Reviews

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Disney and Lucasfilm gave Star Wars fans a real gift this year, making all nine of the franchise films (plus offshoots Rogue One and Solo) available for the first time in 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos immersive audio soundtracks. And, as an even more special May the Fourth present, the films are also all currently marked down at sale prices through digital retailers, with each movie available for download at Kaleidescape for $13.99 (opposed to the usual $33.99). A bargain in any galaxy
. . . no matter how far, far away!

While I’ve reviewed the two latest films in the Star Wars canon—The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalkerwe thought it would be interesting to take a look further back in the franchise and view one of the installments widely considered to be the best of the bunch: The Empire Strikes Back.

 

I was seven when Star Wars—now known as A New Hope—was released in 1977, and I can’t remember being as excited about seeing a sequel as when Empire came out in 1980. (In retrospect, it’s clear Empire only set me up for a lifetime of disappointment, expecting that all sequels would be fantastic and surpass the originals.) I clearly remember begging my dad to take me on opening night, and then breaking down and sobbing when he said he wouldn’t—a devastating blow to 10-year-old me having to wait even one extra day! (For the record, I have seen every Star Wars film since—including the Special Edition re-releases—on opening day.)

EMPIRE AT A GLANCE

Even if you already have Empire in every previous format, you’ll want to add this 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos transfer to your collection. Both picture and sound are reference-quality.

 

PICTURE     

Space has never looked blacker, the pinpricks of starlight have never looked brighter, and you can see every wispy strand of hair on Puppet-Yoda’s head.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mix is not only dynamic—with resonant AT-AT foot stomps and lots of impressive flyovers—but detailed, revealing all the activity in the Hoth rebel base as the blizzard rages outside.

As impressive as the first film was, Empire ratcheted everything up several notches: Exciting new locations—Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin; new weapons—snow speeders and AT-AT walkers; Jedi training, and a far more impressive lightsaber battle between Vader and Luke (Mark Hamill); new characters—scoundrel/frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the Emperor (Ian MacDiarmid), a character so powerful even Vader kneels before him, and a new Jedi Master, Yoda! Plus, a huge—you actually want to hear an audience let out an audible gasp!?revelation from Vader, along with the introduction of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

With all that going on, it’s no wonder this movie is both the best reviewed—Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 94—and most fan-loved—audience score of 97—of the nine-film series, along with being my personal favorite. And, let me assure you, it not only holds up after 40 years, but, oh my DAMN! does this film look and sound absolutely amazing! Fully restored and taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, Empire is clean, detailed, sharp, and visually stunning, and never looked as good as we have it now.

 

As stunning as the audio and video transfer is, nearly as impressive to me was not only how well the film holds up after all this time, but just how impressive the visual effects still are. Sure, you can tell that the Tauntauns and AT-ATs are stop-motion miniatures, and some of the matte paintings can’t compete with modern CGI, but overall, the film still absolutely delivers. (Leia calling Han “laser brain” and Luke oddly scratching Chewie under the neck still remain cringeworthy.)

 

George Lucas famously broke away from the Hollywood machine after the first film, deciding to take full control of his story and opting to finance Empire entirely on his own (a story documented in the fascinating two-and-a-half-hour Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, available for streaming on Disney+). Doing this not only made him fabulously wealthy, it made him realize he would be too busy to take on the directing chores, instead asking a former film professor, Irvin Kershner, to take over at the helm. Besides managing finances, Lucas also looked over the special effects of his other budding enterprise, Industrial Light and Magic, and remained involved as executive 

producer, writer, and editor, something you get an interesting glimpse into via one of the included special-feature docs “George Lucas on Editing The Empire Strikes Back.” 

 

Literally from the film’s opening seconds, you will notice the improvement in picture quality. The starfield is black and crisp, with hundreds of bright pinpoints of starlight (were there always that many stars?), and the opening text scrawl is a glorious vibrant yellow that leaps off the screen.

 

All of the space shots are wonderfully deep and black, with bright star points and little lights illuminating the various ships, along with a variety of colored engine plumes. These shots now have far more contrast, and the Imperial Star Destroyers look gorgeous. Featuring a beautiful shining-white leading edge, they’re illuminated by hundreds of lights, making them appear more ominous and alive and massive, and allowing you to appreciate all the detail.

The Empire Strikes Back

Edges are just razor-sharp and clean throughout, with closeup detail so good that you see every line and pore in the actors’ faces. Leia (Carrie Fisher) looks incredibly fresh-faced and young and beautiful. You also notice that the shoulder restraints of the snow-speeder pilots appear to be just bubble wrap. These tight shots reveal individual strands of Chewbacca’s fur, along with each single wispy piece of hair on Yoda’s head, face, and fingers, and each wrinkle and expression. Puppet-Yoda is more alive and real than ever, and you can really appreciate the master work done here by Frank Oz.

 

There were a lot of practical sets and props used during production, and the image quality really lets you appreciate the detail and care that went into them. The detail and texture along the Falcon is amazing, and you can see all of the little nicks and scratches and wear on the various pilots’ uniforms and helmets. The details of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite—with little dimples and cracks and pits—are also clearly visible. We get several nice interior shots of the Falcon’s cockpit, alive with hundreds of glowing and blinking lights of different colors, all vibrant in HDR.

 

While the Hoth battle scene is one of my very favorites—and is as exciting today as ever, enhanced with both better images and audio, and with the details of the snowy landscape now more visible thanks to HDR—I think one of the most visually striking parts of the film is in the carbonite freezing bay. Here the deep black of the room is accentuated with glowing orange, with bright blue lights and with smoke all around. When Vader and Luke face off here in the first saber duel, it looks

absolutely phenomenal. The visuals are crisp and sharp with tons of contrast, creating incredibly cinematic images that are every bit as dynamic and compelling as anything you’ll see in modern film.

 

As good as the images are, the sound does an equally impressive job of bringing Empire up to modern sonic standards, with the mixers taking every opportunity to have ships and objects flying or rumbling past overhead. Right from the start, probe droids launched from the Destroyer whiz across your ceiling, not to mention all the flyovers from tie-fighters, snow speeders, mynocks, and more. Ghost Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and the Emperor’s voice boom from overhead and all around as appropriate.

 

Beyond the big action scenes, we get a ton of ambience and atmospheric sounds in nearly every scene. Take a moment and listen to all the little things that are happening inside the Rebel bases on Hoth . . . there are shouts from off screen, ambient little buzzes and droid noises, and mechanical sounds of repairs going on. Outside on Hoth, the blizzard whips wind and snow around the room. On Dagobah, we are immersed in jungle sounds, with creature noises and leaves rustling, and a brief rainstorm that showers the room.

The Empire Strikes Back

Bass is deep and powerful when called for, whether it is explosions or the mighty foot stomps of the AT-AT walkers. Perhaps most important, dialogue is always clear and properly placed, not always in the center channel but tracking characters as they move off screen.

 

I honestly can’t say enough about this 4K HDR transfer of The Empire Strikes Back; it is truly reference quality in every way. And having purchased the Star Wars films in so many formats and versions over the years—VHS, letterbox VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray—I was seriously planning on sitting this round of Star Wars releases out. But after watching Empire, I am starting to question that decision. If you are a Star Wars fan, you have never seen the movies looking like this, especially in a fine home theater. In many ways, it feels like seeing them again for the very first time. And that is a priceless experience.

 

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.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

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.

The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights

Numbers don’t lie. And following the dismally low critical and fan reception of A View to a Kill—Rotten Tomatoes score of 36% and audience score of 40%, both franchise lows—along with lackluster box-office receipts, the decision was made to move on from the aging Roger Moore as MI6 agent Bond, James Bond.

 

At the start of filming of the next Bond film, Moore would have been 59—far too old to portray the hard-living Bond that creator Ian Fleming imagined to be in his mid-30s. Casting for Moore’s replacement had the Broccoli production team interviewing a

variety of actors, including Sam Neill (best known for the Jurassic Park films) as well as Pierce Brosnan.

 

The role was offered to Brosnan, who accepted. However, interest skyrocketed in Remington Steele, the NBC TV series Brosnan was contractually obligated to, once word got out he would be the next Bond, and at the last moment—three days before its option expired—NBC decided to renew Steele for another season, causing Broccoli to withdraw the offer. (As we know, Brosnan ended up getting his turn to wear the tux and double-O license a few years later . . .)

 

Instead, the role of Bond in The Living Daylights, the 15th film in the franchise, went to Timothy Dalton.

 

According to an interview, Dalton said he wanted to bring a decidedly different take to the super-spy compared with the Moore-era Bond. “I definitely wanted to recapture the essence and flavor of the books, and play it less flippantly. After all, Bond’s essential quality is that he’s a man who 

DAYLIGHTS AT A GLANCE

Timothy Dalton helped pave the way for Daniel Craig by taking Bond back to his Ian Fleming roots in this tepidly received post-Moore effort to reset the franchise. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is sharp, featuring exceptionally deep blacks, but the original film elements haven’t fared as well as the ones for the much older Goldfinger

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix, derived from the original stereo, keeps almost all of the sonic action in the front channels and doesn’t show the dynamic range or solid bass we’ve become accustomed to in an action film.

lives on the edge. He could get killed at any moment, and that stress and danger factor is reflected in the way he lives, chain-smoking, drinking, fast cars and fast women.”

 

After years of having a Bond who was better with a joke than a gun, Dalton brought a definite edge and physicality to the role. You can tell from the opening minutes that this is a Bond ready to get down to work—maybe not always loving the job, but taking it deadly serious. Dalton’s Bond is cold—quick to point a gun at an unarmed woman and rip her clothes off to serve as a distraction—but also bringing a bit of wry humor when appropriate. And—true to Bond’s literary incarnation—taking no joy in killing, and disobeying an order rather than kill a non-professional.

Daylights is also the last of the pre-Daniel Craig-era Bond films to use a title and material directly from Fleming’s work, again connecting it back to the original feel. (The entire opening act with Bond facing off against the female cellist/assassin is pulled straight from Fleming’s story of the same name.)

 

Reception of Dalton as Bond is . . . mixed. Some lists rank him as the worst, while others rank him in the middle. Without a question, he had the difficult task of creating a darker, harder-edged interpretation of the character while simultaneously not alienating the legions of fans that had grown up watching Moore’s lighter take for seven films over 12 years.

 

It’s also difficult to divorce the actor from the films, and with only two movies to establish his Bond bona fides—one of which was the uneven License to Kill—it was tough for Dalton to create a solid legacy.

 

After recently re-watching Casino Royale (2006), it is a bit difficult to view the older Bond films without seeing them 

through the lens of both Royale’s modern style and Craig’s portrayal. While I really enjoyed The Living Daylights, being a fan of Dalton’s Bond and of the opinion that Maryam d’Abo (as Kara Milovy) is one of the most attractive Bond girls, some of the shortcomings of the earlier films are more apparent—particularly the over-the-top silliness of arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), John Rhys-Davies—who doesn’t seem Russian in any way—as new head of KGB, General Pushkin, and terrible portrayal/casting of Felix Leiter by John Terry, who more comes off like some kind of California surfer dude than a CIA field agent.

 

We’re not given any indication of the source material for the 4K Ultra HD presentation here, but it was likely taken from the file created for the 2012 Blu-ray Disc release. Originally filmed in 35 mm with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, if nothing else, the picture quality of Daylights makes you truly appreciate the amazing work done by Lowery Digital in restoring Goldfinger. Even though Goldfinger is 23 years older, in some ways it looks sharper and cleaner.

 

Daylights begins with a mock raid by 00-agents on a British compound at Gibraltar being defended by the SAS, and the greyish-blue skies reveal tons of noise and grain. Edges are generally nice and sharp, especially of the black-clad  00-commandoes against the white rock wall, and closeups often reveal lots of detail, such as the rich plaid patterns and wool textures of suits worn by Bond and others, particularly Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) Glen Plaid pattern.

The Living Daylights

Interestingly, I felt like the film started looking better after its first third. Whether it was different lenses used, brighter exterior scenes that filmed better, or just me getting used to the look I can’t say, but images were noticeably cleaner and less grainy. For example, the exteriors in Czechoslovakia with bright outdoor lighting and vibrant red buses all look quite good, as does the snow chase in the Aston Martin, with the sharp contrast between the white snow and the dark grey Aston Martin Vantage and the dark Russian military uniforms.

 

But I never really felt like I was getting that nth degree of resolution and detail visible from 4K transfers. There is also a bit of inconsistency with some of the longer shots looking a bit softer and not as in focus, and this was more noticeable on my 115-inch projection screen opposed to my 65-inch direct-view.

 

Blacks are deep and black, and with your theater lights off, Daylights definitely delivers a cinematic black. There is a scene where Bond is driving an Audi and we see the black of Dalton’s hair against the differing blacks of his tux and bowtie and the

car’s dark interior. Sometimes, however, the blacks are so dark that some details in the lowest end can be lost, such as in some of the night scenes where characters are almost lost in their black clothing.

 

The movie was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo, and the DTS-HD Master 5.1-channel mix here doesn’t really deliver much in the way of surround sound. I’d say about 80% of the audio is presented across the front three channels, with the surrounds occasionally getting bits of the musical score, or some reverb of explosions, engine noises, PA announcements, or other effects to provide a bit of expansion. If my processor’s Neural:X upmixer placed any sounds up in the height speakers, it wasn’t noticeable. Even still, the presentation had a nice width to it, delivering a soundstage that stretched across my front wall, with dialogue that was always clear and intelligible.

 

Sound mixers took a much more delicate hand to mixing bass frequencies back in the ‘80s—remember this was before the dedicated low-frequency effects (LFE) channel Dolby Digital and DTS designed to give mixers more headroom for deep bass—and things like explosions, vehicle crashes, a Harrier jet lifting off, and gun shots definitely don’t have the same dynamic impact they do today. The big desert finale is definitely the film’s sonic highlight, with explosions, gun fire, horses riding 

The Living Daylights

all around, the plane’s loud propeller engines, and ricochets sparking off in all directions, but even still, it is pretty light on sonics by modern film standards.

 

Sometimes it takes a bit of time away from something in order to appreciate it, and I think that is the case for many with Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of Bond. And it is surprising how well this holds up after 33 years, especially when compared to the schlocky final films in the Moore canon. If for no other reason, we need to thank Dalton for paving the road that led us to the Daniel Craig Bond we have today. The Living Daylights might not be the favorite in your Bond film collection, but I challenge you to not put it in the Top 10.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Underwater

Somewhere along the line (perhaps in 2004 with the introduction of the first film in the Saw franchise), Hollywood started turning the horror genre into something . . . distasteful. Filmmakers went from trying to simply scare people to trying to outdo each other by shocking and brutalizing viewers with horribly graphic depictions of torture and mutilation. I mean, just because I might like some unsettling tension and a good jump-scare doesn’t mean I want to watch someone explicitly cut into pieces by some Rube Goldberg torture machine.

That’s one of the reasons why Underwater interested me, a film that looked like it was leaning into the scarier elements of its sci-fi nature, but with a PG-13 rating that insured the frights would be mostly gore-free. Also, the trailer screamed a mash-up of The Abyss, Alien, Deep Star Six, and The Meg, the first two of which I happen to love (especially the far superior—and “finished”—Special Edition version of Abyss).

 

At 95 minutes, Underwater isn’t a long movie, and I think that might actually be my biggest criticism. The story just jumps right in, with no backstory or character development other than some text on maps and prints during the opening title sequence. After a long opening shot that pans down a massive length of the Kepler research and drilling facility—establishing that we are seven miles under the ocean and well beyond any help from the surface—our first shot is of Norah (Kristen Stewart) in a bathroom brushing her teeth, just moments before all hell breaks loose. I think the film 

UNDERWATER AT A GLANCE

This Kristen “One Note” Stewart bottom-of-the-sea horror/thriller might not have been a box-office hit, but it’s a nice, tight 95-minute thrill ride that delivers big on the scares. 

 

PICTURE     

Both the atmosphere and action are enhanced by the 4K HDR transfer, which reveals every detail in the meticulously detailed sets and accentuates the pricks of light in the film’s many dark scenes. 

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix (no Atmos) is suitably immersive, featuring some of the most powerful and frequent deep-bass action you’ll find in any recent film.

would have been more interesting if we were given the opportunity to know any of the characters a bit and see what daily life aboard the Kepler was like before thrusting everyone into peril.

 

As it is, Underwater doesn’t much concern itself with telling us anything about the characters or what they’re doing seven miles under the ocean, just doling out the little bits and pieces of info we need to know as the movie unfolds. The upside is we jump straight into the story and the action, but the downside is we don’t really care much when someone meets their demise; it’s just one less person to follow. But maybe no character development is better than something schlocky that feels forced.

 

I’m not a huge fan of Kristen Stewart and her, ummm, “emotional acting range.” In fact, just Google “Kristen Stewart Underwater” images and you’ll see an entire page of thumbnails revealing approximately the exact same semi-perplexed/
angry/
concerned expression. (We also are given no insight into Stewart’s decision to shave her head and dye her hair blonde for the role for some reason.)

 

However, there is little in this film that requires much emotional range from her. She’s thrust into a pretty terrible situation from the opening moments in which she could die at any second due to any number of factors, so semi-perplexed/angry/
concerned is a pretty appropriate look.

 

The film’s plot is fairly straight-forward: After a massive undersea earthquake ravages the Kepler, the surviving crew must find a way to continue to survive under the constant threat of immense underwater pressure, lack of oxygen, and a constantly deteriorating habitat.

 

While making her way to the escape pod bay, Norah encounters other crew members, one of whom is Paul, played by T.J. Miller, who brings his usual sarcastic wit and tension-breaking humor to his scenes. After finding that the escape pods have been jettisoned and that the radio can’t reach anyone topside, the group of six decides their only chance is to don some massively pressurized diving suits, descend to the ocean’s floor, and walk a mile across the bottom of the ocean to join up with another station where they can hopefully resurface.

Underwater

During the walk, they stumble across an otherworldly deep-sea life form that has been awakened because, as Emily (the film’s other female role, played by Jessica Henwick) states, “We drilled too deep; we took too much!”

 

That environmental jab aside, Underwater manages to be entertaining and maintain enough tension and mystery that it kept me interested to see what happened next. And it delivered on the “horror” promise with some quality jump-scares that had my wife spilling her drink not once but twice.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows, with images that are sharp, clean, detailed, and fantastic-looking. Edges are razor-sharp and in focus, and closeups show incredible detail, revealing pores in actors’ faces, as well as defined single-beaded droplets of water or sweat. In one shot, you can clearly see that Norah’s chest is covered in goosebumps. Underwater shots reveal particles floating around that are individually sharp and defined.

 

The resolution and image quality also let you appreciate the attention to detail in the set dressing. The Kepler appears like it could be a functioning station (well, up until the earthquake), with screens and workstations all around, as well as the large pressurized diving suits with varying degrees of scratches and wear.

 

This is a movie that really benefits from HDR, with tons of dark scenes punctuated by a variety of bright light sources. The very opening shot has the camera panning down and down (and down . . .) the depths of the dark ocean, showing the Kepler illuminated by different colored lights that shine brightly in the dark background. There are also numerous dark shots inside the station or outside in the ocean lit by bright flashlights, overhead fluorescents, computer screens, crackling and sparking electrical lines, warning lights, etc. and they all look great. Blacks are deep throughout, and remain clean and noise-free.

 

Any time you are filming under dark and murky water with bright lights illuminating, you run the risk of banding or other digital artifacts. This is only exacerbated when you factor in the higher compression required for streaming. Fortunately, the Kaleidescape transfer keeps these potentially troubling shots from becoming a mess, presenting images without any noise.

 

Fox has a maddening habit of not providing its digital releases with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack available with the theatrical release, and that is again the case here. However, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix on the Kaleidescape download is so active and immersive—especially when run through a modern receiver’s capable upmixer—you won’t feel

like you’re missing much. (Though I’d be lying if it didn’t make me wonder how much better that Atmos mix could potentially be!)

 

From the film’s opening moments, we get the atmospheric sounds of water bubbling up overhead, followed by the creaking and groaning of the habitat’s steel structure, along with the steady buzz and hum of overhead fluorescent lighting to put us in the scene of the momentary calm.

 

Shortly after, the earthquake hits and the Kepler experiences a catastrophic hull breech, with the rig groaning and crumpling all around, filling the room with sounds of metal twisting, steam venting through burst pipe, announcements blaring from the overhead PA, and jets of water bursting. As they move about the structure, the group is accompanied by the surrounding sound of the ambient noises aboard; water dripping and splashing, ongoing PA announcements, electrical lines buzzing and humming. When the crew abandons the Kepler, we are immersed in ocean sounds, and the crew breathing.

 

The soundtrack also features regular immense bass activity that will push your subwoofer and room to its very limits. Whether it is the deep bass of the structures’ crumpling and buckling steel, or of things crashing and crumbling 

Underwater

around you, the movie has deep, room-jarring bass that is frequent, appropriate, and very tactile. In fact, this might have some of the deepest infrasonic bass signals I’ve heard, causing things to vibrate, shake, and rattle in my room that I’ve never heard before. At one point, I got up off the couch to check to make sure my speakers weren’t destroying themselves due to all the bass energy and discovered that it was my projection screen’s metal housing that was vibrating loudly in sympathy with the bass onslaught!

 

While Underwater stumbled theatrically, it managed an audience score of 60%, and I think it actually is more suited to viewing in a well-designed home theater. While the plot offers nothing new, it is fun and entertaining to watch, and offers some great visuals along with an even more dynamic, powerful, and immersive surround mix. Also, since the decision was made to not give Underwater a 4K Blu-ray Disc release, the full 51-GB download from the Kaleidescape Store is by far your best viewing option.

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.

Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale (2006)

As I mentioned in my Goldfinger review, my dad was always a Connery man. It was the Bond he started out with and who he associated with the character. Roger Moore was the Bond I grew up with, and his looser style and cooler gadgets—thanks to improvements in Q Branch no doubt—resonated with me. For years, For Your Eyes Only was my favorite installment in the franchise.

 

However, as I got older, read the Ian Fleming (and John Gardner and Raymond Benson) novels for myself, and had more Bond options, I realized Moore really wasn’t the best representation of this character. Where Moore was quick with a quip or 

tongue-in-cheek comeback, Fleming’s Bond was often brutal and not into trading barbs of the verbal variety. He went about his business of killing with professional detachment; taking no joy in the act, but never shying away from it.

 

In Fleming’s own words, “I didn’t intend for Bond to be likable. He’s a blunt instrument in the hand of government. He’s got vices and few perceptible virtues.”

 

In many ways, Timothy Dalton got closest to this brutal edge that was the literary Bond. Unfortunately, though, he hit the not-likable part a little too literally for much of the Bond viewership.

 

For me, the Bond films reached a franchise low-point with Pierce Brosnan. I initially had high-hopes for him after Goldeneye, but then the Brosnan films started relying too much on gadgetry and ridiculousness. (Denise Richards as 

ROYALE AT A GLANCE

Daniel Craig’s first foray as 007 shows a less pretty, more brutal Bond, more in line with Ian Fleming’s conception of the legendary super spy. 

 

PICTURE     

The transfer is mostly good, revealing lots of detail, and HDR helps give everything a convincingly natural look. 

 

SOUND

The 5.1-channel mix is dynamic and active, properly placing you in the scene, whether it’s a rain storm, a chase through a construction site, or the ambience of an airport terminal.

nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough?! Ugh . . .). And when we finally got to Bond parasailing a giant wave into enemy territory, followed by racing around in an invisible car, and a cameo of a fencing Madonna in 2002’s Die Another Day, well, I didn’t think I had another day to give.

 

That is, until we got Daniel Craig.

 

Remember, though, that when Craig was initially cast, the world was anything but supportive. The press dubbed him “the blonde Bond,” a clear departure from Fleming’s descriptions, and fans were similarly dismissive. (Fleming, by the way, several times describes Bond as looking like singer, songwriter, actor Hoagy Carmichael. A passage from Moonraker describes Bond as “certainly good-looking . . .  Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”)

 

With four years between Day and Casino Royale, it gave the franchise a chance to cool off. And by the time Royale came out, Bond was ready for a much-needed reboot, not only with a new leading man, but with an entirely new realism and edge, reborn in the 21st Century.

 

Casino Royale is the first Fleming novel, a fitting point for the series to restart from, and the film opens in gritty, grainy, ultra-high-contrast black-and-white where we see a relatively inexperienced Bond new on the job. This is a Bond yet to earn his 00-license, which we quickly learn requires two kills to attain. The first kill is a brutal, personal, up-close-and-ugly affair that doesn’t go quick. The second is . . . easier.

 

Gone are the quips and jokes. This is the brutal blunt instrument Fleming imagined.

 

After Brosnan’s heavy reliance on gadgetry, here we have a Bond utterly stripped of gadgets and tricks. (Though you’ll notice several key instances of Sony product placement throughout.) Instead, we see Bond at his best, relying on his guts, brains, 

and self to outwit and scramble out of trouble. Craig is clearly—and visibly—in fantastic shape, and he isn’t the “pretty Bond” of his predecessors. His grappler’s body is scarred, and his face shows the wear of numerous fights and the hard life Bond leads, but when we see Craig thrust into Bond’s world, he is utterly believable.

 

Fleming’s Bond also had a voracious appetite for liquor, and his consumption

Casino Royale (2006)

of bottles of wine, champagne, and hard liquor at meals would have made Don Draper look like a teetotaler. We get a sense of that here, with Bond drinking heavily. We are also introduced to the Vesper, a martini of Bond/Fleming’s creation. (Finding key ingredient Kina Lillet can often be a challenge if trying to recreate this for yourself.)

 

There are many things that separate this Bond—both film and character—from the others. For one, the overall tone of the film is just darker, moodier, and more intense. We also get the series’ most brutal onscreen torture scene; one pulled directly from the book. Where other villains monologue about what they are planning to do to Bond, here Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) just gets down to business.

 

Also different is the character- and relationship-building we see developing between Bond and those around him, notably Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), M (Judi Densch), and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). The dialogue between Bond and these characters is sharp and fast, smart and poignant, looking well past the opportunity to simply work in some witty quip, but actually interested in developing the story and characters and challenging Bond. It also helps make him seem more human and relatable and vulnerable. Here we see a Bond who has fallen in love, who lets his armor down and decides to commit to another person and resign from MI6 before it consumes—or kills—him.

 

The movie is long. At 2:24, it is the second-longest Bond film, giving it plenty of time to develop the story and the characters. The Texas Hold ‘Em card game at the titular casino in Montenegro between Bond and Le Chiffre lasts a long time, but manages to keep tension and remain engaging without feeling overly long. It succeeds here because of the dialogue 

between characters, the developments on and off the table, and the way the game is broken up, allowing the players to rest and go about other business. Further, changing the game from baccarat (Bond’s preferred game in the novels) to poker for the film was another brilliant stroke. Baccarat’s rules are far more basic, making a simpler and less complex game, and wouldn’t have given this lengthy battle of wits and wills the same tension or pacing.

 

Shot on 35mm film, this is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, and images look mostly great throughout, but image quality doesn’t always rise to that ultimate reference-quality level. The opening black-and-white images remind me of some Kodak professional film stock I once used at a wedding, resulting in images that are either deep black or pure bright white, giving it a stark look that pops in HDR. The whites look a bit overexposed, revealing some speckles and giving it a (likely intended) gritty look to capture Bond’s admission into the 00 ranks.

 

Closeups reveal tons of facial detail, as well as the fabrics in clothing such as the fine detail and texturing in Rene Mathis’ (Giancarlo Giannini) tie, the pebbled texture in Bond’s 

tuxedo shirt or the delicate white-on-white V pattern in his suspenders. It also resolves literally single strands that have fallen loose from Vesper’s hair. Exterior shots in Montenegro and Venice also look fantastic, with buildings having brilliant sharp edges and definition, and full of color.

 

It’s the mid-length shots, such as when the camera pulls back at the gaming table, that don’t seem to have the same sharpness, almost as if a different lens or film stock was used, slightly pulling you out of the fantasy world.

 

There are a lot of night scenes, either driving around the streets of Miami or a chase outside an airport, or the bright lights illuminating the gaming table, and these benefit from HDR’s deep blacks and bright whites. We also get a lot of “natural” bright reflections as sun reflects brightly off rocks, or gleams on sweating faces and bodies. Outdoor scenes just look more 

real and natural with the wider contrast range. I didn’t find that the film makes much use of HDR’s wider color gamut, but skin tones look natural, as does a dust-filled embassy and the green foliage in a jungle. 

 

I was initially bothered that we didn’t get a new audio mix here, instead getting a “basic” 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master audio track, but fortunately, that disappointment didn’t last long as Royale’s soundtrack is dynamic and active. (It’s also worth mentioning that the disc release also contains the same 5.1-mix—no Atmos or DTS:X.)

 

Audio is used extensively throughout to properly place you in the environment, and a quality home theater processor’s upmixer does an admirable job creating a truly immersive mix. During an early scene, rain is pouring overhead, and the mix does a great job of putting that water up above you. As Bond runs through a construction site, the room comes alive with sounds of the site, with drilling, cutting, welding, and distant shouts all surrounding you. While in the airport, the room fills with sounds of passengers chatting and PA announcements. And during the interrogation scene, the audio takes on the low-ceilinged flat echo quality of the small space, with water dripping and splashing periodically in the corners.

 

There is plenty of gunfire throughout, and the dynamics are loud and sharp, 

Casino Royale (2006)

capturing the crack of the bullet and the sonic characteristics of various weapons. During the battle at the embassy compound, bullets hit and crash all around, with glass shattering, impacts striking walls, and debris falling and splintering. When called on, bass is authoritative, with impacts, collisions, and explosions sending waves of bass energy through the room.

 

Dialogue is well presented and easy to understand, as is the equally important—and beautiful sounding—12-cylinder engine note of the Aston Martin DBS (a car I actually got to spend an entire weekend with driving around New York several years ago . . .).

 

I had forgotten just how much I enjoy this film. From start to finish, Casino Royale is engaging, engrossing, and entertaining, and is the truest version of James Bond as Ian Fleming imagined and wrote. Fans of the series will want to own this movie looking and sounding its best, but even non-Bond fans will find plenty of action and intrigue here that will leave them shaken not stirred.

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.

Goldfinger

Goldfinger

“The name’s Bond. James Bond.”

 

There is perhaps no more iconic introduction catchphrase in the history of cinema, a line cribbed and lampooned countless times in nearly as many different genres.

 

Say the name “James Bond” and it immediately conjures a host of similar images in people’s minds. Bond, ever cool under pressure, gliding through a world inhabited by fast women and faster cars, pitted against ruthless super-villains bent on world 

domination. Bond, always perfectly attired, knowing the right thing to say or do in any situation, doing whatever necessary to complete the assignment at hand regardless the risk, saving the world and leaving with the girl.

 

Bond is the original man men wish they could be, and women wish they could be with.

 

While Ian Fleming’s Bond was a popular character in literary fiction—President Kennedy mentioning that From Russia With Love was one of his favorite books led to it becoming the second film in the franchise—it wasn’t until Bond hit the big screen with Dr. No in 1962 that he truly caught on and hit worldwide acclaim.

 

I came to Agent 007 through my father, and I can remember watching the latest Bond adventure when it would hit TV, gaping at the opening title sequences as each film revealed more and more inches of female skin, and wondering what incredible gadget the super-spy would have up his sleeve (quite literally in the case of the Rolex Submariner he wore in many of the early films). 

GOLDFINGER AT A GLANCE

The third—and maybe best known—of the Bond films looks pristine in this 4K transfer, which wipes away decades of grime from the image, giving you the sense you’re looking through the lens while the film was being shot. 

 

PICTURE     

So sharp and clean that it enhances iconic imagery like the film’s famous gold bars and bodies, but also accentuates occasional flaws, like painted backdrops and mismatched shots.

 

SOUND

The surround mix, derived from the film’s original mono soundtrack, is limited, but does add atmosphere to the Fort Knox scenes and some zip to Oddjob’s infamous flying hat.

My dad, who read all the Fleming (and subsequent John Gardner and Raymond Benson books), was a Sean Connery man, faithful to the original. And while Bond is now entrenched in the world’s consciousness, it’s likely there would be no Bond today had the casting fallen short with that first film.

 

Bond needed to be able to handle himself physically, but not be so big that he stood out. With a weightlifting and boxing background, and an imposing 6-foot 2-inch height, Connery fit the bill. He also needed to have enough style and charm that he could fit in playing baccarat with millionaires in Monte Carlo, or be believable driving around in an Aston Martin with a 

beauty at his side, but also be equally at home getting his hands dirty when the time called for it. Connery’s Bond oozed confidence and cool, and he wore the character like a second skin, setting the benchmark against which all future Bonds would be judged; and launching a franchise character who has now survived 26 films by a variety of actors and spanning seven decades.

 

Goldfinger comes to us renewed in 4K resolution, looking impossibly clean and fresh for a film that is now 56 years old. A final credits screen displays “Pristine Digital Restoration by Lowery Digital Images, a DTS company.” Lowery Digital won the right to restore the Bond films for Blu-ray back in 2004, and the company did significant work on the films at that time, repairing damage and doing digital cleanup, and making a full 4K scan of each frame. It’s likely that these are the 4K scans taken at that time, and also why we don’t have versions of these early films featuring HDR.

 

Today, the Bond opening title sequences are mini-features of their own, and Goldfinger is the first Bond film to really push the opening to be something more than just a song 

and credits. While the title sequence is incredibly tame by modern standards, with just clips from the film projected onto scantily clad gold-colored models while Shirley Bassey belts out the title track letting you know beyond any question that Goldfinger loves only gold, it was the first step that got us to where we are today.

 

The first thing you notice about Goldfinger is that it is presented in a slightly odd (albeit the original theatrical) aspect ratio of 1.66:1. When accurately presented, this will not quite fill out a 16:9 display, with small black pillarbox bars to the left and right of the image.

 

The next thing you notice is how clean images look. It is as if they polished off years of grime and neglect from a window, giving you a startling glimpse into what the cinematographer saw through the lens over 50 years ago. There is no dirt, specks, debris, or other nasties to detract from the image. Closeups are stunningly sharp and detailed, with edges in razor-sharp focus. Any scene where the camera pulls in tight reveals tons of micro detail and texture, whether in clothing, faces, playing

cards, or building details. You can actually see the dirt under Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) fingernails. There are also plenty of opportunities to appreciate the varieties of fabric in Bond’s suits or see the sharp and jaggie-free lines in the vertical stripes of Felix Leiter’s (Cec Linder) seersucker hat.

 

Colors pop, especially in bright outdoor scenes. A 

Goldfinger

helicopter shot panning across a hotel and over a pool in Miami dazzles with bright gleaming whites and tons of appropriate bikini-clad skin tones, and golds shimmer with appropriate luster, whether in bars or the paint covering Jill Masterson’s (Shirley Eaton) body. Blacks are nice and dark, and noise-free. A shot with Bond in a tuxedo clearly shows the different shade and sheen of his lapels compared to the rest of the jacket.

 

Not everything is perfect here, though, as the razor-sharp focus reveals the limitations of some of the technology at the time. For example, many of the shots around the pool where Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) is playing cards are so crisp, the blurred backgrounds look to be obvious backdrops. The same effect is visible again when Bond is driving Tilly Masterson (Tania Mallet) around Switzerland in the famous Aston Martin DB5. And while closeups look tack-sharp, longer shots often don’t fare nearly so well. The famous scene where Bond is strapped to the laser cutting table —“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!”—jarringly cuts back and forth, with the far shots looking much softer, almost like a completely different film.

Also, the opening sequence where Bond is coming out of the water in his scuba suit has an odd frame speed-up where he appears to move in double-speed for a second. On first viewing, I thought perhaps I’d imagined it, but it is definitely there and clearly a speed shift. This is not unique to the Kaleidescape download, so it’s something from the source material, perhaps due to damage or to lost elements.

 

Sonically, Goldfinger comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master soundtrack, but as the original film included a mono soundmix, you can’t expect too much from this. And, well, it doesn’t deliver much in the way of actual surround sound. The film is primarily spread across the front three channels, with little bass activity even during explosions. Gunshots have some nice dynamics, but a modern soundmix this isn’t. Even still, dialogue is well presented and every word is easily understood, and we also get some nice atmosphere, such as the audio inside the cavernous Fort Knox at the end or Oddjob’s (Harold Sakata) hat sailing past. 

 

As mentioned, Goldfinger is not the first or even second Bond film, but rather the third, and is actually the seventh novel in Fleming’s series. However, by this point in both the film and literary world, Bond was truly hitting his stride. He was 

Goldfinger

established as the world’s greatest secret agent, helped by a Q-Branch producing high-tech gadgets in the form of one of the most iconic vehicles ever committed to film, with Connery starting to lighten up with some quips—“Shocking. Positively shocking,” after electrocuting a baddie in a bathtub—with perhaps the most on-the-nose Bond-girl name ever in Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), and producing one of the most memorable villains in the series. The film scored a franchise-high critics rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes as well as tying the franchise-high audience rating of 89%, and it comes to the home looking as good as you’ve ever seen it.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Could Superman beat the Incredible Hulk? Is Batman a match for Iron-Man? These sorts of questions have filled the dreams of kids and comic book geeks alike for decades now, but they’re rarely seen as any more than conversation starters or flights of fancy. And yet, for some reason, asking who is the greatest baseball player or quarterback or goalie of all time is viewed

as legitimate discourse amongst grown-ass men and scholars alike.

 

Those of us who follow motorsports (serious ones, at least) know what a ridiculous question this is when applied to our own passion. Auto racing is as much about the team as it is the pilot. It’s as much about the car as the team. It’s as much about the chaos of meteorological conditions as it is the car. And, yes, we all have our favorite drivers (shout-out to Jan Magnussen), but that often has as much to do with personality or manufacturer affiliation as it does talent.

 

But such subjectivity didn’t satisfy Dr. Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who set out in 2016 to use quantitative statistical analysis to remove (or at least account for) the differences made by cars, teams, weather, and even year-to-year variance in order to determine who was the best Formula One pilot of all time.

LIFE OF SPEED AT A GLANCE

This ambitious Netflix documentary about the greatest Formula One driver of all time will intrigue and satisfy racing fans and non fans alike.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR presentation does well with the copious archival materials but really shines with the present-day interview segments and historical reenactments.

 

SOUND

The soundtrack is marred by a New Age-y score whose power-nap vibe seriously goes against the film’s auto-racing grain.

I mention this research only because the resulting paper forms the backbone of the new Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. And this fact alone—the use of scientific parsing to answer the question of who could beat whom if they never competed head-to-head—makes for one of the most fascinating sports documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps ever.

 

As with any documentary focusing on the accomplishments of a single individual, A Life of Speed leans heavy on biography, and provides a solid understanding of who Fangio was and what made him tick, even if you’ve never heard his name before. It also provides a pretty satisfying history of Formula One, a sport that emerged just as Fangio was making a name for himself in long-distance dirt-road racing. On top of that, it sprinkles in a bit of the history of automotive engineering.

 

Truth be told, if the film weren’t so well made, it would probably crumble under its own weight. It attempts to be three or four documentaries at once—which is at least two too many—and if not for the talents of director Francisco Macri and editor Luciano Origlio, it would be a mess.

 

Somehow, though, it isn’t a mess. Quite the opposite, in fact; by juggling so many balls so effectively, A Life of Speed manages to be interesting in several simultaneous ways.

Of course, given its historical nature, the bulk of the film is comprised of archival photographs, old film stock, kinescope recordings, and even a few well-played VHS tapes, it seems. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation to latch onto, though. The present-day interviews and newly filmed historical reenactments are beautifully framed, wonderfully composed, and have a distinctive low-contrast look that still makes great use of the enhanced dynamic range and color gamut of our modern home video standards.

 

If there’s one criticism I can level at A Life of Speed from a creative perspective, it’s that the score is just awful. If you’ve ever used one of those power-nap apps that are all the rage these days, you’ll recognize the New Age-y ambience in a heartbeat.

 

There’s also the fact the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which wouldn’t be a problem except Netflix positions its subtitles halfway into the black bar at the bottom of the screen, with no way of moving them. So, if you’re using a constant-height projection setup, you’ll likely miss half the film’s dialogue and narration (unless you speak Spanish, Italian, German, and English).

 

Don’t let those quibbles turn you off of this one, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One—indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Fangio in your life—A Life of Speed is one of those rare documentaries whose quality isn’t contingent upon your interest in the subject matter.

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.

Bloodshot

Bloodshot

A scant two weeks after hitting theaters, Vin Diesel’s latest action thriller, Bloodshot, finds its way to wide digital release, available for purchase now at the Kaleidescape Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

Considering theater chains around the world started closing within days of Bloodshot’s release, its opening weekend gross of nearly $30 million indicates it was on track to be another big success for Diesel, potentially even launching a new franchise à la Fast & Furious or xXx. And with an audience score of 78%, Diesel proves once again that he understands what his fans 

are looking for. (With critics, not so much, as Bloodshot managed a rotten 29% rating.)

 

As the opening credits hit the screen, I sarcastically joked to my wife, “You can always count on Vin Diesel to deliver an ultra-realistic movie!” as I thought about some of the many physics- and reality-defying stunts he’s been a part of during the Fast franchise.

 

However, I have to say, the premise of Bloodshot works quite well for Diesel, the gravel-voiced actor who seems to convey any lines of dialogue with the exact same emotion and intonation. (There’s probably a reason why he was cast as the voice of both The Iron Giant and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.) Diesel’s character here, Ray Garrison, is a man of few words, much how John Wick lets Keanu Reeves use his fists and guns (and pencils, and motorcycles, and knives . . .) to do the talking for him.

 

So, I’m gonna say it. I really enjoyed Bloodshot.

BLOODSHOT AT A GLANCE

This Vin Diesel Total Recall-meets-Matrix-meets-Terminator-meets-RoboCop-meets-Live Die Repeat mashup is a feast for action fans, featuring a steady stream of demo-quality HDR/Atmos action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer gets plenty of chances to show off its HDR capabilities, with lots of dark scenes filled with bright lights, gunfire, explosions, and even particles of flour.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos mix successfully ranges from outrageous to subtle, doing as well with the sound of big machines as it does with creaking floors.

Yep. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what its fans want. It’s unabashed action, with big set pieces that move the story forward in an easy-to-follow manner that allows the characters to move from one exotic locale to the next destroying stuff.

 

Bloodshot/Garrison is actually not an original character, but rather based on a Valiant Comics character that can trace his origins back to 1992. But the story was totally new to me, so I can’t comment on how true it was to its comic roots, or anything else about the Valiant universe.

 

The film begins with US Marine Garrison single-handedly raiding a house in Mombasa and rescuing a hostage. Shortly after, Garrison and his wife Gina (Talulah Riley) are kidnapped by Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell) while on holiday in Italy, and when Garrison can’t answer Axe’s question about who leaked the location of the hostage, Axe kills Gina. And then Garrison.

 

He awakens, and finds himself in the headquarters of Rising Spirit Tech (RST), where the company’s CEO, Dr. Harting (Guy Pearce), reveals that Garrison has been resurrected by the company’s experimental nanite technology. Besides, you know, being brought back to life, this army of nanites now coursing through Garrison’s body gives him superhuman strength and healing, as well as the ability to tap into the Internet to access any data or knowledge he desires, basically making him the ultimate soldier.

 

A side effect of the resurrection is that Garrison has no memories of his previous life. During a conversation with another RST-enhanced former solder, US Navy diver KT (Eliza Gonzalez), Garrison hears a song that triggers memories of his wife’s killer, and from there Garrison is off to exact his revenge.

 

Or is he?

 

Bloodshot has a lot of elements of other films. It is definitely part RoboCop, with the resurrected, part-machine Garrison recovering memories and trying to reconnect with his previous life. It’s part Matrix as Garrison taps into the network to acquire skills on demand, like flying a Gulfstream jet. It’s part Terminator in the way he heals and reforms following grievous damage. It’s also part Live Die Repeat, as Garrison is forced to repeat missions. It’s also part Total Recall, where he’s not sure which memories are his and what he can trust.

 

But, if you’re gonna crib some movies for ideas, you could do a lot worse.

 

I’ve long held that some of the best looking and sounding movies released to the home market are coming from Sony, and Bloodshot is no exception. Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, the home release is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it looks it. Closeups are packed with detail and are razor-sharp, sometimes looking a bit too clear like when you are staring into every pore, eyebrow hair, or bit of whisker stubble on Diesel’s face.

 

Early shots of the Amalfi Coast or the Aviana airbase in Italy have a warm, gold cast to them, with candlelit and sunshine tones, while many later scenes are tinted with cool blues and silvers, giving images a glossy, high-tech sleek and modern palette.

 

The film’s real visual treat is its extensive use of HDR. There are many scenes throughout shot in dark interiors where there are lights—fluorescent bulbs, spotlights, screens, overheads, wall spots, case lighting, etc.—that brightly illuminate the scene without noise, banding, or washing out the dark details.

 

There is a lengthy tunnel fight sequence that makes especially good use of HDR, resulting in a visual feast that will make fantastic demo fodder. Garrison intentionally jackknifes a flour truck in a tunnel to trap a caravan. Once inside the tunnel, all the lights are off, plunging the entire space into blackness. As the bad guys start exiting their vehicles, the tunnel is illuminated by a variety of light sources: Vehicle headlights, red flares, weapon laser pointers, and gunfire. We can see the individual flour particles floating in the air, as well as the bright beams of light, sharp reds of the flares and lasers, and stabbing flames from the weapons.

 

Another scene has KT doing some kind of underwater ballet or tai chi. The camera looks at her head-on underwater, but behind her is a bright spotlight, illuminating her and the water in myriad shades of blues, which is just an absolute, worst-case banding nightmare. But here the gradations are smooth and seamless with no noise or banding, something I don’t think any bandwidth-limited streaming service could manage to pull off as beautifully.

 

Sonically, Bloodshot offers a ton for home theater fans to enjoy, with a soundtrack that is dynamic, engaging, and immersive throughout, with frequent use of the height speakers in creative and convincing ways. Whether it’s the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” blasting through the overheads and surrounds during an interrogation, or voices echoing around the room during

Garrison’s flashbacks, or the sound of machines sliding overhead with gears turning and whirring, you are always in the midst of the action.

 

The big fight scenes also pour on the audio mayhem as you’d expect, with bass that is deep and authoritative as needed, energizing the room with explosions. Gunshots are also sharp and loud, with bullets punching holes in the sides and rear of the room, followed by sounds of debris and rubble.

 

There are also some nice subtle audio moments, like the creak of wood flooring to indicate a person walking overhead, or glass shattering and elevator cabling creaking and whooshing past your head, or the sound of drones whirring overhead. Bloodshot offers a terrific amount of demo material to show off your theater, especially though with Atmos-capable systems.

 

This movie’s conclusion all but screams “BLOODSHOT WILL RETURN IN A SEQUEL!” as the main characters literally drive off into the sunset. But that sequel will likely have to wait and see how the box office—and home video sales—ultimately stack up.

 

Bloodshot isn’t a movie where you’ll be in for any big Keyser Söze reveals or plot

Bloodshot

twists as the bad guys are pretty clearly telegraphed. This movie is far more about the fun of the journey than the excitement of the destination. Most importantly, Bloodshot looks and sounds fantastic in a premium home theater, with perhaps one of the most active and dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtracks I’ve heard in a while, and it will likely find its way into your demo-scene sizzle reel.

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.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

We benefit from yet another film that received a fast-tracked release to home video, one that just came out in theaters on February 7—though I’m not even entirely sure what to call it, as Warner Brothers was nearly as conflicted with the title as Harley Quinn herself. The film originally released with the nonsensical and absolute mouthful Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, but when that didn’t resonate with moviegoers, they changed it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, a title that puts the emphasis where it belongs.

I was a fan of DC comics growing up, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of the DC universe is fairly limited to the members of the Justice League—Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc.—and while Harley is a member of the extended DC Universe, I really didn’t know much about her character.

 

Those who watched 2016’s Suicide Squad were introduced to Harley (Margot Robbie) as she joined a band of misfits to perform deadly missions in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 27%, the film wasn’t well-received. However, Harley was the movie’s highpoint, and she generated enough excitement to get her own spinoff here. While Birds doesn’t feel tied to Squad in any way, there is one brief moment where the “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt Harley wore in Squad is held up, which places the movie in that continuity.

 

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if you aren’t a 

PREY AT A GLANCE

Another entry in the emerging genre of man-hating action films, Birds of Prey tends be as confusing and hard to follow as its heroine, but features lots of fight scenes to keep superhero fans engaged.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer does a terrific job of handling the spectrum from the usual Gotham City gloom to shimmering golds, glittering sequins, and the bright neons of fireworks.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is active and engaging, with appropriate impact, but Quinn’s VOs are too forward and loud in the mix.

hardcore comic-book geek, or haven’t seen all the DC movies, or don’t know anything about Harley Quinn, the movie brings you up to speed on everything you need to know about Harley’s backstory in the opening minutes.

 

Essentially, Harley grows up with a bad father, goes to school and gets her PhD in psychology, and then goes to work at Gotham City’s infamous Arkham Asylum, where she is assigned to treat The Joker. Over time, she falls in love with him, and, well, he kind of drives her insane. (Those hoping for any more of Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker are out of luck. An uncredited Joker has just a snippet of screen time in a flashback and we only see the back of his head. Also, no cameos by the caped crusader.)

 

Birds begins after Mr. J has broken up with Harley, and now she is forced to figure things out and survive in a Gotham where she has made a lot of enemies and no longer has The Joker’s protection.

 

While Harley frenetically bumbles through life, she ends up at a nightclub owned by main baddie Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). When Sionis’ driver is incapacitated, he ends up making club singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) his new driver, forcing her deeper into his seedy world.

 

After a diamond embedded with account numbers is pickpocketed from one of Sionis’ enforcers by young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley volunteers to find the diamond in exchange for Sionis not killing her, setting her off on her quest.

 

While this is going on, a separate story develops about a crossbow-wielding vigilante calling herself The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is going around the city and killing crime-family members, while being pursued by Gotham City detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

 

These stories all weave separately, with characters occasionally bumping into each other until they finally intertwine, forcing the females to band together to fight off an army of masked criminals Sionis has assembled to kill them all and retrieve the diamond.

 

Phew.

 

If that all sounds a bit confusing and a tad hard to follow, well, it kind of is. Nothing that Harley does seems planned or thought out, with everything just a spontaneous impulse based on sudden emotion or reaction. Right away, we see that she is totally lost without The Joker, telling us that “a harlequin’s role is to serve,” and they are nothing without their master.

 

The film also teaches that men, even trusted friends, will screw you over and that “if you want boys to respect you, you have to show you’re serious; blow something up, shoot someone.” The emancipated Harley doesn’t take anything from any man, paying back any sleight or offense with maximum pain.

 

The story is a bit schizophrenic at times, often jumping backwards in time as Harley’s mind puts things together, or adding new pieces of information helping to make sense of things and fill in the holes.

 

Prey looks terrific. Shot on Arriraw at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows. Images are gloriously sharp, with razor clarity and depth. Shots framed in tight focus leap off the screen, such as one closeup of an egg sandwich being cooked that reveals every texture and sharp edge and looked like a cinematic Food Network cooking demo. You can see every pore and line in actors’ faces, and the makeup and tattoos covering Harley. Wide exterior shots have a full field of focus that is almost three-dimensional.

 

The movie also has a bright and often hyper-vibrant color palette that looks fantastic in HDR. An early scene has neon-colored fireworks going off amidst brilliant-red fireball explosions. Costumes and backgrounds burst with color, with lots of shimmering golds and glittering silver sequins that shine and sparkle.

 

Because it’s Gotham, there are a lot of night and dark scenes, and blacks are deep and clean. Headlights, street lights, and the flashing blue and red police lights all pop off the screen. A final scene is on a misty and foggy pier, with lots of greys that are lit by dim and bright lights, which can be a total compression and banding nightmare, but these images remain solid, stable, and noise-free.

 

Sonically, Prey includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that is pretty active and engaging, and that makes frequent use of the height speakers.

 

City scenes have appropriate ambient street noises, and the nightclub takes on an entirely different sonic character, especially when Black Canary is singing and her voice has the reverb and ambience of being in a small jazz club. The Fun

House at the end also does a nice job getting playful with the audio mix, with lots of sounds coming from overhead.

 

There are a lot of fight scenes throughout the movie, and these have a lot sonic excitement. Gunshots have an appropriate snap and dynamics, and explosions energize the room with bass energy. During one scene, Harley attacks a police station with her “Fun Gun,” a weapon that shoots different non-lethal ammunition, and these projectiles launch with a solid thunk. When she fires off some gas rounds, you hear the smoke hissing into the room and overhead, and other rounds burst a confetti spray over the room.

 

Another fight happens in a prison hallway flooded with water. First is the sound of the water pouring overhead from the sprinkler system, and later you hear all of the splashes and individual water droplets spraying around the room.

 

I was a little concerned because Harley routinely narrates her thoughts, other characters’ backstories, or what is happening in a voiceover that booms across the front three channels. At first, I thought that overall dialogue levels were going to be way too loud and uncomfortably forward-sounding, and I ended up cutting the volume back a good bit from my usual reference. But it is just

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley’s VOs that are recorded at a louder, forward, and in-your-face level. I think this would have played better—and been a far more playful use of the mix—had these VOs been mixed up into the height speakers, but I didn’t get to weigh-in. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is “correctly” mixed and easy to understand.

 

While this is a “comic book” movie, it is most definitely not family-friendly fare. There is a lot of swearing throughout, as well as some fairly graphic violence including physical abuse to women as well as one character that likes to, umm, cut peoples’ faces off. So, yeah, not for kids. But for the adults looking for a night in with a total break from reality, Birds of Prey is a sonic and visual feast that will make a home theater shine.

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.

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.

 

Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 

DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE

This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.

 

PICTURE

The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.

 

SOUND

Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.

 

Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?

 

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.

 

The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.

 

The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.

 

Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.