wield chi, and a daughter that doesn’t hide her chi risks shame, dishonor, and exile. We’re also informed “chi is for warriors, not daughters.”

 

Chi plays a prominent role in the film, and feels a lot like another mystical power from the Disney-owned universe, The Force. In fact, we’re told, “Chi obeys the universe and all living things; we are all born with it but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” I was actually waiting to hear that chi surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together. In another strong echo of the Star Wars universe, another powerful chi-wielder tells Mulan to join them and they will take their place together. Sound familiar? Of course, instead of a lightsaber, Mulan wields her father’s sword.

Otherwise, the film hits all the major beats and plot points from the original, removing much of the humor and telling a serious tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the Emperor’s army to take her old and injured father’s place after an edict that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army.

 

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) apparently auditioned over 1,000 actresses before selecting Yifei Lui to play Mulan, and Lui does a great job as both delicate Hua Mulan and soldier Hua Jun, handling most of her own stunts. Also on hand are two Chinese film legends, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jet Li as the Emperor, as well as Jason Scott Lee playing Rouran leader, Bori Khan.

 

There is plenty of fighting throughout, and even though Mulan has a PG-13 rating, the killing is completely bloodless and gore-free. There were only a few scenes that were too intense for my 4 year old. Soldiers hit by arrows slump over, and we see empty helmets to represent the hundreds of slaughtered, or just see bodies lying still. While much of the fighting is grounded in real-world physics, there is the occasional use of the “Wuxia” flying/leaping/gravity-defying fighting style popularized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially after Mulan fully embraces—and unleashes—the true potential of her chi.

 

Besides the musical nods, there is a nice cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated title, and Christina Aguilera—who sang “Reflection” as her debut single over the animated end-credits—returns with a new end-credits song, “Loyal Brave True.”

 

Mulan runs just shy of two hours and is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which benefits the wide vistas and grand scale of many shots, especially the wide-open countryside.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5 and 5.1K resolution, Mulan is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the film looks gorgeous, especially when viewed on a high-end Dolby Vision-capable display. The resolution makes it easy to appreciate the detail of the costuming, seeing the work of the armor, the stitching, threads, and fabric of the uniforms, or the detail of the sets and backgrounds. Closeups reveal pore-level detail and razor-sharp focus of the actors’ faces, and in one scene you can clearly see single beads of water dripping down a few strands of Mulan’s hair. Long shots also have tons of detail, letting you appreciate the vast scenic spaces, buildings, and gathered armies, with nice, sharp edges.

 

Mulan also benefits from HDR’s wider color gamut, with the colors of the outfits warn by occupants in Mulan’s village being vibrant and saturated. Reds are especially deep, as are the gleaming golds of the Emperor’s throne room. You also get beautifully lit faces in some interiors where characters talk by lantern light, their faces bathed in a rich warm glow with deep natural shadows, or the bright gleaming sunlit skies in exteriors, or the burning of fires and torches.

 

In total, Mulan looks fantastic, and should definitely be appreciated on a flagship video display.

 

Sonically, however, I found the Dolby Atmos mix to be really reserved and frankly a bit disappointing. Of course, this could be less an issue with the mix itself and more to do with AppleTV’s audio output, something I found disappointing when watching Taylor Swift’s Reunion concert on Netflix, or perhaps the difference between the lossy Dolby Digital+ used by streaming services and the TrueHD audio found on physical 4K discs and offered by Kaleidescape.

 

There were many cases when the height channels could have been used more aggressively to good effect, such as arrows raining overhead, swords slashing, birds flying overhead, people leaping, rain falling, etc. There were a couple of scenes where the height speakers are put to good use, such as Mulan hearing the voices of her ancestors or people are speaking off-camera from overhead.

 

While the surround channels are used for the sounds of swishing arrows, fighting, and atmospheric sounds like wind and echoes and to expand the musical score, I found the mix to be mainly focused across the front three speakers. In a way, it almost feels like Disney knew this was going to be primarily viewed at home, and so the mix choices were optimized for TV speakers and basic soundbar setups.

 

While not possessing a bass-heavy mix, your subwoofer definitely comes into play in key moments, such as the galloping horse army, a cascading avalanche, and the crashing of massive boulders launched by the Rouran army’s trebuchet.

 

Ultimately, how much you enjoy this retelling of Mulan might depend on how much you loved the original animated title. While it is the same story, it is told in a completely different manner, and if you are expecting another live-action rehash, you may be disappointed. Taken on its own merit, however, Mulan is a well-told, updated, and compelling story that features a solid cast, with massive scale, along with some terrific cinematography that all make for a great night at the movies.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Goonies

The Goonies

I wish I could say something—anything—meaningful about The Goonies without referencing the numerous works it has inspired over the past 35 years. Truth be told, though, this 1985 Richard Donner classic, penned by Chris Columbus from a story idea by Steven Spielberg, is more a cultural touchstone than it is a work of cinema in its own right. The ripples it has left on the surface of the pop culture pond have by this point overshadowed the pebble itself.

 

Stranger Things, for example—for all its references to the films of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter and Stephen King—could easily be seen as an episodic riff on The Goonies with a gaggle of other pop-culture references piled on for good measure. 

To this day, 35 years after its debut, you can feel the echoes of The Goonies in everything from Ready Player One to Deadpool 2. Heck, even the last Star Wars movie made a ham-fisted and nonsensical homage to this beloved ’80s romp. (Although, to be fair, of the many cinematic sins committed by Episode IX, insulting the intelligence of Goonies fans while also clumsily attempting to tug at their heartstrings is far from the most egregious.)

 

I guess the point is, The Goonies wouldn’t still hold such sway over filmmakers and viewers alike if it didn’t have something going for it. But I’m just too close to it to evaluate the film objectively. I notice its flaws—the clumsiness of the climax, the laughable special effects in places, the ridiculousness of its very premise—and I see them as charming virtues.

 

My wife, on the other hand, had never seen the film before I downloaded the UHD/HDR remaster on Kaleidescape. What can I say? She was a military brat who spent her formative years in Europe. She missed out on much of American popular culture between the release of The 

GOONIES AT A GLANCE

This might not be the best 4K HDR makeover of an ’80s film ever, but it’s worth the upgrade to have a great-looking and -sounding version of this hugely influential kid-adventure classic.

 

PICTURE     

The cinematography is a little too flat and soft to consistently take full advantage of UHD’s increased resolution and expanded color gamut, but there are some breathtaking shots in this transfer and HDR helps with things like lanterns & lightning.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a big step up from earlier releases, with enhanced atmospheric effects and a bit more bottom end to support the action.

Empire Strikes Back and Tim Burton’s Batman. And catching her up on all of the ’80s nostalgia-fuel she missed is always a hit-or-miss proposition. She thought E.T. was “OK.” She didn’t think The Thing was scary at all. I hesitate to sit her down in front of The Last Starfighter or Flight of the Navigator for fear of her inevitable reaction. Divorce attorneys are expensive, y’all.

 

But much to my relief, she ate The Goonies up flaws and all, giggling at all the funny bits, clapping at the little victories, jumping at all the cheap scares, and cooing every time Sean Astin did something adorable (which is quite frequently). And I think its sway over her had a lot to do with the aspects of the film that just don’t age as the years go by: The excellent cast, the believable performances, and ultimately the heart of its very simple narrative. The Goonies is, when you get right down to it, a straightforward adventure tale—equal parts treasure hunt, dungeon crawl, and crime thriller. And that straightforward story gives it enough momentum to overcome things like the silliness of a few of its gags or the groan-worthiness of things like obviously rubber bats being flung on strings at the actors’ faces.

 

Of course, you don’t really need me to tell you any of the above. You likely either know what you think about The Goonies or you’re beyond caring. The question you really want answered is: Should you upgrade to UHD/HDR if you already own the film?

 

The simple answer: Yes, this one is worth the upgrade.

 

The not-so simple answer: I wouldn’t put this on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters. Hell, I wouldn’t even put it on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters of ’80s flicks. The cinematography is a little too flat and a bit too soft to consistently take full advantage of the increased resolution or expanded color gamut. That said, there are shots here and there that are simply breathtaking in this new transfer, and the high dynamic range does enhance things like flashing lightning and the glare of lanterns. What’s more, the middle passage of the movie—which takes place entirely underground—does benefit from a little more range at the lower end of the value scale. I only caught one or two scenes with uneven black levels. Aside from those, the gloomy-looking second act looks better than it ever has before.

 

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also an appreciable step up, with enhanced atmospheric effects (especially during the thunderstorm near the beginning) and a bit more bottom end to support the action. As has been the case since the film’s debut, though, dialogue clarity is the weak spot in the sound mix, and there’s likely nothing that can be done about that,

since much of the dialogue was improvised and the actors talk all over each other near-constantly. Had Donner attempted to spackle over the roughly recorded dialogue with ADR back in the day, the results would have likely been a lip-sync disaster on par with the American kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.

 

So don’t go into this expecting a film that sounds like it was recorded yesterday, but do expect a minor upgrade in sound quality over the 10-year-old Blu-ray release.

 

That Blu-ray, by the way, is the source of all the bonus features included with this new 4K release, which is to say there’s not much here, and you can probably skip most of it. The seven-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are cute and shed some light on the reference to an excised octopus attack mentioned in the final moments of the film. But practically everything here was best left on the cutting-room floor.

 

The only bonus goody that’s absolutely must-see is “Hidden Treasures: Video Commentaries from the Cast.” As the name implies, this is a commentary with the Goonies (along with Donner), recorded (if memory serves) for the DVD release of the film in 2001. What sets this one apart from most commentary tracks is that the

The Goonies

participants were filmed sitting together at a table watching the film projected in front of them, and we get to see much of their interaction by way of picture-in-picture popups.

 

Do I think The Goonies deserved a new retrospective documentary for its 35th anniversary? I absolutely do. As I said from the giddy-up, the movie still has far more influence on modern popular culture than most of its contemporaries, and a fresh look at its lasting relevance would have been nice. Maybe we can hold out hope for some new bonus features on its 40th or 50th anniversary.

 

But if you’re just here for the movie itself, I seriously doubt any future releases will look (or sound) better than The Goonies does here.

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.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted Face the Music

In another combination theatrical and home day-and-date release, the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise, Bill & Ted Face the Music, dropped this past Friday (August 28)—29 years after the second film, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and 31 years after the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, making it one of the longest gaps between film sequels ever. Available for rental or purchase through a variety of streaming outlets, you can purchase Face the Music for download from Kaleidescape for $39.99, where it is available at Ultra HD resolution (not HDR) with a DTS-HD 5.1-channel audio mix.

 

I was 19 when Excellent Adventure came out and saw both it and the Bogus Journey sequel in the theater. It had been years since I’d watched either movie, so I prepped for Face the Music by watching Excellent Adventure again. Unquestionably a

cheesy, schlocky B movie, what really drives the film is the fun of watching these two likable idiots bumbling through time in an attempt to fulfill their musical destiny by first acing a high-school history presentation so they can graduate. While often described as a “stoner comedy,” there is never any evidence of the duo getting high; rather, they are just a wildly optimistic pair that look for the best in situations and get by on dumb luck and the help of a telephone-booth time machine.

 

My memories of the second film are far less fond, with the ridiculousness of evil doppelgängers sent from the future, trips to the afterworld to beat Death in a variety of games, and Bill and Ted building robot versions of themselves to win a “battle of the bands” competition playing along with Death and some aliens called Station. It just didn’t have the fun of the original, and the proclamations of, “Dude!” “Excellent!” and “Righteous!” wore thin.

 

So, the real question here is: After 29 years, did the world 

FACE THE MUSIC AT A GLANCE

Arriving a scant 31 years after Excellent Adventure, with Keanu Reeves displaying questionable judgment returning as Ted, this sequel will likely appeal mainly to GenXers but isn’t such a bad way to spend your time with so few other new releases out there.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is clean and sharp, with plenty of detail, but the absence of HDR results in the images looking flat, without pop or depth.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is room-filling when appropriate, with surprisingly potent bass.

really need or even want another episode in this franchise? And, perhaps even more curious, why would Keanu Reeves want to return to playing valley guy Ted while in the midst of a career high point with the insane success of polar-opposite character John Wick? And will another 90-minutes of his “Whoa! Dude!” surfer-Ted persona somehow diminish the Wick franchise?

 

I was skeptical going into viewing Face the Music, and likely would not have watched it if not for Cineluxe. And I wonder if the film will actually find more financial success because of the current theatrical shutdown, giving content-starved viewers something new to watch at home that they otherwise would have taken a pass on.

 

With Reeve’s current popularity, I was thinking Face the Music’s real hook would be some incredible cameos sprinkled throughout to add another element of fun to the adventure, but that was not the case. (Though we do get one scene with a rather famous musician who pops in to play himself.) Also, I hoped director Dean Parisot would bring some of the same fun and understanding of the genre that he did with Galaxy Quest. While the film has a surprisingly high Rotten Tomatoes critics rating of 81% and an 82% audience score (both franchise highs), I think it will mostly appeal to Gen-Xers who will give a lot of its shortcomings a pass by playing the nostalgia card and appreciating the fan service. (When I asked my 13-year-old daughter, who had never seen either of the other films, how many more times she’d watch Face the Music, she said, “Negative one. I wish I’d never seen it the first time.” Ouch!)

 

The movie begins with Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan, the sole remaining members of their once super-band Wyld Stallyns, who have gone from playing concerts viewed all over the world to playing empty bars on Taco Tuesday, still struggling to write the one super-hit song destined to unite mankind around the world.

 

Besides the leads, Face the Music manages to get other members of the band back together, including Hal Landon Jr. returning as Ted’s dad, Chief Logan, Amy Stoch  as Missy-mom (now marrying Ted’s younger brother after divorcing both Bill and Ted’s dads), and William Sadler as bass-shredding Death. The wife-princesses, Joanna and Elizabeth, are still here but have been once again recast. (These two characters have now been played by six different actresses.)

 

New to the cast are Thea Preston (Samara Weaving) and Billie Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine), Bill and Ted’s music-loving daughters, who play a major role in the plot and do their best to maintain the mouth-agape bewildered expression and mannerisms of their respective parents, as well as the always-delightful Kristen Schaal as Kelly, daughter of Rufus (George Carlin) from the first two films, and the time-traveling Terminator-esque self-aware robot, Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan).

 

Without the benefit of a universe-uniting song, things are unraveling throughout time, with people and landmarks transporting to different times and places, and Bill and Ted are up against a deadline with which to create and perform the song or risk the irreversible collapse of reality.

 

With the clock ticking—and with a time-traveling phone booth once again at their disposal—the boys decide to visit themselves at different points in the future after they’ve already written the song so they can just steal it and bring it back. Billie and Thea decide to help out by gathering some of the greatest musicians throughout history—Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Mozart—to help perform the song.

 

Watching the various incarnations of Bill and Ted—whose lives get progressively worse the further they go into the future—brought some of the film’s funnier moments, and the girls’ quest to get famous musicians was certainly reminiscent of Excellent Adventure (as well as the musical number from the talent show of Revenge of the Nerds). But my family and I all thought one of the film’s highlights was the song and video over the beginning of the closing credits, which feels like the 

cameo-filled moments (we spotted “Weird” Al Yankovic and Guillermo Rodriguez, but it seems like there were many others we just didn’t recognize) I hoped the film would have. Also, stick around for a final post-credits scene, which will likely be the last we see of Bill and Ted.

 

As mentioned, this is a non-HDR 4K transfer (at least for now) and the opening Orion logo offers a throwback to ‘80s-era VHS-level picture quality, but rest assured things quickly improve. Shot in ArriRaw at 2.8 and 3.4K resolutions, images are clean and sharp, with enough detail to reveal how much our leads have aged as well as the fabric detail in clothes and outfits throughout time. But the picture quality doesn’t have that razor-sharp look of many modern transfers, and backgrounds are often a bit soft.

 

Most noticeable—especially after watching so many modern films—is the lack of HDR grading. Without it, images just look a bit flat, and lack pop and depth, especially in scenes with bright images in the background such as in the therapist’s office or when talking to Death in his office. Also, you can see where images would benefit from the wider color gamut, such as the bright flashes of color as Bill and Ted are traveling through time.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Even without an immersive audio mix, the sound is entertaining, and room-filling when appropriate, such as the time-unraveling scenes and the big musical performance. Bass is also surprisingly potent, with the time-traveling phone booth slamming into the ground with room-shaking authority. Scenes also have a nice bit of spaciousness, such as the background wails in Hell or the reverb of Jimi’s guitar. Dialogue is also clearly presented and easily understood throughout.

 

If this is the last we see of Bill and Ted, this was certainly a better sendoff than their Bogus Journey. And their message to “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party on, dudes!” isn’t such a bad thing for these crazy times.

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.

Zenimation

Zenimation

We are big fans of sound design here at Cineluxe, as a good audio mix reproduced on a well-designed home theater draws you into the fictional world and helps you appreciate films on a deeper level. But the work that goes into crafting the many layers of a rich, detailed, and organic sound mix—especially the often intricate and minute sounds created by the Foley artists (a term that is likely known by most readers, but definitely well worth exploring here if you aren’t familiar)—are often buried beneath the score, dialogue, or other effects in a scene.

 

We often focus on feature-length movies or series here, as well as programming that is almost exclusively in 4K HDR with a lossless Dolby Atmos surround mix, but the new short series Zenimation is such a master class in audio appreciation that it 

was worth highlighting.

 

Currently available only on Disney+, the show description says, “Unplug, relax, and refresh your senses for a moment of mindfulness with Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Zenimation—an animated soundscape experience. . . . These iconic scenes become an aural experience like no other with the sounds of ocean waves, an icy forest, and soaring flight. Zenimation pays tribute to both the visual and sound artists who have created Walt Disney Animation Studios’ legacy of films.”

 

And before you start in that you don’t have the time to watch another new series, relax! Zenimation requires an incredibly minimal time commitment, with the entire series taking less than an hour to watch.

 

Mindfulness is one of those terms that has become increasingly popular in the stress-filled times we currently

ZENIMATION AT A GLANCE

Sequences from Disney cartoons stripped of all audio save their sound effects and grouped by moods give you an opportunity to relax and appreciate the art of Foley at the same time.

 

PICTURE     

HD video presented at 2.35:1, but given that most of the content isn’t widescreen, it might have been better framed at 16:9.

 

SOUND     

These videos are really all about the sound, and they upmix nicely, but won’t exactly test the limits of your system.

live in. Wikipedia defines it as “the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one develops through the practice of meditation and through other training.”

 

Zenimation is presented in HD with a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio mix and is broken into 10 parts: Water, Cityscapes, Discovery, Flight, Explore, Night, Nature, Serenity, Water Realms, and Levity. The shortest episodes last just four minutes, and the longest only seven.

 

All episodes feature beloved Disney characters such as Moana, Ariel, Elsa, Aladdin, and Judy Hopps, focusing on scenes and moments germane to that episode’s subject. My only real complaint is that they chose to show everything with letterbox bars, retaining a 2.35:1 aspect ratio throughout. That would be fine if all the content were native 2.35:1, but a fair bit of it is 16:9 (or less) which means pillar-boxing (black bars on all four sides) the image. Perhaps keeping the constant vertical height is a better way of staying in the mindfulness zone, but I would have preferred the 16:9 content filled the screen. 

 

Also, since much of this content already exists on Disney+ in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio (even older titles like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid), it would have been nice if they would have just pulled scenes from these titles for a better overall presentation. Instead, we are limited to the audio and video resolutions of The Rescuers Down Under, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch, and some of the other older titles.

 

Those nits aside, these scenes stripped of music, other effects, and dialogue with the Foley effects amplified allow you to focus on the specific sound elements that help bring each scene alive, and the scenes flow nicely from one to the next. Remember, unlike a live-action movie, in animation, no sound is captured “on set,” and every bit of audio is created to bring the scene and the animated world to life.

 

Clearly hear the rippling sounds paddles make as they pull through in the water, the drips of splashing wave droplets, or bubbles drifting up past characters underwater. Some of my favorite audio moments are from Moana, such as the scene on her boat. Note the sounds of her stitching and pulling the thread through the sail, pulling ropes on the boat, and the wind billowing and creaking all around. 

 

Outdoor scenes let you appreciate sounds of birds chirping off in the distance well outside your main left/right speakers, the rustle of leaves as you pass through a forest, the sounds of birds flapping overhead, along with the sounds of rain and crashing thunder.

 

Not all of the sonic moments are about bombast, but many allow you to appreciate the subtleties and nuance of the mix. Notice the echoing of Anna’s footsteps inside Elsa’s immense ice castle, the delicate rustle of grass beneath Rapunzel’s feet, the tonal change of the fire crackling on Moana’s torch as she walks from a cramped cave into a large cavern, or the spark of fire and smoke trailing from an incense stick Mulan lights. Or discern the distinctly different sounds used for shooting stars, all of which convey the same sense of motion but with a different feeling.

 

While Zenimation doesn’t employ an immersive object-audio mix, the upmixer in a modern surround processor does a capable job of positioning appropriate sounds overhead. You’ll hear the screams of eagles, fireworks exploding, wind whistling and rushing past, birds chirping, the ringing of bells from Quasimodo’s tower, as well as rain droplets and water splashes. There is also a nice amount of deep bass courtesy of things like the deep cascade of waterfalls, the stampede of animals, or the crackling of stones and boulders.

 

Zenimation gives movie lovers a fun and creative way to understand the audio elements and sound-design work that goes into crafting a film’s sonic world, helping you appreciate the art of filmmaking. And with the whole series taking less than an hour to watch, there’s no excuse not to check it out. 

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: Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

If you’re the type of person who enjoys mecha-versus-giant-monster action flicks, chances are pretty good that you saw Pacific Rim when it hit cinemas in 2013. Unfortunately, chances are equally good that you saw its awful followup, 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising.

 

Look, I know bad sequels are the rule, rather than the exception. But Uprising wasn’t just a bad sequel. It was a sequel so bad that it actually made the original worse by virtue of existing. Its convoluted plot and nonsensical character relationships, if accepted as true within this cinematic universe, somehow manage to retroactively undermine the straightforward plot of Guillermo del Toro’s ridiculously fun original movie. And as such, I’ve had trouble returning to Pacific Rim for the better part of

two years now, unable to wipe the stain of Uprising from my robot-and-monster-loving brain.

 

If you find yourself in the same camp, it’s time to give the first Pacific Rim another look-see. And if you’ve never seen either of them, I beg you to ignore the second movie and give the first one a fair shot, assuming the premise doesn’t offend your sensibilities.

 

Because, yes, Pacific Rim involves gigantic walking tanks that look vaguely humanoid, piloted by hotshot jockeys whose sole purpose is to clobber gargantuan other-dimensional creatures that stomp up from the ocean depths to lay waste to human civilization. But that’s not really what the movie is about.

 

As with all of del Toro’s movies, it’s a story about humanity. 

RIM AT A GLANCE

With interesting new releases in short supply, now is the perfect time to rediscover Guillermo del Toro’s inspired 2013 robots vs. monsters slugfest. 

 

PICTURE     

One of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era.

 

SOUND     

One of the few Atmos mixes that manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action.

But specifically, it’s about the endurance of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds. The director draws a lot of inspiration from obvious sources like Gojira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tetsujin 28-go, and Ultraman. But it’s also impossible not to see the influence the works of H.P. Lovecraft had on his vision for this mash-up universe. And it’s in inverting and subverting the themes of Lovecraft that Pacific Rim really finds its heart.

 

If you’ve not familiar with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology, it was the foundation of what’s known as cosmic horror, a genre about coming to terms with notions of the ultimate insignificance of humanity in the face of problems too large for us to comprehend. Pacific Rim effectively takes these horrors and says, “Hell, no. One way or another, we’re not going to let this be our end.”

 

As such, you can see it as an allegory for all sorts of things, from the threats created by natural disasters to the impending doom of climate change. No matter what existential threat you plug into the equation, though, del Toro is saying that cooperation—indeed, vulnerable acceptance of our reliance on one another—is the solution to problems too large for any of us to deal with.

 

Of course, I’m not digging too deep to get to these themes. Pacific Rim isn’t even remotely opaque. It wears its meaning on its armor-plated sleeves like any good rock-‘em-sock-‘em end-of-the-world battle royale movie should. But ultimately, the fact 

that Pacific Rim is about something—that it means something—is what sets it apart from so many other recent big-monster movies.

 

Unlike the 2014 remake of Godzilla and its 2019 King of the Monsters sequel, Pacific Rim stays grounded in the (admittedly overwrought) human drama of it all. Guillermo del Toro understands that if you don’t care what happens to the humans at the center of the story, you won’t really care when kaiju start ripping through 

cityscapes and knocking down buildings. As such, it leans on a rather unusual structure. Although, interestingly, it’s a structure that would be blatantly ripped off by Avengers: Endgame a few years later: Cram what the audience expects to be the entire movie into the first 15 or 20 minutes, then flash-forward five years and spend a protracted second act focusing on the character relationships before rocketing toward an epic battle late in Act 3.

 

The result is such a wonderfully paced movie that its 132-minute runtime feels like a brisk 90 minutes at most. (By contrast, Uprising’s 110 minutes felt like a brutal, relentless, never-ending gauntlet of incomprehensible masochism.)

 

Pacific Rim’s excellent UHD/HDR10 transfer is further evidence for why we need to quit worrying about resolution. Sourced from a 2K digital intermediate (despite the fact that the movie was shot in 5K resolution), this remains one of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era. It’s true that the high dynamic range and wide color gamut aren’t used to mimic the look of film the way so many other successful 4K/HDR transfers do. Instead, the 10-bit color and cranked contrasts are used to give this neon-colored cartoon of a live-action movie the sort of depth and weight it lacked in high-definition.

 

I’m not knocking the 1080p release. It was one of the finest transfers of its day. But unburdened by the limitations of 8-bit video, the HDR transfer of Pacific Rim positively brims with a richness and intensity of color that was never possible at home

until recently. The streets of Hong Kong come to life with a neon vibrancy that makes this unbelievable world just a little more believable.

 

Bottom line, I would rank it in the Top 5 HDR home video transfers to date, and Kaleidescape’s release captures it all perfectly, from the rain-soaked inkiness of the predominately nighttime setting to the crackling potency of the radiation spewing from the mouths of the otherworldly beasts. Kaleidescape also offers the film with your choice of Dolby Atmos or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, and although I would normally opt for the latter, this is one of the few Atmos mixes I truly love. It manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action, and the robust bass adds much-needed weight to the massive mechanical and alien combatants.

 

Interestingly, the Kaleidescape download of the 4K/HDR version includes something the UHD Blu-ray release doesn’t: All of the extras included with the original HD release. The 4K disc only features 13 short documentaries, known as “Focus Points,” which spotlight different aspects of the making of the film. The Kaleidescape download also includes deleted scenes and a hilarious blooper reel.

 

The best of the extras, though, is the audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro,

Pacific Rim

which you’ll have to download the 1080p version of the film to listen to. It’s worth the effort, since he dives deep into the color coding he used throughout the film to give viewers insight into the characters in a way that exposition simply couldn’t. The commentary also reveals the primary reason why this movie works when so many similar efforts are simply awful—because it was a labor of love. Del Toro genuinely adores big robots and gigantic monsters, and sees no reason why a movie about them can’t be made with the same care and attention to detail you would expect from a serious film.

 

Make no mistake about it: Pacific Rim is not a serious film. It’s a feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. But it’s an incredibly well-made feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. So, unless you’re simply allergic to that premise, give it a shot. If nothing else, I think you’ll find that it’s one of the best home theater demo movies ever made.

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.

Braveheart

Braveheart

With a scarcity of new releases on the horizon, it’s a great time to mine your collection for some classic content you might not have watched for some time—especially when that title has received a 4K HDR makeover with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Braveheart certainly qualifies as one of those films, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and available for download from Kaleidescape in a whopping 102.4 GB file.

 

Released in 1995, Braveheart was the darling of the 1996 Academy Awards, grabbing a total of 10 nominations, and winning five statues, including Picture, Director, Cinematography, Sound Effects, and Makeup. (It was also nominated for Screenplay,

Costume Design, Sound, Editing, and Music.)

 

While Mel Gibson has gone on to direct several films since, it is hard to believe Braveheart was only his second time in the director’s chair, following up on 1993’s The Man Without a Face. When you see the massive scale of the film, it’s beyond impressive that Gibson was able to pull this off as such a relative neophyte director, not to mention while simultaneously handling producing chores and portraying William Wallace, the film’s leading role.

 

I’m not a history buff, but Braveheart apparently plays a bit fast-and-loose with historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment. So if you’re a student of 13th-century English and Scottish lore (the film opens in 1280 AD) and looking for a movie that ticks off all the factual boxes, it will likely raise your ire. Instead, maybe consider Braveheart as “historical fiction,” depicting people who actually existed—William Wallace, Princess Isabella (Sophie Marceau), Robert the 

BRAVEHEART AT A GLANCE

A love story and some history provide the springboard for a series of increasingly bigger and more brutal battle scenes in this Mel Gibson Oscars fest. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer brings out the intricate detail in the Oscar-winning cinematography while HDR helps deliver a better range of black & shadow detail.

 

SOUND     

The new Atmos mix isn’t particularly active, but it is atmospheric and does a great job of presenting the James Horner score.

Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), Prince Edward (Peter Hanly)—doing the kinds of things they more-or-less did.

 

Rated R for “brutal medieval warfare,” Common Sense Media says, “Expect torture, hackings, stabbings, throat-slitting, and arrows and spears dealing horrible death and injuries,” and it doesn’t lie. The battle scenes are brutal, with body counts that would likely be in the hundreds. However, in my mind, I recall it being much more graphic—especially the ending—so maybe 25 years of movie watching things like John Wick and shows like Game of Thrones has just desensitized me a bit. Also, whereas many films today prefer to linger on the blood, viscera, and gore of combat, Gibson instead chooses to quick-cut away from much of it. (Possibly to reverse the MPAA’s initial NC-17 rating.)

 

With its epic, just minutes shy of three hours running time, nothing about Braveheart feels rushed—except possibly the reunion and relationship of Wallace and Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack)—giving you plenty of time to know and care about the characters. The film opens with a bit of narration telling you all the backstory required, with “The king of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne of Scotland for himself. Scotland’s nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So, Longshanks invited them to talks of truce—no weapons, one page only.”

 

Young William sees the hanged bodies of those Longshanks betrayed, and, shortly, after his father and brother are also killed by Longshanks’ soldiers. William is then raised by his uncle, who educates him and teaches him to use his wits before he uses a sword, and takes him on a tour of Europe. Years later, William returns to his village, wanting to have a simple life as a farmer, where he hopes to marry lifelong love Murron, and raise many sons.

 

In order to keep the Scottish population in check, Longshanks institutes an old tradition known as Primae noctis—First Night—giving nobles the right to take a maiden on her wedding night to have sex with her with the goal of getting her pregnant with English blood.

 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well, and Wallace and Murron marry in secret, telling no one so the local lord won’t discover. Of course, a blossoming love can’t be kept hidden, and after Murron hits a soldier who attempts to rape her, she is killed, inciting Wallace to start a rebellion to just kill as many English as possible, but leading him to ultimately take up the cause of freeing Scotland.

 

Along the way, more and more clans hear of Wallace’s exploits and successes in battle, causing his legend to grow to mythic proportions and having many join his cause until he is leading an actual army, fighting larger and larger battles, including the battle of Stirling, Falkird, and attacking the English city of York, where they start inflicting actual damage against Longshanks.

 

At its heart, Braveheart can be boiled down to love—what starts wars, and what is ultimately worth fighting and dying for. Beyond the initial love—and later outrage—Wallace feels for Murron, you see the love he has for his men, and ultimately his love of the idea of a free Scotland. This is contrasted with the ruthlessness and heartlessness of Longshanks, who only cares about positioning things for future rule, along with the lack of love between Princess Isabella—daughter of the King of France, forced to marry for an alliance—and Prince Edward—who is played as overly effeminate and having no interest in women.

 

As I didn’t remember much of the film, I was curious how it would hold up after so long. Not only are the acting and dialogue solid throughout and the scenery and cinematography beautiful (shot entirely abroad in Scotland and Ireland)–what you really appreciate is the massive scope of the large battles, which were filmed with practical effects. There are no CGI armies or digital doubles, or computer-enhanced backdrops—these are literally hundreds, nay thousands, of actual people pitched in battle in real environs. In many ways, you can see how the large battle scenes here could have served as a blueprint for The Game of Thrones “Battle of the Bastards.”

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this 4K transfer retains an incredible amount of sharpness and detail, but keeps its film-like look rather than having the tack-sharp razor detail of modern productions. There is a bit of grain in some of the grey-colored sky shots, but I never found it distracting or objectionable.

 

The best images are scenes shot in close and mid focus, with longer-range shots not having as much detail and being a bit soft. Closeups bristle with detail, showing every line, pore, and beard growth, as well as the dirt and grime that seems to cover every non-noble. Edges are sharp, detailed, and well-defined, letting you clearly see every rock that went into building a structure or wall. You can also appreciate the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the costuming, seeing threads and weaves and wear in the battle uniforms, as well as the set design. There were some shots—usually conversations between two people—that were slightly out of focus, which appears to be more a product of the original production.

 

This isn’t a film that pushes the bounds of UHD’s wider color gamut, with much of it having a muted, earthy, dirt and ground-colored palette. Even the tartans of the Scots are mainly muted mossy greens and browns. This contrasts with the vibrant 

reds and golds worn by Longshanks, or the colors of his soldiers. We are given many opportunities to appreciate the lush countryside, and you can definitely appreciate the rich greens and beauty of Scotland.

 

HDR is used less here to deliver eye-searing highlights—though there are a few fires that burn brightly—and more to deliver a better range of black and shadow detail throughout. Much of Braveheart’s action takes place outdoors in wide-open fields or in low-lit night or indoor scenes, and the enhanced contrast lets you better appreciate dark-level detail, resulting in a more lifelike image.

 

As mentioned, Braveheart also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, and what benefits most is James Horner’s Oscar-nominated score, which is given plenty space to open up across the front channels as well as being mixed up into the front height speakers for a truly large presentation.

 

I wouldn’t describe this as an overly active Atmos mix, and they definitely don’t look for every opportunity to push sounds up overhead unnecessarily. Instead, we get a much better sense of being in a large, open outdoor space, with swirling winds, birds chirping, leaves rustling, and other ambient sounds putting you outdoors. Other interior scenes have ropes swaying and rafters creaking 

Braveheart

overhead, with battles filling the room with the sounds of shouts, arrows whistling, swords clanging, fires raging, and smoke billowing up overhead.

 

Your subwoofer will have long moments of rest, but it is called into play when needed, either during big emotional moments of the score or from the pounding of horse hooves charging into battle that are powerful enough to rattle your seats.

 

Braveheart ranks high on many movie fans’ Best Movies’ list, though it sits at #78 on IMDB’s Top Rated Movies, and doesn’t manage to crack AFI’s Top 100. (It does place #62 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheer: America’s Most Inspiring Movies list.) Prior to this viewing, I actually only saw the film once before, and that was on LaserDisc more than 20 years ago! (With a running time just minutes shy of three hours, I can only imagine how many side flips and disc changes it would have required back then!) The film definitely looks and sounds its best here, making it a perfect movie-night selection if you haven’t screened it recently.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The High Note

The High Note

New movie releases have been pretty slim pickings lately—and are likely to be that way for the foreseeable future—so when a new film from a major studio (NBCUniversal, in this case) becomes available, it’s worth giving it a watch to see if we can recommend it.

 

The High Note was scheduled for a wide theatrical release on May 8, and actually did have a limited run in about 60 select theaters and drive-ins across the country while simultaneously being released as a premium video-on-demand (PVOD) title. 

It is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape at the very reasonable price of $19.99.

 

The film is directed by Nisha Gantra, who specializes in directing episodes of comedic TV series such as The Last Man on Earth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Fresh Off the Boat, and is the first writing credit for Flora Greeson. The film’s big draw is its cast, with Dakota Johnson in the starring role as worked-to-death personal assistant Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross—daughter of iconic singer Diana Ross and best known for her role as Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish—as R&B singing legend Grace Davis. Ice Cube plays Grace’s manager, Jack, with Bill Pullman in little more than a cameo as Maggie’s father, Max. There’s also another
brief cameo by the musician Diplo in his big-screen debut as producer Richie Williams.

 

After years of doing all of Grace’s grunt work, music-loving Maggie is looking for more, and wants to break into the 

HIGH NOTE AT A GLANCE

This teen-targeted tale of an aging R&B diva’s ambitious assistant might not move the rom-com needle forward, but it does feature some spectacular-sounding musical performances. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer has natural-looking, lifelike images but often appears soft, perhaps to benefit the film’s aging stars. 

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack takes full advantage of the music-driven scenes, kicking up the SPLs and waking up your subwoofers.

music industry by producing Grace’s next record, a live greatest-hits album. Of course, she doesn’t tell Grace this, instead spending her free time in the studio working on putting a new spin on Grace’s classics. Jack thinks Grace’s career is winding down, and—along with the record label—is pushing her to take a residency in Las Vegas where they can capitalize on her history of 11 Grammy wins to cater to a large fan base, stop touring, and enjoy an easy life with guaranteed easy money rolling in.

 

Along the way, Grace has a classic meet-cute with David Cliff (Kevin Harrison Jr.) at a grocery store where they discuss music while shopping, and she walks outside to discover Cliff is an aspiring musician who has tons of talent, but needs a producer to get him to the next level. Maggie convinces him that she is a professional producer and offers to work with him to make an album, and they happen to fall in love along the way.

 

The movie spends much of its time with the “drama” of Maggie trying to serve two masters—being available for Grace’s every whim at all hours of the day while also making time to work with David in and out of the studio. Ultimately, things come to a head, with Maggie’s world falling apart in a single evening where she loses both her job with Grace and her relationship with David, and then runs home to her DJ dad. Everything then suddenly comes back together in classic Hollywood fashion for a nice happy ending.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 6.5 K resolution, The High Note transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, but I never felt it was giving me that ultra-level of detail of many modern 4K transfers. In fact, many shots had a soft, film-like quality as if the

camera was slightly defocused to be a bit kinder to the older actors. There are some moments of sharp detail like the seat stitching in Grace’s McLaren or the texture and weave in clothing, but up until I read the technical specs I was convinced this had been sourced from a 2K DI.

 

Of course, high dynamic range often plays a bigger part in picture quality than resolution, and images here have a really natural, lifelike quality. Many interior shots are lit by rich, warm lighting that reminded me of the glow of analog tube amplifiers or natural, Southern California sunlight. Nighttime scenes are nice and dark, punctuated by bright highlights from car headlights, billboards, and glowing neon signs. The pre-sunset skies in Hollywood are also filled with color and detail with no banding or noise.

 

This movie is about the music industry, and the Dolby Atmos TrueHD soundtrack is really where it shines. Every time music kicks in, it does so with a lot of volume and impact, letting you really appreciate the energy of the live performance. From the opening moments when Maggie is in the studio working on Grace’s album, you get a huge soundstage that fills the room, with hard-hitting kick drums and a bass line you feel in your chest, with cheering crowd noise all around you. There are several scenes of live music, and they all sound great, kicking up the SPLs   

The High Note

and waking up your subwoofers, with the actors turning in believable performances. There is one nice audio moment where David is listening on a pair of headphones to a mix Maggie did of one his songs. You still get a full soundstage here but with a much different mix, letting you experience what the character is hearing. Dialogue was also clear and intelligible throughout.

 

While The High Note doesn’t tread any new rom-com ground or challenge you in any way, and you’ll likely see its “big” plot twist coming from miles away, it is an easy, entertaining film featuring solid performances and singing that is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 69 and Audience Score of 75. In a time when the news is filled with enough negative information, a nice, easy, upbeat film can be just the night at home you’re looking for.

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.

Easy Rider

Easy Rider (1969)

The last time I sat down to watch Easy Rider was sometime in 1990. Sixties nostalgia was in full swing, since grunge hadn’t really exploded and given the burgeoning decade something resembling its own identity. I was in my late teens, and the film was barely in its twenties. And yet, it felt archaic to me. A time capsule, if you will. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t compelling. But I think I mostly saw Easy Rider as something akin to a 95-minute music video for some of the best tunes dominating 

classic rock radio at the time. And sure, I understood its lasting influence on American New Wave cinema. But it still struck me as little more than a nostalgia trip, and a disjointed one at that.

 

Fast-forward 30 more years, and Easy Rider feels relevant to me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before digging into Kaleidescape’s recent 4K HDR release. For me, Easy Rider isn’t just a hop into the Wayback Machine anymore. It’s a relatable portrait of a turbulent and divided America. Of senseless violence and othering. Of rage and misplaced resentment boiling over into identity politics and spilling out into interpersonal strife. Of the end of an era.

 

And sure, it’s not quite like looking out the window. The clothing looks more like costumes. Some of the characters feel more like caricatures. But, despite all of that, Easy Rider still feels like it has something to say about our present moment in history, for perhaps the first time since its release in 1969. (I’m reminded of a popular adage in geek 

EASY RIDER AT A GLANCE

Treated for years as a quaint cultural artifact, this iconic big-studio “indie” film takes on a new significance when viewed in the light of current events. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer stays true to the look of the movie’s film stock, faithfully presenting its often drab but sometimes vibrant color palette.

 

SOUND     

The legendary music soundtrack sounds amazing in both stereo and surround, but the dialogue remains tinny and flat, thanks to the original on-set audio recordings.

culture: “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” I’m also reminded of the oft-quoted observation by Marx: “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”)

 

Part of the film’s reinvigorated applicability may have something to do with its structure—a series of loosely connected vignettes that barely add up to a plot. According to legend, most of what was left on the cutting-room floor when the film was whittled down from 220 to 95 minutes could be considered story. And what we’re left with is more of a moment-to-moment experience than anything else. And I think—again, just speaking for myself—this forces a bit of reflection on what the film leaves unsaid: The racial tensions of the era, the conflict in Vietnam, the political infighting. Despite the fact that the film doesn’t mention any of the above, all of it looms large over Easy Rider. And since they’re not explicit here, it’s easy to impose some of our own sociopolitical strife in their place.

 

I think the new 4K HDR transfer also helps immensely, at least when it comes to getting immersed in the weirdness of Easy Rider. If you know the film well, you may be wondering what the enhanced resolution does for the imagery. The short answer is: Not much. In large part, really nothing. But the expanded dynamic range and enhanced color gamut bring the cinematography to life in ways that home video simply hasn’t been capable of doing until recently.

 

I’m reminded of my observations about the new 4K HDR release of The Wizard of Oz. In similar respects, Easy Rider benefits not only from more vibrancy and purity of colors, but also from the selective intensity of primary hues. In past transfers, the 

entire palette had to be boosted or muted, brightened or darkened universally. With HDR, dazzling Crayola-colored reds and blues comfortably share the screen with more subdued pastels and weather-worn pigmentations, and intense flashes of light comfortably share the frame with deep shadows that nonetheless contain nuance. Peter Fonda’s flag-adorned chopper practically glows against a backdrop that’s more often than not dull and dingy.

 

To put it simply, for the first time, the home video presentation of Easy Rider actually looks and feels like film, and thankfully the restoration efforts—while cleaning up dirt and scratches and other ravages of time—have done nothing to rob the footage of its wonderfully organic and grainy photochemical chaos.

 

Of course, the film’s sound mix is what it is. The iconic music tracks sound amazing, in both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and stereo mixes. The dialogue and other on-set audio still sound as if they were recorded with a couple of tin cans and some string, though, and there’s just not much to be done about that, short of egregious meddling.

 

The Kaleidescape download also comes with a couple of bonus goodies: An audio commentary with Dennis Hopper and an hour-long documentary from 1999 

Easy Rider (1969)

called Shaking the Cage. I would recommend skipping the former, since it provides a rather unbalanced perspective on the making of the film. Perhaps if Sony Pictures owned the second commentary track included with the Criterion Blu-ray release—featuring Hopper, Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis—it would be worth a listen.

 

Truth be told, you get everything you could want from a commentary and more from Shaking the Cage, which should be viewed as an essential companion piece—almost more like annotations for Easy Rider than a traditional making-of retrospective. It’s true, you don’t get much in the way of insight into the themes and mysteries of the film, but rarely have I seen a more unbridled examination of the personality conflicts, fights, compromises, and sheer pandemonium behind the making of any film. In some ways, it’s almost more entertaining than Easy Rider itself.

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.