Reviews

Review: The Green Knight

The Green Knight (2021)

There are three main reasons one might adapt an Arthurian legend for the silver screen. The first—and I submit Guy Ritchie’s awful Legend of the Sword as Exhibit A—could be described as an attempt to create a crowd-pleasing modern action blockbuster with a built-in audience for which the director has little respect. 

 

The second—and I’ll submit John Boorman’s well-intentioned and engaging but overwrought Excalibur as Exhibit B—boils down to a desire to create a fantasy film and recognition of the fact that there are fewer legal barriers to entry when adapting

works in the public domain.

 

The third main impulse for adapting such works largely comes from a desire to illuminate, interpret, and start a discussion about why these stories still hold such sway in the modern mind. David Lowery’s The Green Knight seems to largely fall under that umbrella.

 

I say “largely,” because it’s a difficult film to pin down. It’s partly a screen adaptation of the famous 14th Century epic poem, but partly a commentary on it. Even as I finish typing that sentence, though, it feels wrong. The Green Knight isn’t so much commentary as it is a prompt for conversation, exploration, and reexamination of the source material. It’s more a question than an answer.

 

It is, in many ways, Lowery’s way of telling the audience 

THE GREEN KNIGHT AT A GLANCE

This telling of the medieval tale is as much a commentary on the legend as it is the legend itself. 

 

PICTURE
Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut captures the nuances of the imagery, adding additional richness to the fabrics and foliage.

 

SOUND     

The mix is carefully orchestrated, thoughtful, never distracting, and always clear in its delivery of dialogue.

what this story means to him, and what lessons he thinks there are for modern audiences to learn in its medieval text. Interesting as that is, though, far more interesting is the room Lowery leaves the viewer to reflect on their own relationship with the poem and its place in the modern world.

 

If you haven’t guessed from all the above rambling, The Green Knight is at times a very abstract work of cinema. Those unfamiliar with the source will likely be lost at times, and those more familiar with the poem will just as likely be pushed off balance by the elements of the original that Lowery is slavishly faithful to, those he elides and expands, and the unrelated medieval legends he weaves into his narrative to reinforce the themes he wants to accentuate. It’s a weird mix of reverence and revisionism that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste.

 

The one thing we can all agree on is that this is a sumptuously gorgeous film. There are long stretches that can only be described as pure audiovisual experience, and with the benefit of Theater at Home delivery via Vudu, I found myself tempted at times to reach for my remote and pause the film just to get lost in the perfect composition of a frame, the lushness of the 

colors, richness of the contrasts, and depth of the shadow detail. I resisted that temptation, since this is a work intended to be viewed in motion. But the temptation was there.

 

Shot in 6.5K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, the imagery is packed to the gills with detail of the sort that actually enhances the experience rather than merely throwing more pixels at your screen. Despite the judicious and effective employment of CGI, the film also relies on 

some old-school tricks of the trade, seemingly as a reminder that this is not an alternate reality to which you can escape but rather a piece of art on which to reflect. In Vudu’s Dolby Vision presentation, you can clearly see the reliance on matte paintings, an art form Hollywood has been poorer for abandoning.

 

It’s true that there are a number of low-contrast shots, especially low-light sequences photographed indoors with natural light, which means blacks aren’t always the inkiest and the image flattens out a bit, especially when compared with the most dramatic outdoor shots. But this seems intentional, and the dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision allows for each shot to be tone-mapped to the capabilities of your display. Long story short, this is one of the few films I’ve seen recently where Dolby Vision isn’t merely a technical nicety but a borderline necessity to keep the image from devolving into a puddle of indistinct grays in a handful of shots. 

 

There are a few fleeting moments of banding in Vudu’s streaming rental (less than one second in total, I reckon), but I’m half-convinced this is baked into the master. And I say this is because the opening scene—with its eye-reactive highlights and deep shadows, and quick transitions between those extremes—is the sort of image you would forgive for being a bit banded even on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray. But I didn’t see a hint of such. Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut also captures the nuances of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s imagery, adding some additional richness to the fabrics and foliage and conveying in seconds what the original poet sometimes took multiple stanzas to articulate. 

 

In terms of the audio, I feel like a bit of a broken record for saying this but once again we have a Premium VOD rental whose levels haven’t been optimized for home cinemas. My best estimation is that it’s mastered about 4.5dB below reference levels, so go ahead and crank up the volume from the giddy-up (assuming you’re renting it via Vudu—other providers might have tweaked the levels). 

 

I wish I could tell you more about the mix, but I was so hypnotized by the film that I rarely noticed the technical aspects of the sound, aside from the aforementioned stretches that could best be described as pure audiovisual experience. But I’d say that’s the mark of really effective sound design. It’s never distracting, but it is carefully orchestrated, thoughtful, and always clear in its delivery of dialogue—assuming, again, that you give your volume knob a bit of a twist to the right. 

 

For the past few days, since I staked claim to this movie for review, my colleague John Sciacca has been hammering my text-messaging inbox, asking me for my assessment. And I’m still not sure I’ve fully made up my mind about The Green Knight, nor am I sure I ever will, despite the fact that I’ll be purchasing it the instant it’s permanently released to home video. 

 

“Did you like it?” he asked me last night, I suppose tiring of my vacillating and ambivalating. I’m not sure that’s the right question. What I will say is: The film continues to haunt me. I simply cannot shake it. It has also, in some not-so-subtle ways, changed my relationship with the text of Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight. Or, more accurately, it has prompted me to reassess that relationship on my own terms. 

 

I sat down last night to re-read the poem, not through Lowery’s lens but rather through a lens of my own making that Lowery nudged me into grinding and polishing myself. I reached for Tolkien’s translation, always my first choice for its fidelity and excellent footnotes. A few pages in, though, I found myself longing for something different, something more energetic. So, I put down the Tolkien and picked up my less-well-worn copy of Simon Armitage’s more recent translation, which I’ve never quite been able to give myself over to completely. Something changed after having seen The Green Knight. The immediacy and energy of Armitage’s verse rang truer to me than the scholarly pedanticism of Tolkien. 

 

Of course, the Professor’s interest in the poem was always more philological, whereas Armitage’s is undeniably more emotional. I can appreciate that now. In fact, as ashamed as I am to admit this, I think I love both translations in equal measure, but for different reasons. 

 

I’m not sure I ever would have reached that point without having seen The Green Knight. And although I’m not sure this was Lowery’s intention with the film, I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear it. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Stillwater

Stillwater (2021)

Summer movie releases are usually big effects-laden blockbusters designed to overwhelm you with slick visuals and world-building to pull you out of reality and into a different universe. But these films are often unsatisfying and forgettable à la Reminiscence, Snake Eyes, or FF9. Occasionally you’ll come across a gem like Nomadland that proves story, acting, and authentic dialogue rooted in reality trump $100-million worth of effects nearly every time.

 

Stillwater is in that vein. While I’m not saying it’s a Best Director and Best Picture contender à la Nomadland, the powerful performance turned in by Matt Damon and the focus on a powerfully developed story built slowly and steadily over sizzle 

certainly makes them cinematic cousins.

 

While Damon has spent much of his recent career bolstering his action-hero resume, here he is simply a father thrown way out of his element trying to do whatever it takes to get his daughter out of a French prison. Imagine an offshoot from Liam Neeson’s Taken series where his special set of skills is construction work, dogged determination, and not taking “no” for an answer, all delivered in as few words as possible via a flat Oklahoma drawl.

 

Whether it is “based on” or “inspired by” the real-life events of Amanda Knox, there are numerous similarities between Stillwater and Knox’s events—young female American student goes to travel abroad then is accused of killing her roommate and locked up in a foreign prison. But Stillwater focuses almost entirely on the girl’s father, Bill (Damon), and

STILLWATER AT A GLANCE

Matt Damon opts for family drama over action scenes in this story of a working-class Everyman trying to free his daughter imprisoned in France. 

 

PICTURE
The transfer, sourced from a 4K DI, will turn your display into a clear window into another world.

 

SOUND     

The DTS HD-Master soundtrack serves the story well—especially when some upmixing is used to expand the mix beyond five channels.

his pursuit of justice rather than on his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who spends most of the film in prison and is mainly seen during Bill’s brief visitations.

 

The movie wastes no time on backstory, the relationship between Allison and her roommate/lover Lina, her arrest for Lina’s murder, the investigation, or the court trial. Instead, it begins after Allison has already been in jail in Marseilles having served five years of her nine-year sentence, and we learn bits and pieces along the way. We find out that Bill isn’t perfect, was barely around while Allison was growing up, got into some trouble with alcohol, served some time, and is pretty religious, praying multiple times during the film. 

 

Bill is a roughneck living in Oklahoma, looking for work and doing odd construction jobs after being laid off from his latest oil gig, and he makes periodic trips to France to visit Allison. On this recent trip, Allison—who strongly claims her innocence—gives him a letter to take to her defense attorney, Leparq (Anne Le Ny). The letter reveals some new information (a girl at a party talked to someone who bragged of killing a girl and getting away with it) that could be enough to reopen her case, but when Leparq refuses to act on the information, Bill decides to follow leads on his own. 

 

Him following leads and looking for people—specifically Akim (Idir Azougli)—and figuring out how he can help his daughter is most of the second act. Along the way, he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvad). Virginie serves as Bill’s translator as he meets people looking for clues. He ends up staying in Marseilles and getting a job to stay close to his daughter, and ultimately moves in with the family—initially as a platonic handyman/babysitter, but the relationship slowly develops into something more. 

 

Bill is unrefined and rough around the edges, and couldn’t be more out of his element especially with no understanding of French or how things are done in Marseilles. He is as American as they come, choosing to get takeout at a French Subway, and having a big bald-eagle tattoo gripping a skull with a knife going through it on his arm. He is also a man of few words, just holding an expression of hard-set resolve. He blunders straight ahead into things, fueled by his determination of his daughter’s innocence. Imagine a character who is the polar opposite of the whip-smart quick-mouthed know-it-all of Damon’s Will Hunting, and you’ve got Bill. 

 

Damon’s acting fuels the film, and the relationship between Bill and Virginie and Maya are what ground it so much in reality. Stillwater unfolds slowly, letting you really get a chance to know the characters, and it would likely be better described as a slow-burn love story than a crime-drama thriller, though it certainly features those elements. If I have any complaint, it’s that the ending seems a bit rushed, with one really large gaping plot hole that remains unsolved. (Unfortunately, describing it would be a major spoiler.) With a runtime nearing 140 minutes, they should have allowed more time for the third act, but even still, the film kept my attention.

 

I’m getting to the point now where I can usually tell if a film is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, as they just have a general sharpness and clarity that is best described as turning my 115-inch screen into a clear window into another world. That was the case with Stillwater. Shot on Arri at 3.4 and 4.5K resolutions, this transfer is taken from a 4K DI and it looks it. 

Closeups can look good even at 1080p resolution, and they certainly look fantastic here. The enhanced resolution lets you see the fine texture and detail in clothes, with the different prints, plaids, and ties that are worn. You can also pick out individual fine strands of hair or mis-shaved whiskers on Damon’s cheeks.

 

But what really stands out is the sharpness and detail in the longer establishing shots of Marseilles. We can clearly pick out individual houses on faraway hills, see the sharp, tight lines of tile roofs and window shutters, or see telephone poles and lines that are clear and defined out into the distance as far as we can see. You can also clearly see faces amidst the sea of people at the Velodrome soccer, err, futbol stadium.

 

The film uses HDR to help give punch and pop to bright outdoor scenes or low-lit moments, but more to just give images a very natural and lifelike quality. Don’t go looking for colors to leap off the spectrum, rather for things to look as they should.

 

The digital version of the film includes a 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master soundtrack that serves the story well, especially when some upmixing—DTS-Neural, in this case—is used to expand the mix beyond five channels. Dialogue is the most

Stillwater (2021)

important thing here, and it is well presented short of the few moments when Bill is kind of mumbling. We also get a bit of expansiveness in the sounds of passing traffic, or sounds of a construction site, or doors slamming and clanging shut far off camera while Bill is visiting Allison. The film’s biggest audio moment is during a futbol match where we get a lot of crowd roars and cheers that fill the room as well as some nice thump from the subwoofer as fireworks explode.

 

If you are looking to take a break from robots, superheroes, and explosion-fueled fair, Stillwater is an engaging character-driven movie with story and acting as its principal draws that I would highly recommend you give a viewing. It is available now in 4K HDR resolution as a premium rental on Kaleidescape.

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: Reminiscence

Reminiscence (2021)

If the pandemic has done anything, it has cut a brutal swath through movies that people are willing to venture out to theaters and pay for on those they aren’t. You have successes like FF9, Black Widow, and Jungle Cruise. Heck, as I write this, Free Guy, which has been exclusively in theaters less than 10 days, has already brought in over $110 million. Then you have movies that have just tanked, like Reminiscence. Released on Friday simultaneously theatrically and on HBO Max, the film has eked out a measly $5 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Of course, whether a film is good or not isn’t judged 

solely by its box office, but combined with a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of just 37%, it isn’t one that has people rushing out to the cineplex.

 

Reminiscence is the perfect example of how theatrical and streaming can’t coexist and remain financially viable for studios, but in a much shortened window compared to before times. This was a movie that looked interesting to me, featured a strong cast and a cool premise, with trailers full of interesting visuals, but even so, it wasn’t strong enough to pull me into a theater. Had this movie gotten rave reviews, it might have changed my mind. But even with the lackluster reviews, I would have likely paid a premium PVOD rental to see it early in my home, or just waited for it to hit a digital/disc release.

 

But since it was offered day & date on HBO Max at no additional charge, there’s no way I would have ponied up to buy a ticket for it. The upside for HBO is, the day & date experiment with all Warner Brothers titles this year was 

REMINISCENCE AT A GLANCE

This box-office dud shows up day & date on HBO Max trying to be Blade Runner, Inception, L.A. Confidential, and a lot of other movies, but comes up short. 

 

PICTURE
Shot in 6K, you’d expect this movie to bristle with detail but it’s a bit soft, especially when there’s CGI involved.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack mostly keeps itself spread wide across the front channels, but has some surprisingly strong deep bass for a streamed title.

definitely enough to cause me to happily add the streaming service to my list of monthly charges, so I’m sure they have signed—and retained—a fair number of subscribers. Heck, for barely more than the price of a single ticket, I can get HBO Max for an entire month! (What happens with these subs next year when they stop feeding WB day & date titles remains to be seen.)

 

But enough of that, let’s talk about Reminiscence . . .

 

This is the feature-film directorial debut of Lisa Joy, who also wrote and produced the film. She is best known for her work (co-creator, writer, producer, director) on HBO’s original series Westworld, and there are sci-fi elements and vibes here that are definitely, umm, reminiscent of that show’s style. Hugh Jackman is the headliner, and he is re-united with his Greatest Showman cast mate Rebecca Ferguson, who is actually given the chance to sing, unlike having her big vocal moment dubbed in Showman. Joy also brought in two of her Westworld cast members in the form of Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan.

 

Reminiscence takes place in a near future where global warming has caused massive flooding around the world, specifically in Miami where most of the film takes place. Due to rising heat, people spend daylight hours indoors sleeping, and most people are nocturnal. Life in the present pretty much sucks unless you’re super wealthy, so people turn to the past, paying to relive moments and memories of better times. 

 

Nick Bannister (Jackman) and his partner Watts (Newton) used to be in the military together, but now run a facility helping people recall better times. His elaborate rig creates fully 3D holographic experiences that feel as real as being there. But business is slow, so they also take on side jobs helping the police by interrogating the memories of criminals, which are admissible in court. 

 

One evening before closing, a beautiful woman, Mae (Ferguson) walks in to Nick’s office, saying she needs help remembering where she left her keys. Bannister is instantly smitten with Mae, and while looking through her memories, he sees she sings at a club. He goes there the next night and she happens to be singing one of his favorite songs. They start a relationship, but after Mae suddenly disappears, Bannister starts searching for her and learns there is far more to her than he thought. 

 

You can’t fault Reminiscence for lacking ambition—it’s just that it feels like other movies that are just better than it is. Parts of the future reminded me of Blade Runner, but it just wasn’t as cool and developed, and the opening pass through flooded Miami showed its CGI elements. Other bits felt a lot like Inception with the playing of memories, but it lacked that film’s imagination, storytelling, and wow factor. It had a crime-detective noir-ish feel, but it wasn’t nearly as engaging as Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential. Ultimately it is a really a love story that just doesn’t feel really loving. The film also tries so hard to be complex that it ends up being a bit confusing, requiring quite of bit of expositional voiceover from Bannister to try and bring us up to speed on what is happening.

 

Shot at a resolution of 6K and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect this movie to bristle with detail but I found it a bit soft, specifically in long shots, perhaps due to all of the CGI in many of the exterior scenes. (Maybe “soft” is the wrong word, but just more film-like and less sharp than we’ve come to expect.) Even during some flyovers of the flooded buildings, there was some line twitter you wouldn’t normally see. 

 

Images are certainly clean and clear throughout, and closeups have tons of detail, showing actors’ faces in sharp, tight focus with every pore and line visible, but it never had that razor sharpness and micro detail of many modern digital transfers. For example, one scene in a library where you might expect all of the books to have clearly defined edges just looked soft and undefined. Most of the film looked like I was watching a good Blu-ray transfer, but this could be a limitation of streaming or my Apple 4K TV and not indicative of what the film could truly look like.

 

There are many dark and night scenes, and these images are definitely enhanced with HDR. Whether it is sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, Miami streets lit at night with neon lights, or the golden hues thrown off from lamp light, we get lots of nice shadow detail, colors, and clean blacks. I did notice a couple of instances where bright outdoor shots exhibited a bit of digital noise, perhaps from being blown out just a bit too much. 

 

The film does feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it mostly keeps itself spread wide across the front channels. The sound expands into the room a bit when people are reliving memories, with outdoor moments opening up with the sounds of birds, wind rustling leaves, etc. There is also a nice effect where remembered voices are echoed into the ceiling speakers, giving a nice disorienting audio effect that matches what is happening on screen. The audio track also expands during action scenes, with glass shattering, furniture breaking, or gunfire erupting around the room. 

 

Usually, low-frequency effects are a bit lackluster during streamed titles, but I found that Reminiscence had some pretty deep bass when called for, such as the very opening as we’re “flying” over Miami, the deep thrum of a train engine, a large sign falling and crashing, or fight impacts. 

 

Reminiscence isn’t a bad movie—it’s just not a good one. For me, it was one of those films that was interesting enough to keep my attention for its near two-hour runtime, with some cool visuals and compelling actors that kept me curious enough to see how it all played out that I was willing to hang in to the (predictable) end. But ultimately, it’s pretty forgettable and not a title I see myself returning to in the future. For HBO Max customers looking for something new to watch, it’s certainly worth giving a look while it’s free for the next 30 days. After that, you pays your money and you takes your chance . . .

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: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021)

There are some films that are designed to appeal to certain demographics and, let me tell you, I am sitting smack dab in the bullseye center of people that Snake Eyes was made for. I used to come home from high school and for an hour before starting my homework, I would watch Transformers followed by G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. I remember the episodes 

were mostly silly, and that no one ever seemed to die. I mean, you’d see an attack helicopter explode into pieces from a missile hit but the animators would make it a point to cut back to show that the crew bailed out safely in parachutes.

 

But as silly as the show was, I tuned in most days, especially hopeful to see my favorite character in action—ninja assassin extraordinaire Storm Shadow. You didn’t see him much, but when you did, he was just so bad ass, dressed entirely in a white ninja outfit and wielding a huge variety of weapons like swords, a bow and arrows, nunchakus, and throwing stars. I mean, look at the photo below of all the kit that came with his action figure!

 

Similar to the Scorpion/Sub-Zero relationship from Mortal Kombat, the yang to Storm Shadow’s yin was Snake Eyes, 

SNAKEYES AT A GLANCE

The third attempt to jumpstart the G.I. Joe franchise is another miss, but has its moments—especially for Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow fans. 

 

PICTURE
Image quality is clean & sharp but rarely exhibits the hyper-clear detail of modern 4K transfers.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack offers lots of sonic activity, as you’d expect from an action film, and there’s some deep bass when called on.

who never showed his face or even spoke, and was dressed entirely in black. I don’t remember the cartoon being especially helpful on fleshing out the origins of this relationship, only that the two were brother characters in a way, trained in the same ninja clan, and ultimately turning against each other, with Snake Eyes joining the good-guy Joes and Storm Shadow the 

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021)

baddy Cobras. (Though Storm Shadow never really seemed like a true follower of Cobra, more aligned by whomever served his own path and purpose.) But regardless of whatever fighting was going on, if Storm Shadow caught a glimpse of Snake Eyes, it was on! So, while this new origin-story film is titled Snake Eyes, it is equally about Storm Shadow as well, as you can’t tell the story of one without the other. 

 

The two previous attempts at a G.I. Joe film—2009’s The Rise of Cobra and 2013’s Retaliation—did not impress critics or audiences despite having some pretty-big-name talent attached to both. But they managed to do well enough at the box office to warrant a third go, this time going back to the origin of two of the most popular characters.

 

The film hit theaters on July 23, but after a lackluster showing, was rushed to digital retailers August 17, ahead of its initially planned 45-day theatrical window. It is available now in full 4K HDR resolution with Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack from Kaleidescape. 

 

After seeing his father killed as a child, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) grows into a talented fighter driven by a desire to find his father’s killer to avenge his death. He ends up working for a Yakuza boss named Kenta (Takehiro Hira), who promises to find the killer, but when Snake Eyes is told to prove his loyalty by shooting a man, he turns on the Yakuza and helps the alleged traitor. This turns out to be Tommy Arashikage/Storm Shadow (Andrew Koji), heir to rule the Arashikage clan of ninja warriors. In return for saving his life, Tommy takes Snake Eyes to Tokyo and lets him train at the dojo, and gives him a chance to prove his worth to join the clan if he can pass three trials. Throw in a secret and powerful treasure called the Jewel of the Sun, which the clan has sworn to protect for generations, along with a plot to steal the sacred artifact and overthrow the clan, and a healthy dose of double- and triple-crossing, and you’ve got the movie. 

 

The film is tied into the greater GI Joe universe by bringing in Scarlett (Samara Weaving), a Joe counter-intelligence expert, to help in the fight, as well as Baroness (Ursula Corbero), Cobra’s right-hand woman who has been arming Kenta in an effort to help him take control of the clan. 

 

Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are two characters I really enjoy, and I wanted to like this movie, but ultimately it was just a miss for me. As disappointing as Mortal Kombat was, it hit closer to the mark for me, and if both films had focused on a style more like the opening of MK, they would have been better for it. 

 

The plot seemed unnecessarily complicated, trying to force things into happening or create tension. There is enough cool backstory between these characters that it didn’t need the embellishment. Also, the fighting scenes were often filmed so up-close or from odd angles and with frantic edits and jumps that you could barely see what was happening, and it was just a seizure-inducing flurry of punches, kicks, and sword strikes. With actors this skilled in fighting, pull the camera back and let us take a good look so we can actually see the fighting skills on display. And there was a real lull in the middle where the story just kind of plodded. I would have loved to have seen more of the lore and history of the Arashikage clan, watched montages of ninjas training to learn how to use their skills, seen more of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes going over their kit, etc. The

bits with GI Joe and Cobra really felt shoehorned in, and the dialogue often felt wooden, almost like you were listening to a language dub track.

 

While it was shot on Arri at 3.4K, I couldn’t see details on the resolution of the digital intermediate used for the home release. Image quality was clean and sharp throughout but rarely exhibited that hyper-clear detail of modern 4K transfers. Sure, closeups had tons of facial detail, and you could really see all the intricate fabrics and details in the kimonos, robes, gis, and other costumes.

 

Images looked their best when the action moved outdoors, and there were some shots outside the Arashikage dojo that looked nearly 3D with so much sharpness and depth.

 

Black levels were deep and noise-free, and this really helped the HDR have a lot of pop during the many night scenes. Things like fluorescent lights or the bright neon lighting in downtown Tokyo really looked great. The bright glowing red of the Jewel of the Sun also really popped, as did the bursts of red-orange flames, and bright gleaming gold. In fact, one of the film’s best-looking demo moments is the end credits, which have vibrant colors and bright text layered on black backgrounds.

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021)

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack offers a lot of sonic activity, as you’d expect from an action film. Beyond the ambient sounds of rustling winds and birds flying overhead, or thunder and rain that rolls through the room and overhead, or the now almost requisite helicopter flyover, there are the swords clashing up overhead and the sounds of fighting all around. There is some deep bass when called on, such as during vehicle collisions and specifically the roar (?) of a giant snake, that really activated all the air in my living room, producing pants-fluttering bass levels.

 

There are tons of G.I. Joe characters, and I’m sure Hasbro was hoping that picking two of its most iconic ones would be the best place to re-launch the franchise, but Snake Eyes just missed the mark. Ultimately, this movie was a case where I didn’t really know what I wanted or expected going in, but unfortunately this wasn’t 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: What If . . ?

What If? (2021)

I reserve the right to revise or retract this observation after we have more data to sift through, but for the time being, it looks as if Marvel Studios is developing a bit of a pattern with its Disney+ MCU shows. And I guess if I had to sum up that pattern in one pithy sentence, it would be: “One weird one, then one safe one.” It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that, as the fourth such series, the animated What If . . ? unfortunately falls into the latter category.

WandaVision not only debuted as the first new Marvel show on the platform, but also kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, and it was enigmatically brilliant, nutty, poignant, and quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the superhero domain. Marvel followed that with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was a perfectly OK geopolitical action/adventure romp that really should have been filmed as the fourth Captain American movie instead of stretched out over six episodes. Next up was Loki, which was every bit as weird as WandaVision but in its own distinctive way. (Weirdness, after all, loses its novelty quickly.) At its best, Loki came across as something akin to a Franz Kafka comic book adapted for the screen by Terry Gilliam at the peak of his form.

 

What If . . ?, is, by contrast almost entirely paint-by-

WHAT IF . . ? AT A GLANCE

Given its origins, this latest entry in the MCU could have been as adventurous as WandaVision but is strictly by the numbers. 

 

PICTURE
Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity and a good amount of LFE.

numbers. And that’s a shame, really, because this series had the potential to be the franchise’s most risk-taking outing yet. By all rights, it should have been, given the concept. If you’re not familiar with that concept, by the way, it’s easy to explain: Take a variable or two at the heart of a popular comic book series and give them a twist. Off the top of my head, some of my 

favorite what-if scenarios from my youth included, “What if
. . . Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” “What if
. . . Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century?” and “What if . . . Gwen Stacy had lived?”

 

This new MCU riff on the concept starts with a similarly interesting premise: “What if . . .  Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” In other words, what would have happened if Peggy Carter had received the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America?  In the lead-up to that first episode, my brain took that prompt in a million different directions. The problem is, every single one of those directions was infinitely more interesting than the answer we’ve been given.

 

When you get right down to it, this ends up being a 33-minute retelling of the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger with some character swaps and a gaggle of non sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Peggy becomes Captain Carter, Steve becomes Iron Man . . .  err, I mean the Hydra Stomper, but nothing of any real consequence changes, despite the fact that the entire arc of Steve’s story

in the MCU has been about the fact that his unique character, temperament, and morals literally changed the course of history.

 

It’s really disappointing that the story falls so flat, because Marvel Studios obviously spent a lot of time and money on the animation for the show. It’s a neat mix of cel-shaded 3D and what appears to be hand-drawn 2D that’s vibrant and polished and a heck of a lot of fun to look at. True, there are times where the facial animations are a little stiff, but that’s about the only

criticism you could level at the look of the show.

 

Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is also simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Colors are rich. Contrasts are nigh-perfect. Lighting effects and shadow depth are stunning. And there’s a level of detail here that you just don’t expect from direct-to-streaming animated projects. The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity—especially in the action sequences—and a good amount of LFE.

But, at least as of the first episode, the execution of the series simply doesn’t live up to the expectations set by its premise or its presentation. This is not the title Marvel Studios should have played it safe with. Of course, there are still eight episodes left to go, and What If . . ? could prove to be the genuinely interesting thought experiment it has the potential to be. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Don’t get me wrong here: This isn’t a bad show. Far from it. It’s fun and entertaining and gorgeous to look at. But it could and should have been so much more than that, right from the giddy-up.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Super 8

Super 8 (2011)

I’m a big fan of J.J. Abrams. And, with all respect to Dennis Burger, I don’t care if he is only “one-tenth the filmmaker James Gunn,” if Abrams’ name is attached to a movie or TV series, my curiosity is instantly piqued. For me, he has earned that level of interest from being involved as either writer, director, or executive producer on projects like Lost, Alias, 11.22.63, Star Trek, Cloverfield, and even the much-maligned Star Wars sequels. 

 

My 14-year-old daughter Lauryn is now at an age now where my wife and I are able to go back and rewatch favorite movies with her. Not only are many of these films getting freshly released with 4K HDR upgrades, and we also have a home theater 

system that far exceeds what we had years ago, but we also get a chance to experience these movies as new through her eyes. This also offers a great reality gut-check as to whether a film still holds up and isn’t just something I remember as great tinted through years of a nostalgia-filtered lens.

 

One of the rewatches we’ve started on is Lost. We’re mostly through Season 3 (we take in just an episode per night), and I had forgotten how great the first two seasons were, and it is fantastic to watch as Lauryn follows all the plot twists and reveals. She has also gotten into Netflix’s Stranger Things, consuming the first three seasons to get ready for the 2022 release of Season 4. All of which made this a perfect time for us to watch the 10th-anniversary 4K HDR release of Super 8.

 

Super 8 isn’t Abrams’ big-screen directorial debut (that honor goes to Mission: Impossible III in 2006, followed by 

SUPER 8 AT A GLANCE

J.J. Abrams’ aliens-lurking-in-a-small-town Spielberg homage gets the 4K treatment for its 10th anniversary. 

 

PICTURE
Because the release was created from a 2K DI, images look clean and mostly sharp but don’t have the reference quality of a true 4K film transfer.

 

SOUND     

The train crash remains an audio tour de force, with powerful output that will put your speaker system to the test, and makes for a fantastic demo scene.

the Star Trek reboot in 2009) but it is the first film where he took on the hat-trick of directing, writing, and producing. It also finds him teamed with Steven Spielberg, who served as a co-producer.

 

This seems the perfect storytelling partnership for this film, with both filmmakers having similar philosophies on maintaining suspense and holding back the big reveal, as well as working with the supernatural. In a way, this felt to me a bit like Spielberg if not maybe passing the torch at least acknowledging Abrams as the next big up-and-comer. 

 

Rewatching Super 8 this time, I think I was more aware of just how much it borrows from other films. There are so many elements here that seem to ring similar from The Goonies (kids on an adventure), Jaws (the mostly unseen monster that terrorizes the small town), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the government trying to cover up the aliens’ visit), E.T. (the misunderstood alien visitor), and Jurassic Park (the attacking monsters). 

 

And guess which person with the initials “S.S.” was also attached to all of those films? But if you’re going to borrow from other movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better batch to lean on. It’s also clear how much later shows like Stranger Things borrowed from this, as well as The Loser’s Club and how they interact and relate to each other from It.  

 

The other thing Super 8 does smartly is to cast actual kids who were mostly unknowns. It’s far easier to immerse yourself in the story when you aren’t associating someone with another role, and the leads all do a solid job. But you can tell the young actors are all outclassed by a young Elle Fanning, who just outperforms them in every scene. It reminded me of the time I got to watch Jason Kidd play basketball while at Cal Berkeley, where he just looked like a man-amongst-boys, showcasing talents unmatched on the court. 

 

The film takes place in 1979, and opens after a workplace accident kills Elizabeth, wife of Deputy Sheriff Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and mother of Joe (Joel Courtney). We jump ahead four months, and aspiring young filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths) is working on a zombie film—“The Case”—for a film competition, and he enlists the help of his friend Joe, along with Preston (Zach Mills) and pyro-obsessed Cary (Ryan Lee). Charles also enlists Alice (Fanning) to act in his film, creating a bit of a love-triangle between himself and Joe. While shooting a scene, the kids witness an epic train wreck and Joe picks up a mysterious cube that flew out of one of the cars. After developing the film days later, they discover they filmed what looks like an alien escaping a derailed train car. After some strange things start happening in the town—issues with the electrical grid, engines disappearing from cars, pets going missing—and the Air Force moves in to lock things down and clean up the wreck, the kids decide to investigate and figure out just what is going on. 

 

Not too surprising considering the Abrams/Spielberg connection, Super 8 was filmed on film, including 35, 16, and 8mm, using a variety of cameras. The press release lists this as being “newly remastered for this 4K Ultra HD release”; however, the technical specs show it as being a 2K digital intermediate. While images look clean and mostly sharp throughout, it doesn’t have that reference quality of other true 4K film transfers. I’m sure there are instances where the uptick in resolution makes a difference, but for the most part images looked like those of a really good Blu-ray transfer.

 

Images have a more film-like softness compared to modern digital productions, though closeups reveal the most detail, with you able to see the texture of the zombie makeup, or detail in clothing, or single-strands of Fanning’s hair, or the details in the arm patches worn by the sheriff’s deputies. There are some occasionally grainy moments depending on the sky lighting.

 

What creates the greatest benefit here is the new HDR grading, which helps boost a lot of bright highlights and keep really clean, deep, and inky black levels. There are quite a few scenes shot at night where bright lights are also in the scene, or bright red-orange fire/explosions, or the white hot of sparklers or welding sparks, or just specular highlights glinting off metal. During one fireworks explosion in a dark underground cave, I felt my eyes clamp down in response to the bright output from my OLED. 

 

One thing I definitely noticed more on this viewing was the extensive blue streaks of lens flare, particularly at the train station. Whether this was inserted by Abrams (he’s known for his lens-flare use), a byproduct of the anamorphic lens, or just 

something that is more apparent with the HDR grade, I can’t say. The additional bitrate also helps eliminate banding, such as one scene where white smoke, haze, and dust wafts up through various shades of bring lighting, which can be a real video nightmare.

 

Mildly disappointing is that we don’t get a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix. Even more of a bummer is that Paramount only delivered a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix to digital retailers like Kaleidescape for the 4K HDR version instead of the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD mix featured on the physical version.

 

Even still, this was—and remains—a mostly reference audio experience, and the 5.1-channel mix benefits from your processor’s upmixer to provide a more immersive audio experience. The soundtrack has intense dynamics throughout, with glass shattering, doors kicked open, things crashing, explosions, etc. There is also a lot of directionality, with sounds of the creature moving around the room and overhead, glass shattering into the room, things being slammed or thrown by the alien. You also get smaller audio moments, like the electrical buzzes, hums, and mechanical noises in the creature’s lair, or the air raid sirens and helicopters buzzing about.

Super 8 (2011)

The train crash remains an audio tour de force, with powerful output that will put your speaker system to the test, and makes for a fantastic demo scene. There is deep, tactile bass from the subs that you’ll feel in your chest, along with explosions that rocket debris and objects up overhead and all around the room, along with the ear-piercing scream of shrieking and twisting metal. The bus escape is another fantastic demo that makes good use of all the speakers to add to the scene’s intensity.

 

Super 8 remains incredibly fun and entertaining, and even though there is probably an even better version of this film in store (true 4K DI, new Atmos mix) for its 15th or 20th, it is a welcome addition to any movie collection, especially if you have a younger viewer in your home who has yet to experience 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: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad (2021)

I normally hate any movie review or commentary that turns into a meta discussion about the film industry as a whole. But if you’ll forgive me such an indulgence this one time, I need to talk about a lot of other franchise movies to put into context exactly why James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is so darned good. If you don’t care about any of this gossipy blather, you can skip ahead to the sixth paragraph. 

 

It’s a well-accepted truism that WarnerMedia, owner of DC Comics properties, has been obsessed with replicating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years now. With 2017’s Justice League, the company even went so far as to replace director Zack Snyder with Joss Whedon, who helmed the first two Avengers flicks, in an attempt to cheat their way to 

success. Rumor also has it Warner also heavily meddled with David Ayer’s original Suicide Squad (2016) to try to inject humor into the dark and dramatic first cut because they saw the levity of the MCU as its main strength. The results speak for themselves, I think.

 

When Disney fired director James Gunn due to some faux outrage over some years-old tweets, written a time when he was working for Troma Entertainment and attempting to craft an appropriately shocking public persona, Warner swooped in and snatched him up. Gunn, who was working on the third Guardians of the Galaxy film at the time for the MCU, was given carte blanche to take over any DC property he wanted. The company even reportedly tempted him with an offer to do a soft reboot of the Superman franchise.

 

Gunn demurred, though. He wanted to take a shot at doing the Suicide Squad right. And I’m sure Warner salivated at the idea of having this team of misfit outlaws handled by 

THE SQUAD AT A GLANCE

This sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad goes way heavier with the comedy, the cartoonishness, and the gore.  

 

PICTURE
HBO Max once again hits it out of the park with its Dolby Vision presentation, delivering the movie’s chaotic images artifact-free via streaming.

 

SOUND     

The thoughtfully orchestrated Atmos mix uses the height and surround channels, as well as the subs, to full effect—although you’ll need to pump it up a few dB.

the director who turned Marvel’s own team of misfit outlaws into such a popular slice of pop culture. I can just imagine the cat-petting executives, sitting in their offices, smug in the belief that they were finally going to be able to replicate Marvel’s success.

 

And I can only imagine their subsequent shock and consternation when Gunn turned in a movie that’s absolutely nothing like his MCU movies—nor any MCU movie, for that matter. But here’s the thing I don’t think any studio executive has the creative vision to understand: The Suicide Squad works for all the same reasons the best MCU movies do, even if it’s nothing like them. What makes it work is a deep understanding of and love for the source material, combined with a desire to make a good movie, period—one that stands on its own two legs, no matter how it connects to other offerings in the franchise.

 

The Suicide Squad (2021) is kind of a sequel to Suicide Squad (2016) and it’s kind of not. It’s sort of a soft reboot, but it sort of isn’t. For the most part, Gunn gives Ayer’s ill-conceived drama-turned-comedy all the space it needs to coexist with this satirical slapstick farce. But by and large, he simply ignores it. 

 

If J.J. Abrams were one-tenth the filmmaker James Gunn is, he would have taken the same approach in trying to appease the very vocal minority of Star Wars fans who pitched a pathetic hissy-fit about The Last Jedi. If Abrams absolutely felt the need to appease the same gaggle of neck-bearded keyboard warriors, he simply could have ignored Episode VIII in the writing of Episode IX. Instead, he tried to unmake the previous film and ended up with something so muddled and pointless it hardly registers as a film in its own right.

 

Gunn doesn’t make the same mistake here. He doesn’t try to unmake Suicide Squad. He only acknowledges its existence enough to allow fans of both movies to imagine their coexistence. But you don’t have to have seen Suicide Squad to understand a thing about The Suicide Squad. The latter, in its first scene, hilariously and economically sets up its premise—a band of supervillains and psychopaths are given the opportunity to go on a dangerous covert mission for the U.S. government, Dirty Dozen-style, in exchange for ten years off their sentences. The exposition here is so streamlined and so effortless that it’s easy to miss the fact that what we’re being given is a quick recap of the entire first movie in a handful of terse dialogue exchanges.  

 

What follows is one of the funniest, most tightly scripted and self-aware comic-book romps I’ve seen in ages. It’s also, by the way, the single goriest. Seriously, the X-rated director’s cut of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop looks tame by comparison. It also, oddly enough, looks hyper-realistic by comparison. And that’s largely because Gunn plays the outlandish cartoon violence in The Suicide Squad for laughs, in something of a callback to his Troma roots. 

 

If you’re squeamish about such things, nothing is going to make the violence in this movie palatable to you. People are literally ripped in half by a gigantic, bipedal, surf-shorts-wearing shark-god. Arms are sliced off. Craniums are cleft. Shotguns blow holes clean through bodies. If you’re like me, though, your tolerance for violence probably depends on how realistically it’s depicted, and Gunn never lets you forget for a second that none of the action in this movie has anything to do with reality. It’s all one big unapologetic cartoon, and pretends to be nothing more or less.

 

That doesn’t mean it has no substance, though. In fact, it’s probably the most biting satire of American imperialism and state-sponsored clandestine shenanigans I’ve seen in the modern, overtly corporate era of filmmaking. In a story whose characters mostly represent the dregs of society, the real villain here is the covert establishment.

 

Despite the fact that this is a major studio production starring some seriously big names—Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Viola Davis, Peter Capaldi, and Sylvester Stallone, just to name a very few—The Suicide Squad also comes across as a run-and-gun independent movie. There’s a heavy reliance on practical effects, with very little application CGI aside from the aforementioned talking shark (voiced to perfection by Stallone) and the gigantic alien starfish kaiju that the Suicide Squad has been sent to deal with. It’s also a bit weirdly structured, not necessarily beholden to the template-based three-act framework you’d expect from a franchise movie. 

 

I’m still kind of amazed Gunn managed to make a 132-minute action movie with seven co-equal protagonists that doesn’t buckle under its own weight or overstay its welcome. A lot of that comes down to pacing, of course. The movie knows when to give you a break from the action. 

 

It also knows how to use its characters. The aforementioned Robbie returns as Harley Quinn in her third turn at the character, and it would have been really easy to make her the centerpiece of this adventure, given the popularity of both the character and Robbie’s portrayal. But for the most part, Gunn sidelines her, only bringing her into the fight toward the end. What this does, though, is give him plenty of opportunity to let her have some truly meaningful character development. She doesn’t move the plot forward much if at all, but she does shape the emotional arc of the movie beautifully. 

 

And that, ultimately, points toward the biggest strength of The Suicide Squad. Given the premise of this property, it would have been really easy to turn the whole thing into a cynical rage-fest obsessed with how horrible people are and how awful the world is. But when you get right down to it, this bizarre live-action animated gorefest has more heart, humanity, and sincere tenderness at its core than anyone could have ever predicted. 

 

There’s a really beautiful line uttered near the end by Taika Waititi—who plays the dead father of Ratcatcher 2, one of The Suicide Squad‘s best characters. In a flashback, Ratcatcher 2 asks her dad why he’s so fond of the rodents. “Rats,” he replies, “are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my love. If they have purpose, so do we all.” 

 

And that’s ultimately the whole point of this delightfully ridiculous and purposefully chaotic adventure. The Suicide Squad asks you to set aside your preconceptions and believe—if only for two hours—that, at our core, human beings are decent, that even the worst of us have the capacity for love and compassion. And to this old cynic, that’s probably the most unbelievable thing about it. But I’ll be damned if James Gunn didn’t make his argument compellingly enough to sway me in the direction of his optimistic worldview. 

 

Again, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you will accept the premise that a hyper-violent and hilarious Ed-Wood-style sequel to a poorly received grimdark drama-turned-comedy-by-studio-meddling can be a good film, then The Suicide Squad is certainly a good film. Scratch that—it’s a great film. I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard. I also can’t remember the last time I saw a movie this grounded in the courage of its own convictions. 

 

I fully realize I’m testing the patience of my editorial overlords with the length of this diatribe, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also talk about the look and sound of the film. HBO Max has once again hit it out of the park with its Dolby Vision presentation. Shot in a mix of 6K and 8K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate (likely only possible given the relatively light reliance on CGI except at the climax), The Suicide Squad isn’t always razor sharp, but it is when it needs to be. It’s a quite chaotic image at times, so much so I’m surprised it’s delivered artifact-free via streaming, but it is. There were about five seconds during the closing credits where it looked like the resolution dropped from 2160p to 1080p, but that was the only consequence I could see if the online delivery. 

 

This is another case where I can only wish my local IMAX were capable of delivering such a rich, nuanced, detailed, and beautifully high-dynamic-range image, but if I’m eventually forced to go back to theaters to see movies of this sort on Day One, there’s simply no denying that the impacts on presentation quality will be substantial.

 

The movie defaults to a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and although it once again seems to be a theatrical mix, not a home-cinema mix, it sounded fantastic in my media room once I turned it up about 3dB above reference levels. Once the action started and I realized just how insane the action was going to be, I half-expected to be put off by the Atmos mix, but it’s a really thoughtfully orchestrated track that uses the height and surround channels, as well as the subs, to full effect. 

 

But it never sounds gimmicky. It’s one of those rare mixes that manages to walk a fine line, giving Atmos enthusiasts enough height-channel activity to justify their extra speaker installations without punishing folks like me, who often find overhead audio effects immersion-breaking. If you’re going to check out The Suicide Squad for free on HBO Max before its free-to-view window ends on September 5, just turn the sound up a few decibels and I think you’ll find it’s a truly wonderful home-cinema-demo experience from beginning to end.

 

Just ship the kids off to grandma’s house for a couple of hours before you cue it up.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Wrath of Man

Wrath of Man (2021)

I feel swindled, but I only have myself to blame for that. After a string of utterly unwatchable movies, Guy Ritchie released The Gentlemen in early 2020 and gave fans of his older work (guilty as charged) sufficient reason to believe that he could, once again, make a decent movie about criminals. So, a reunion with Jason Statham for his followup, Wrath of Man, lured me in. Take Revolver out of the equation, and most of Ritchie’s best work was made in collaboration with Statham. But for oh so 

many reasons, their latest team-up falls loudly and mercilessly flat.

 

Part of that boils down to the fact that Wrath of Man is just an utterly joyless movie, completely devoid of the humor that made Ritchie’s older crime romps (and his previous one) palatable. There’s also the fact that it’s largely devoid of personality, except for Statham’s laconic charm. And that’s simply not enough to sustain a 119-minute exercise in grievance.

 

The bigger problem is that Wrath of Man simply cannot decide what kind of movie it wants to be. And that’s a shame because there are actually two enjoyable flicks that could have been cobbled together from the material written and shot for this one. One of those movies could have been a tightly paced and mindless revenge thriller about a crime boss who infiltrates a cash-truck company in search of the rat who inadvertently caused his son’s death. The other

WRATH AT A GLANCE

After returning to form with The Gentlemen, Guy Ritchie goes back to wandering in the woods with this woefully misconceived vengeance flick 

 

PICTURE
Thsuper-high-contrast, low-dynamic range image is well served by Kaleidescape’s presentation.

 

SOUND     

There’s so much going on in the surround channels that dialogue is often muddled or obscured, and the score is too hot in the mix. You’ll need to turn the volume way down from reference levels just to avoid having a panic attack.

could have been a real reflection on the shameful way America has treated veterans of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

 

Put those two stories together, though, and you end up with a bloated mess of a thing that you never know how seriously to take, which buckles under the weight of its own convolutions and vacillates between plot twists that are either entirely too convenient or overwhelmingly implausible.

 

Imagine if someone took the storyboards for Three Kings (but transposed to post-deployment and set in the U.S.) and John Wick (but without the balletic choreography) and shuffled them together like a deck of cards, then let Christopher Nolan direct the results. I’m not saying no filmmaker could have made this concept work. But Guy Ritchie is not that filmmaker.

It sure is beautiful, though, in its weird way. You really do need to throw out all of your videophile preconceptions to appreciate the look of the movie, though. Shot at 6K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, Wrath of Man has nonetheless gone through some obvious film-look processing to knock off its inherent digital sheen. Artificial grain has been applied throughout, but the most striking thing about the picture is its cranked contrasts. Nearly every scene looks as if its shadows were rendered with Vantablack VBx2 paint, and shadow detail is practically nonexistent. Kaleidescape’s HDR 10 presentation does add the occasional high-intensity highlight, but for the most part this is a super-high-contrast, low-dynamic range image that is served well by Kaleidescape’s presentation.

 

Audio is delivered by way of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that clearly demonstrates just how much Ritchie is cribbing from Christopher Nolan, or at least attempting to. There’s so much going on in the surround channels that dialogue is often muddled or obscured, which is no great sin given that the dialogue isn’t really that interesting to begin with. The score—which seems to be 99% percussion and solo cello—is also way too hot in the mix, making it feel more like punishment than accompaniment. If you’re looking for a good way to push 

Wrath of Man (2021)

your sound system to its limits, this one excels at that. But I had to turn the volume way down from reference levels just to avoid having a panic attack.

 

If you’re looking for a decent Ritchie flick of a modern vintage, check out The Gentlemen instead, if you haven’t seen it. If you just need a Statham fix, your time would honestly be better spent with Fast & Furious 9. (I know!) As for Wrath of Man, it’s hard for me to recommend it at all, unless you’re an absolute completist. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise (2021)

While there have been a lot of theme park rides based on successful movies, the number of movies inspired by theme park rides is far fewer, and has a much spottier track record. On the one hand, we have the atrocious The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy in 2003 and, on the other, we have one of the most successful modern franchises in the Johnny Depp-driven Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of course, if you’re Disney, any successful crossover helps drive traffic—and dollars—to one of thglobal theme parks, so the temptation to mine your existing intellectual property is tempting.

 

There are few rides more iconic in Disneyland lore than the Jungle Cruise. It was there on Day One when the park opened in July 1955, was one of Walt’s personal projects, and has remained in operation (with changes and updates, of course) ever

since.

 

Like with Pirates, the thing that makes the Jungle Cruise ride ripe for adopting into a movie is that it offers a perfect jumping-off point for any possible adventure that can happen, with the ability to weave in some nods to the ride along the way (kind of the way Pirates worked in the scene with the locked prisoners begging the dog to bring them a key, one of the iconic moments from the ride). Put some people on a boat, set them on a cruise, introduce a quest and some mayhem along the way . . . the thing practically writes itself! Disney felt the same as well, since a film based on the ride has been in the works since as early as 2004, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen attached to star at one point.

 

This year, Jungle Cruise finally made it out of production and into theaters on July 30, with some big-name leads in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt carrying the action. As has been common to Disney films 

JUNGLE CRUISE AT A GLANCE

This family-friendly Dwayne Johnson vehicle nicely follows the theme-park-ride-to-big-screen path carved out by Pirates of the Caribbean. 

 

PICTURE
Images are clean and sharp throughout but there isn’t the razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix provides near constant jungle sounds during the trip down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room.

during the pandemic—see Cruella, Luca, and Black Widow—Jungle Cruise saw a simultaneous debut both theatrically and as a Premier Access title for $29.99 on Disney+.

 

I went into this viewing highly optimistic. Disney has been on a pretty good role recently, and I feel like they’ve developed a solid formula for delivering big action films that hit the right balance of humor and fun that appeals to family watching. Also, I felt Johnson was at a point in his career that he wasn’t going to be attached to a stinker, and he’s proven that he can not only carry a big film but deliver a deft comedic touch—see Jumanji: The Next Level—which was what a Jungle Cruise captain would need to be true to the spirit of the ride. 

 

Plus, I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. My parents actually met working there. My dad was a ride operator and my mom worked at a Sunkist orange-juice stand near the Jungle Cruise. I’ve been on the ride dozens of times, including when it actually was an E-ticket attraction, and a ride on the Jungle Cruise is a requisite during any visit to the park. 

 

So, yeah, I’d say the deck was a bit stacked in favor of me enjoying the movie.

 

And, no real surprise, I did.

 

If you’ve read any other reviews of Jungle Cruise, you’ve likely heard that it borrows heavily from films such as The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Disney’s own Pirates films. But that’s OK. If you’re going to borrow, might as well use some classic films as your template. 

 

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) are looking for the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree whose petals can cure any illness or injury. They end up being cursed by a chief and can never leave sight of the Amazon River. Cut to 1916, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) steals an ancient arrowhead that is the key to unlocking the location of the tree, and she, along with her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), heads to South America where she hires a boat from Frank Wolff (Johnson) to guide them down the Amazon and to the tree. Along the way they are chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in a German submarine, before he ultimately joins forces with the cursed conquistadors in an effort to recover the arrowhead and locate the tree to help the German war effort.

 

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt works really well, and it’s nice to see a female lead that is in on the action instead of being relegated to the role of sidekick, something they definitely play up repeatedly for laughs with her brother MacGregor. And the opening pre-title card scene with Johnson taking a group of tourists on a jungle cruise lifts many lines—corny dad-jokes, quips, and puns—and sight gags that are lifted straight from the Disneyland attraction, including the always popular “back side of water” gag. 

 

I wasn’t able to locate any specifications on the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate for this transfer, but my guess would be that this is sourced from a 2K DI. Images are clean and sharp throughout, revealing lots of detail in closeups, but just didn’t give that razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI, especially on long shots. Also, with the extensive amount of CGI used throughout, it would likely be in a 2K workflow.

 

I watched the film twice, once on my Apple 4KTV on my 4K JVC projector at 115-inch diagonal 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and then again on my Xbox One S on a new Sony 65-inch OLED. What I mistook on the projector for a bit of softness in the opening scenes in a London University revealed itself to be more smokiness and haze when viewed on the OLED, but on both the colors and clarity definitely got a nice uptick when the action moves to outside.

 

One serious complaint is that there are several instances where subtitles are used for German and Spanish speakers. Disney chose to place these subtitles below the image. While this won’t impact viewers on 16:9 aspect-ratio screens, those with a 2.35 (or wider) screen will find that the subtitles are blown off the screen and totally unreadable. This will certainly be rectified when the film is made available to Kaleidescape, which uses technology to reposition the subtitles back into the viewing area. But for my Disney+ experience, it meant rewinding, zooming the image down to 16:9, and then rewatching the scenes so we could see what had been said. Talk about pulling you out of the movie!

 

As mentioned, closeups can have plenty of sharpness and clean, ultra-fine detail. You can see the weave in the hats worn by characters or the texture in MacGregor’s many outfits or the tiny squares in a screen covering a window. You can also clearly see the markings and engravings when the arrowhead is viewed in closeup.

 

With lots of dark and lowlight scenes, Jungle Cruise certainly benefits from HDR. Whether it is viewing characters in the warm glow of firelight or lanterns, seeing sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, characters moving about in caves, or deep inside the jungle, we get lots of rich shadow detail and bright highlights. Jungle greens are rich and lush, as are the vibrant reds, with several scenes with fire, along with the jacket worn by Joachim and the busses on the streets of London. 

 

Sonically, the Disney+ version includes Dolby Atmos packed in a lossy Dolby Digital+ wrapper versus the more dynamic and lossless Dolby TrueHD version that will accompany a disc or Kaleidescape release. Even still, there is plenty here to find entertaining, though you’ll likely want to bump the volume 5 to 10 dB over your normal listening levels (as seems to be the case with most of Disney+ streaming). There are near constant jungle sounds when sailing down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room, with a variety of birds squawking overhead. When scenes cut to/from the open outside of the Amazon, you can “feel” the change in the room, just by how it expands in the outdoors, making a really nice effect. We also have a lot of audio effects wrapping overhead and around the room from creaking vines and snakes slithering about, or a swarm of bees that flies around the room, or the splashes of water coming over the sides of the boat during a harrowing rapids ride. James Newton Howard’s score is also given a lot of room to expand throughout the room, making it much fuller sounding.

 

There are a few moments where the subwoofer comes into play, and these were definitely more dynamic when played through my Xbox versus my AppleTV, which just seems to compress and crush dynamics. There is a deep rumble of massive waterfalls, the explosions of a torpedo, and the low chug of the boat’s engines. 

 

While it is mostly family-friendly fare, there is some mostly bloodless violence and stabbings, along with several intense moments (snakes crawling out of skulls and other creepy-crawly stuff) that were definitely too much for my five year old. While rated PG-13, most kids 12 and up will probably be OK to watch. 

 

Ultimately, Jungle Cruise delivered exactly what I expected, which was a fun time with some good action, a few laughs, quality acting, some quality visual effects, and nods to one of my favorite amusement-park rides. After the dour seriousness of Fast & Furious 9, this struck the right note of how a film can provide a night of fun and entertainment without taking itself too seriously.

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: The Killing

The Killing (1956)

The staging is often stilted, the acting often laughably bad when it’s not just mismanaged, it’s a concatenation of crime-drama clichés that leans almost to the breaking point on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the whole punctuated by pretentious, even silly, compositions and tracking shots that convey nothing, and yet Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is one of the seminal works of American filmmaking, poised right on the pivot into what would become, for better or worse, the modern era of the 

movies. This is Kubrick’s first real feature, and he freely admitted that, in that time before film schools, he still had his training wheels on—and it shows. But, determined not to be a studio hack, aiming to be the first true independent within the studio system, he pushes the boundaries throughout. The results might be ludicrously mixed, but they’re a damn sight more interesting than what almost any other director was doing at that time, and their implications were, in retrospect, huge.

 

Critics did dismiss The Killing as a low-budget Asphalt Jungle knockoff—an accusation that was true as far as it went. And Kubrick might have seen himself as more of a Hustonian director at that point (although his affinity lay more with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but as he hit his stride as a filmmaker, it became obvious that if you created a Venn diagram of the two directors, any common 

THE KILLING AT A GLANCE

Kubrick’s first real feature is a bit of a mess—it’s also one of the seminal works in American film.  

 

PICTURE
Lots of grain, lots of noise—but not so much to make it unwatchable, and with enough clarity to allow you to appreciate Kubrick’s photojournalistic roots.

 

SOUND     

Oddly uneven dialogue levels that would be worth fixing if the film ever makes it to 4K.

ground between them would be minimal, and suspect. The more plausible explanation is that, in a bid to be palatable to the system, Kubrick donned a Huston disguise and used it as a Trojan horse to insinuate himself with the studio elders.

 

I can’t begin to do the film justice in this short review, just point out some things that might make the experience more interesting if you decide to revisit it—beginning with the fact that, while Jungle was a character-study-driven crime drama that was also about process, Kubrick decisively shifted that emphasis, not unsympathetically showing that his characters were pawns of much larger forces—not metaphysical but post-war societal ones defined by increasing dehumanization (a 

viewpoint well captured in the many meanings of the title—all but one of which is lost on contemporary viewers, with their blinkered fixation on bloodshed).

 

While Kubrick wanted to garner the largest possible audience, he had no interest in feeding them A-list pablum. He instead drew from the fertile muck of the B- (and often C-) movie world—a vital perspective on his work that’s rarely (actually, as far as I know, never been) explored. In many ways, his movies owe far more to Ed Wood and Burt I. Gordon than to William Wyler or Cecil B. DeMille. Just consider the recurring presence of actors like Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel or those godawful Gerald Fried scores (with Fried joined at the hip to the equally obstreperous Albert Glasser). And while it wasn’t deliberately placed there for the production, it’s not just pure chance that a poster for “Lenny Bruce and His All Girl Review” can be glimpsed on a seedy downtown LA wall when Sterling Hayden goes to buy a pawn-shop suitcase for hiding the loot. In a sense, Kubrick always showed an affinity with Bataille, constantly reminding us of the fetid underbelly that was essential to creating the Hollywood sheen—and driving the American engine.

 

And then there’s Jim Thompson, the roman noir King of the American Underbelly, whose work went through a very much lauded revival thanks to a seemingly endless string of film adaptations from the 1990s into the new millennium. Accepted wisdom has it that moviemaking wasn’t equal to Thompson’s material at the time he was an active writer. The truth is that none of those recent adaptations are worth the spit it took to make them. None of them grasped

Thompson but just pushed the more lurid elements for all they were worth. If you want to know his work, read his books—or watch The Killing or Paths of Glory. Or The Shining.

 

True, Kubrick didn’t know what to do with what Thompson was handing him—the scenes between Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. were great on paper but beyond what Kubrick was then capable of as a director. But they’re still meaningful, and amusing in ways that go beyond their status as kitsch, because they make it clear that Cook’s put-upon George Peatty is very much the heart and fulcrum of the film (which you would never know by looking at Kaleidescape’s cast list, where his name is oddly omitted.) 

 

There’s also Lucien Ballard, who’s a bit of a curious case. Known for shooting Three Stooges shorts, he lensed for Kubrick here with mixed but sometimes inspired results, then went on to do both Blake Edwards’ The Party and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch—which officially qualifies him as a kind of subversive chameleon. The Blu-ray-quality transfer of The Killing—like the hit-and-miss 4K one for Dr. Strangelove—helps highlight the huge impact Kubrick’s photojournalistic work had on his films—something that was a lot harder to discern in earlier, lower-res releases. That documentary aesthetic lends an authentic grit to

the action that more polished studio noir could never capture.

 

Brace yourself for a lot of grain, along with a lot of digital noise, but The Killing is definitely viewable on a big screen, and it’s worth making the effort for the shots where those forces aren’t as much in play, such as the many tight shots, a lot of them—like most of the closeups of Sterling Hayden and those key exchanges between Cook and Windsor—quite striking. (As with most older films, the opening titles are overly enhanced. When is somebody going to figure out how to make those stop looking like bad student video and more like film?)

 

Not much to be said about the audio, except that nothing can really be done to ameliorate the impact of Fried’s clangorous blaring except to scrub it from the film completely. I noticed on this viewing, though, that there were big disparities in the levels of the actors’ voices, which I’m sure is a baked-in problem but one someone should address if this ever makes it to 4K.

 

I don’t mean to dump too hard on The Killing, but it’s in no sense a great film—but it is an infinitely intriguing one, with moments of undeniably bold camerawork, editing, design, sound, and acting that still hold up. And of course there are all those early indications of the filmmaker Kubrick would eventually be. Maybe what 

The Killing (1956)

most redeems the movie is that you can sense him trying to claw his way above all the then-current melodramatic and romantic clichés in an effort to find higher, more authentic ground. (The contemporary equivalent would be trying to make a film that’s not hopelessly fouled by adolescent fantasy and its attendant fascist notions of power.) He would continue that parlous ascent all the way through Paths of Glory and Lolita, with decidedly mixed results, before emerging a master artist with Strangelove. (Even Kubrick freely admitted that Spartacus doesn’t count.)

 

You don’t have to be a Kubrick—or Jim Thompson or Sterling Hayden—fan to enjoy The Killing. But you do have to leave most of the current cultural biases at the door—and there are so many of them—to even begin to appreciate it. It’s not mindless entertainment, a diversion—it’s a movie.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo ReviewSound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.