Reviews

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

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.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I have been a fan of the musical and movie versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a very long time and take a certain amount of pride knowing that I was in on the phenomenon quite early. I got into the original cast recording when the show was still in its infancy. We even flew from California to New York in 1999 primarily to see the show when it was still way Off 

Broadway down on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Michael Cerveris was starring in the production then; I think he was the second Hedwig, right after creator John Cameron Mitchell.

 

Hedwig was everything I expected and more. I came home abuzz, trying to tell as many people as I could about this amazing music and production. I even convinced a one-off cover band I was in for a special benefit concert to do “Wicked Little Town”—which confused many in the audience, who had no clue what we were playing, yet it excited the handful who were hip to it. (I have a recording of that somewhere.) I’ve seen other productions of the show since, including most recently Mitchell’s fabulous Origin of Love concert tour, which was extremely rewarding—I finally got to see the original Hedwig!

HEDWIG AT A GLANCE

Criterion does its typically superb job of presenting this glam/punk/pop musical classic on Blu-ray.

 

PICTURE

Wonderful 4K transfer, but maybe a little too faithful to the original film, retaining more grain than contemporary audiences are used to.

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix is warm and inviting, but way too conservative for a rock ‘n’ roll film that could use a little rear-channel action. 

The music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is spectacular, springboarding off of an early-’70s glam-punk-pop template shaped by David Bowie, Marc Bolin (T-Rex), Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Mitchell and songwriter/lyricist Stephen Trask crafted a grand rock musical so compelling that Hedwig has enjoyed performances around the globe, including a successful Broadway run in 2014 starring Neil Patrick Harris.

 

When I recently learned about a Blu-ray release of the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had sneaked out last year, I scurried over to Amoeba Music and found their last copy. Thus, our review here today . . .

 

Generally, I’m quite pleased with this new edition from Criterion. Packaging-wise, it has a very different look from the original DVD version, more in keeping with the show’s artful, Germanic, drag-punk aesthetic. With its wild hand-drawn angular lettering and such, the design feels like some alternate-universe German silent film akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The original movie art looked nothing like that.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Those are details not lost on me given the story’s genesis (which I assume you know . . . but if you don’t, please click here for a link to the Wiki that can help bring you up to speed).

 

The picture quality on the Criterion Blu-ray of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite wonderful, restored at 4K. The colors are beautiful, with a very distinct sense of film grain. The latter detail is both appealing and distracting, and I admit I’m a bit on the fence about how I feel about this. I know it’s the most authentic vision, representative of how the film should look, but perhaps we see almost too much grain. I wouldn’t change it, of course. But I do need to acknowledge this, for what it’s worth. 

 

The detailing is nonetheless quite lovely, especially in the closeups. The ruby slipper-like sparkle on Hedwig’s lips is pretty incredible!

 

The detailed booklet in this Criterion issue features all 

manner of behind-the-scenes images and insights, including artwork tracing the character’s evolution. The bonus materials are essential, including a charming memory piece where John Cameron Mitchell explores his archives, telling stories of how Hedwig came together, illustrated with rare memorabilia and video footage. (Some of this section mirrors tales he told on his recent Origin of Love concert tour.) The interviews with cast and crew are revealing and enlightening. I’m still going through these materials, but so far I am very pleased.

 

My only disappointment with this edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch involves the sound. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix was a letdown—it is effectively a stereo mix with generic room ambience in the rear channels. It would have been nice to hear even a little bit of discrete activity in those channels! Maybe we will get that in a Super Deluxe Edition version somewhere down the pike.

 

That said, the mix does ultimately treat the music very nicely, sounding warm and inviting, almost analog at times. Accordingly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch sounds its best when you play it loud—after all, rock ‘n’ roll should be played at full volume! So if you love this movie musical and decide to get this new Criterion edition, don’t hesitate to turn up your amplifier to 11 for maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.

 

You won’t regret it.

Mark Smotroff

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

Onward

Onward

By all normal logic, you should not be reading this review right now. Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Onward, was just released theatrically on March 6, and with an opening gross of $103 million—and status as the #1 movie in the United States—it was already well on its way to becoming the studio’s next mega-hit.

 

But then the world went topsy-turvy and all the commercial cinemas closed, forcing studios to make a difficult and unprecedented decision: Wait until theaters reopen and hope interest for these movies is still there, or release them in non-

traditional ways. (You can read my post “Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date to see more on this fascinating development.)

 

Like others, Disney chose to greatly accelerate the home release date for Onward, making it available for purchase on digital download just two weeks after its theatrical debut. And, like Frozen II, Onward will also see a far earlier release date for streaming on Disney+, arriving there on April 3.

 

These plans came about so abruptly that digital retailers like Kaleidescape and Vudu didn’t even receive the 4K HDR files. However, in another unusual move from Disney, the company is using “harmonized pricing” for users purchasing Onward, meaning that one price—$26.99 in the case of Kaleidescape—gets you access to the film in HD resolution now with rights to download the UHD and 4K HDR versions when they are available.

ONWARD AT A GLANCE

Pixar had another mega-hit on its hands before it was forced to take this heartfelt but fun D&D-derived tale of loss & redemption out of theaters and straight to the home market.

 

PICTURE     

Picks up where the groundbreaking Toy Story 4 left off, with photorealistic graphics and dazzling effects.

 

SOUND

The adventurous mix—7.1 in the current version, but with an Atmos upgrade due soon—features plenty of pans, ambience, and bass.

So, with that preamble out of the way, we can proceed with the review . . .

 

Onward is set in the fantasy world of New Mushroomton, a world long ago that was filled with adventure and wonder and magic. But magic wasn’t easy to master, and over time, it faded away, and now it is a forgotten skill replaced by technology. I mean, why struggle learning to cast a light spell or rely on a wizard when now everyone can just walk over and flip a switch?

 

This setting is one of the first unique things for Pixar, in that the film is set in an entirely fantastical world. Every other Pixar film has been set to some degree in the “real world.” Whether it is the distant future of Wall-E, the underground insect world of A Bug’s Life, inside Riley’s head in Inside Out, or the alternate reality of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s world-building has thus

RELATED REVIEW

Toy Story 4

far been built around our reality. (Even Monstropolis from Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University is tied to our world, as the monsters cross over into our side of the closet door on multiple occasions.)

 

Onward also features some deep ties to fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, with tons of references overt and subtle that fans of these games will pick up and love, specifically one gelatinous monster that even passing D&D fans will be familiar with. The movie’s substitute for these is Quests of Yore, “A historically based role-playing scenario.”

In a way, it reminded me of a “Weird” Al Yankovic song like “All About the Pentiums.” You can enjoy the song on the surface for what it is, but the deeper you are into geek culture, the more you’ll appreciate its brilliance on different layers. Pixar is known for littering Easter eggs throughout its films. Onward features more references and hidden jokes than perhaps any other, and the home release allows you to pause and analyze scenes to loot-hunt these treasures at your leisure.

 

Whether it’s The Lion King, Bambi, Frozen, Finding Nemo, or numerous other films, a common theme among Disney heroes is having lost a parent, often in some tragic manner. But no film tackles this subject head-on quite like Onward, where the entire plot revolves around the opportunity to bring back a lost parent, to spend one last day with him. Also, for the first time we hear Disney characters not only talking about the pain and loss of losing a parent, but of the emotions of having to deal with a parent that is sick and dying. Heavy stuff for a “kid’s” movie.

 

The film focuses on elven brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) some 16 years after their father has died. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) unveils a present their father left behind for when both boys were over 16. Inside the present are a wizard’s staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and instructions for casting a “visitation spell” that will allow the dad to return for a single day to see how the boys have grown. Of course, things go awry when casting the spell, and Dad only returns from the waist down before the Phoenix Gem—an assist element required for casting powerful magic—is destroyed.

 

This sets up the campaign quest, as the brothers—and the lower-half of dad—head off in Barley’s sweet-van, Guinevere (fueled by an appropriately epic mixtape, of course), to follow clues left behind from the magic of old to discover another 

Phoenix Gem and finish casting the spell before the sun sets, and Dad is again lost forever.

 

Pixar inhabits this fantasy world with all manner of creatures, including gnomes, pixies, mermaids, unicorns, centaurs, cyclops, and goblins, which keeps scenes visually entertaining. In keeping with the RPG “rules,” different character classes have different abilities; and it is the shy and awkward Ian (whose name might be

Onward

a subtle nod to Sir Ian McKellen, who played a certain wizard named Gandalf the Grey in a few Tolkien films) who develops the ability to use the wizard’s staff to cast spells rather than his RPG-obsessed, living the “longest gap year ever” non-starter brother, Barley, perpetually wearing a jean vest emblazoned with patches and buttons of Metal-like band names and a 20-sided die, like so many of the kids I went to high-school with in the ‘80s.

 

And like any epic quest, the story begins at an all-too common starting point: The Tavern. From Chaucer’s Tale to Hobbiton’s Green Dragon Inn to numerous D&D campaigns, the Tavern is often the place where parties gather to palaver prior to beginning their journey. In this case, the Tavern is run by a Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a mythical creature with “a vaguely humanoid head, the body of a lion, and the wings of a dragon [whose] long tail ends in a cluster of deadly spikes,” according to D&D rules. With magic gone, our Manticore has lost its bite, and the tavern is now more a family-friendly TGI Friday’s affair. But it serves as the launching point for the brothers’ adventure—as well as a way for the Manticore to do some self-discovery—and provides the first clue to tracking down the Gem.

 

As mentioned at the outset, this review is of the HD version, which looks fantastic in its own right, but it definitely left me eager to see this visual glory all over again but in higher resolution, and with the added color and punch of HDR, when the 4K HDR release becomes available.

 

As literally every pixel shown on screen is rendered in computer, we get an amazing level of detail, especially in closeups. Here, literally every strand of hair or fur is visible in perfect detail, as are things like the grain in desks or the stones in walls. Other things have a photo-realistic quality, such as slices of bread, vehicles, or wet roads. Pixar continues upping the ante in computer visuals, and Onward picks up where the gorgeous Toy Story 4 left off.

Lighting effects are dazzling, whether it is fire, sparkling magic, or light streaming in through windows. Dark spaces like caves or night scenes make for especially vibrant eye candy. 

 

As is the case with every Disney release I am aware of, the digital HD version—and Blu-ray disc on release—doesn’t contain the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is reserved for the premium 4K content. Instead, Onward’s HD version has a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack.

 

While I can’t wait to audition the Atmos track when the 4K version drops, this mix offers plenty to enjoy. There are strong panning and surround effects tracking the onscreen action, especially during the driving scenes on the expressway and the final challenge quest in the tunnels, where multiple objects whiz past your head. Even with the 7.1-channel mix, my processor’s upmixer smartly put sounds up into the ceiling, such as a dragon’s tail swiping overhead or fire breathing across the room. Outdoor scenes feature tons of ambient sounds to place you in the action, and bass is deep and authoritative when called for. I find dialogue to be slightly forward with DTS mixes, but I had no difficulty understanding all the lines.

Onward

Of course, the brilliance of Pixar is in making movies that appeal to a broad range of viewers, and not just for that small subset of hardcore fans of a specific genre or RPG subculture. Unlike any other studio, Pixar has a knack for writing stories and jokes that play across multiple levels. Kids appreciate the top-level humor, with other jokes and references for adults, and deeper meanings and storytelling themes that parents recognize.

 

Ultimately, Onward is Pixar doing what it does best, which is creating movies about deep relationships and going right for the feels at the end. Whether you’re a beginning Level 1 Crafty Rogue or a veteran Level 20 Wizard, there is plenty in Onward to engage and entertain family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy (2019)

Wherever you stand on the controversial topic of capital punishment, it’s probably safe to say that no one wants to get it wrong and accidentally put an innocent person to death. And while we would probably all like to believe the justice system is infallible and that it goes out of its way to get it right and ensure those given the ultimate sentence are truly guilty and deserving, the sad truth is that isn’t the case. Especially in the past. And even more especially in parts of the South.

 

Just Mercy is the true story of an idealistic, fresh-from-Harvard-Law graduate African American, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who travels to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larsen) to seek justice for those wrongfully convicted or who had received inadequate counsel. While visiting the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, Stevenson meets with a variety of inmates and listens to one sad story after another about being railroaded by a legal system that seems rigged to work against them.

 

One of these is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), accused, convicted, and sentenced to death in Monroe, Alabama for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white girl. After McMillian has spent years on death row, Stevenson takes up his case. (Interestingly, Monroe County is where Harper Lee was born, and the wrongful trial and conviction of Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in many ways echoes what happened to McMillian.)

 

As Stevenson starts digging through files and records and court transcripts, it quickly becomes apparent that the case against McMillian was fueled by deep-seated racism and the need to solve the murder, with much of the evidence that would have acquitted him having been excluded, and with the guilty verdict—and the prosecution’s entire case—hinging entirely on the forced and fabricated testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).

 

Beyond the compelling story, what truly drives Just Mercy are the fantastic performances turned in by Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson. Jordan is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine, after engaging roles in Creed, Black Panther, and Fruitvale Station, and he definitely delivers here, showing off Stevenson’s idealism and hope to change the system and save lives. And we repeatedly experience the shocking injustice at virtually every turn through his eyes and expressions.

 

Foxx is the polar opposite of his normal bombastic and cocky persona, instead being reserved and slow to believe and hope that this time this lawyer will actually be different, but when intensity and emotion are called for, Foxx delivers.

 

Nelson, who has made a career of playing quirky characters (and whose appearance in movies never fails to elicit an, “We thought you was a toad!” quote from my wife and me, recalling his character Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother Where Art Thou?) does a terrific job of inhabiting the conflicted Myers, adopting a tic and speech pattern that represent his abuse growing up in the foster system and bringing some humanity to what initially seems an unredeemable person.

 

The film avoids all of the usual prison-film tropes of guards beating prisoners, yard riots, or shower rapes, and instead focuses on the friendships that develop between prisoners on the Row and the helpless feeling of waiting around in a cage for someone or something else to make a decision that will change or end your life.

 

There is one execution that underscores the high stakes involved should the appeals fail, but even that scene shies away from reveling in anything gruesome, with the camera instead cutting away right before the electricity is applied. However, it retains a high level of emotion as we experience what we can’t see through Stevenson’s eyes and the feelings of the other prisoners along with a low, steady hum of high-current passing off camera.

 

Repeatedly, the film leaves you feeling infuriated by the smug confidence and corruption of the (then) all-white Alabama law machine, specifically Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) who seems less concerned whether McMillian is the guilty person and more so that someone is going to pay. The justice system appears to circumvent and corrupt justice at every turn, and, like 

McMillian, you end up with a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and anguish. Just how many wrongs can be uncovered and the truth still be denied?

 

Filmed in 8K, Just Mercy is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and closeups certainly reveal each pixel of this detail. Facial detail is sharp and in razor focus, showing every pore, pockmark, and whisker. Early on Stevenson wears a V-neck sweater vest, and there is fine-line stitching clearly visible along the neck and shoulders.

 

The film has a mostly reserved color palette throughout. Many exterior scenes feature earth tones under a mostly muted and overcast sky, with even the often bright-blue Alabama skies dialed back. The interior of McMillian’s home is filled with tans, browns, creams, and other muted tones, and the prison interiors are taupes, greys, whites, and beiges.

 

HDR is used to provide punch to shadows and sunlight streaming through windows, but this isn’t really a film that stuns with amazing visuals.

 

Sonically, I’d call the Dolby Atmos soundtrack reserved. Fortunately, dialogue, which is the all-important character here, is well and faithfully presented in the 

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

center channel, letting you easily understand every line. They do use some opportunities to provide some ambience in the mix, such as having birds chirp, wind blowing, and leaves rustling in outdoor scenes. The mix also does a nice job of putting you inside the prison, with dialogue mixed in a way to makes you feel like you’re in a low-ceilinged room, with the subtle buzz of lights and hum of the HVAC system. Occasionally, you’ll hears doors slamming or shouts off in the distance. When McMillian is locked in his cell, the door slides shut with a weighty and convincing thunk.

 

Just Mercy is a heavy and powerful 2 hour and 17-minute film that received a well-deserved 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is one that will leave you thinking well after the credits roll. In fact, an end-credit scene leaves you with the staggering statistic that for every nine persons executed in the United States, one is exonerated and set free.

 

The film dropped a week earlier than expected at the Kaleidescape store, nearly a full month before the physical Blu-ray release on April 14. No 4K disc version is announced at this time, making Kaleidescape your best option for the highest-quality viewing 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.

The Report

The Report (2019)

Sitting at home during the early stages of what may turn out to be a genuinely spectacular pandemic, I sometimes let my mind drift over recent history, with specific key aspects of select periods pointing to some deeper meaning.

 

Sure, it may be the wine talking, but there are truths that only become apparent when allowed to ruminate without the burden of an overly hectic social schedule. Facts like how 2019 was unlike any other year in that it indeed was the Year of Adam Driver.

 

Think about it: Last year, Driver starred in no fewer than four full-length North American releases: The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Report, the last of which came and went in a haze all too fast to garner nearly as much box office success as it deserves.

 

Released in November ’19 a month ahead of the super-hyped wrap to the original Star Wars saga, The Report places Driver in the role of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones who, in 2009, was enlisted by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to investigate the ’05 destruction of videotapes documenting allegedly abusive CIA interrogations of prisoners in the months following 9/11. 

 

When the report detailing the findings of the original two-year investigation is brushed aside, Feinstein directs Jones and his team of six to dig deeper, leading them to discover horrible truths that the CIA preferred to remain buried.

 

As a thriller, The Report relentlessly grabs viewers by the collar as we’re taken behind the scenes of the torture program that came to be known for the introduction of the term waterboarding into the American vernacular.

 

Like Three Days of the Condor and other classic thrillers of the ‘70s, The Report builds tension by allowing the story to unfold around a central character, in this case Jones, whose sincerity and near-disbelief at the attempts to thwart his investigation only inspire him to push harder, if not always with the greatest of prudence.

 

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is a big film with big-ticket stars that remarkably maintains the feel of a lean, independent production. Special effects are replaced by a keen eye on detail, as Jones and his team methodically research the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” videos of which went missing shortly before the original investigation kicked into gear. This isn’t some Watergate-style 18-minute gap in audio—hundreds of hours of tapes quickly went MIA thanks to the CIA, or so Jones and his team maintained as the followup investigation built momentum over five years. According to history, the small group dove into more than six million pages of documents, conducted interviews, and met with interference by the Agency and members of the Obama administration, among others. 

 

Unlike thrillers that expand the narrative into the leads’ personal lives, The Report is all about the business at hand. We’re left to surmise that Jones’ home and love lives are anemic at best, as we see him work tirelessly with an added boost of adrenalin every time he or a member of his staff discover a new and potentially beneficial revelation.

 

Playing a man who is consumed by his mission, Driver portrays Jones as supremely buttoned-up, humorless, and wholly wonkish as he dives into a sea of paper in pursuit of the true story. Burns, making his directorial debut, lets the day-to-day details of the story build as the 6,700-page report takes shape. Aside from occasional violence depicted in flashback scenes to the CIA black sites where the abuses took place, The Report is all talk and tension in the best possible way.

 

It is a challenge to present relatively recent news.Yet, Burns and the cast pull it off with what felt like a never-ending race from the windowless box where the team did their research to meetings with administration officials, the CIA, and conversations with anonymous sources. Throughout, Driver maintains a focused, sort of angry composure that had me anticipating an explosion of emotion that never materializes. Instead, he is simply a professional with no intention of letting up, especially as it becomes clear that early suspicions about allegations of torture are in fact true.

 

As a screenwriter, Burns collaborated with co-producer Steven Soderbergh on several films, including Contagion, which unsurprisingly is getting cited in current news stories. He eschews oversized scenes for adherence to the story, acknowledging that the story itself is more powerful than any dramatic flourish can provide. Of course, this means the viewer must keep up with the dialogue, which is mixed clear and upfront, with sound effects and music playing their roles as distant seconds to the words.

 

This is Driver’s sweet spot. His dry yet impassioned delivery comes across as honest and sincere, whereas a lesser actor may have lapsed into a more over-the-top presentation throughout the film. As Sen. Feinstein, Annette Bening becomes the character—from her outward appearance to her mannerisms in public and private, she embodies the senator’s pleasant, no-nonsense manner without it becoming a caricature.

 

Upon its release, The Report came and went without making a dent at the box office, which is a shame, given that you will be hard-pressed to find an equally gripping film with a commitment to historical accuracy that makes it required viewing for fans of historical narratives. The combination of a tight script and first-rate cast makes The Report a home run for Burns, box office losses to the contrary.   

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

There hasn’t been a lot of good news swirling about lately, so it was a real treat to open my email on Saturday morning and see a message from Kaleidescape announcing that Disney and Lucasfilm had decided to give fans a little bit of weekend fun by releasing the latest Star Wars movie a few days early. (It as originally scheduled for March 17; the disc release is scheduled for March 31.)

 

While the Mouse House offered no official announcement (at least that I could find) about the reasoning behind this early release, the company did make an announcement that Frozen 2 “will be available three months ahead of schedule on Disney+ in the U.S. . . . surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period,” an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

With more families staying at home, a bit of Star Wars could be just the thing to lift spirits.

 

Officially carrying the weighty title Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker, this film brings to a conclusion the space opera created by George Lucas back in 1977, and wraps the final trilogy of films which began in 2015 with The Force

Awakens and continued in 2017 with The Last Jedi.

 

Following the mixed fan reception of director Rian Johnson’s Jedi, which received a favorable critics’ rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a dismal, franchise-low audience score of just 43%, Star Wars looked to finish strong with Skywalker. But there was difficulty early on as initial writer and director Colin Trevorrow was quickly replaced due to “creative differences,” and J.J. Abrams was brought back in to helm the ship and finish the trilogy he began with Awakens.

 

To be fair, Abrams had an almost impossible task here—to conclude a saga that had taken on myth and meaning in people’s lives, with expectations far beyond what any movie could ever deliver. To its credit, Disney threw a ton of money at the film (an estimated $275 million), and J.J. tried to give fans the farewell they wanted, even bringing back a host of characters not seen in years, including Lando Calrissian (Billy De Williams), Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson), and Wicket (Warwick Davis), along with even more that are only heard. And while he reversed the tide of Last Jedi’s ratings, scoring an audience score of 86%, he also managed a franchise-low critic’s rating of just 51%.

 

Abrams also faced the major obstacles of losing Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia was supposed to be a central character in this final episode, and having to follow some of the story choices Johnson took with Last Jedi. The result is a movie that feels a bit disjointed at times, shoehorning and repurposing previously shot footage and dialogue of Fisher where it could, and feeling like it was rewriting Johnson’s film at others. The result left some with more questions than answers.

 

Like many of you, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the first film at a small theater in Carmel, California while my parents were out shopping when I was 7. I can remember that first Star Destroyer flying overhead and thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. When the movie was over, I walked out and met my parents outside, told them how amazing it was, and then turned around and went back in and watched it again.

 

For the record, I enjoyed Skywalker, but left the theater on opening night a bit conflicted. When my wife asked me what I thought of it, I said, “I liked it, but I’m not sure it is the movie I wanted. But I’m not sure what I wanted.”

 

No matter how great this film was, it was always going to be somewhat of a bittersweet experience for fans. We all watched the final credits knowing this was the end of 

something that had become important in our lives, and now there is no more Star Wars to look forward to. (At least in the manner that we’ve grown accustomed to. Disney and Lucasfilm will most certainly continue to mine that galaxy far, far away for stories for years to come.) For me, this is now the third time I’ve “lost” Star Wars, the first being when Return of the Jedi finished in 1983, the second when Episode III—Revenge of the Sith finished in 2005.

 

Now, I’m not going to presume my review or analysis of Skywalker is going to sway your decision to watch it, nor am I going to bother wasting time and space trying to recap the plot—especially since this is an almost two-and-a-half-hour film that concludes 42 years’ worth of storytelling. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve already seen the movie, and have already drawn your own conclusions, and have likely already pre-ordered the mega box set of all the films, scheduled for release at the end of the month. (Incidentally, the other eight films in the Star Wars saga were also released in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks at the same time as Skywalker.) But if you haven’t seen Skywalker by now, maybe you can be swayed to give this a viewing in your home theater. I assure you, it’s well worth the time, and I feel it improves on repeated viewings. (I far more enjoyed it on my second viewing this past January in Las Vegas on the only Sony Premium Digital Cinema in the country.)

 

OK, with that out of the way, lets get down to it: How does the 4K HDR release of Rise of Skywalker look and sound? Fortunately, this is a far less controversial question to answer, as the presentation is top-notch! The film even garnered three Academy Awards nominations, for John Williams’ original score, visual effects, and sound editing.

 

Shot on a combination of Kodak film stocks, Skywalker’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and uses HDR throughout to really pump colors and highlights, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that surrounds and immerses you in the action.

 

From the opening scenes, Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) unstable lightsaber sizzles on screen, glowing and seething with bright reds. The final battle on Exegol is like an HDR demo reel, with dark skies dotted with glowing engines of ships, and illuminating the room with frequent bright blue-white bursts of pupil-searing lightning strikes and laser bolts.

 

While space is never “pitch black” in Star Wars films, images remain clean and noise-free, and we get some true blacks in interiors. The scenes aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer (which reminded me of what an incredible job Disney did of transporting you into the Star Wars universe in its new Rise of the Resistance ride) look fantastic, with gleaming, glistening black decks, bright lighting illuminating hallways, and laser blasts and sparks.

 

The underground sand worm’s lair on Pasaana is another scene that could be a recipe for producing a video and compression nightmare, with dimly lit passageways illuminated by BB8’s glowing lights along with a couple of flashlights and the searing blue of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber. Blacks remain deep, with lots of shadow detail without any distracting banding or other artifacts.

 

Closeups reveal a terrific level of detail, showing every pore, strand of hair, stitch, texture, and bit of wear. Part of owning the film—and watching it repeatedly—is the you can revel in the attention to detail in nearly every shot, such as the creature design and the large interiors. The only scenes that appear “soft” are the ones with Leia. All of her shots are comprised of previously unused footage shot while filming Force Awakens. The previous background elements were removed digitally so she could be composited into the new shots.

 

Disney has received flack over the soundtracks on many of its top-level releases, but the Atmos audio included here is beyond reproach, with lots of dynamics and activity. Whether it is the snap and hum of lightsabers, the effects of Force energy, the waves crashing on the moon in the Endor system, the thrum of various engines, or explosions, bass is deep, powerful, and room-energizing when appropriate.

Surround and height speakers are used frequently to immerse you in the scenes and action. The speeder chase on Pasaana has laser blasts that shoot around the room and troopers launching and flying overhead. The scenes on Kijimi are filled with expansive street sounds to place you on location, with wind blowing, snow falling, and distant shouts and voices. The height speakers are also used to good effect during Rey and Ren’s Force chats, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) booming voice, and the voices of Jedi past that echo in Rey’s mind.

 

Sonically, my favorite scenes are aboard the remnants of the second Death Star. These scenes are among the most interesting from an audio standpoint, with loads of drips, creaks, and groans of wires twisting and metal straining as the giant ship constantly settles while Rey moves about in the cavernous interiors. The exterior shots are filled with the roar of wind and crash of waves and water splattering—all of it an ambient feast for the audio senses!

 

Beyond dialogue being clear and easily intelligible, the soundtrack also does a wonderful job presenting Williams’ score, what he says will be his final time working with Star Wars.

The Rise of Skywalker

Even if Rise of Skywalker isn’t your favorite film in the Star Wars saga, the movie is worth purchasing just for the extras, including the feature-length documentary The Skywalker Legacy, along with five other featurettes. Included with the Kaleidescape release as a digital exclusive is “The Maestro’s Finale,” which has John Williams looking back on his 40-plus-year career working with Star Wars.

 

While this might not be the conclusion to the Skywalker saga that some wanted, this is the one we’ve been given. And there is still a lot here to enjoy, especially in a home theater setting. Get a bowl of popcorn, turn down the lights, turn up the sound, sit back and enjoy, and I all but guarantee the Force will be with you.

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.

1917

1917 (2019)

Filmmakers don’t typically cover World War I with the frequency they do more recent wars. Perhaps it’s because with the age of the war there aren’t many first-hand accounts to draw from, or it doesn’t feature the cool tech of modern wars, or the political angle of Vietnam, or the clear-cut good-versus-evil themes of WWII. Whatever the reason, if director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is the last film we ever get covering the First Great War, the subject will have been well served.

 

This is a personal project for Mendes, who not only directed but also co-wrote and produced, being based in part on stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in the war as a 17-year-old. And it clearly resonated with both fans and critics alike,

raking in over $360 million worldwide and nabbing ten Academy Awards nominations, including Director and Picture, along with wins for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.

 

To me, 1917 is less about the actual story—which is rather simple—and far more about the way it is told and how it visually unfolds.

 

The film opens on April 6, 1917, where we are introduced to two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Den-Charles Chapman). Actually, “introduced” is really an 

overstatement; we just see them lying down and learn nothing of them before they’re called in to meet with General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who has some vital news that must be delivered by dawn to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

 

Through aerial reconnaissance, the British army has discovered that instead of having the German army on the run, Mackenzie is about to lead his men into a massive German ambush, likely causing the massacre of two full battalions—upwards of 1,600 men. Making the message even more personal, Blake’s brother is among the men in the regiment scheduled to attack, so failure could mean a personal loss. The two soldiers are thus sent off with a message ordering Mackenzie to call off the attack, covering miles of hostile territory alone and in the full light of day.

 

Welcome to the opening minutes of 1917.

 

In the hands of a different director, this likely wouldn’t have been such a successful and powerful film, as Mendes does two things that combine to make it feel so much more real, immediate, and personal.

 

First, it’s shot in a manner that makes the movie feel like one (well, actually two) continuous takes. There are almost no interruptions to the two long scenes; no quick camera cuts or edits, no perspective changes, just a continued focus on our heroes. You get a sense of the planning needed for this as the cameras follow the two protagonists through what feels like miles of trenches, sliding around other soldiers and navigating twists and turns, or following them as they run through battle scenes.

 

Second, the shots are almost always framed tight—either head-on or from a close follow—rarely more than just a few feet from the two leads. You frequently see little in the distance or much off to the periphery as you are locked tight on them. This draws you naturally in to their situation, seeing their feelings and emotions, the wear of their uniforms, and the strain of the task at hand, making you care more about the mission. But it also serves to add to the tension and unease and fog of war of the journey, as you are given far less information about your surroundings, and end up reacting to events as they happen instead of being prepared for them.

 

As you’d expect, Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography looks beautiful. When the camera does pull back, we see the immense scope, with huge landscapes and wide vistas looking epic in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The lighting is also beautifully done—and greatly benefits from HDR. Whether it is the dark interior of a tent warmly lit in rich red-orange glows from lamps, the dark insides of bunkers illuminated by flashlight, or a French village lit up at night by overhead flares and a conflagration, blacks are deep, with lots of shadow detail. Skies during the daylight scenes—the first of the two shots—are a bright, overcast grey, free of any noise or banding and still revealing clouds and other details thanks to HDR.

 

Equally impressive is the attention to detail in the set dressing and production design (also nominated). Filmed in ArriRaw at 4.5K, with this transfer taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you appreciate all the little details on screen. In the opening scenes, you can see the layers of texture and materials on the soldiers’ uniforms and kit, with individual stitching, fray, and wear, and the aging on their leathers.

 

Going through the trenches, you can see all the work required to dig in a protected position and the nightmare of having to sleep in a constant state of mud and muck (later juxtaposed by the much more advanced German trenches). We follow right on the heels of the two soldiers as they slog through the muddy, gritty, terrifying textures of life as a WWI soldier, where the landscape is frequently littered with rotting, fly-covered carcasses, rats running in and out of decomposing bodies, various bits of limbs protruding from dust-covered landscapes, and rusted-out helmets pocked with bullet holes. You could nearly get a case of trench foot from the wet-muddy realism of it. And all of these shots without break in a single, long take!

 

The only video issue I noticed was a pretty severe bit of judder at around 42:40 (immediately preceding “The Dogfight” scene). The camera shoots through the gaps between some vertical wooden fence slats while slowly tracking to the right. Whether it is the shutter speed used, the speed of the camera panning, or just an inherent issue with the limitations of filming at 24 frames per second, on my two displays (a JVC 4K projector and Sony 4K TV), the wooden posts broke down into a ghosted mess during these few seconds. At first I thought there might be an issue with the Kaleidescape encode, but I had fellow reviewer Dennis Burger check the same scene on a 4K version of the movie streamed from Vudu, and he had the same experience. (Another Kaleidescape user at the Owner’s Forum commented that he didn’t notice any issues with that scene, so it is likely display dependent.)

 

Given the film’s Academy Award for sound mixing and nomination for sound editing, I was excited to hear the audio mix; and while the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack included with the Kaleidescape download is certainly dynamic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t (again!) call out NBC Universal for not providing Kaleidescape with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos track.

 

Even still, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did an admirable job of extracting ambient cues from scenes, adding the swirl of wind through leaves and trees in a forest canopy, the roar of plunging water, or the sounds of a bunker caving in around 

you, with its wooden supports splintering and dust and debris filling the room. Another scene has a biplane roaring overhead and disappear out through the front of the room, and in another you hear flares launched up overhead, where they sizzle and burn.

 

This is a war film, so there is a fair bit of shooting and explosions, and rifle shots have an appropriately loud and sharp crack, with the sounds of ejected and spent brass shell casings tinkling and bouncing on the floor. One explosion was so loud and sudden that it literally had me jump in my seat!

 

Further, the movie is well served by Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated original score, which seems to always add the right level of sweeping scale, tension, and urgency to the film. It reminded me in some ways of the frantic, haunting music Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, always reminding you that our characters are in a race against the clock, and the clock is ticking.

 

Dialogue is mostly easy to understand throughout, and when it wasn’t, it was more due to the occasionally thick accents of the actors than to any poor quality of the mix.

1917 (2019)

If I have one last nit to pick, it is again with NBC Universal. As is another of their maddening policies, they don’t provide Kaleidescape with any of the film’s extras or supplemental features, and 1917 is a movie that demands a making-of documentary viewing to see how they pulled off the incredible cinematography and camera work. Hopefully this policy will change in the future.

 

For me, recommending 1917 is a total no-brainer. It is not only one of the most unique and engaging films I’ve seen in a while, it looks fantastic in a home theater—the bigger the screen the better. It’s an intense viewing experience, but one that is well worth 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.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

I cannot tell you how faithful Greta Gerwig’s new big-screen adaptation of Little Women is to Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. I’ve never read the book. Nor can I tell you how it compares with previous adaptations, including the beloved 1994 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Daines, et al. I’ve never seen any of them. What drew me to this film wasn’t the source material or any respect for its cultural significance. What lured me in was Gerwig herself, whose brilliant directorial debut—2017’s Lady Bird—earned her enough creative currency in my book that I’ll watch anything she helms going forward.

 

Still, my wife snickered when I told her we’d be watching the film.

 

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

 

“You’re way more of an Emily Brontë than a Louisa May Alcott, that’s all.”

 

I frankly have no clue what that means. But I do know this: If I honestly cared about organizing some personal ranking of the best films of 2019, Little Women would leave me scrambling to rearrange it yet again.

 

I think I can safely say that Gerwig’s film is structured very differently from Alcott’s book, if only because a novel written in such a temporally idiosyncratic way would read like James Joyce on a bad acid trip. The film follows seven years in the life of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen—but rather than following their maturation from adolescence into womanhood chronologically, Gerwig instead groups scenes thematically, jumping forward and backward in time with seemingly no rhyme or reason until you catch onto the fact that rhyme and reason are exactly what influenced the grouping of moments in time, rather than the straightforward passage thereof.

By taking this approach, Gerwig has constructed more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative, and it reminds me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in its pace and momentum; definitely not in its tone or effect) than perhaps any other film I’ve seen in recent decades. Much like that film, Little Women assumes the intelligence of its audience, and trusts the viewer to locate themselves in time and space by way of context. Only one subtitle early in the film calls out the drastic time shifts, and from there on out Gerwig seems to assume you’ll either keep up or give up and enjoy the ride.

 

Far more than merely a cinematic conceit, these near-constant temporal shifts allow the viewer to do something I honestly wasn’t quite sure I would be able to do at the beginning of the film: Truly understand the unique personality of each of the story’s numerous characters. By clumping the tale’s visual, thematic, and narrative echoes together rather than sprinkling them throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime, Gerwig invites us to ruminate more on meaning than exposition, more on character than narrative.

 

Again, I’m at a loss to compare the themes of the film to the themes of the book, but the story as Gerwig tells it is really about the creative impulse. The drive to make art. The struggle to be taken seriously not just as a woman in Civil War-era America, but as an artist in an inartistic world. In many ways, the film ends up being as much a commentary on the story as an adaptation of it, best I can tell. And while it also grapples with issues of class, gender, and societal norms—all with surprising nuance and complexity—it’s really that artistic impulse that centers the film and gives distinct personality to each of its characters.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Little Women is that it isn’t afraid to get a little weird at times. But it’s not a weirdness driven by affectation. Instead, it’s a weirdness driven by the needs of the story. As much as Gerwig’s film deviates from the structure of any comprehensible book to craft a uniquely cinematic work, it’s still in many ways a celebration of the written word. And in paying homage to the inimitable structure of written language, it relies on tropes that would normally drag a film down or cheapen it—like narration, for example. Rather than taking the safe approach or trying to bury that narration in the tried-and-true ways, Gerwig hangs a lantern on it at times and has her characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, even when they’re not speaking to the viewer.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but in Gerwig’s hands it does. And the cumulative effect is a film that’s as playful as it is heady, as sentimental as it is rebellious, as joyful as it is solemn in places. The one place where Gerwig doesn’t take bold risks is with the look of the film. I could have told you without looking that Little Women was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T stock, which gives the cinematography a decidedly warm cast, with a yellowish tint to whites

and a flush ruddiness to skin tones. But the overall look of the film is intentionally muted, and even the 4K/HDR presentation on Kaleidescape doesn’t make much obvious use of its expanded dynamic range and color gamut.

 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely film. Just not one that will be used as videophile demo material. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, on the other hand, is unapologetically adventurous. Shockingly so for a period film of this sort. The height channels are used judiciously but effectively to provide a vertical boost in scenes that need it—large parlors, big theaters, the grimy city streets of 19th century New York—but they probably get used most to expand Alexandre Desplat’s score (his best since The Shape of Water, in my opinion) into the z-axis.

 

Sadly, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is delivered sans extras for now, which is unsurprising given that it’s a Sony release. Expect those bonus goodies to drop right around the time the film is released to disc (Blu-ray and DVD only, no UHD) in April. One supplement in particular I’m eager to see is an exploration of Orchard House, the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women.

Little Women (2019)

While I wait, I think I might actually give Alcott’s book a try based purely on the strength of this film alone, and despite my wife’s objections. As the credits rolled, I looked at her and playfully scolded her: “Why have you never pestered me to read that book?!”

 

She pondered for a few moments and replied: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the book. It’s one of my favorites. But the book wasn’t that good. It’s entertainment. That film was art.”

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.

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell (2019)

Since 2006’s dual film release of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood has increasingly turned his directorial eye towards films covering actual events. Another theme common among his recent films is focusing on American heroes, where lone individuals make a major impact on their surroundings, such as decorated Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in American Sniper, quick-thinking pilot “Sully” Sullenberger in Sully, or the group of Americans that averted a terrorist attack on a Paris train in The 15:17 to Paris. To that list we can add Eastwood’s most recent film, Richard Jewell.

 

I imagine that anyone reading this was alive during the events this film covers, namely the bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games. The film principally focuses on the events following the July 27 incident, when Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovered a suspicious-looking backpack under a bench in the Park, which turned out to be filled with pipe bombs. The bombs exploded shortly thereafter, but only killing one person in the blast due to Jewell’s intervention. (A second person, a reporter, died of a heart attack running towards the explosion to cover the event.)

 

Initially hailed as a hero for finding the bomb and preventing further casualties, the tide of public opinion quickly turned against Jewell after an article by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying that he was a person-of-interest in the FBI’s investigation, with the headline, “F.B.I. Suspect Hero Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” When other outlets like CNN and the AP ran with the story, followed by round-the-clock FBI surveillance and some other unseemly tactics, Jewell was all but convicted in the public’s eye. While he was eventually cleared of any involvement in the incident, the trial by media had a grave impact on his life.

 

Eastwood has become increasingly outspoken in his political views, going back to his infamous “empty chair speech” to then President Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and Jewell isn’t completely devoid of any political messaging. He often seems to be using the film to express concerns about the media and big government conspiring to lead an agenda.

 

Eastwood also manages to throw in a few jabs about the rights of gun ownership. In one exchange between Jewell and his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Bryant says, “You belong to any extremist groups, Richard? [The] NRA?” causing Jewell to reply, “Is the NRA a fringe group?”

 

During another scene when they are preparing for the FBI to come and search Jewell’s home, Bryant asks if Jewell has any weapons. After Jewell places a large stockpile of weapons on his bed, including several assault-style automatic rifles, Bryant says, “Oh, good Lord. What are you expecting? A zombie invasion or something?”

 

“No, I wasn’t expecting zombies,” Jewell replied. “I expect deer. I hunt.”

 

As a principally dialogue-driven piece, Eastwood keeps most conversations framed tight and close, allowing us to really see and connect with the actors, which works because he has such a stellar cast here. In addition to those already mentioned, Kathy Bates received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her role as Jewell’s mom, Bobi.

 

The film begins in 1986, establishing the relationship between Jewell and Bryant, and also sowing the seeds of Jewell’s love and obsession with being involved in law enforcement. Repeatedly, we see Jewell as a mostly failed loner, living at home with his mother and desperately wanting to find some sort of a career in law enforcement. When given a security job at a university, he goes well beyond his authority and is ultimately forced to resign after repeated complaints, which leads to his taking a position as a security guard in connection with the Olympics, where he is shown regularly looking to befriend or ingratiate himself with actual law-enforcement officers.

 

Eastwood leaves overt politics aside for the most part and just goes about telling Jewell’s story in a mostly accurate and linear fashion. This makes it easy to follow and watch as the FBI and media go about ticking the boxes to investigate and criminalize Jewell, even going so far as to trick him into coming to the FBI offices and trying to get him to sign a waiver of his rights under the guise of filming a training video to help future officers. According to History vs Hollywood, the film is surprisingly accurate save for one major point between story-hungry journalist Scruggs and FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) in an offer to trade sex for information, which Scruggs’ associates say never would have happened. (The actual Scruggs died in 2001.)

 

The only scenes that felt staged were the recreations in Centennial Park, where the crowds just felt light and forced, and the shots were framed to minimize how few people were actually there. These scenes just seemed to be missing the excitement and energy that would have existed in these pre-Olympics gatherings.

Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and this shows in the pristine detail in closeups of actors’ faces, which just snap into ultra-sharp focus and clarity. You can see every line, wrinkle, pore, and stray hair, adding to the feeling of being right there coupled with Eastwood’s tight framing. Near the end of the movie there is a brick building with sharp lines from the edges of the mortar and bricks that could have been pulled from a test pattern.

 

Night scenes are appropriately dark and noise-free, with lights getting some punch from HDR. Following the explosion, the smoke-filled skies are lit by different sources, which would be a bandwidth torture test nightmare for streaming services, but the image on the Kaleidescape download remained free of any noise or banding.

 

Audio is served up via a DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix that is serviceable but doesn’t do too much to immerse you in the action. There are a few dynamic scenes, such as Jewell at a gun range or the bombs exploding with nails spraying around the room, but for the most part surround info is limited to some minor ambience, such 

Richard Jewell (2019)

as arcade sounds in an early scene or shutter clicks of ever-present cameras. One scene in a club has some jazz playing in the background (possibly arranged by Eastwood, who is known to play for his films) that has nice texture, with detailed brush strokes on cymbals and a piano playing. Fortunately dialogue, the most important element here, is clear and intelligible.

 

The 131-minute film received mostly favorable reviews, garnering 75% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 96% audience rating. However, due to its less than stellar performance at the box office, it doesn’t appear that Jewell will be getting a 4K UltraHD Blu-ray release, so if you are interested in seeing it in its highest-quality presentation, downloading from Kaleidescape is your best bet.

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.

Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level

After the emotional trauma Dennis Burger experienced from his review of Uncut Gems, we thought that it might be a nice palate cleanser to look at some lighter fare for the next review. Fortunately, Jumanji: The Next Level arrived on an early digital release at the Kaleidescape Store two weeks ahead of its physical media release on March 17.

 

For those interested in waiting for the disc release, Sony has confirmed it will be IMAX Enhanced, meaning it will contain an enhanced DTS-X IMAX soundtrack as well as feature a picture remastered using IMAX’s propriety post-production and Digital Media Restoration (DMR) techniques. (For more on IMAX Enhanced, you can read this post I wrote for another site.) While Kaleidescape is rumored to be in talks with IMAX about being an Enhanced partner —and would be the perfect and logical outlet for this premium content—the Kaleidescape version doesn’t include this feature.

 

It’s really no surprise that 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle received the sequel greenlight. As star Jack Black, returning to portray game character Professor Shelly Oberon, quips in one of the special features, “After the first film made $900 million, I wasn’t really surprised when they called us back to do another.”

 

For those unfamiliar with Jumanji, these latest films are a reboot of the 1995 original, which starred Robin Williams. Jumanji is a game (of the board variety in the original, and modernized as a video game here) where players are magically and literally sucked into the game, forced to play as one of several avatars with different skill sets, and have to work together to solve problems and survive in order to complete a quest before they can exit the game back to the real world. Each character has three lives, allowing them to die repeatedly in a variety of usually humorous ways.

 

Along with Black, the rest of the Jungle quintet returns to reprise their roles, including Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Kevin Hart as Mouse Finbar, Nick Jonas as Seaplane McDonough, and Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. Jake Kasdan returns as director. Joining the crew is new character, thief extraordinaire Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. We also get a new villain in the form of Jurgen the Brutal, played by Game of Thrones’ The Hound, Rory McCann.

 

Level picks up about three years after the events of Jungle with our four real-world cast members Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) having moved on with their lives. Everyone except for Spencer is thriving, and when they plan a reunion, depressed Spencer decides he’d be happiest returning to Jumanji, picking up life again as hero Bravestone. Worried about their friend, the others decide to re-enter the game to help him survive, thus kicking off our adventure.

 

Instead of rehashing the first film with a different adventure, the writers really mix things up when the game glitches, causing the avatars to be inhabited by different players. This gives the adventurers completely different personalities and allows the actors to really have fun with their roles. This time around fearless leader Bravestone is inhabited by Spencer’s uncle, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and zoologist Finbar is controlled by Eddie’s ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover). And football star Fridge is forced to play as the physically limited archaeologist Oberon, whose list of “weaknesses” now include Endurance, Heat, Sun, and Sand. We also have a new game feature that allows characters to switch avatars at certain points, once again mixing up the acting styles.

 

On top of the new adventure—to end a massive drought impacting Jumanji by recovering a magical necklace known as the Falcon Jewel, stolen by Jurgen —this new “casting” makes the film feel fresh, and provides lots of opportunities for hilarity. Kevin Hart does a fantastic job adopting Glover’s slow, measured speaking style; a huge contrast to his typically frantic manner. “Did I just kill Eddie . . . by talking too slow . . . like he always said I would?” Johnson also leans into the role of being inhabited by curmudgeonly old DeVito, thrust into an entirely foreign situation, and Black brings the laughs acting like Fridge, a black athlete furious that he’s forced to return to Jumanji in an even worse character this time around. “I’ve been training four hours a day for six months. How is this guy a character in an adventure game?!

 

At just over two hours, Level has enough time to develop a quest that feels of videogame epic length, with enough time to travel to a variety of new environments, such as a Lawrence of Arabia-esque desert, a Moroccan-type village, and a snow-topped castle. But it never felt too long or like it was wearing out its gags, keeping me interested throughout.

 

Sony Pictures consistently delivers terrific home video releases, and Level continues that high standard. Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, images consistently look terrific, with closeups that bristle with detail and razor-sharp focus. Black wears a tweed vest that has a fine plaid print with each check clearly visible. You can also see the cracks and texture in the backgrounds and costumes, and count individual strands of hair on actors’ heads.

Blacks are deep, clean, and noise-free, and there are many nighttime and indoor scenes that benefit from the film’s use of HDR. The night scenes in the Moroccan village of the Oasis look especially good, with brilliant neon lights along the streets, as well as warm interiors lit by candles and lamps, giving the film a natural and organic look. Interiors of the castle Fortress feature dark rooms lit by shafts of bright light or sun rays streaming through windows, and the snowy mountainside looks appropriately bright without crushing any detail.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active, looking for nearly every opportunity to immerse you in sound. Beyond the big action scenes, there are lots of little environmental sounds like wind blowing, birds chirping, and insects buzzing. One of the film’s recurring sonic elements is the sound of deceased players re-entering the game, with a chime that sounds overhead and has them dropping back into the game from the ceiling. Bass is also solid and weighty, either from explosions or Bravestone’s superhuman punches or the jungle drums that resonate from all around to indicate danger.

 

As is typical of Dolby Atmos soundtracks, dialogue is centered and easily intelligible throughout.

Jumanji: The Next Level

While watching Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoying and understanding Next Level, it is certainly suggested as it is an entertaining film in its own right. Beyond a bit of swearing and some non-bloody videogame violence, Jumanji: Next Level makes a great family night at the movies, offering a plot that will keep everyone engaged and entertained, while looking and sounding great in a luxury home environment.

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.