Reviews

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

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.

Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

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.

Glass

Glass

There was a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was considered the virtual heir to Hitchcock’s throne. He had a way of crafting intricate stories with unpredictable and shocking endings that left moviegoers talking for days afterwards. (He also adopted the Hitchcockian move of including himself in all of his films.) And from 1999-2002 when he delivered The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shyamalan was a guaranteed box office draw and one of the hottest tickets in Hollywood.

 

But then . . .

 

Well, in golf we had a saying for what happened to M. Night: “The wheels came off.” His next string of films—The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth—were all critical and box office bombs.

 

He had lost not only his magic touch but also seemingly his way, and now his name was more of a punchline for bad endings you see coming a mile away.

 

But then something truly unexpected happened in 2016—he gave us Split, which featured a fantastic performance by James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, with 23 distinct personalities known 

collectively as “The Horde” that abducts teenage girls. Beyond McAvoy’s change-on-a-dime performance and an engaging story, Split finished with a total WTF?! moment—an end credits scene that delivered a fantastic callback to Unbreakable, arguably one of Shyamalan’s best films.

 

With that single scene, M. Night delivered Hollywood’s first stealth sequel and placed Split firmly in the  

Unbreakable world, where superhuman vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his archenemy—criminal mastermind with extremely brittle bones Elija “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson)—still live and breathe.

 

This set the stage for the highly anticipated Glass, the third film in the Unbreakable series.

 

Glass takes place 15-19 years after Unbreakable (both times are mentioned in the film), but only weeks after Split. It begins with four cheerleaders being held captive by Crumb in an old warehouse, and with the city of Philadelphia in a panic over a recent string of murders.

 

Dunn now owns a security firm he runs with his son, Joseph (with Spencer Treat Clark reprising his Unbreakable role), where he continues his covert, rain poncho-wearing role as “The Overseer,” walking the city streets looking for evildoers to beat some justice into. (This also sets the stage for a rather forced cameo by Shyamalan, who returns as his role of Jai from Unbreakable.)

 

Dunn ultimately happens upon Crumb, who transforms into “The Beast,” a dominant personality with cannibal tendencies and superhuman abilities that is an amalgam of various zoo animals. After a massive fight, both end up being captured by a special police division and sent to a woefully understaffed institution for the criminally insane. There they are studied by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, returning in her role from Split) who keeps them locked in isolation cells designed to control their powers. It’s soon revealed that this is the same institution that has been housing Mr. Glass for the past number of years, and that Dr. Staple is working on a special branch of psychology where she tries to convince people who think they’re superhuman that they’re actually normal.

 

While Jackson’s Mr. Glass is the titular character, he spends more than half of the film saying and doing nothing, heavily medicated and slumped in a wheelchair. When Glass finally encounters Crumb, he decides to waken The Beast and have him fight Dunn in a massive public battle that will finally reveal the existence of superheroes to the world.

 

The film has a 129-minute run time, but I felt it was well paced for a long film, with a story that held my interest and attention. Shyamalan also did a nice job of marrying the two stories, coming up with a film that brings the characters together in a believable manner, though the pacing and style make it feel more a sequel to Split than to Unbreakable. The ending was a bit lackluster, but it did pave the way for future spinoffs.

 

McAvoy is again fantastic in his portrayal of Crumb, deftly switching between completely different personalitie, often multiple times within a single scene. These changes are not only in his voice and mannerisms, but in his physical appearance and emotion. It was also nice to see Willis back in his Unbreakable role, albeit he doesn’t get as much screen time as fans of the original would hope.

 

You can’t fault Glass for is its picture quality, which is terrific. Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate, and the image is sharp and clear, with tons of detail and definition. Edges are all razor sharp, and fine detail abounds in closeups, showing nearly every hair and pore on the actor’s faces (once revealing too-much makeup on Dr. Ellie), single-stitch fabric texture in garments, and micro-scratches in metal surfaces. HDR isn’t used extensively, but there are several low-light night scenes where its benefits are visible and welcome.

 

Audio on the Kaleidescape download is 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master. M. Night films are not big on typical superhero bombast and explosions, but the soundtrack serves the film well, with some nice directional cues and other ambient sounds and effects to place you in the right sonic environment. Of equal importance, dialogue is well recorded and clear.

 

Glass is available now from Kaleidescape, a full two weeks before its 4/16 disc release.

John Sciacca

Glass

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.

Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen

On paper, Welcome to Marwen should have been a hit. Helmed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact, Polar Express), starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, with supporting performances from Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, and Eiza Gonzalez, and featuring some fantastic visual effects, this could have been a call-back to the brilliance of Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.

 

Unfortunately, what we got was an estimated $50-60 million loss for Universal Studios, largely due to a bevy of poor reviews spurred by clumsy and disjointed storytelling that makes it difficult to connect with, learn about, or even care for any of the characters. Also, Zemeckis seems to have gotten too caught up in relying on the effects-laden scenes rather than telling a great story.

 

Marwen is based on the tragic real-life events of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Carell. (The acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol also examined Hogancamp’s life and art.) Back in 2000, Mark was out drinking one night when he casually admitted that he likes to collect and wear women’s shoes to feel closer to their essence. This admission was overheard by a group of five guys (portrayed as white supremacist, neo-Nazis in the film, but actually homophobes in real life) who took him outside and brutally beat him, leaving him for dead.

 

The beating left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days and brain damaged, with absolutely no memories of his life before. Barely able to even write his name following the incident, it also robbed him of his ability to draw. Hogancamp turned to photography instead, where he created the elaborate, fictional World War II-era Belgian city Marwen where he stages dolls in elaborate sets and situations, all to perfect 1/6-scale.

 

The film begins a few years after the beating, where Mark is established in his photography career, and has an upcoming exhibition. Also looming over him is the trial of his attackers, which his lawyer wants him to attend to read a victim’s impact statement to ensure it’s entered into the record so they don’t get off lightly.

 

On the one hand, I understand what I think Zemeckis was going for in his story. Mark can’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, so we’re given only very limited information about him from before. What we do glean is from quick snatches of images flipping through old scrap books, or snippets of conversations overheard from others. Old Mark apparently drank a lot, served in the Navy, and was an illustrator for some comics.

 

Current Mark suffers pretty severe PTSD from the beating. He is shy, awkward, afraid, closed-off, and fairly heavily medicated. We get the sense he could die in his home and no one would notice for days. He also leads a very controlled and structured life, with his only pleasure coming from photographing Marwen and wearing his massive—more than 280-pair—collection of women’s shoes. Carrell does a great job in the role, rising above the uneven storytelling, showing us Hogancamp’s pain and vulnerability, with nary a trace of Michael Scott to be found.

 

To compensate for his sad reality, Mark creates the alter-ego hero, Cap’n Hogie, who is a dame-lovin’, Nazi-killin’, lady-shoe-wearin’, alpha male of Marwen, a town populated entirely by women representing important people in Mark’s life. Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Marwen, as it comes under repeated attack from Nazi SS soldiers, and any women that Hogie gets close to are zapped light years into the future by the Belgian Witch, Deja Thoris (voiced by Kruger), who actually represents Mark’s growing addiction to pain medication.

 

Further complicating our ability to connect with Mark is the fact that the scenes in Marwen-town are so unlike his real-life that they end up feeling disjointed from the rest of the film. These random scenes are filled with action, humor, and life, along with Nazi ambushes and brutal gun fights where Hogie frequently finds himself captured and nearly killed by a band of Nazis that continually comes back to life. The Nazis clearly represent his real-life attackers regularly returning to Marwen to inflict damage and re-enact the trauma of Mark’s beating, where ultimately he is always saved by his women of Marwen. 

 

Whereas the real-life scenes are a bit soft by design, the doll scenes are all fascinating visually and razor detailed. You can see every pebble-grain of texture in Hogie’s bomber jacket, along with the intricate outfits of the women. These scenes are often filmed up close—like Mark’s photographs—so we see every articulated joint and intricate movement from the dolls along with the fine detail Mark puts into his set decoration. It all looks great.

 

Audio here is presented via 5.1 DTS-HD Master, with the all-important dialogue well recorded and intelligible. The battle scenes in Marwen provide some sonic excitement, as does the film’s opening plane crash, with my processor’s Dolby Atmos upmixing doing a nice job of placing flak explosions overhead.

 

Ultimately, Marwen is an interesting but forgettable film, but it’s not a total waste. Its effects scenes look fantastic on the home screen, with a truly unique visual style somewhere between animation and stop motion. And the story was interesting enough to keep me curious and watching to see how it concluded, and to turn to the Internet to find out more about the actual events behind it. Also, due to its dismal box office performance, it currently appears that Marwen’s 4K disc release has been scrubbed, meaning the only way to enjoy it in better-than-cinema quality is to get the 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape, available now for a very reasonable $19.99.

John Sciacca

Welcome to Marwen

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.

Bumblebee

Bumblebee

For many viewers, myself included, the Transformers franchise jumped the shark with its fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight, where it tried to combine robots, dinosaurs, and Arthurian lore into a mess of a film that included Sir Anthony Hopkins delivering lines that were frequently cringeworthy at best. That film was panned by critics and received the lowest audience rating of any film in the series—a meager 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Due to this, my expectations for Bumblebee were basically non-existent.

But the Bumblebee team decided to do some transforming of its own. This film broke the tradition of having Michael Bay at the directorial helm (though he does retain a producer credit), instead going with relative newcomer Travis Knight, whose previous directorial credit included the critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. They also went with an up-and-coming writers, Christina Hodson, for the script and story.

Those two changes made all the difference, with Bumblebee scoring big at the box office, bringing in a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating—the highest of any film in the franchise—and resulting in a movie that has far more heart and story, and far less near-constant frenetic smash-em-up-blow-em-up action scenes. And guess what? When every scene isn’t filled with action, there is more room for story and character development, and more opportunity for the action pieces to stand out.

Also, by primarily focusing on a single robot character instead of virtually every Autobot and Decepticon still in existence, you have a chance to care more about them. Kudos to the design team that did a great job with Bumblebee’s eyes, giving him the ability to express emotion and feeling, further humanizing him.

Bumblebee

The film begins on the planet Cybertron, with the Autobots on the verge of being completely overthrown. As a last-ditch effort, Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, sends his lead fighter and scout, B-127, to the planet Earth in an escape pod to prepare a new base of operations for the Autobots to regroup. B-127 smashes into Earth right next to an Army Special Forces training exercise, and in a skirmish while attempting to escape and battling a Decepticon that followed him, B-127 is damaged, losing his ability to speak, as well as his memory of who he is and his mission. Low

on power and heavily injured, B-127 scans a nearby yellow ’67 Beetle and transforms, where he somehow ends up at a salvage yard before being discovered by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie christens B-127 “Bumblebee” because of the sound his electronic mumblings make.

There are many similarities between the storylines of Bumblebee and the original 2007 Transformers film. In both movies, the human star is an outcast, nerdy high school student. That role was played by Shia LaBeouf in 2007, but this time it’s a female played by Steinfeld. Both kids encounter the discarded and barely functional Autobot, Bumblebee, while searching for their first car, taking him home and then discovering he’s “more than meets the eye.” They both rely on friends of the opposite sex to help them survive and keep Bumblebee’s secret; the bombshell Megan Fox in the original, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in Bumblebee. We’ve also got a strong military presence trying to track down and stop the alien invasion in the form of Agent Burns (John Cena), who is given one of the best lines with, “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?!”

Set in the late ‘80s, Bumblebee has a great soundtrack featuring many classics from bands like The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and A-HA, along with several band shirts worn by Steinfeld that would have been perfectly at home on any student at my high school. Also, without the ability to speak, Bumblebee plays snippets of audio from the radio to communicate, a device that works well.

Bumblebee

Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K, Bumblebee is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-driven films. But the image has no shortage of detail, especially in closeups where you can see tons of detail like texture, imperfections, and scratches in Bumblebee’s paint, or individual strands of hair in Steinfeld’s eyelashes. HDR is used to good effect during the night scenes, particularly with explosions and erupting fireballs, or the vibrant green of the Decepticon transmitter near the finale.

My favorite aspect of the video was that the camera style is far more steady and stable, moving away from the near seizure-inducing, rapid blur and jerk favored by the previous Transformer films. The action scenes here are stable and in focus, letting you appreciate all of the robot’s movements and motions.

By far the standout here is Bumblebee’s reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This movie sounds fantastic in a well-calibrated home theater, featuring an active mix that fully engages all Atmos speakers, immersing you in the action. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, no matter how many things are exploding onscreen. Home theater owners will especially love the massive amount of low-frequency impact. When heavy objects or bots crash, smash, collide, or explode, the bass is appropriately weighty, producing frequencies that will rattle your floor and slam into your chest. But far more than just one repetitive bass note, bass here is richly textured and layered, with different amounts of impact and detail according to  the scene. Excellent demo material for sure!

Bumblebee is available for download now at the Kaleidescape store, two weeks before the disc release on April 2.

John Sciacca

Bumblebee

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.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

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

 

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

trailer

behind-the-scenes documentary

transition to color

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

They Shall Not Grow Old

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

Aquaman

Aquaman

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Aquaman

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Forever

Amazon Prime "Forever"

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

 

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

 

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

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

Amazon Prime "Forever"

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

 

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

 

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

 

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Umbrella Academy

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

—Dennis Burger

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