Reviews

Review: In the Heights

In the Heights (2021)

When you say “musical,” some people just have a natural aversion, reacting with a blanket “I don’t like/see musicals.” But if you haven’t seen a musical in years, you have missed out on a real paradigm shift in the genre, with “modern” musicals being incredibly hip and relevant, and likely 180 degrees different from what you’re imagining.

 

If you’re connecting the dots on the modern state of musical theater, where we break away from the big, classic Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical numbers and end up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking rap-

infused Hamilton, there are few clear milestones we can connect on the map along the way that would include Hair and Rent.

 

It’s also safe to say that there wouldn’t be Hamilton had there not first been In the Heights. While the story is in no way connected to Miranda’s epoch-defining musical, you can’t help but feel the catchy beats, tempos, meter, breaks, and rat-a-tat-tat style that made Hamilton so groundbreaking were crafted and forged during his writing of In the Heights.

 

Heights debuted on Broadway in March 2008 and received 13 Tony nominations (ultimately winning four, including Best Musical), and had a successful multi-year run before going on a world tour. Interestingly, Universal Pictures had planned for a film adaptation in 2008, but that fell through. Warner Brothers stepped in, bringing in Jon Chu to direct after his success with Crazy Rich Asians. The film opened 

THE HEIGHTS AT A GLANCE

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big stage musical finally makes it to the big screen.

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR/Dolby Vision presentation presents the actors and the Brooklyn locations sharply, cleanly, and with a lot of punch. 

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t have a lot going on in the surround or height channels, but creates a wide, detailed soundstage across the front, allowing you to pick out individual voices in the layered singing.

theatrically on June 10, while simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, where it is being shown in 4K HDR with both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.

 

Miranda—likely recognizing he had aged out of playing the lead, Usnavi, but also realizing attaching his name would give the film another level of cachet—takes on the role of the Piragüero, a street snow-cone vendor. While it’s a small role—just one sub-two-minute solo—he doesn’t throw away his shot, making the most of his screen time. (And be sure to stick around through all the credits to see Señor Piraguas get the final word with Mr. Softee.)

 

The filmmakers throw in some nods to Hamilton, such as the on-hold music played in the background during a phone call, as well as a cameo by Chris Jackson (who played George Washington) as Mr. Softee. Less subtly, we have Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton) taking over the lead role of Usnavi.

 

Some changes were made to turn the stage play into a film, such as reordering the songs and actually removing a key lyric in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) song “Pacienza Y Fe” that reveals one of the film’s major plot points far earlier. They also

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chose to have Usnavi telling the story to a group of kids, using this device to have him deliver some plot points via voiceover. One of the film’s continual themes is sueñitos, little dreams, the things that keep you motivated and going, and we learn you can barely walk down the block without running into someone’s dreams.

 

During the film’s lengthy opening number, “In the Heights,” Usnavi, who runs a small bodega that serves as a hub of the community, introduces us to most of the key players as well as telling us a bit about their story. In addition to Abuela, who is like a surrogate grandmother for the

neighborhood, helping to keep them centered in their Latin roots, we meet Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who runs a local taxi dispatch; Rosario’s eager employee-on-the-rise Benny (Corey Hawkins); and Rosario’s just-home-from-Stanford daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is seen as the barrio’s best chance of getting out and succeeding. We also meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a nail-salon worker who aspires to be a fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s not-very-secret affections; and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young undocumented helper.

 

A few big moments drive the story forward, such as several characters looking to move out of the Heights, a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 sold at the bodega, and a blackout that shrouds the neighborhood in darkness—and heat—for a couple of days.

 

While I was never bored—and really enjoyed many of the musical and dance numbers—at 2 hours and 22 minutes, there are slow parts and by the end the film does start to feel a bit long. Like the Emperor said in Amadeus, “There are simply too many notes.” Now, I’m not sure which notes I would excise—every song serve a purpose—it’s just that after two hours, I was ready for it to wrap.

 

Shot at 7K resolution, the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the movie is really beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes are shot outside on location in Brooklyn Heights, and the natural lighting gives the film a great look. Skin tones look natural, with loads of color and shadow detail, and a huge depth of focus. 

 

Overall the film just looks clean, focused, and sharp throughout. For example, the huge array of street dancers shown at the end of the opening number as well as in the community swimming pool after “96,000” are shown with great depth and clarity. Long shots showing buildings reveal tight, sharp lines of brick-and-mortar. Closeups also reveal all kinds of detail, such as in the opening number—as the camera moves through Usnavi’s store, we can clearly see every can, box, and label on the shelves. Faces show every pore, line, and whisker, and you can see the pinpoint detail in Rosario’s button-down shirts and suit jacket, as well as the intricacy of Abuela’s hand-sewn handkerchiefs. 

 

There are not a lot of effects shots, save for one big dance number (“When The Sun Goes Down”) on the side of a building. However, there are two shots at the public swimming pool where Usnavi looks obviously green-screened in that were mildly distracting. This also speaks to how sharp the rest of the film looks that these moments stood out in contrast.

 

HDR is used to pump up the brightness of neon signs/lights in store windows, and to give the night scenes—particularly in a dance club and on the street after the blackout—more punch. In fact, the song “Blackout” would be a great demo scene, with bright flashlights, candles, sparklers, and fireworks punctuating the dark night. Abuela’s song “Pacienza Y Fe” is performed in a subway car/station lit with bright overhead lights and lots of deep shadows that really benefit from HDR. 

 

Interestingly, even though it is mixed and presented in Dolby Atmos, the soundtrack—at least as presented by HBO Max—doesn’t feature a lot of height information, and virtually nothing in the rear/surround back speakers, with just some music going to the side and front heights.

 

The mix does give us some nice width and directionality across the front, letting characters and sounds move far off screen left/right as appropriate. There is also plenty of detail to let us hear individual voices in the layered singing, letting you pick out a given singer in the sonic space. We also get some nice ambient sounds that gently fill and expand the room, such as sounds of traffic, trains, sirens, dogs barking, and wind and birds in the neighborhood. 

 

Sonically, the musical numbers are the big star here, and the instruments and vocals are given a lot of room across the front channels, with some space added in the front height and surround speakers. Many of the songs are upbeat and up-tempo and you can’t help but tap your toes. Some of my favorites were “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Champagne,” and “96,000,” which name-checks such disparate pop culture moments as Lord of the Rings, Tiger Woods, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  

 

If you liked Hamilton—and how could you not?—then I daresay you’ll enjoy In the Heights, as its DNA runs thick throughout. By moving from the confines of a stage to a film shot throughout Brooklyn with a huge cast of dancers and extras, it expands the scale of the movie and also likely its appeal. Asking it to convert everyone into a musical lover is a big ask, but there is no disputing that it has loads of heart and looks terrific, and is certainly worth a night in your theater. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Growing up, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was one of my absolute favorite films. I was only one when it was originally released theatrically, but it made its TV debut on Thanksgiving Night, November 28, 1974 (and was shown again on Thanksgiving 1975 and again in May 1976) and I can remember those televised presentations being something I greatly looked forward to and that our family would plan an evening around to watch. (Remember those days of scheduled viewing before everything was just available instantly at the press of a button?)

 

It was so easy for young me to fantasize about being Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) for those 100 minutes, rooting for him as he beat the odds to find the fifth and final Golden Ticket and won the chance to go behind the closed and secret gates of one of the world’s greatest chocolate factories and meet the amazing Mr. Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) with Grandpa Joe (Jack 

Albertson). And once inside, to rise above the shenanigans of all the bad little girls and boys to win the ultimate prize. The film’s ending then leaves it open to your imagination to ponder what might happen next and what the future holds for Charlie and his Chocolate Factory.

 

As a parent now with kids of my own, Willy Wonka is still a treasured favorite we return to regularly, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to come home and randomly find my daughter Lauryn watching it, pulling it up on our Kaleidescape and saying she just felt like seeing it again.

 

For me, Willy Wonka is a perfect family film. It doesn’t try to cram in a lot of innuendo or double entendres going for a cheap adult laugh. Sure, there are jokes and quips between adults that young viewers might not understand, but isn’t that just life as a kid watching adults interact?

 

The kids are kids, not adults playing kids, and they all 

WONKA AT A GLANCE

The mischievous family classic gets an appropriately gentle upgrade to 4K HDR. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K transfer looks like layers have been pulled away, giving you a glimpse into the Chocolate Factory likely better than what was shown in 1971.

 

SOUND     

The DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix doesn’t break any new ground, providing a bit of width to the soundstage. The most dynamic aspect is the musical numbers, which get room to breathe across the front speakers.

engender certain exaggerated qualities—the gluttonous German Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), who tries to eat everything in sight; the “I want it now!” spoiled brat Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole); the perpetual gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson); and the TV-obsessed Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen)—that make for easy lessons in bad behavior. At the center of it is Charlie, a poor boy doing what he can to help out his family, trying to do his best in a world that seems constantly stacked against him, and looking for a break. But even Charlie isn’t perfect, being tempted by the intoxicating bubbles of Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting drink.

 

There is just enough about the Chocolate Factory that is edgy and off-kilter to make it mysterious—“No one ever goes in, and no one ever comes out”—but not too scary. (Well, except for the boat ride on the Wonkatania, where there are those creepy images, including a sudden startling moment of a chicken getting its head chopped off.) 

 

Then you have Wilder’s brilliant performance as Wonka. I can remember watching Wonka walking out of his factory for the first time, slowly limping along with a cane as he painfully ambles his way towards the gate, not knowing what to think of this mysterious figure who hadn’t been seen in public for years. Then in an instant, Wonka appears to trip before performing a somersault and leaping up to greet the crowd with a big smile and open arms. It sets the whole mood for who he is. There is a manic look in Wilder’s eyes that, along with his crazy hair, makes him a believable confectionary genius, with splendid quips often mumbled to no one in particular. Even with his mischievous, quirky, and downright bizarre behavior, there is a tenderness in his performance that makes you feel Wilder’s Wonka really loves kids, and has been rooting for Charlie to win, something I think Johnny Depp really missed in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

 

I have been waiting for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory to get a 4K restoration, and I’m happy to say it has definitely been worth the wait! The new 4K HDR transfer, taken from a 4K digital intermediate scan of the original 35mm film, looks gorgeous. Images are clean, sharp, and detailed throughout, looking like layers have been pulled away and giving you a glimpse into the Chocolate Factory likely better than what was shown in 1971. Right from the get-go, it’s clear that the picture has been refreshed and renewed in the best way. 

 

Closeups can have startling detail. Shots of Grandpa Joe show singular wispy hairs flying off his head, and every pore and whisker on his face, and shots of Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) let you see the details on the scar on his cheek. You can practically read every word of fine print on the lengthy contract the kids have to sign before heading into the factory, with the tiny letters being sharp and defined, and see the fine detail, such as the check pattern on Violet’s dad’s jackets or the plaid of Veruca’s father’s suit, and make out the engraving on the coin Charlie finds in the gutter. 

 

While the HDR grade is fairly modest, it lends a natural quality to images throughout. We do get some nice pop from the flashing of light off aluminum foil wrappers or the gleaming white shirt of Charlie’s science teacher. HDR also adds some depth to the Fizzy Lifting room, where Charlie and Grandpa Joe float up to the ceiling amidst a black background and chrome/steel grid, with iridescent bubbles floating everywhere. One scene that did seem a bit overblown was during the “Cheer Up, Charlie” song, where Charlie is walking in front of the moon and streetlights, which all had pretty clear blue rings around them. Whether this was from too much HDR or something in the original film, I can’t say.

 

What really benefits are the colors, which just pop, and are bright and vibrant, especially inside the factory and in the candy shoppe with its many brightly colored labels and candies. Things like the red-orange label of the Wonka bar or Wonka’s

purple jacket really have more vibrancy. Skin tones also look natural, well, except for the Oompa Loompas, which are appropriately orange. There is a bit of film grain present, particularly noticeable in shots of powdery blue-grey skies, but it is never distracting, and certainly hasn’t been scrubbed away into softness.

 

Some of the sets—particularly the scene inside the factory with the chocolate river—look a bit dated. The enhanced clarity and resolution reveal that a lot of the props are, well, props, with some of the “magic” spoiled by the fact that you can actually see that the candy isn’t real and that some of the striping is just colored tape and that much of the ground cover is synthetic turf. Also, the compositing of images on TV screens—specifically when Charlie is watching Violet—also stands out a fair bit. But most of the film holds up terrifically well, and the story is certainly timeless.

 

Sonically, this new 4K transfer gets a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix that certainly doesn’t break new ground. Dialogue is kept well anchored to the center channel and is clear and intelligible throughout. We get a bit of width across the front, such as cars and trains passing far left/right outside the screen, or the ticking of a clock. The most dynamic aspect of the mix is the musical numbers, which get some room to breathe across the front speakers, and even get a bit

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

of bass extension for a nice and full presentation. If there were any actual “surround” sound effects, they were subtle enough to go unnoticed.

 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a terrific film that definitely benefits from 4K’s added resolution and wider color gamut, and makes for a wonderful family-viewing experience. As Mr. Wonka says, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. He lived happily ever after.” 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Cruella

Cruella (2021)

Walt Disney Pictures has gotten into a bit of a rut with its live-action films recently, choosing to take the safer road of remaking classic animated titles like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan instead of trying to break new ground. With Cruella, we get an entirely new origin story of one of Disney’s classic villains, Cruella de Vil from 1961’s 101 Dalmatians.

 

Even though I’m a fan of Emma Stone (who stars as both Estella and Cruella), I didn’t have especially high hopes for this film. I wasn’t a big fan of the 1996 live adaptation of 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close (who happens to serve as an executive producer on Cruella) and didn’t think de Vil’s backstory would be interesting enough to make a compelling movie, and would 

just end up diluting what was such an iconic character.

 

Boy, was I wrong!

 

I enjoyed Cruella far more than I expected to. Here we learn what makes her tick, see where her sense of fashion and design came from, and discover what ultimately leads her to becoming the villain we all know from the original Disney animated film. And while she is just a straight villain in Dalmatians—what could be more heinous than wanting to steal puppies to harvest their fur for coats?—here Cruella is an anti-hero living on the streets and fighting for her adopted family against domineering fashionista The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who holds the London fashion world in her fist along with a secret to Estella’s past.

 

Beyond the writing and wonderful costumes and set dressing, you have to give much of the credit to the film being so entertaining to Stone, who is just so wickedly delightful and mischievous as Cruella. You really can’t help

CRUELLA AT A GLANCE

Disney goes punk (sort of), transporting the Dalmatians villainess’s back story to the world of mid-’70s London high fashion. 

 

PICTURE
The extended color gamut lets things like the bright red of London’s buses really pop, providing great shadow detail and creating a more natural-looking image.

 

SOUND     

This isn’t a dynamic Atmos soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good job of helping the film lean on its jukebox of classic-rock tracks.

but root for her even though you know where her path ultimately leads. The scenes featuring Stone and Thompson are also some of the best, and the idea to make Stone two characters with distinct looks and personalities allowed for the two to share more screen time.

 

We learn early in the film that Estella loves fashion and design, but she also has a bit of a cruel streak, a personality her mother refers to as Cruella. To fit in—and stay out of trouble—Estella pushes her Cruella nature aside, dyes her hair red, and lives as a creative and eager-to-please girl hoping to start a new life in London. But when things become too much for Estella to handle, she turns to Cruella—the wild black-white haired girl with a hard edge, sharp tongue, and cruel streak—to step in and take care of business.

 

Like every film released in the past year, Cruella had a bit of a twisty trail to market. Originally scheduled to be released theatrically on December 23, 2020, it was delayed to May 28, 2021 where it also simultaneously bowed as a Premier Access title on Disney+, maintaining the $29.99 pricing Disney has established. After less than a month in theaters, Cruella was released to digital retailers on June 25, including Kaleidescape, which offers the film in a full 4K HDR version with Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio.

 

While the filmmakers did loads to try and tie this prequel to the original animated title, they weren’t dogmatic about it, and they made changes (such as setting the film in the ‘70s) that helped to modernize the story. Retained are Cruella’s friends/family/henchmen Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and this pair provides most of the film’s comic relief (though I found the laughs to be more chuckles than guffaws, and some of the antics—such as chasing around a small dog dressed as a rat—will likely appeal more to youngsters.) Estella’s/Cruella’s relationship with Jasper also helps to humanize his character, as we see him wanting to accept his friend, but not always liking what that means, with Horace more content just trying to figure out, “What’s the angle?” to whatever scheme they were planning. 

 

There is also a wonderful scene of Cruella maniacally driving a giant saloon through the streets, swerving back and forth crashing into things and hunching over the steering wheel with a crazed look that is a moment from the animated title brought perfectly to life. And absolutely stay through the first part of the end credits where the film really dovetails into the original. 

 

Shot on Arri in a combination of 3.4 and 6.5K, Cruella’s video transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images are clean, sharp, and detailed throughout. The filmmakers shied away from intense, tight, pore-revealing closeups on the Emmas, but even still we are given loads of detail throughout. 

 

Fashion—specifically haute couture—plays a huge role in the film, and the costume design and attention to detail is fantastic and easy to appreciate due to the video quality. The sheer number of costumes worn by Stone and Thompson—let alone the numerous additional designs made for fashion shows and worn by party-goers—is amazing, and will likely garner Cruella an Academy Award nomination. With the resolution and sharpness of the video, you can easily appreciate the layers, textures, and small details that went into the many costumes, easily noting the different fabric weights, fine stitching, and design. 

 

Shot on location throughout London, the film has an authentic feel to it. Whether it is the set dressing of London streets, a near-perfect recreation of the famous Liberty department store, a variety of estates—principally Hellman Hall—or numerous visits to Regents Park, a making-of doc included with the Kaleidescape download shows the extent to which the filmmakers went to cover every minute detail, including many things that didn’t even appear on camera. All of this makes Cruella feel like a real world. There are many exterior scenes, which look terrific, especially shots of London at night—with the many lights, buildings, and shadows—looking especially good. 

 

The extended color gamut also lets things like the bright red of London’s buses or the light show at Cruella’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” outdoor fashion show really pop. Beyond just giving great shadow detail and a more natural-looking image, there are some eye-reactive uses of HDR, including headlights at night and the pop and flash of camera bulbs, some red-orange-white flames in a big fire, and the bright white sheen of satin material or the glossy highlights coming off black leather/vinyl. 

 

Sonically, the soundtrack is the big star here. The film takes place in London in the 1970s, when the punk rock movement was starting to take hold, and features an extensive soundtrack of era-appropriate music including The Doors, Queen, Blondie,

The Clash, and The Rolling Stones. In fact, the music is like an extra character in the film, helping to establish the mood and emotion of nearly every scene, and giving it an edgier, punk vibe that fits Cruella and her fashion-design-sense to a T. Also, the music is given plenty of room to stretch its boundaries across the speakers and up into the height channels, providing a ton of space and presence. In fact, the expansiveness and immersive music soundtrack throughout Cruella is a great sales pitch for Atmos music in general!

 

Dialogue is clear and well presented in the center channel, with the exception of some of Cruella’s voiceover narration, which can be a bit forward-sounding.

 

I wouldn’t call this a dynamic surround soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good enough job of serving the story. We do get some establishing ambience in scenes, such as park and street noises—cars and people in the distance, the sound of water in fountains, or another scene in a jail has off-camera whistles, phones, chattering, and the jangle of keys to place you in the moment. During another big moment, a swarm of bugs come flying out and then travels overhead and around the room before exiting to all sides. I did notice on moment that highlighted more the subtle detail of the soundtrack, when The Baroness is having lunch in a car and she throws her 

Cruella (2021)

trash—including a metal fork—out the window, and you can hear the delicate sound of the fork hitting the road.

 

While the film is mostly family-friendly fare—not a single swear or sexual moment to be found!—it does carry a PG-13 rating mainly for some intense themes (it’s implied dogs are killed) and peril (one character is left in a burning room to die). At over two hours, this also might be a bit much for younger kids to take on, and it definitely features a story with depth and themes designed more to appeal to adults. 

 

Cruella is one of the most original live-action films to come out of Disney in recent years, and if it didn’t grab your attention in the theaters or on Disney+, now is the perfect opportunity to enjoy it in highest-resolution at home! 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Life in Color

Life in Color (2021)

If you have someone in your life who insists that streaming simply isn’t capable of delivering an AV experience worthy of a true home cinema, here’s a fun little experiment you can perform, assuming you’re willing to spend a few bucks. If you don’t have one already, go out and buy a Roku Ultra for $75 or whatever they’re selling for at the moment. Hook it up to the biggest and best display in your home. Fire up either of the first two episodes of the new Netflix/BBC co-production Life in Color and skip past the opening credits. 

 

Then invite the bitrate dogmatist in your life to sit and watch a few minutes of the series. If they’re anything like most videophiles, they’ll soon be begging to borrow the disc or at least know what it’s called so they can order their own copy. 

 

And that’s when you spring the trap. Hit the back button on your remote and return to the Netflix homepage. If your guest balks, hit Play again and implore them to point out any visual flaws in the imagery. Challenge them to show you any 

noteworthy compression artifacts. Ask them to point out any instances of less-than-razor-sharp detail, any loss of color purity.

 

Or, you know, maybe take a kinder and gentler approach. It occurs to me as I’m writing this that perhaps there’s a good reason I don’t have more friends.

 

The point is, this series, played via good streaming hardware, needs to be put in front of the eyeballs of more home cinema enthusiasts, if only as a prime example of just how much streaming has improved in just the past few years.

 

But even if you’re not here to inspect the imagery with a magnifying glass and marvel at the masterful application of high-efficiency compression, there’s a lot to love about Life 

LIFE IN COLOR AT A GLANCE

It’s news that David Attenborough is back in front of the camera at 95; it’s even bigger news that the video presentation here is practically flawless. 

 

PICTURE
Scenes that push the bounds of image complexity in ways Attenborough’s Our Planet never did appear without a blemish.

 

SOUND
The audio is merely 5.1, but it’s a lovely mix that up-mixes into Atmos beautifully.

in Color. The series is, in many ways, a bit of a throwback for host David Attenborough, a return to a time when he wasn’t merely narrating documentary footage but actively participating in the filming. I thought we’d seen the end of that era, given Attenborough’s age (95, for those keeping count). And this may be the last time we see him traipsing through the jungle to point out something cool and eye-catching.

 

It’s also something of a return to the more specialized sort of documentaries he more commonly made in the ’80s and ’90s. For the past few years, Attenborough has been focused on making grand statements, as if every new documentary released under his name was made as if it would be his last. But, as its name in implies, Life in Color is content to go deep rather than 

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wide, focusing on one topic with laser precision: The variety of colors in nature.

 

The first episode, “Seeing in Color,” focuses on all the ways life uses chromaticity to attract mates, signal friends, and repel foes, as well as the different ways animals see in color, both within and outside of the spectrum visible to humans. The second episode, “Hiding in Color,” focuses mostly on camouflage.

 

The third episode, “Chasing Color,” is a weird one, and I mean that in the best possible way. It sets itself up as a sort of making-of for the first two episodes, exploring the new camera and lens technology developed specifically for this series. But then it veers off to answer to the question: “How do you know that?” In other words, it’s a pretty satisfying explanation of the science behind the surprising little bits of trivia dropped by Attenborough throughout the earlier episodes.

 

As much as I loved the series—although, truth be told, I 

would happily consume nine hours of Attenborough narrating golf, or paint drying, or my last colonoscopy, so maybe I’m not the best judge of its quality—I almost found myself distracted by how impossibly perfect it all looks. Just over two years ago, I absolutely raved about the gorgeousness of Our Planet. But Life in Color looks even better, mostly because the few remaining encoding flaws that made brief onscreen appearances in the older series are nowhere to be seen here.

 

There are underwater shots reminiscent of those in Our Planet, and yet with none of the minor color banding that briefly reared its head there. There are scenes here that push the bounds of image complexity in ways Our Planet never did, and yet they appear without blemish. (There’s one particular shot, in which a peacock bristles its plume in slow motion, that’s such a kaleidoscope of fine detail that I would expect it to be riddled with some digital ookiness even at 100 mbps. And yet, with my nose on my screen, I couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of HEVC reaching its breaking point. I can only assume Netflix recently adopted a new encoder, because otherwise I just cannot make sense of why this imagery looks this pristine.)

 

Dolby Vision is also employed to stunning effect. There are colors on the screen that older home video technology simply wasn’t capable of reproducing—vibrant reds and yellows and greens that fall outside the boundaries of the color space used in the HD era. 

 

I guess if you want to pick nits about the presentation, you could take issue with the fact that the audio is merely 5.1, not Dolby Atmos. But it’s still a lovely mix. And it up-mixes into Atmos quite beautifully, especially in the scenes set within jungles or forests. 

 

So, yeah, maybe don’t take my advice when it comes to confronting your streaming-skeptical friends. Perhaps take a nicer approach. But make them sit down and watch Life in Color anyway. It’s honestly some of the most compelling home cinema demo material I’ve seen in years. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Luca

Luca (2021)

When I was in high school, my favorite band was Talking Heads and I had this weird kind of love-hate anxiety when they would release a new album and I would go to listen for the first time. Would I love the new album because I actually loved it, or would I make myself say I loved it because it was from the Heads, or would lead singer David Byrne have taken them off on some new musical direction that meant I actually didn’t love it, and couldn’t even bring myself to lie that I did?

 

That’s a bit how I feel about a new film from Pixar.

 

Pixar Animation is about one of the surest bets around when it comes to delivering solid entertainment. And I don’t mean only in animated titles, but in just great movies in general. While I used to get a bit concerned because Pixar trailers used to seem 

so generic and uninteresting—always fearing, “Well, this is the one where Pixar finally misses the mark . . .”—I have come to realize the company just doesn’t produce great trailers, often because their stories are so layered you can’t really hope to encapsulate the whole spirit in a one-to-two-minute spot.

 

So, even though I wasn’t really overly excited by the trailers for Luca, the 24th film from the studio, which premiered on Disney+ this past Thursday (June 18), I wasn’t overly concerned. But, I’m sad to say, I think this might actually be the company’s weakest film to date, certainly rivaling 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, which is widely considered the worst film in the company’s canon.

LUCA AT A GLANCE

Awful thin for a Pixar movie, especially on the heels of the nuanced and adult, Oscar-winning Soul

 

PICTURE
Luca just looks gorgeous—the colors are straight-up eye candy throughout.

 

SOUND     

Kind of like the story itself, the movie’s Dolby Atmos mix is just satisfactory.

It’s not that Luca is a bad film by any means. In fact, it might even be a good movie. It’s just that it’s not a great one, and that is the nearly impossible situation that Pixar has placed itself in—after delivering film after film of greatness that anything less than a home run is considered disappointing.

 

I think the letdown is compounded by the fact that Luca follows Soul, the company’s most adult and ambitious title to date, which was so full of, well, soul. Soul took on incredibly deep and heavy issues and had such richly developed characters that the light and saccharine sweetness of Luca just seems all the emptier because of it.

 

But for Pixar, Luca lacks the depth, weight, and multi-dimensional story we’re used to getting. It’s just . . . simple. It’s hard to really care too deeply about its characters because the story doesn’t give us enough to care about them. Sure, there are tons of metaphors and parallels you can draw. The characters’ goal is to win a race that will give them enough money to buy a Vespa, which the film literally tells us is freedom—the freedom to get out and see the world beyond your four walls, especially exciting for Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who has lived a very sheltered and protected life. (“I never go anywhere. Just dream about it.”) The characters are also hiding the secret about what they really are (sea monsters), looking to fit in and gain acceptance from the small Italian city of Portorosso which hates/fears what they really are. And if you want to draw a parallel to the LGBTQ community here, well, it doesn’t take much of a stretch (Especially at the end, when two more characters come “out.”) 

 

The film takes place around the ‘50s-‘60s on the Italian Riviera, where sea monster Luca spends his days herding fish like a shepherd. One day while out swimming, he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who shows him that when dry on land, they transform into human form. Alberto pushes Luca beyond his comfort zone, until one day Luca’s parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) discover what he has been doing and threaten to send away to the deep to life with bizarre—and semi-translucent—Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen). 

 

Luca and Alberto swim over to the city of Portorusso, where they attempt to blend in with the “land monsters” and fulfill their dream of getting a Vespa. They befriend Giulia (Emma Berman) whose dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) happens to be a major fisherman and sea-monster hunter. (Who is clearly inspired by—and is the spitting image of—the dad from Pixar’s short “La Luna.”) The film builds to the Portorusso Cup Triathlon, a race where the winner gets a trophy and prize money, with the boys in constant fear of getting wet and revealing their secret.

 

One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout. The animation here is definitely more cartoony, not having that hyper-realistic look found in some of Pixar’ss films (e.g., the jazz club scene in Soul). Even still, the colors just burst off the screen, and this will make your video display really pop. You can also tell that the Pixar animators and writers took the time to research life in a small Italian Riviera city, with lots of accurate little details thrown in throughout. (This is also the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who clearly tried to bring as much Italian authenticity and love to the project as possible.)

 

Water is notoriously difficult to animate and render, but here it just looks fantastic. Also, even through Disney+ streaming (via my Apple TV), I didn’t notice any banding issues as the sunlight filtered from the surface down through various layers, colors, and shades of the ocean—something that looked especially natural on the OLED with Dolby Vision. Another scene had water crashing into a rocky shoreline, with clear and individual detail to each rock, with the foam, froth, and bubbles in the water incredibly detailed. There are also subtle detailed touches like the different shades of color in the sand as water lapped in and out. There is also super-fine detail in the clothing worn, letting you clearly see the differences in fabric texture, patterns, and weaves worn by characters.

 

Much of Luca takes place in daytime in the town of Portorosso, with brilliant sun shining in piercing blue skies; bright, emerald grasses; and multi-colored buildings, or the warm, golden-orange hues as the sun sets. It all looks gorgeous. 

 

Kind of like the story itself, I found Luca’s audio mix to be just satisfactory. Dialogue is well rendered primarily in the center channel (though it does occasionally follow characters as they move off screen), making it clear and intelligible throughout, but even though it is a Dolby Atmos mix, it was very subtle and reserved. The one dialogue distraction was Giulia’s accent, which seemed to come and go, and was especially pronounced when she is sprinkling in some word or phrase in Italian, kind of like how a Latino chef will go out of their way to over-emphasize some ethnic word like “chili relleno” to let you know just how legit they are.

 

Italian songs of the era are sprinkled throughout, and they get some room across the front channels and a bit up into the overheads, but the rest of the effects are pretty sparse. There were some instances of the sounds of boats passing up overhead, or a harpoon thrown that passes by, but I didn’t find the sound mix dynamic at all. (Again, whether this was a streaming issue or an Apple TV issue, I can’t say.) 

 

I did notice that the soundfield opened up a bit as Luca leaves the water and goes onto dry land. It wasn’t through a big use of audio, but rather just the sonic sense that the room had expanded with sounds of gentle wind, rustling leaves, and birds that let you know you are up in the human world.

 

Is Luca worth seeing? For Disney+ subscribers, I’d say definitely. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, and it’s a fun, albeit simple, story.

 

And, it’s not that Luca is a bad film. In fact, you could easily say that while Soul was a Pixar title made for adults, Luca sets its sights squarely on a younger audience, with a coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, childhood dreams, and overcoming fears that never gets too deep or strays too far away from safety and cuteness that kids will be drawn to. And if Luca came from any other studio (well, with the exception of Disney Animation, Pixar’s parent company), it would likely be heralded as a triumph. It’s just that Pixar has come to make us expect so much more.  

John Sciacca

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

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth (2021)

Generally speaking, I’m not a stickler for accuracy in page-to-screen adaptations. Cinema and TV play by different rules than novels and graphic novels, and trying to translate from the latter to the former with perfect fidelity is a fool’s errand. All I ask when a beloved work of printed fiction is being adapted for audiovisual media is that the tone, spirit, characters, and thematic thrust of the original survive the process mostly intact. You’ll notice I said “generally,” though. Every so often, a TV series like Sweet Tooth comes along that violates every rule of adaptation, yet results in something that surpasses its inspiration in virtually every way.

 

I don’t mean to poo-poo Jeff Lemire’s excellent comic-book series of the same name, which I positively devoured in its initial run a decade ago. But the comic was a grim thing, as most post-apocalyptic horror stories are. It was dark and violent, and while it may have been thoughtful and thought-provoking, the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead proves that you can only 

sustain a grimdark live-action narrative for so long before it becomes fatiguing and nihilistic.

 

Perhaps that’s why showrunner Jim Mickle and executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey decided to take a cynical horror story and transform it into a decidedly anti-cynical fantasy tale, almost a fable, that nonetheless maintains so much of the emotional complexity of the original. The shift in genre brings with it sweeping changes in the plot, the characters, indeed the themes of the story, but the bones remain the same. Sweet Tooth, in both its forms, tells the story of a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (known as H5G9 onscreen and simply “The Sick” on the page) that wipes out much of the human population, at a time when all new babies born to human parents emerge as human/animal hybrids.

 

As society collapses, most of the remaining humans blame these hybrid children for causing the pandemic, which leads to the children being hunted to near extinction. 

SWEET TOOTH AT A GLANCE

The source material’s grisly horror becomes woodland whimsy in this Netflix tale of half-human/half-animal children trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. 

 

PICTURE
Splashes of rich primary & secondary hues make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded color gamut, resulting in reference-quality home-cinema eye candy.

 

SOUND     

The aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue & a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix.

Macabre stuff, right? It’s not hard to imagine why Lemire took this idea in pretty grisly directions.

 

Mickle doesn’t wholly ignore the dark implications of this story prompt but rather than dwell on them, he rebels against them. The result is a series that is bravely sentimental, boldly heartwarming, and defiantly sweet. 

 

This was a risky decision, because none of it would work if not for the talents of Christian Convery, who plays 10-year-old Gus, a half-deer child whose father sequestered him in a remote wilderness encampment shortly after the world went to hell. While the story does jump around a bit, injecting flashbacks to fill in the mysteries of what happened as the apocalypse was unfolding ten years prior, the brunt of the story revolves around Gus’s first foray into the outside world in a quest to find his mother. 

 

Convery has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, displaying a range of emotions beyond the capabilities of most child actors. But he absolutely nails Gus’s mixture of wide-eyed innocence and dogged determination. We not only see the story unfold mostly from his perspective but we also experience this strange and wonderful world through his eyes. 

 

I won’t spoil much of that here, but there’s one particularly moving moment in the second episode that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the show: While taking refuge with a family who has made a life for themselves in an old ski lodge, Gus hears music for the first time in his life. I can only imagine what sort of direction Mickle (who helmed four of the eight episodes) gave to Convery. How on earth do you prompt a ten-year-old actor to react to music as if he’s never heard it before? How many takes must they have done to get that scene right? I can only speculate. What I can say for sure, though, is that the scene is the embodiment of pure joy, the likes of which you rarely seen onscreen. 

 

If there’s a shortcoming in the show as a whole, it’s that Gus is such a compelling character that the story suffers to a degree when he’s not front and center, when the revelations unfold out of his eyeshot. But that’s a minor quibble, and it’s ameliorated by the gorgeous cinematography and Netflix’ nigh-perfect presentation, which work together to keep the eye engaged even in those rare moments when the heart isn’t. 

 

Rather than the drab post-apocalyptic environs we’re used to seeing in fiction of this sort, the world of Sweet Tooth is gorgeously verdant, with splashes of rich primary and secondary hues that make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut. The choice to film in New Zealand—despite the setting in the American Mountain West—gives the imagery a vibe that’s at once familiar and slightly askance. The flora doesn’t look quite right. The terrain feels a bit exaggerated. But all of this really works for the feel of the show, and every ounce of it is captured in stunning detail. 

 

There’s really one egregious visual blemish in the entire eight-episode run, and it occurs within the first few minutes of the first episode. In the prologue that establishes the premise—complete with narration by Josh Brolin—there’s about a half-second of posterization on one of the walls in a brightly-lit hospital. The thing is, this sequence is so heavily processed—with secondary hues pushed to their extremes and a dreamlike filter applied to the entire image—that it’s nearly impossible to tell if this is a consequence of bandwidth limitations or a byproduct of post-production. I lean toward the latter, since the rest of the show is downright reference-quality home-cinema eye candy. 

 

Some might be disappointed at the lack of an Atmos soundtrack but the series doesn’t really need it. True, some height-channel enhancements might have added to the immersiveness of the sequences set in the wilderness. But by and large, the series is a lot lighter on action than you might expect (much more so than the trailer would indicate), and the aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue and a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix. 

 

It’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ll like Sweet Tooth. You do, after all, have to have a stomach for outright weirdness and vulnerable sincerity in equal measures. If you dig Adventure Time, Where the Wild Things, and Pushing Daisies, it’s probably right up your alley. Granted, if I had a kid under the age of 10, I probably wouldn’t let them watch the series due to a few tense and scary moments here and there (most of which are in the aforementioned trailer). But for everyone else, it’s family entertainment of the best sort. 

 

My only concern is that if the show gets picked up for a second season—and it almost certainly will, given its popularity and cliffhanger ending—I hope it manages to hang onto its optimism, tenderness, and wide-eyed sense of wonder. We need more of that on TV, now more than ever.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The Indiana Jones story had been planned as a trilogy from the start—the actor signing on to play Indy had to agree to a three-film deal—but it took five years after the release of Temple of Doom for the third film, The Last Crusade, to find its way to the big screen. During that time, the MPAA ratings board created the PG-13 rating, due in large part to the dark tone and graphic violence in Temple, and Crusade was the first film in the franchise to garner this “new” rating.

 

After the weaker box-office reception for Temple, director Steven Spielberg looked to lighten things up a bit for this third installment, returning Indy to more of the fun and light-hearted tone and elements that made Raiders of the Lost Ark such a 

fan favorite. The result is a film that feels far truer to the original and is frankly just more fun to watch.

 

Also, while Temple was the second film in the series, it is technically a prequel story as the events in that film are set in 1935, a year before the events of Raiders. But nothing in that film really feels like a prequel, as it is just Indy off on another adventure, with no returning characters or continuity to the story.

 

With The Last Crusade, we get both a prequel and a sequel, with two returning characters who have larger roles in this adventure, including Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Indiana’s contact in the Middle East, and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), the museum curator who is the recipient of many of Indy’s finds. More importantly, Crusade expands Indy’s family by adding his father, Professor Henry Jones, played brilliantly by Sean Connery. The dynamic between 

LAST CRUSADE AT A GLANCE

The 4K HDR presentation of the third Indy film receives the same appropriately light touch as Raiders and Temple of Doom

 

PICTURE
The restoration and 4K transfer make for a great-looking presentation, brimming with detail in many closeups and with some images so sharp that they look like they were shot digitally.

 

SOUND     

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix never looks to go too far over the top but to just expand and enhance the original mix.

Harrison Ford and Connery is terrific, showing another facet of Indy’s character, and offering some additional humor and heart to the story, giving Indy something to care about more than just an ancient relic.

 

The film opens in Utah in 1912 with a 13-year-old Indy played by River Phoenix pulled into an adventure to recover a golden crucifix belonging to Coronado found/stolen by a treasure hunter while on a Boy Scout trip. Here we see Indy’s thirst for adventure as well as learn not only where he developed his affinity for the whip, but also see how he got the scar on his chin 

and developed his fear of snakes, and where his iconic hat came from. (It’s also fair to say that this opening scene was the genesis of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series to come three years later.) That’s a heck of a lot of ground covered in a film’s opening moments, and setting up the adventure Indy embarks on when the film jumps to its 1938 timeline!

 

Professor Jones, an expert on all things related to the Holy Grail, has gone missing in Venice while tracking down a new Grail lead for Walter Donovan (Julian Glover). After his father’s Grail diary containing a lifetime of Grail lore, clues, and maps suddenly arrives in the mail, Indiana is off on a search for his father, which means following the Grail leads and ultimately coming face-to-face—once again—with the Nazis (“I hate those guys”).

 

This film’s first act involves puzzle solving and adventuring that feels like it formed the blueprint for Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon character in The Da Vinci Code to come years later, before settling into the action that launches characters towards the finale and adventures that take them around the world. It also feels like Spielberg and Ford have settled into the rhythm and feel of Indiana, and the movie just clicks along, hitting familiar beats while also feeling new.

 

Filmed just eight years after Raiders and five years after Temple, Crusade’s video quality is similar to those films, which is to say the restoration and new 4K digital intermediate make for a great-looking presentation, again

brimming with detail in many closeups. I noticed far fewer instances of softness or focus issues compared to Raiders, and right from the opening, skies here looked bluer and less grainy.

 

Tiny details like fine bubbles rising in Indy’s champagne flute, and the texture in clothing like the tweed in Professor Jones’ suit, the heavy wool of Nazi SS uniforms, or the texture in Indy’s hat band, and the whiskers and pores on his preternaturally sweaty face are visible throughout.

 

As with the first film, there are scenes that have such razor sharpness, clarity, and detail that they could pass for modern digitally shot media. One such moment was where Indy and dad are on a motorcycle in front of the crossroads sign to head to Berlin or Venice, which was stunning. Outdoor scenes, specifically the day shots in Venice, look like gorgeous travelogue material, and you can really appreciate the scope of the outdoor tank battle. 

The HDR color grading is again reserved, but it adds depth and texture to images, especially shadowy and dark scenes or the brightest highlights of the desert. You can also really appreciate the brilliant colors of a stained-glass window in the Venetian church/library.

 

Like the picture, I’d say that Crusade’s new Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix takes a similar track as the other films, never looking to go too over the top (pun intended), but to just expand and enhance the original mix. Sound elements like driving wind, rain, and waves crashing up over the sides of a boat, or motorcycles racing up from the back of the room along the sides to pass into the front, and the room-filling roar and crackle of fire are all enhanced and expanded with the new mix. We also get more expansion of echoes, such as the hammer blows as Indy is trying to shatter marble, the ambience of water drips inside of catacombs, or tank shells that fly overhead.

 

Sonically, some of the film’s most dynamic and active moments come when some German fighters are attacking. Here we get planes strafing Indy and dad in a vehicle, and the planes buzz all around the room, flying overhead, along the 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

sides, and into the back. Their engines and guns are mixed aggressively, and definitely add to the excitement of the moment. While never overused, the subwoofer is called on when appropriate, adding depth and weight to the soundtrack for things like explosions or collisions. 

 

With Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we are brought back to Indy’s beginnings and earlier adventures in the best ways possible. Even the ending echoes moments from Raiders’ opening cave scene, but in a fresh way. And as our characters literally ride off into the sunset with John Williams’ iconic score erupting from all around, you can’t help but have a great time. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

If you’re looking for a study in ambivalence, you’ve come to the right place. My thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are many, and they’re almost all contradictory. Objectively speaking, this first followup to what I consider to be one of the best action-adventures ever made is a mess. It’s erratic, tonally inconsistent, and utterly relentless. Its over-reliance on gags (in more than one sense of the word) does it no favors, and it strains the bounds of credulity at every turn, never quite dipping into nuke-the-fridge territory, but coming awfully close. 

 

And yet, I absolutely adore this mess of a movie, perhaps even more than the admittedly superior Last Crusade, which was a massive course correction before the series went completely off the rails with its fourth entry, whose name I will not utter  

here. Temple of Doom may be flawed, but it’s fascinatingly flawed. It’s entertainingly flawed. And for all the nits I could pick with it, it’s never, ever boring. And perhaps most importantly, it has a certain rugged charm, despite all the ick.

 

But hey, you’ve had 37 years now to figure out what you think of this movie and I’m unlikely to change those impressions. What you’re here for is a quick and simple answer to the question of whether the 4K HDR upgrade is worth it.

 

In a word: Yes! Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is exactly how a restoration of a movie like this should be handled. By that I mean that it undeniably still looks like film of its era. Despite some digital tinkering to improve the compositing and clean up a few practical artifacts, it hasn’t been tinkered with to the point that it looks like a modern 

TEMPLE OF DOOM AT A GLANCE

The iTunes presentation of the second entry in the Jones series features an almost flawless 4K HDR presentation and offers all the bonus features, which aren’t available elsewhere online. 

 

PICTURE
A big improvement over the 2012 Blu-ray release, with much better contrasts and new color timing that stays true to the movie’s film-stock roots.

 

SOUND     

The new Atmos mix uses height effects subtly but effectively, mostly to give John Williams’ score more room to stretch its legs.

movie, but it’s clean, well-preserved, and stunningly detailed.

 

The biggest improvements over the fundamentally flawed Blu-ray remasters from 2012 come in the form of much-improved contrasts and new color timing that doesn’t look like the negative was passed through a cheap Instagram filter. Saturation overall is way, way down from the Blu-ray, but the palette is punctuated by vibrant hues here and there that are way beyond the capabilities of 8-bit video. In that sense, it reminds me of the new remaster of The Wizard of Oz. There’s simply more nuance to the color overall. Every hue isn’t cranked to 11 the way it was in the previous Blu-ray release. The overall cast of the imagery is definitely warm, but not cartoonishly so.

 

Equally important to the effectiveness of this new remaster is the expanded dynamic range, especially at the lower end of the value scale. That’s especially beneficial during darker passages, like the camping scene toward the end of the first act. Previous home video releases of Temple of Doom have either rendered the scene so darkly that you couldn’t appreciate the 

visual gags or so brightly that it simply wasn’t believable as nighttime. In the new 4K remaster, the scene is appropriately dark and the shadows sufficiently inky, but there’s still enough dynamic range that you can actually see all the critters that torment Willie.

 

What’s true in that scene is true throughout the picture: The expanded dynamic range gives the image a richness and pop that makes it much more resolved, dimensional, organic, and analog in its presentation.

 

The audio, too, receives similar treatment in the form of a new Atmos remix overseen by Ben Burtt. Again, the audio is undoubtedly of the era, especially in the way it leans heavily on the midrange, and some of the sound effects sound a bit thin. But I’ll take that any day over newly recorded digital effects foisted upon a soundtrack of this vintage, which almost never sound right.

 

Height effects are employed subtly but effectively, mostly to give John Williams’ score more room to stretch its legs. Some sound effects also get a bit of a lift, but there’s nothing about the new remix that’s going to pull your attention away from the screen. In fact, there were a few times when I wondered if anything was coming out of the height channels at all, only to turn off Atmos processing on my preamp and find myself surprised by the collapse of the soundfield. That, in my opinion, is the highest compliment I could pay to any Atmos remix of an older film. I didn’t find it intrusive when it was there but I missed it when it was gone.

My only real beef with this new 4K version of the Indiana Jones collection is that no new bonus features were created to mark the occasion. Well, that’s not wholly true: Paramount did sanction one new featurette about the sound design of the original film, only to unceremoniously dump it on YouTube. Otherwise, the new collection carries over the bonus goodies from the last big release in 2012, of which there are plenty.

 

If you’re interested in those, though, you’ve got some choices to make. Right now, the UHD Blu-ray release of the quadrilogy is nearly impossible to find at retail, and secondhand copies are already selling for multiples of the MSRP. In the digital domain, only Apple includes the supplemental material, and since Paramount still refuses to embrace Movies Anywhere, you can’t simply purchase the movies on Vudu or Amazon and then bop over to iTunes to watch the extras. As such, I decided to buy the collection on iTunes and watch it on the Apple TV+ app on my Roku Ultra.

 

I also took a sneak peek at Temple of Doom on my Apple TV 4K (2017), and was pleasantly surprised that it looks amazing for the most part. The atmospheric smoke in the dance sequence in Club Obi Wan at the beginning of the movie looked a little noisy, but not egregiously so. Switching over to my Roku Ultra, said smoke was a bit less noisy and the overall image was crisper and better resolved.

 

I have to say, though, I’m sort of shocked that a bit of digital-looking noise in one shot is the only evidence of compression I could see, and inconclusive evidence at that. There are numerous scenes that function as torture tests of high-efficiency video encoding, like the quick shot of the glistening wet statue encountered by our heroes in the approach to Pankot Palace or the jewels on the costume of the young Maharaja. Both boast a lot of specular brightness but also a lack of uniformity. In other words, there’s nothing about the patterns in the imagery that’s predictable, especially in motion, and codecs like HEVC thrive on predictability, especially at lower bitrates.

 

Long story short, if there are any significant shortcomings in Apple’s encoding of the film, aside from perhaps that bit of noisy smoke in the intro, I can’t see them. The bottom line is that the iTunes version in Dolby Vision makes the previous Blu-ray release look like hot garbage in every respect.

 

So if you care about owning the extras (and I do, since I’ll be pawning off my old Blu-ray collection on a family member) and you have a way to stream Apple content in your home cinema, I can vouch for the iTunes release. It looks better on Roku hardware than Apple hardware, but both look miles better than any previous physical media release. And you can pick up the entire four-movie package for $34.99.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

What do you get when you combine two of the hottest writing/producing/directing talents around with one of the hottest action stars of the day with one of the top film composers of all time? You get Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

 

The joining of forces between director Steven Spielberg, writer George Lucas, lead actor Harrison Ford, and composer John Williams all but guaranteed a film that would rake in millions at the box office and become an instant classic. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, you also get a film that garnered nine Academy Awards nominations (including Best Picture and Director), 

ultimately grabbing five wins including Editing, Sound, and Visual Effects.

 

Wanna feel old? How about if I tell you Raiders is celebrating its 40th Anniversary?! Yup, the movie was originally released on June 12, 1981. Wanna feel a little better about it? Well, to celebrate this milestone, Paramount has just re-released all four films in the Indy franchise, all restored and remastered in 4K HDR with new Dolby Atmos audio mixes with all picture work approved by series director, Spielberg. According to the film’s press release:

 

Each film has been meticulously remastered from 4K scans of the original negatives with extensive visual effects work done to ensure the most pristine and highest quality image.  All picture work was approved by director Steven Spielberg.

RAIDERS AT A GLANCE

The film that jumpstarted the whole action/ adventure-meets-videogames thing gets a 4K/Atmos makeover for its 40th anniversary. 

 

PICTURE
Closeups can have a startling amount of sharpness and detail and HDR has been applied with a light touch, staying true to the look of the original film.

 

SOUND     

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix is similarly faithful, being used just to heighten and expand the soundtrack.

In addition, all four films were remixed at Skywalker Sound under the supervision of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt to create the Dolby Atmos soundtracks. All original sound elements were used to achieve the fully immersive Dolby Atmos mixes while staying true to each film’s original creative intent.

 

Besides remembering seeing the film in the theater—I was 11—I recall when Raiders was first released on home video. At the time, home-video sales were a bit unusual and most titles were priced as “Rental,” meaning they were all like $80 and up and sold to chains like Blockbuster. Paramount decided to make a splash with Raiders in the home market, pricing it at a shockingly low (for the time) $39.95, and I can remember rushing down to the video store and picking up a copy on Beta the day it was released, barely able to wait until I could get home and watch the finale in slow motion! This strategy paid off for Paramount, as the film went on to sell over a million copies by 1985, making it the best-selling film of its time.

 

While the action/adventure genre is well established now, Raiders seemed shockingly fresh when it came out. For almost the entirety of its near-two-hour run time, you are pummeled with one action piece after another as Indy is constantly thrown into

increasingly impossible predicaments.

 

Lucas has said he conceived of Raiders as a way of modernizing the serial films of the early 20th century, and it isn’t hard to imagine several cliffhanger “endings” during the film where viewers would be left wondering just how in the heck Indy was gonna get out of this mess. But, having not watched Raiders in years prior to this viewing, what really struck me was how it is really the ultimate videogame movie—of course, without the burden of actually having a videogame to be based on. We get a rugged main character with two primary weapons—whip and pistol—thrown into increasingly difficult challenges requiring obtaining prizes to move on, complete with road chases, boss levels, and puzzle solving.

 

Sure, after 40 years, some of the bits—like Indy looking for Marion (Karen Allen) through the streets of Cairo as she is hidden in a basket—seem a bit cheesy and silly. But, I think the humor and B-movie-esque qualities are part of what makes it so much fun—such as when the Nazi Toht (Ronald Lacey) menacingly assembles what we think is going to be a weapon to interrogate Marion, but what turns out to be a hanger for his coat, or when Indy just pulls out his gun to shoot the large sword-wielding thug, or Indy saying, “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” These light-hearted moments help keep Raiders fun, which is a quality some modern films lack or just miss completely.

 

Originally shot on film, this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, and it looks mostly fantastic. Closeups 

can have a startling amount of sharpness and detail, revealing every line, pore, and whisker on Indy’s face, or the fine weave in a dress Marion wears in Cairo, or the linen texture in Sallah’s (John Rhys-Davies) suit. The daylight market and street scenes in Cairo are bright and fantastic, showing the sharp pattern of the bricks and stones, and the textured detail of the walls, and the weave of the baskets. Some scenes look so good, they could be from a modern film, such as the opening shot of the group crowded around the drinking game at Marion’s bar, or the scene of the Nazis at the dig site, which has incredibly sharp focus across the width of characters that fill the screen. I did notice that some scenes have inconsistent or soft focus, especially in the beginning and at the very end of the film when Indy and Marion are walking down the steps. These scenes are probably more noticeable because so much of the film just looks so good. I also noticed things like single vine strands or a single, ultra-fine spider web that Indy pulls along with him.

 

I never found film grain to be objectionable, but it is definitely there and most noticeably in outdoor shots that show the powdery blue sky. We have enough grain for the film to show its film roots and retain tons of detail, without being softened away to look like digital mush. 

 

While there was some effects cleanup, apparently this was mainly done to remove lines from the composites, and I never found it objectionable or noticeable in the way Lucas usually likes to go in and modernize his films. One change I did notice was that it was always apparent that the cobra striking at Indy and Marion was behind a piece of glass, and now that has been removed, looking like they are in more peril. I also never noticed that the German phrase “Nicht stören” (Do not disturb) was written on one of the buildings in the map room. I’m sure it was always there, but the new cleaned-up transfer and sharper resolution make it easier to notice small details like this.

 

Colors are natural throughout, and the opening jungle scenes are both brighter and more contrasty than I recall them, with bright shafts of light pouring in through the trees and wispy smoke. Golds, especially of the Ark, look bright and brilliant. One scene with the lights in Marion’s bar and the various colored bottles of liquor backlit looked really good. Everything just looks as it should; whether it is the green jungle hues, the tans and browns of the desert, or the red-orange of fires, Raiders has

never looked better. We also get nice and deep blacks, and good shadow detail that really benefits from the HDR grading, making dark scenes really look more natural.

 

The sound designers didn’t look to hit you over the head (pun intended) with the new Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix, but just to heighten and expand the soundtrack. Right from the opening moments, you’ll notice the sounds of the jungle—bugs, birds, rustling leaves—filling the room and coming all around you. Inside the cave, you hear water drips and splashes that help put you in the scene, plus there’s the sounds of winds howling outside Marion’s bar, the cacophony of downtown Cairo, or the clinks and clanks of machinery aboard the German U-boat. Big obvious sonic moments like the giant boulder rolling overhead are enhanced with weight and texture and it now literally rolls over your head, or the thunder and lightning while they are about to dig into the map room, or the roar of the German plane’s propeller, and the spirits now fly and swirl all around the room and overhead at the big finale.

 

Older films often skimp on the caliber of gunfire, and while Indy doesn’t compete with modern mixes when it comes to replicating gunshots, I feel they gave a bit more punch and depth to this, especially Indy’s pistol, which has a really distinct

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

sonic character. We also get some decent subwoofer involvement when called for, such as explosions, vehicle collisions, or that big boulder.

 

John Williams’ iconic score is also given more room to expand in this mix, letting you appreciate his music more fully than even before. And all important dialogue is kept clear and intelligible and mostly in the center channel, except for a couple of fun moments such as Marion screaming “Indy!” as she is being carried around the city in a basket.

 

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those classic films that belongs in every movie collection, and it has certainly never looked or sounded as good as it does here. Also, as a real incentive for Kaleidescape owners, if you already own Raiders in your Kaleidescape collection, it is just $8.59 to upgrade, making it an absolute must-have. And with a fifth film reportedly in the works for next year, now is the perfect time to rejoin Indiana on an epic adventure!

John Sciacca

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

Review: The Marksman (2021)

The Marksman (2021)

We generally seek out the highest-quality entertainment for review here at Cineluxe, meaning most reviews feature either 4K HDR video or a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack (preferably both!). However, a real dearth of both catalog and new releases lately has meant we’ve had to cast a slightly wider net for interesting content worth considering. Scanning the New Releases section at Kaleidescape’s store, I stumbled across Liam Neeson’s latest film, The Marksman. Released to cinemas in January, The Marksman had a run on PVOD before becoming available for sale in Blu-ray quality with a 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master soundtrack. 

 

Since showcasing his “particular set of skills . . . acquired over a very long career . . . that make [him] a nightmare for people like you” in 2008’s Taken, Neeson’s career has had an incredible resurgence as the everyman who is suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances, forced to fight, flee, or chase some group of baddies in order to right some wrong and get his 

life back. From the Taken trilogy, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter, Cold Pursuit, Honest Thief, and more, Neeson has found a niche playing a certain type of action character people enjoy watching.

 

I’ll admit I’m a fan of his films and acting. For me, they are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. You don’t go into a restaurant and order the Mac and Cheese and expect some gastronomic experience. You get it because it is familiar and satisfying. Sure, there are shades of good and even great amongst different Macs, but ultimately it is all kind of the same animal. Likewise, I don’t go into a Neeson film expecting to be wowed by a complex plot or to experience some reinvention of the action genre. I’m looking to see Neeson thrust into some terrible situation where he is forced to use his wits and particular set of skills (which seem to be pretty consistent across his films and characters) to save the day.

THE MARKSMAN AT A GLANCE

Liam Neeson is once again the everyman tangling with a bunch of bad guys in this surprisingly low-key action flick. 

 

PICTURE
The Blu-ray-quality HD video is acceptable but not exceptional, although many of the closeups look quite good, with plenty of detail.

 

SOUND     

The DTS HD-Master 5.1 soundtrack serves up dialogue clearly and never seems strained, but the gunfire isn’t as dynamic as it should be.

The movie opens with US Marine Vet Jim Hanson (Neeson) living a solitary life in a ranch along the Arizona-Mexico border. As he sees illegals attempting to cross, he alerts the Border Patrol to come and pick them up, ostensibly to save them from dying somewhere on his land. One day, he encounters a woman named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez), who are fleeing Mexico to escape the Cartel. After the Cartel threatens Hanson to hand them over, in classic Neeson style he informs them, “I don’t scare easy” while menacingly holding a hunting rifle. A gunfight ensues where Rosa is mortally wounded, and the brother of Cartel leader Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) brother is also killed. Before the Border Patrol arrives to take Miguel into custody, Rosa hands Hanson a note with an address and begs him to take Miguel to her family in Chicago. 

 

The Marksman then becomes a road-chase film as Hanson and Miguel jump in a pickup truck and make the journey up to Chicago, with the Cartel following their every move through tracking Hanson’s credit-card purchases and a network of lookouts. With the Cartel seemingly always just a step behind them wherever they go, Hanson and Miguel begin to form a relationship as they make their way to Chicago mile by mile. There is some depth to Hanson’s character as he recently lost his wife to cancer, is coping with a drinking problem, and is in jeopardy of losing his ranch to the bank, and seemingly has nothing left but his responsibility for Miguel. 

 

For an action movie, there isn’t quite as much action as you might expect or hope. There is the initial shootout at the border, followed by a couple of skirmishes and several near-misses as you lead up to the finale, which offers a tense and exciting conclusion. 

 

As mentioned, don’t go into this film expecting too much. I felt nearly everything was heavily telegraphed or foreshadowed in some way, like, “Uh, yep, he’s showing us that knife/bullet damage/move for some reason that will come up later.” About the only thing that didn’t happen as I expected was a scene where Neeson notices a large pitchfork, where I immediately thought, “Well, someone is gonna fall and die on that.” 

 

There’s also some obvious social commentary about the problems at the border, with immigration, and corruption, but the film (fortunately) doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Remember, Neeson’s role is to solve his character’s current dilemma, not that of society.

 

The video quality was certainly acceptable even though “only” Blu-ray quality. (Remember when we thought LaserDisc and then DVD was the greatest thing ever? And now we grouse about just having 1080p . . .) The film has a pretty drab and earthy color palette to go with Hanson’s drab life, with the sky either overcast or having that faded blue of worn jeans. There

are also lots of scenes out in the desert, on the open road, and in the interior of Hanson’s pickup that really aren’t too visually exciting.

 

Many closeups actually look quite good, with plenty of detail. You can easily pick out the fine texture in Hanson’s hat and see all the whiskers, creases, and lines in his face. Also, long outdoor shots in the bright Arizona sun showing the vast open land look very natural.

 

I did notice a couple instances of video jaggies and line twitter in some of the car grilles or the teeth in the zipper of a jacket, and a bit of noise in some low-light scenes—things that certainly aren’t often present in 4K video. Also, the shots of bushes, trees, and grasses lacked a lot of detail and resolution, turning these items into smudges or non-distinct green blobs. None of these things really distracted from the film (unlike one moment in the opening shootout where one of the Cartel members is holding a gun whose barrel is clearly smashed totally flat), but were worth noting for picture-quality’s sake.

 

I don’t have much to say about The Marksman’s audio mix short of that it serves up dialogue clearly and never seemed strained. DTS mixes can sometimes be overly “hot,” making dialogue seem out of balance, but that definitely wasn’t the 

The Marksman (2021)

case here. In fact, I thought that much of the gunfire lacked dynamics up until the end. When you fire off a hunting rifle, I want the crack of the shot to make me jump in my seat, and that definitely wasn’t the case. Also, while there was some surround activity, it was mainly used for atmospheric sounds like car and road noise, wind, birds, and was really not very dynamic.

 

While not a bullseye, if you’re looking for a movie to enjoy in your home theater where you can just sit back and watch the story unfold with the understanding that the story is going to turn out pretty much exactly as you expect, then The Marksman mostly hits the target. My wife’s summary pretty much nailed it with, “I enjoyed that more than I thought I would.”

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.