Reviews

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.

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

To show that home theater and media rooms are for much more than just movie and TV watching, this week I’m reviewing Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague, available on Blu-ray Disc or for HD download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store (the version I watched).

 

If you’re a film fan, you’re likely familiar with Zimmer’s work, since it’s spanned the past 30 years. He has scored more than 150 films, including many for Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. Zimmer has received numerous Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Score for The Lion King.

 

Filmed in Prague, this concert captures an evening during Zimmer’s 2016 European concert tour where he plays 35 songs spanning decades of his work and includes music from Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception. (Sadly, this concert pre-dates Zimmer’s fascinating and intense score for Nolan’s recent Dunkirk.)

 

An interesting (in a good way) twist is the concert’s Dolby Atmos mix, meaning it’s recorded to really shine in a luxury home surround setup. Now, you might or might not love the decisions made in this very aggressive mix, but no one will watch this and leave wondering whether all of their speakers were active or not. 

 

Years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Star Wars in Concert in person, an event that brought together the 86-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus along with a giant high-def LED screen, measuring some 60-feet wide by 30-feet tall. This two-hour performance featured music spanning all six Star Wars films, blending music, film, lasers, pyrotechnics, and spectacle into a fantastically memorable evening.

That experience set my expectations for this concert, so I assumed there would be video and effects accompanying the score, but I was wrong. In fact, the concert opens with no dialogue or introduction whatsoever. It merely begins with Zimmer alone on stage at a piano playing the opening notes from “Driving” (Driving Miss Daisy). He is soon joined by another musician on flute, and then another on accordion, and soon there is a full stage of musicians, along with a full orchestra, and backing vocals provided by the

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

Czech national choir, making 72 musicians in all—including Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame on guitar.

 

After playing the opening three songs, and at various points throughout the concert’s 138-minute run time, Zimmer steps to the mic to say a few words, introducing members of the band, and sharing some memories or anecdotes about the compositions.

 

Shot digitally on Arri Alexa, the 16:9 image looks beautiful. Colors are bright and punchy, black levels are deep and solid with no banding or noise, showing off clear differences between the different shades of black in the performers’ outfits, and there is plenty of detail.

 

While there are no laser effects and very little accompanying video (some pulsing lights and symbols that enhance the beat, rhythm, and mood of the score, not displaying any movie footage), the show features plenty of dramatic lighting to illuminate the performers and punctuate the intensity of various tracks.

 

One great benefit of owning the Kaleidescape version is that all of the songs are bookmarked, allowing you to easily jump to your favorite moments, or just press the “Info” button to bring up the title listing to identify what you’re listening to.

 

Like Zimmer’s scoring style, the audio from this concert is big and bombastic. It also differs from the original works in that it has more of a rock concert, electronic vibe to it, which arguably works better, and is more entertaining, for a live show. “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight is one of my favorite Zimmer works, and here it plays a bit like a Blue Man Group performance, with heavy percussion and an intense light show that well capture the Joker’s manic personality.

 

Played at reference volumes, this concert is quite loud, and has a surprising amount of deep low-frequency information, especially the opening notes of “Half Remembered Dream” from Inception. In fact, while watching this I had to remove the filter on my SVS sub that boosts bass at 32 Hz to give a bit of punch to films because it created just too much low-end bloat.

 

As mentioned before, the Atmos mix is highly immersive and aggressive, but also . . . interesting. Often concert or performance mixes are done from either an on-stage or in-crowd perspective, but for most of this show, you’re positioned primarily in the middle of the mix, with instrumentation and vocals frequently wrapping all around the room. The primary instruments and backing vocals are mixed heavily into the front channels, but also spread overhead and into the sides. If you find yourself too overwhelmed by the Atmos soundtrack, the Blu-ray also features a two-channel PCM mix. 

 

For fans of Zimmer’s works, this is an absolute must-get. For those who love watching live performances, or are looking for an entertaining evening at home that doesn’t involve explosions, jump scares, or the latest rom-com, this belongs on the shortlist.

John Sciacca

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

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.

Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie

Let’s talk about courage for a moment. Not the courage it took for Ilya and Alexander Salkind to make a sentimental and sincere big-budget superhero film when there was no precedent for that sort of thing at the time. Nor the courage it took for director Richard Donner and casting director Lynn Stalmaster to take a risk on unknown Christopher Reeve for the lead role, when so many other famous names were contending for the red cape and spit curl. You’ve no doubt heard those stories before.

 

Let’s talk instead about the courage it took for Warner Bros. to release a 4K HDR version of the film in 2018 that preserves all of the celluloid flaws (and charms) of the original cinematic release, in an era where so many studios are glossing up, de-noising, sharpening, and generally attempting to modernize the standouts in their classic film catalogs.

 

Superman: The Movie is one of those films I buy on any new home video format the day it’s released. Which isn’t to say that every home video release has been a major improvement over the ones before it. This is an intentionally soft and heavily filtered film, after all. It lacks rock-solid blacks. There’s a prominent graininess to the image, especially in special effects shots.

 

If Kaleidescape’s new 4K HDR release of the film weren’t true to all of that, it would be a bit of a betrayal. So why release it in 4K HDR at all? What stands out most in this release as compared with previous efforts (including the Blu-ray-quality 1080p version of the film, also 

included with the Kaleidescape download of this one) is the richness and saturation of its colors, especially in those early sequences in Smallville.

 

Before that, the scenes on Krypton also get a nice boost from the enhanced brightness afforded by 

Superman: The Movie

HDR. I finally think I get what Donner was going for with those silly reflective suits that Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) wear as they ponder the fate of their infant child before rocketing him off to earth. They have a pop and sizzle here that they’ve simply never had on home video before.

 

Other than that, it’s as if a layer of haze has been wiped off of the film. Granted, what was buried under the haze was a late-70s work of photochemical film. It’s fuzzy. It’s muted. Its effects shots look kinda laughable. But that’s long been part of the charm of this film, so kudos to Warner for having the cajones to release it as such, and kudos to Kaleidescape for delivering it with all of its textures and nuances intact. This isn’t the movie you’re going to whip out if you simply want to show off all of your projector’s or TV’s pixel-pumping, high-contrast capabilities. Still, it’s hard to deny that this is the best that Superman: The Movie has ever looked or will likely ever look. I daresay the original 70mm print didn’t shine this brilliantly the first time it was spindled through the projector on opening night in 1978.

 

One thing worth noting is that the Kaleidescape version of the film doesn’t include the new Atmos remix included with the UHD Blu-ray disc. I’m not sure how you feel about that, dear reader, but I don’t miss it. The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download is a big step up from previous efforts, especially in terms of its rich, bombastic delivery of John Williams’ iconic score. The fidelity here is simply flawless, yet it isn’t an outright betrayal of the film’s original aesthetic.

 

Am I alone in this, though? Would you rather see a classic like Superman: The Movie presented as a product of its time, in the best possible light of today’s home video technology? Or would you prefer that the studio iron out the grain, sharpen up the edges, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and try to make the film look (and sound!) more like the current crop of superhero flicks that owe so much to this cherished classic?

Dennis Burger

Superman: The Movie

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.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime Homecoming

The brave members of the Armed Forces face numerous atrocities daily while on deployment, and the friendly staff of Homecoming is there to help ease their transition back into normal life. Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is the therapist on site who leads the facility while also answering to her boss-from-afar, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). Colin is voraciously interested in the outcome of the experimental treatment Heidi was hired to facilitate.

 

We see the beginnings of this experiment with war veteran Walter, played beautifully by Stephen James, although we aren’t privy to the specifics and depths of the treatment until later. Then something happens, and a complaint is filed. But we have no idea what it is, and thus begins the psychological thriller/mystery at the heart of this series.

Homecoming began its life as a scripted podcast, and the Amazon Prime series honors that source material. (Although there are some major alterations later on, the first TV episode is almost exactly the same as the podcast.) We follow two timelines—one before the incident with Heidi and Walter at the facility, which is shown in a widescreen aspect ratio, and one after, shown in a constricting 4:3 ratio with muted colors, as Department of Defense investigator 

Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigman) tries to determine if the complaint is valid and worth elevating to his superiors.

 

The acting throughout is excellent. The chemistry between Roberts and James pulls us in to the intimacy of their private counseling sessions and carries us along on their journey. There are some wonderful moments from supporting members Sissy Spacek and Dermot Mulroney. And Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot) is masterful in his direction of all episodes. The visuals and quirky music choices do a fantastic job of alternately keeping you on edge and settling you into the experience.

 

Homecoming is available in 4K HDR with a 5.1 soundtrack. An initial search for it through the Amazon app will probably come up with the non-4K version since Amazon doesn’t seem to push their 4K offerings as hard as they should. So be sure you’re getting the proper high-resolution experience. The image quality is stunning and serves the cinematography exceptionally well. The surround speakers are utilized well, and the 5.1 mix never sounds gimmicky but is only there to increase the ambiance or, at times, the tension. There are no explosions or intense car chases to test the limits of your system—it’s not that kind of show—but the subtle use of sound effects throughout leads to some startling moments for the characters.

 

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.

Papillon (2017)

One of my favorite, truly epic “inspired by actual events” films is Papillon. Released in 1973, it stars Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker framed for murder and condemned to a life of hard labor at the notorious French Guiana penal colony on Devil’s Island. The film is balanced by a terrific performance from Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who agrees to finance Papillon’s escape in exchange for protection.

 

I can clearly remember the first time I saw this movie, watching a late-night cable presentation at my grandmother’s house on a 20-inch tube TV, where the marathon tale of survival and escape from the brutalizing French penal system seemed like it ran for four hours.

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Whether you saw and remember the original Papillon, I’m betting you weren’t aware it was recently remade. The new version came to theaters in a very limited release this past August with little to no fanfare, and moved on to home video shortly thereafter. When I saw that both versions were available for purchase on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in HD quality, I downloaded them to see how they compared.

 

Both films are based on Charrière’s international best-selling autobiographies, Papillon and Banco. (It’s interesting to note that the 1973 film features a screenwriting credit by Dalton Trumbo, whose own incredible life was the basis for the film Trumbo.) Whereas most “prison break” films spend the majority of time following the plotting of the escape, Papillon instead focuses on the characters and their daily nightmarish existence on Devil’s Island, where treachery lurks around every corner and 40% of prisoners died within the first years, with only two prisoners successfully escaping.

Papillon (2017)

Papillon (2017)

The remake is based on the 1973 screenplay, and thus borrows heavily from the original film’s storyline. Here, the titular character of Papillon (which means “butterfly” in French, for a prominent tattoo) is played by Charlie Hunnam, with Rami Malek (of recent Bohemian Rhapsody fame) taking over Hoffman’s role of Louis Dega. 

 

At 133 minutes, the new film certainly isn’t short, but is 18 minutes shorter than the original. This helps it feel faster paced, with less time spent on the solitary-confinement scenes, and quicker transitions to the film’s many dramatic moments. It also excises scenes from the original (notably the visit to the leper colony), but offers a bit of backstory at the beginning showing Papillon’s life outside of prison, in a very Gatsby-esque Paris.

 

In many ways, the new version reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s (in)famous Psycho remake. While Papillon isn’t a shot-for-shot remake like Van Sant’s Psycho, it leans so heavily on the original storyline, and even dialogue, that it ends up feeling like the same film. Hunnam does an admirable job portraying Pappy, but never seems to hit the same level of rock-bottom despair and suffering McQueen portrayed. Malek, however, does a fantastic job filling Hoffman’s shoes as the out-of-play and overwhelmed Dega just trying to survive to the next day.

 

One thing that can’t be faulted with the new film is the picture and sound quality. While not available in 4K HDR, it has nice detail and solid black levels. The color palette is mostly restrained by design, with drab prison and guard uniforms and hardscrabble landscape. But the images are natural looking, and outdoor scenes are bright, showing off the vibrant blues of the inviting waters surrounding the island. The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio track is also quite active and does a great job keeping dialogue intelligible. It also upmixes wonderfully to a Dolby Atmos speaker layout, with nice overhead fill from the score and well-placed ambient effects, such as aboard the prison transport ship or during exterior scenes.

 

Critics and audiences alike greatly preferred the original film, with the 1973 version scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90% audience rating, while the new film only mustered 52% on RT with a 69% audience score. While I’d agree that the original is the superior film—and certainly the one to watch if Papillon is new to you—the remake is far from unenjoyable, and provides a great way to revisit an old favorite in a spruced-up manner. 

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.