Reviews

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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.

First Man

First Man

Two minutes into Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I thought I knew exactly what sort of film I was in for. It’s the sort of film I consume ravenously. A ra-ra tribute to the heroes of the Gemini and Apollo programs. A moving monument to the men and women who took us from the earth to the moon. A seat-of-the-pants celebration of the space cowboys who left our little blue marble and turned around to show it to us from a perspective unlike any we’d ever seen.

 

I was wrong. So utterly wrong. First Man isn’t that film in the slightest. It’s unlike any film about the space program to date, and that’s largely because it’s not a film about the space program at all. It’s a film about one man. One beautifully complicated, flawed, enigmatic man who just so happened to be the first to set foot on lunar soil. And what makes it doubly fascinating is that it isn’t even a film about how he became the first man on the moon, or even why, but rather how it made him feel.

 

That’s an interesting approach for a man whose feelings were so guarded. And the result is that First Man is a stunningly quiet, introspective, even at times abstract film. It’s a tone poem comprised of muted tones. And it’s an utterly gripping film for exactly none of the reasons you might expect.

 

I hesitate to say much more, not for fear of spoiling the story, because we obviously all know the story by now. But First Man does make it fresh in the telling, in the choices it makes about what to explore and what to ignore.

First Man

There is a scene early on that truly made me understand the approach Chazelle was going for here: Neil Armstrong—played nearly perfectly by Ryan Gosling, who really only falters in his inability to recreate the real Armstrong’s fake smile—is the first astronaut to be subjected to the gimbal rig, a multi-axis trainer designed to make trainees puke or pass out. In any other film on the subject, I have to think the rig itself would have been the focal point. But here, Chazelle keeps the camera locked on Armstrong himself while the world around him blurs. That’s really a metaphor for the entire narrative here. It’s amongst a handful of shots that serve to remind the viewer that Armstrong is the sole focus of this story. If it didn’t happen to him or directly affect him or his family, the events of the Gemini and Apollo programs go unsaid, unseen.

 

Another enigmatic thing about the film is its audiovisual presentation. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the bulk of the film on 16mm, with larger-format stocks reserved mainly for First Man’s dénouement. As such, it’s a gritty, grungy, gorgeously organic film with oodles of grain. You might be inclined to think such a film doesn’t really demand a high-quality transfer, but you’d be wrong. This is one of those increasingly rare films whose imagery just can’t be done justice by streaming—even superior streaming sources like Vudu. Without the full bandwidth of a Kaleidescape download (or the eventual UHD Blu-ray release, one assumes), the image devolves into harsh noise.

 

Granted, on Kaleidescape you’ll have to make the choice between Blu-ray quality with Dolby Atmos audio or 4K HDR with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Go for the latter, no matter your usual audio preferences. First Man doesn’t succeed or fail

based on its audio—in fact, large swaths of the film are borderline monophonic, and old-school surround sound is plenty sufficient for the handful of aurally active scenes. In large part, the sound is a matter of quality over quantity, and its dense mixing of dialogue will put your center speaker to the test.

 

The visuals, though, absolutely demand to be seen in high dynamic 

First Man

range, especially in the way the HDR grade conveys the stark contrasts and eye-reactive brightness of the lunar surface. It’s an effect that’s absolutely essential to understanding and feeling the alienness of the lunar environs, and Armstrong’s emotional reaction during those strange moments of solitude.

Dennis Burger

Kaleidescape "First Man"

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.

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

I’m not embarrassed to admit it: I like Taylor Swift. I mean, I really like Taylor Swift. There, I said it.

 

I think she’s not only fantastically talented but I actually enjoy most of her music. And I really respect that in this day and age, the term “singer/songwriter” actually applies to her, as she’s literally involved in all aspects of creating her music. And as a father of a pre-teen daughter, I also really appreciate the lengths she goes to in order to protect her reputation, having risen to the top of the music industry (mostly) scandal free, and presenting a (mostly) wholesome image that young girls can be proud to look up to.

 

Lauryn (said pre-teen) graduated elementary school this past year, having received all A’s on every report card during her elementary career. And as a reward, I told her she could either have a pair of diamond earrings or I’d take her to see Taylor Swift in concert.

 

The choice for Lauryn was pretty simple.

 

I share this because I think it puts me in somewhat of a unique position to review the new Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour that launched on Netflix New Year’s Eve since I actually experienced that concert live this past summer in Atlanta, Georgia. (That’s Lauryn and me in the photo below.)

I’ve seen my share of concerts, but Reputation was my first stadium tour so I wasn’t sure what to expect. From the moment we entered the arena, it was clear that the size of the sets, stage, and video screens was massive and that this was going to be a big show. While not shown in the concert video, Charli XCX and Camilla Cabello both opened the show, making for an evening that lasted almost four hours. Taylor played for a solid two hours, leaving everything up on the stage, and I left hoping the show would eventually come out on disc.

 

In a way, the spectacle of the Reputation Stadium Tour reminded me of the first time I saw a modern, large-scale play—Phantom of the Opera. I pictured plays as small events, with static backdrops and a couple of changing sets, but Phantom blew me away in terms of what a major production could bring to the stage and live effects. Reputation was the same way, with sets, pyrotechnics, choreography, and production that were far and away above what I’d ever experienced before.

 

Reputation broke the record for the highest-grossing US tour ever, selling more than two million tickets and grossing $266.1 million. That bested the Rolling Stones’ 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang tour, which took 70 shows to rake in $245 million. Taylor did it in almost half the number of shows (38).

 

When I saw that Reputation was coming out on Netflix in 4K HDR video with a Dolby Atmos mix, I was beyond excited to be able to relive it in the comfort of my media room (and not shell out any more money for the privilege!). For us, experiencing Reputation meant buying a pair of tickets costing north of $700, a six-hour drive to Atlanta, fighting nearly 60,000 people to use the bathroom and exit the Mercedes-Benz stadium, and a weekend in a hotel. For you, a similar experience can now be had by simply turning on your home theater, navigating to Netflix, and pressing Play.

 

Most of the show includes songs from Swift’s most recent album, Reputation, but she works in other fan favorites, creatively blending everything together and playing all or parts of 24 songs.

 

I first watched the concert on my Apple 4K TV, and it delivered audio that was shockingly compressed to utter lifelessness. No matter how loud I cranked the volume knob, the bass was anemic and had no impact, and the show never rose above a moderate volume level—which was completely different from the concert experience, where the Reputation PA system sounded absolutely fantastic.

 

With my preamp at 0 dB, I measured SPLs of around 72 to 75, with some parts dropping to the low 60s . . . totally unacceptable! I checked every setting in my system—both on the Apple TV and my Marantz AV8805—looking for some compression button or setting that had somehow been turned on, but no luck. I watched the entire show angry and disappointed that the home audio experience was so lackluster, to the point where Lauryn finally said, “Dad, just stop complaining and watch the show!”

 

Before writing the mix off completely, I watched it again on my Xbox One S and . .  night and day difference! Not only did the concert now deliver bass you could actually feel with the volume at the same 0 dB position, but I was getting SPL peaks up near 100 dB (far more typical), making it feel more like a live concert experience and restoring life to the audio mix. I can’t explain what’s up with the Netflix/Apple implementation of this mix, but it was definitely wrong in my system. 

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

This concert gives you the chance to see someone who is a master of their craft at the top of their game. You can see how much work went into all of the choreography, set designs, the way Taylor moves around the stage and auditorium, how she transitions/blends from one song to the next, and the way she tries to engage with every section of the audience. She shows off all of her talents, singing, dancing, playing acoustic guitar, piano, and working the crowd.

 

One of the coolest things about the show was that when you entered the arena, everyone was given a white wristband. During the performance, these bands would light up, pulse, and sync to the music and where you were in the crowd. Taylor mentions the bands in the show—right before performing “Delicate”—but during the concert, notice them flashing and syncing when it cuts back to wide views showing the crowd. This really made you feel like a small part of the performance.

 

Production values in the film are top-notch, with terrific-looking video, and a film crew that mostly stays out of the way. The 4K HDR images let you clearly see every detail, and keep dark images nice and black, while still delivering bright highlights and lots of color pop, especially reds and golds.

 

On the audio front, the Atmos mix is a little reserved, with most of the audio spread across the front three channels and the surrounds primarily used for crowd noise and some reverb. This keeps the music and vocals clear and in front of you, but I would have liked a bigger, more stadium-vibe mix. The exception where the audio mixers get a little playful is the very beginning, where tabloid snippets about Taylor are read aloud, swirling across the surround and height speakers, creating a nice effect.

 

This was filmed in Dallas on the last night of the tour, and the film does a terrific job of capturing the energy and excitement of the evening. If you’re looking for something to enjoy with a daughter or granddaughter, this is a terrific option that might even convert a few new fans. Are you ready for 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.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Between passively sitting back and watching a movie and actively being involved in every action and decision while playing a videogame lies a relatively uncommon bit of media called an interactive film. Kind of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series those of us who grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember, interactive films feature a story that unfolds differently depending on the choices you make at several moments throughout, resulting in a variety of possible conclusions.

 

With its latest installment in the Black Mirror anthology, Netflix is going interactive with the new film Bandersnatch. According to Netflix, “Bandersnatch is an interactive film that reacts to your choices. You’ll be able play on newer smart TVs, most 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

streaming media players, game consoles and web browsers, and iOS and Android devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. If your device is compatible, you’ll see the interactivity badge on the film below [in the upper right-hand corner of the image].”

 

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to enjoy Bandersnatch. Of 

the multiple Netflix-capable streaming devices in my home, several weren’t compatible, including a new Apple 4K TV, Dish Hopper 3, and Samsung UBD-K8500. Those who use Google Chromecast are also left out of the fun.

 

What did work was the Netflix app in my Sony XBR65X930D TV (two generations old at this point) and my Xbox One S. (PlayStation4 is also said to work though I wasn’t able to test.)  I could also enjoy the interactive experience using the Netflix 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

app on my iPhone 7—but watching a movie on a phone is a fairly soulless experience and certainly not recommended. Also, it wouldn’t work when I used the Netflix App from the Microsoft Store on my PC, but would work on the same PC when I just went to Netflix.com.

 

When you try and play Bandersnatch on a non-supported device, you’ll be taken to a two-minute trailer featuring scenes from previous Black Mirror episodes with multiple characters saying, “I’m sorry . . .” and then the primary Netflix account receives the email shown at the left.

 

Bandersnatch’s running time is listed at 1 hour 30 minutes, but your actual adventure could last quite a bit less depending on your choices. Fortunately, if you end up making a “wrong” decision, the film will give you a chance to go back and re-choose. A brilliant touch is that if you decide to make a different decision, you’re greeted with a quick fast forward kind of recap of the decisions you’ve made to get you to where you are. It’s bit like a customized series recap, and I found it pretty cool instead of just throwing you back to where you were. 

 

The first choices are pretty benign and come just a few moments into the film, where you pick which breakfast cereal you’d like to start the day with, followed by what 

music you’ll listen to on your ride into work. As the story progresses, the decisions start becoming weightier and have more impact on the story: Will you drop acid? What will you do with a dead body?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Selection is a simple left, right, and enter, and the branching between storylines is truly seamless in that there are absolutely no breaks, hiccups, or interruptions whatsoever in the action or audio as your choice is carried out. You’ll also start to notice subtle things like in-movie ads that are based on prior choices you made. From a technical standpoint, Bandersnatch is masterfully executed and was fun to watch, err, play.

 

Without spoiling the fun, Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), who is working to turn a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch, into an interactive video game. The film also includes Colin Ritman (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) as prodigy video-game designer and somewhat mentor to Butler.

 

The story becomes very meta when Butler starts having a psychotic breakdown because of the workload and stresses of immersing himself in creating the game. He begins questioning reality and starts to feel he is no longer in charge of his own life—like there is someone else out there deciding things for him; what breakfast cereal he’ll eat, what music he’ll listen to . . .

 

The seeming “free will” and open ended-ness of the bulk of the story is a bit limited in actuality, and the film ultimately guides you to toward the end, which will have wildly different conclusions depending on choices you make late in the film. But how you get there—and how many times you’ll need to go back and make a different decision—and what sub-stories you see along the way varies based on your choices.

 

Most of the endings are a bit dark, twisted, and macabre, fitting in with what Black Mirror viewers have come to expect from the series. But I found them all varied and interesting enough that I enjoyed going back and re-choosing decisions over a period of 2.5 hours until I felt I had seen all the possible outcomes.

 

Bandersnatch is presented in 4K HDR and looks good, especially the many night and dark scenes in Butler’s room. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also does an admirable job of keeping dialogue intelligible while adding some nice atmospheric effect.

 

Black Mirror is an episodic show that has been described as a modern version of The Twilight Zone revolving around technology. IMDB describes it as “An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

 

For those who are fans of the series, or just looking to expand their viewing options for an evening, Bandersnatch is unlike anything you’ve watched before and definitely makes for an interesting experience.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Venom

Venom

I’ll freely admit that I’m a superhero-movie fan. Ever since seeing the original, Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie as an 8-year-old, I’ve loved watching these heroes battle to save the planet up on the big screen, and now in the comfort of my own home.

 

No franchise has done more to raise the bar of the superhero genre than Marvel, which, for the past 10 years, has been crafting a spectacular, epic tale that has gradually been drawing an entire universe of characters together in a battle for half the galaxy that began in Avengers: Infinity War and will culminate in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. (Not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU], but still spectacular superhero viewing includes Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, especially The Dark Knight, which transcends the superhero genre into the realm of simply spectacular cinema.)

 

I bring this up because as much as I enjoy superhero films, I knew virtually nothing about Venom prior to watching. In fact, my only previous knowledge of the character was his appearance in the 2007 Spider-Man 3. From that film, I learned that Venom was an alien entity that bonded with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and kind of became like a bad version of the character, wearing a black version of Spidey’s costume.

 

With this latest reboot of the character, I expected Venom to continue the MCU trend of bringing multiple characters together, or would at the very least include Tom Holland, who has taken over Spidey’s mantle starting in Captain America: Civil War and continuing in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War.

 

Well, umm, no.

 

While it was made in association with Marvel Studios, Venom is a standalone Sony Pictures release bearing no obvious connection to the MCU or even to Spider-Man. This is part of a complicated legal and licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel that you can read more about here.

 

So, unless you’re a hardcore Venom fan, you can scrap everything you think you might know about Venom and just go into this cold. In fact, knowing nothing might actually be the best way to approach this, since you won’t be burdened by any required geek-cred knowledge of backstories, interwoven plot lines, or fear of missing any fanboy Easter eggs.

 

This is an origin story, attempting to introduce and launch a new expanded universe of Spider-Man characters. But the film has a big shortcoming in the casting of (or maybe it’s the direction or the dialogue given to) Tom Hardy, who plays both Edie Brock and Venom. Brock is supposed to be this killer investigative journalist, but, honestly, Hardy comes across as just too slow, clunky, and dim-witted to be even close to believable in this role, and the early scenes with him as a journalist were the hardest for me to just sit back and enjoy.

 

Fortunately, your suspension of disbelief over Hardy’s journalistic prowess doesn’t need to last long, as he soon bonds with the alien symbiote Venom, who was brought back from a space exploration mission and kept locked in a lab looking for a compatible host. Once Hardy absorbs Venom, the rest of the film has him coming to terms with his new amorphous, shape-

shifting, and head-chomping alter-ego as the movie transitions from one action piece to another as the duo looks to take down the techno-billionaire bad guy. Actually, I found Hardy more believable post-infection since his body adapting to the “parasite” offers an explanation for his semi out-of-it behavior.

 

One thing Sony knows how to do is release fantastic-looking 4K HDR films,

and Venom is no exception. Detail and color are first-rate throughout, but especially during the multiple night scenes in San Francisco, where the city looks stunning. These shots take full advantage of HDR to produce bright lights and vibrant colors while retaining deep and solid black levels.

 

Venom has no shortage of big action scenes and visual effects, which all look terrific. One of the best scenes is a chase through downtown San Francisco (happening around the 54-minute mark) that highlights the best of what Venom is: Pure balls-out mayhem, with a liberal dose of SFX thrown in for good measure. Just don’t count how many times The Rialto theater appears in the background. Rather, sit back and enjoy the cars smashing and Brock/Venom racing manically through the crowded streets on a motorcycle.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is equally impressive, offering a very dynamic mix that will definitely give your system a workout. There are tons of moments where the height channels are called into action, whether it’s drones or helicopters flying overhead, gun mayhem, or just the ambience representing the acoustic space on screen. Bass is particularly impressive, having a ton of weight and impact, with explosions you’ll feel in your chair. Venom’s voice is also recorded with a very cool effect, booming from all around and sounding like it’s coming from inside your head. 

 

The Kaleidescape download includes five pre-marked scenes, along with several bonus features, including multiple making-of docs, deleted scenes, and a special “Venom mode” that engages “informative pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics, and to reveal hidden references that even a seasoned Venom-fan may have missed!”

 

Venom belongs to that increasing group of films that sees a real divide between critics and fans. While scoring a meager 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, it managed an 85% audience score. In short, I’d say Venom is a classic big summer popcorn action film where it pays to check your brain at the door and just sit back and marvel (no pun intended) at the terrific visual effects and pummeling Dolby Atmos audio track. If you’re looking for some home theater eye and ear candy, Venom won’t disappoint.

John Sciacca

Venom

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 Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Most good geeks will tell you 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series is not only the greatest cartoon of all time but also the best rendition of the Dark Knight. I’m not inclined to disagree with them, but my favorite riff on the Caped Crusader is actually the oft-forgotten 2008 animated series The Brave and the Bold. Unlike every interpretation of the Batman mythos before it, The Brave and the Bold manages to integrate every contradictory aspect of the character and synthesize it into a perplexing and intriguing whole. Yes, it acknowledges the darker, broodier side of the characterbut also the campy, goofier side. It puts some of Batman’s silliest escapades on equal footing with the grimmest tales in the character’s history. It’s a celebration of everything Batman has ever been. And, somehow, it simply works.

 

Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggsthe latest film from the Coen Brothers—has absolutely nothing to do with Batman, of course. But it reminds me a lot of The Brave and the Bold in that Joel and Ethan Coen, with their quirky old-west anthology, have managed to create a homage to cowboy cinema that embraces all its disparate aspects—from the singing cowboys of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to the grimdark western revival films of the ‘90s like Clint Eastwood’s brutal Unforgiven, and everything in between.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”

The resulting pastiche definitely wouldn’t work in the hands of less capable filmmakers, and it certainly wouldn’t work as a single narrative. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six disconnected vignettes, each with its own style and tone, and each—it seems—intended to riff on different tropes from the history of old-west cinema, alternately exalting, tweaking, or subverting them. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the middle of “All Gold Canyon” (ostensibly starring Tom Waits, but more accurately starring some of the most gorgeous unspoiled vistas I’ve ever laid eyes on) why the film wasn’t shot in a wider aspect ratio, indebted as it is to some of John Ford’s later VistaVision masterpieces.

 

Put a moment’s thought into it, though, and that question seems silly. Ultra-wide aspect ratios, though possible at home, are the stuff of commercial cinemas, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was made for the small screen. It’s a film no major film

studio would have ever bankrolled. And that fact alone is one of the major reasons for the increasing cultural insignificance of commercial cinemas.

 

Does that mean we’ll see more films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime become the 800-Pound Gorillas of the film industry? One can only hope. It’s a quirky, weird,

wonderful work that ranks amongst the Coens’ best since The Big Lebowksi.

 

It’s also worth noting that the film’s use of high dynamic range is amongst the most compelling I’ve seen in ages. You no doubt have access to a few different sources capable of playing Netflix in your home entertainment system. If any of those support Dolby Vision, go that route. The luscious landscapes—and even the obvious soundstage settings of the final vignette—benefit beautifully from the enhanced contrast, shadow detail, and lighting effects.

 

And, yes, in this case that really matters. The substance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs emerges in large part from its style. That’s not a knock against it, mind you. It’s simply that you could easily sum up the narrative of any of these six episodes in a sentence or two. What makes the film work isn’t its narrative depth. It’s the artistry of its cinematography, the quality of its performances, and of course the inimitably ridiculous brilliance of the Coen Brothers’ too-clever-to-be-believable dialogue.

 

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.

Mission: Impossible–Fallout

Like scotch, red wine, and balsamic vinegar, the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to be one of those rare entities that actually improves with age. The latest installment, Fallout, is the sixth in the franchise (they dropped the number in the title following III), and it managed to not only bring in the most money—both foreign and domestic—of any of the films, but also receive the highest review scores of the series from Rotten Tomatoes (97%), Metacritic (86), and CinemaScore (A).

 

While I wouldn’t brand myself a Tom Cruise fan, I have to hand it to the guy—he definitely picks fantastic projects to be involved in. And, six films in, he has IMF agent Ethan Hunt down pat. Also, he sure appears to do all his own stunts, whether it’s racing motorcycles or cars, jumping off buildings (where he actually broke his ankle while filming Fallout), or learning how to fly a frickin’ helicopter for one of the film’s key scenes!

Mission: Impossible--Fallout

Part of what makes the Impossible franchise work is familiarity. We know we’re going to be in for some major action set pieces, we know we’ll be whisked to exotic locales, we know there will be crosses and double-crosses, and we know there will be rubber masks, and Fallout doesn’t stray from that formula. We also have a returning cadre of IMF agents helping Hunt in the form of Simon Pegg, playing Benji Dunn for the fourth straight film, and Luther Stickell, played by a Ving Rhames, who has appeared alongside Cruise in every MI film. Christopher McQuarrie follows up his writing and directing efforts from the previous Impossible film, Rogue Nationwhich is fitting as Fallout is a sequel of sorts.

 

Eager to check out this latest entry, I downloaded it as soon as it appeared on Kaleidescape, where it was available months before the disc release.

 

The film begins roughly two years after the action in Rogue Nation, which ended, you might recall, with head Syndicate bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) being lured into a sealed glass cell, where he was gassed unconscious and taken into custody. (While not a prerequisite, Fallout does assume some level of MI film knowledge, and watching—or re-watching—Rogue Nation would definitely help stave off some confusion—or at least add to the enjoyment of the film.)

 

Lane’s capture was not the end of the Syndicate. Rather, the group’s loyalists have reorganized into a splinter cell, calling themselves the Apostles, with a terror-for-hire philosophy that has been wreaking havoc around the globe. Fallout begins with—and the plot revolves around—Hunt and team trying to track down and recover three stolen plutonium cores that new

mystery-terrorist John Lark wants to make into nuclear weapons and bring destruction to the current world order.

 

Most of the movie was shot on 35mm film, and the amount of grain and noise is sometimes a tad excessive in dark scenes, and in brightly lit scenes such as the all-white bathroom at the club. It isn’t a bad transfer by any

means—rather, it looks like film instead of video. But several scenes were filmed in IMAX, and these look simply gorgeous in 4K, with an absolutely stunning amount of detail.

 

The Dolby Atmos track on Fallout is fantastic and reference quality in every way. Just the opening title sequence, with the iconic theme pulsing from every speaker, is a terrific audio demo in itself. Dialogue is clear and easily understandable throughout, no matter how frantic the action gets. Bass is deep and loud when it should be, with explosions rocking your listening room and gunshots carrying the appropriate degree of crack and sizzle.

 

Fallout is also one of the more impressive Atmos soundtracks I can recall lately, with the full complement of surround and height speakers used extensively to provide immersion and ambient effects. For example, in the beginning of the film, Hunt and crew have a meeting in a tunnel in Berlin, and the audio reflects this acoustic space perfectly, with rumbles and echoes happening all around, including overhead.

 

The last 30 minutes of the movie are sheer action, with the majority presented in IMAX video quality. Visually and sonically, it’s the stuff of absolute home theater legend, and reference in every respect. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that helicopters make for some terrific overhead Atmos audio, and Fallout’s conclusion in the mountains of Kashmir doesn’t disappoint.

 

At nearly two and a half hours, this movie is lengthy, and packed with twists, turns, and character introductions (and reintroductions) throughout, so you’ll want to keep your wits about you and actively watch this instead of trying to monitor a cellphone or iPad and just checking in when you hear an explosion. (I dare say you’ll pick up things and understand the film better on a second viewing.) Fallout is one of those rare mega-dollar blockbuster films that really pays off, and really shines in a luxury home cinema!

John Sciacca

Mission: Impossible--Fallout

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.

Filmworker

Two hundred years from now, the equivalent of the medieval monks—be they human, cyborg, robot, or virtual mass—will look back at this slice of time and decide Stanley Kubrick was the best American movie director and Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest filmmaker. They’ll then chuckle for a moment over the absurdity of the immense energy and emotion our culture invested in the fleeting and ultimately silly phenomenon of film, and then—assuming there’s any worth left—shift their attention to weightier things.

Or at least one can hope.

 

Leon Vitali was Kubrick’s steadfastly loyal No. 2 from the time Kubrick cast him to play, exquisitely, Barry Lyndon’s petulant nemesis Lord Bullingdon, through Kubrick’s death during post production on the unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut, and apparently up to the present. The Netflix documentary Filmworker 

Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon

seems to want to paint Vitali as somehow delusional, someone deeply oppressed, a fashionable victim. But Vitali, thankfully, won’t have any part of that.

 

Anyone who’s ever paid any real attention to Kubrick and his work is already aware of, and grateful for, Vitali’s extraordinary efforts on the director’s behalf. So why, then, try to shine a bright enough light on him that he’s seen by a broader audience of the merely curious?

 

“Masochism” would be the simplest answer. Vitali is an apt poster child for an age when everyone’s a victim and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions. And the roots of that go back farther than the current “I’m strong because I’m weak”

Filmworker

Vitali (left) with Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining

fetishism to the Soviet era and the apparatchiks, determined to obliterate all extraordinary efforts and ensure no one could ever rise above the mediocre middle.

 

So, yeah, you can feel bad about some of the hell Vitali must have gone through at his boss’s hands. But then there are those brief, tantalizing clips from Kubrick’s movies—and from Barry Lyndon in 

particular—and you realize, yeah, that’s worth whatever pain and neglect and slights and abuse it took to get there.

 

This isn’t a particularly well-made film, relying on redundancies and cliches that run completely counter to Kubrick’s whole aesthetic, a documentary more concerned with fashionable truths than The Truth. But it’s worth a look—if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of a wilder, messier, more fruitful and forgiving age, before a vast army of J Crew models took over filmmaking, when the ambiguity of depths mattered more than the distracting glitter of the surface.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Blue Planet II

My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries. No, seriously, a lot of documentaries. Air a special about dinosaur dung or the restoration of a 1967 barn-find VW Beetle or how a famous actress invented frequency-hopping encryption during World War II, and we’re pretty much guaranteed to boost your Nielsen numbers for the night. Here’s the thing, though: We watch a lot of documentaries exactly once. That seems pretty normal to me. After all, do I really need to re-learn how Lego bricks are made?

The one exception to this rule is David Attenborough’s captivating nature docs, because there’s absolutely nothing normal about the treasures this wonderful man has bestowed upon the world. If you’ve never seen one of his series, I’m truly envious that you have the opportunity to discover him for the first time. His infectious, childlike sense of wonder about nature, combined with the wisdom you’d expect of a natural historian with 92 years under his belt, makes each of his series seem like a sci-fi/fantasy exploration of a planet in a galaxy far away. There’s a weird and wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing, somewhere in the middle of one of his shows, that we actually live on this weird and wonderful world.

 

A scant 11 months after the incredible Blue Planet II first aired here in the Colonies, my wife and I have already devoured the series from start to finish three times. And as we were sitting down for our fourth feast this weekend, we finally decided to retire the 4K broadcast recordings clogging our DVR and move on to a proper home video release.

 

Netflix seemed the logical place to turn to, since the series just made its way to the service this month. And it took no more than a few seconds of viewing to note that their version was a huge step up from the original 4K satellite broadcast. Kudos to Netflix’s engineers for compressing such a visually complex image as well as they have. Simply put, Blue Planet II looks brilliant streaming in 4K, as long as you’ve got a good ‘net connection.

 

But shows come and go on Netflix. I can’t count the number of times that utterly re-watchable favorites have been yanked at pretty much exactly the same time I had a hankering to watch them. So, when I noticed that Blue Planet II is also now available on Kaleidescape—along with a whole host of other programming from BBC America—downloading it was a no-brainer. At a hefty 193 gigabytes, the seven-episode mini-series is not an impulse download, but as I said above, this is a show that’s already in heavy rotation in the Burger casa. I knew it was worth the wait.

 

I just didn’t realize how wait-worthy it would turn out to be. As lovely as these alien undersea vistas are via Netflix, they’re positively stupefying in Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth presentation. The tiniest of details simply fly off the screen here. And

thanks to the High Dynamic Range presentation—something Blue Planet II lacks via Netflix, for whatever reason—you can’t help but be sucked right into the image, eyelids peeled, jaw agape, breath bated, mind blown. If the Broca area of your brain can crank out much more than the occasional “whoa” while watching a technicolor cuttlefish hypnotizing its 

cancrine prey in Episode Three, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Switch over to the Netflix stream (or the YouTube clip above), and that scene almost seems monochromatic by comparison.

 

Even if you’re not a biology nerd or a connoisseur of great documentaries, Blue Planet II is an absolute must-own on Kaleidescape (or on UHD Blu-ray, if you haven’t made the leap into the discless future just yet). It’s perhaps the most torturous AV demo material I’ve lain eyes on in ages. It’s the title you’ll pull up when skeptical guests ask, “Do I really need this HDR business?” Because Blue Planet IIs answer to that question isn’t a mere “yes.” It’s a yes with an exclamation point, delivered in a charming British accent, with a wink and an unforgettable lesson about the kooky unexplored corners of our own globe.

Dennis Burger

Blue Planet II

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.

The Expanse

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.