Reviews

Review: The Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

It’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the hottest new title on Sonyflix or Sony+, or whatever Sony might have named its own studio-specific streaming platform, if only it had made it out of the gate before Disney, Warner, Paramount, and NBCUniversal flooded the market and exhausted the public’s patience for such solipsistic subscription services. In our reality, what would have been one of the most highly publicized animated blockbusters of 2020 was instead dumped unceremoniously onto Netflix and forfeit to the whims of its inscrutable algorithms. 

 

That’s a shame, really, because The Mitchells vs. the Machines deserves more of your attention than does the typical Netflix animated feature. The involvement of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is your first clue to that. In addition to writing and 

directing the surprisingly good Lego Movie and producing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—undeniably one of the best animated pictures of the past few years—the duo’s brand has become something of a seal of approval; so the fact that this one comes from their production umbrella is significant. There’s also the fact that The Mitchells was written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, both known for their work on the excellent Disney Channel/Disney XD series Gravity Falls.

 

Mush those two aesthetics together and you’ll get a good idea of the overall vibe of this energetic and delightfully weird animated adventure. On the one hand, The Mitchells vs. the Machines owes a lot to the look of Into the Spider-Verse, especially in the way it blends 3D animation with 2D tinkering, the results of which are a sort of best-of-both-worlds mashup. It’s not as if the two films look like they take place in the same reality, mind you—this one definitely exists within its own creative landscape—but you can see 

THE MITCHELLS AT A GLANCE

An oddball family takes on the robot apocalypse in what should have been a theatrical blockbuster but ended up a Netflix afterthought, thanks to the pandemic. 

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation makes excellent use of high dynamic range, with the color gradations exhibiting a smoothness you wouldn’t have seen in streaming just a few short years ago.

 

SOUND     

If you like your Atmos mixes intense and all over the place, you’ll dig this one.

many of the techniques developed for Spider-Verse employed here in new and creative ways.

 

On the other hand, Rianda and Rowe bring such a genuinely awkward and eccentric energy to The Mitchells vs. the Machines that it would be difficult to confuse it with your typical Lord and Miller production. 

 

The story revolves around a family of misfits who find themselves pressganged into saving the world after a Silicon Valley entrepreneur unwittingly unleashes the robot apocalypse in the process of attempting to give physical form to his AI digital assistant, cheekily named PAL. We’re told from the get-go that the Mitchells are dysfunctional weirdos, but the thing that makes the movie really work is that they aren’t. Not really. They’re just a normal family, with a normal family dynamic and normal family problems. What makes them seem like complete oddballs, especially in their own eyes, is the contrast between their real personalities and the illusion of homogenized perfection constantly shoved down their throats by social media.

 

And by the way, I should pause for a second and point out that if you’re expecting subtle social commentary here, you’re barking up the wrong animated tree. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an overt parable about the current state of society and the damage we’re doing to ourselves by submitting to the tyranny of corporate-sponsored groupthink. Sometimes the dialogue gets a little too on-the-nose in broadcasting this message, but that’s honestly one of the film’s few significant flaws. 

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, as did I, that there’s a gross irony in the fact that this technological wonder of a film, produced by one corporate giant and now distributed by another, has the cajones to touch on the pitfalls of technology and the dangers of corporate greed. But grappling with this issue is one of the few subtle points made by The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The message of the film isn’t that technology is bad in and of itself, that corporations are an inherent threat. Instead, what the story is trying to show us is that our relationship with technology is unhealthy, and that our submission to corporatocracy is, by and large, the product of laziness and FOMO. 

 

Lest you think this is more a sermon than an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, The Mitchells vs. the Machines wraps this message up in a thrill-a-minute action spectacle that’s also quite hilarious. The jokes don’t always land with equal 

effectiveness, mind you—the film is far more effective when it’s blazing its own trail, and falters a bit when it leans on established tropes—but you’re guaranteed to guffaw at least once.

 

I have a few other nits to pick. While the characters are, by and large, well-rounded, the story does lean into the clueless-dad cliché a little too hard. There’s a narrative reason for that, but it still could have been handled a bit better. The decision to make the 

youngest Mitchell child a dinosaur-obsessed boy also seems lazy, and the choice to have the child voiced by Rianda was a puzzling one. In a movie packed with such believable characters (believable in the context of this weird narrative, at least), little Aaron’s blatantly adult voice drew me out of the experience unnecessarily.

 

The rest of the voice casting is spot on, though, especially Maya Rudolph as the Mitchell matriarch and Fred Armisen as one of the damaged robots that becomes part of the family. 

 

Thankfully, those voices don’t get buried in the hyper-aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This mix was a bit much for me, so much so that I had to pause the film and downgrade to a basic 5.1 option. But if you like your Atmos mixes intense and all over the place, I think you’ll dig this one quite a bit. Just one word of warning: This one is delivered at reference levels, so be sure to turn the volume of your receiver or preamp up a bit higher than you normally would for Netflix content, especially if you want to appreciate the richness and dynamics of the mix.

 

You’ll also want to watch The Mitchells vs. the Machines on the biggest and best screen available to you. The Dolby Vision presentation makes excellent use of the high dynamic range format, not only at the upper end of the value scale but also in the shadows. There’s plenty of breathing room in the image, from the darkest blacks to the brightest highlights, and although its palette is often relatively muted, the color gradations still exhibit the sort of smoothness you wouldn’t have really seen in the streaming domain just a few short years ago. 

 

You might spot a few video artifacts here and there, especially in the closing credits. But best I can tell, these glitches were intentionally baked into the image during its production in an attempt to evoke the DIY filmmaking talents of Katie, the eldest Mitchell child, and they don’t seem to be a consequence of Netflix’ high-efficiency encoding.

 

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the movie, though, is that it’s legitimate family fare. I know that’s generally used as a euphemism for children’s entertainment, but in this case, the label deserves to be taken at face value. There’s a lot of dessert here to keep the young ones in your family engaged (if you have them), but there’s also enough meat to appeal to audiences of all ages. It may not be the height of profundity, and it’s a little uneven in its execution, but the good far outweighs the bad here. And that alone elevates The Mitchells vs. the Machines way above the baseline for kid-appropriate movies distributed by Netflix.

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: Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

If you cut your teeth on the sort of high-concept action movies Renny Harlin and Jan de Bont used to crank out in the ’90s and you miss that style of picture, oh boy, do I have some good news for you. Those Who Wish Me Dead—available now on HBO Max for a limited time, synced with its theatrical run—is like a full-blown nostalgia bomb that plays by all of the same rules as “classics” like Dante’s Peak, Daylight, Twister, etc. 

 

To even begin to attempt to recount the plot would make me sound like a raving lunatic, but in short: The story revolves around a pair of assassins hired to kill anyone who knows anything about some sort of conspiracy or another involving all manner of government officials and law enforcement. The two are hot on the trail of a forensic accountant who uncovered the 

conspiracy, who’s on the run with his son and attempting to find refuge with family members in Montana—respectively, a sheriff’s deputy and a proprietor of a wilderness survival school. And then there’s Angelina Jolie as a wildland firefighter who’s seen some stuff, man. I’m not even going to bother trying to tell you how she factors into all of this. 

 

As you might imagine from all of the above, the script is a hot mess that manages to be simultaneously nonsensical and wholly predicable, which is quite the feat. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Koryta, who shares screenplay credit, the plot is a rapid-fire succession of improbable (bordering on impossible) coincidences that quickly become easy to suss out if you simply ask yourself, “What’s the absolute laziest path from this plot point to the inevitable action-packed conclusion?”

 

That’s not to say that Those Who Wish Me Dead is bad for what it is. It’s perfectly average, in fact. It’s fine, really. I’m not asking for the last 100 minutes of my life back or

WISH ME DEAD AT A GLANCE

This throwback actioner provides 100 minutes of mindless entertainment that, with a little more effort from the filmmakers, could have resulted in something a lot more fun. 

 

PICTURE
Fine detail abounds in HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation, providing reference-quality home theater demo material that’s gorgeous to look at.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio delivers, with strong & dynamic low-frequency effects, hyperactive surrounds, and dialogue that’s never buried in the dense mix.

anything, but if I had shelled out $25 for movie tickets and another $25 for a bag of popcorn and two bottles of water, I might feel differently.

 

But, hey, if the screenwriters (and there were plenty of them) had spent a little more time making the banal one-liners just a weensy bit cheesier, they could have had an OK mindless diversion on their hands here. The cast is pretty good, especially Jon Bernthal, who stars as the deputy who gets tied up in this mess from two different directions. Jolie also turns in a solid performance, even if she would need about thirty pounds of prosthetics to be truly believable in the role. 

 

The action is solid (although a bit sparser than you might imagine), the cinematography is better than it has any right to be, and the special effects are absolutely incredible. So if this sort of action flick is your jam, sure. Check it out. Or not. Whatever.

 

I’ll say this, though: HBO Max’s presentation is further evidence of just how good streaming has gotten in recent years. On Roku Ultra, at least, the Dolby Vision presentation is absolutely reference-quality home theater demo material. What flaws there are in the imagery can’t be pinned on the high-efficiency streaming encode, at any rate.

 

Shot on a variety of Arri cameras in ArriRaw format in a mix of 3.4K and 5K, the movie was finished in a 4K digital intermediate (kind of surprising, actually, given the amount of digital wizardry in the third act). As you might expect, fine detail abounds, and although I could take issue with the fact that the color palette has been dialed to extremes of warmth even when it doesn’t need to be, it’s still gorgeous to look at. 

 

The expanded dynamic range is used mostly to up the brightness during inferno sequences, or in dark scenes punctuated by very bright lights, and it’s effectively employed. I do wish there were a bit more wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale, since contrasts have been cranked almost to the point of black crush. But that seems to be the look cinematographer Ben Richardson (Mare of Easttown, Yellowstone) was going for, and far be it from me to tell him he’s wrong, because there’s a lot of truly breathtaking imagery on display here, and it’s all captured quite competently.

 

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 only—sorry, Atmos fans—but it does the job of delivering a by-the-numbers action-movie mix quite well. Low-frequency effects are strong and dynamic, the surrounds are hyperactive (although, oddly, never distracting), and dialogue is never buried in the dense mix.

 

In short, if you’re looking to disconnect your brain for an hour and forty minutes and you’re looking for a throwback-style action movie to work the fans in your projector and amps half to death, Those Who Wish Me Dead might be worth your time. It isn’t worth your money, though, so if you don’t catch it on HBO Max before June 13, wait for it to come back around in a few months.

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: The Martian

The Martian (2015)

My daughter’s final project for her eighth-grade Honors English class was to do a nine-page research paper on a subject of her choosing, and she chose, “Why we should attempt to colonize Mars and what it would take to do so.” As a reward for her completion—and 98% grade—we decided to let her watch The Martian, available on 4K Blu-ray disc and for full-resolution download from Kaleidescape. 

 

When you hear the name Ridley Scott in the same sentence as “science fiction,” you likely think about films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus, but The Martian is definitely not your typical Ridley Scott glimpse into the future. In fact, I’d call it far more science fact than science fiction as much of the science, technology, and solutions shown in the film are not only 

plausible but were praised as believable from NASA as well as the world’s most famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

 

Besides the engrossing story—which easily holds your interest for its entire 144-minute runtime—The Martian is powered by an incredible array of big-name talent. Besides lead/stranded astronaut Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, you get the rest of his crew aboard the Hermes, including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie, along with NASA and JPL ground support, which includes Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, and Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover. Seriously, this is about the single biggest star-studded film I can think of, with major talent in every role. What that means is that you get real performances from every part.

 

Also, unusual for a Scott film is the amount of humor 

THE MARTIAN AT A GLANCE

This Matt Damon-centric exercise in alien-world problem-solving shows surprising humor for a Ridley Scott film and features reference-quality video in the 4K HDR download. 

 

PICTURE
Although the transfer is taken from a 2K DI, images have incredible focus, depth, and dimensionality, almost having a 3D quality.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is so incredibly immersive and active it’s worth the purchase price on its own.

throughout. Damon spends the vast majority of the film alone, and much of his performance is communicating information to viewers through recorded messages that are laced with smart humor, including lines like “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m only faced with one option. I’m going to have to science the sh— out of this.” There is also an appropriate amount of nerd refs sprinkled throughout that will appeal to many.

 

Based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is all about problem solving—essentially finding out how to complete a virtually impossible series of tasks in order to get from A to Z to survive. But each task and action involves doing things where you could literally die at any moment if a single thing goes wrong out of hundreds of things that could potentially go wrong. As Watney says, “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the hab breaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”

 

I’m a Damon fan, and I think it’s his charisma and likability that help propel and make the story so interesting. You can’t help but root for Watney as he just continually works through problems, persevering and surviving regardless of the odds. Similar to how Tom Hanks carried Castaway, Damon holds this movie on his shoulders, and does a damn fine job of it. 

 

As packed with science and technology as the film is, the plot is simple. In the opening moments, a group of astronauts is hit by a sudden, violent wind storm on Mars which threatens to tip their launch vehicle. When returning to the ship, Watney is impaled by an antenna, which severs his suit’s bio-monitor equipment, leaving the remainder of the crew to think him dead. In order to save the ship—and remainder of the crew—Commander Lewis (Chastain) orders the ship to launch. 

 

After Watney awakens, he takes an inventory of food and supplies where he discovers he has enough food for approximately 400 sols, meaning he needs to figure out a way to grow three years’ worth in order to survive the nearly four years until the next scheduled Mars landing. 

 

The movie moves forward following parallel stories of Watney figuring out how to survive along with attempting to re-establish contact, NASA and JPL crews on the ground tracking his progress and figuring out how they can attempt to save him, and the crew aboard the Hermes dealing with the fact that they left a teammate behind. Along the way, there is plenty of drama and tension in the form of the various setbacks and near-death experiences Watney faces, along with his ingenious problem-solving skills.

 

While shot in a combination of 4K and 6K resolutions, the home video transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, which honestly surprised me a bit because the picture quality is so fantastic, sharp, and full of detail throughout that I was all but positive it was a 4K DI. This is a case where the numbers don’t tell the story, and I found the video quality from the Kaleidescape 4K HDR download to be reference quality. 

 

Images have incredible focus, depth, and dimensionality, almost having a 3D quality, and looked fantastic on my 115-inch screen via a JVC NX7 projector. Beyond that, they are so incredibly clean, with razor-sharp edges, they have an almost glossy quality in parts. Throughout, I was impressed by the gorgeous visuals, allowing you to revel in every pixel of detail 

and texture, such as the minute details in the design and construction of the astronauts’ suits, where you can see the stitching, webbing, and layers of detail.

 

The color palette shifts between the distinct look on Mars—dusty reds and oranges; the Hermes—modern and sleek whites and blacks of space; and Earth. The resolution and HDR really help the many computer screens aboard the Hermes and NASA to pop, with the detail being so sharp you can read the tiny text on monitors in mission control. You also get bright gleaming ships and the pop of spacesuits against the black of space, or the bright pops of searchlights, along with nice deep shadows and detail. Further, the wider color gamut offered by HDR creates deeply saturated, punchy, and lifelike images.

 

Even more exciting is the Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which is incredibly immersive and active, and worth the purchase price on its own. Whether it is big, dynamic moments like the sounds of dust and debris pelting you during a Martian wind storm, the groans and creaks inside Watney’s hab as it rocks in the storm, the in-rush of air during pressurization, or a multitude of little mechanical noises in ships, the sound mix constantly places you in the action. Even in scenes at NASA or JPL, you can hear the sound of jets or helicopters flying off in the distance. I’d previously watched The Martian at home on its original Blu-ray release, which did

The Martian (2015)

not include the Atmos audio mix, and have to say that as good as that was, the Atmos audio steps things up a notch.

 

There aren’t a lot of moments where deep bass is called on, but there are a few such as the opening storm and the rocket launch where you get some nice tactile bass you can feel in your seat. Dialogue is the most important sound element in the film, and it is well presented and intelligible throughout.

 

I love The Martian and can’t recommend it enough. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s an absolute no-brainer. And if you have seen it, but never at home in 4K HDR with Atmos, it’s definitely worth revisiting as the film looks and sounds fantastic, has a compelling story, and boasts an incredible cast. This is one of those films I love having in my collection as it is a perfect go-to when visitors come over and I am looking for something to watch with a group. 

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: Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Before we get too deep into discussing Saturday Night Fever, I should probably admit to a few substantial biases right up front. I like disco. Unironically. And although it was uncool to admit this the last time I cared about being cool, I absolutely love the Bee Gees. 

 

I’ve never really cared for John Travolta, though, outside of his excellent performances in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. And that’s probably 90% of the reason I’ve never seen this 1977 disco classic, aside from a quick scan of a rented VHS tape back 

in the early ’90s, which I fast-forwarded my way through in search of inspiration for a ‘70s-themed party I was roped into attending.

 

Do what you will with the information above when I tell you that watching Saturday Night Fever in 2021, as someone who didn’t develop affection for the film during his formative years, was an uneven slog. 

 

On the one hand, you have Travolta’s performance, which—even as a non-fan—I have to admit is captivating. There’s something so utterly and effortlessly hypnotic about his turn as Tony Manero, a virtually prospectless 19-year-old kid who works in a paint shop by day and finds the only legitimate escape from his mundane life on the dance floors of a local discotheque by night. 

 

There’s also the incredible soundtrack, which is packed with classics like “Boogie Shoes,” “Night on Disco Mountain,” “If I

FEVER AT A GLANCE

The film itself creaks loudly, but Travolta is still captivating and the Brothers Gibb still shine brightly in this definitive disco wayback experience. 

 

PICTURE
A model of how an older, filmed-based movie should be transferred to 4K HDR. The original visuals aren’t spectacular, but they’re presented faithfully and effectively.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix updates the original audio elements for modern sound systems while staying true to the ’70s vibe.

Can’t Have You,” and of course the big four from the Bee Gees: “More Than a Woman,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and the ever-popular “Stayin’ Alive.”

 

And then, well . . . there’s everything else. While there’s a legitimate attempt here to ape the zeitgeist of the era and deliver a gritty slice-of-life drama, the results are almost all style and no substance. The screenplay simply bites off more than anyone involved (other than Travolta) is capable of chewing. In the hands of a better director, a more capable cinematographer, and an editor with a backbone, it could have been decent. Perhaps the film’s biggest sin is that it’s meandering and unfocused, with far too many subplots that do nothing in particular to counter its overall thematic or narrative inertia. And that would be fine if literally anyone in the supporting cast rose to Travolta’s level, but the rest of the performances are laughably bad—save perhaps Martin Shakar’s turn as Tony’s brother. 

 

And look, if Saturday Night Fever is your jam, I’m not here to yuck your yum. I’m glad there’s something in life that brings you joy. I’ve also got some really good news for you: The new UHD HDR release of the film is a model for how these sorts of remasters/restorations should be handled. On Kaleidescape at least, this new presentation looks like really well-preserved 35mm film—no more, no less. There’s an incredible amount of detail on the screen, especially in closeups, combined with a healthy (though never distracting) level of wholly organic film grain that varies based on the film stock used from scene to scene. In brighter environments, the grain is fine and all but unnoticeable. In nighttime scenes and interiors shots of the discotheque, grain is a bit more prominent but never out of line with expectations.

 

The dance-floor scenes are also, unsurprisingly, where the high dynamic range of this new transfer shines. In a handful of shots, the disco balls and lighting are eye-reactive. But aside from that, HDR is applied judiciously to give the image a bit of much-needed dimensionality and add some subtle enhancements to the predominately warm color palette. In so many ways, this new presentation of Saturday Night Fever is a cinephile’s dream. 

 

It’s not reference-quality home cinema demo material, mind you, but that’s more due to flaws in the source than anything with the restoration or transfer. The original camera negative is plagued by rampant halation, which is, of course, preserved here. There’s also the fact that, aside from the dance sequences and the last few minutes of the film, the composition of any given shot would have been more interesting if director of photography Ralf Bode (Uncle Buck, Made in America) had simply closed his eyes and pointed his camera at the loudest sound he could hear. 

 

But none of that has any bearing on the quality of the transfer, which is the platonic ideal of how you should handle source material like this. The wacky manipulation of contrast levels, digital scrubbing, and edge enhancement that plague far too many 4K restorations of films of this era are nowhere to be seen. This should be celebrated, and Paramount deserves props

for handling the original negative with such care.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also a wonderful example of how material like this should be remixed for modern sound systems. Simply put, it’s an absolute blast from beginning to end. If you’re particularly bothered by the mismatch in fidelity that comes from marrying low-fidelity audio stems from the ’70s with pristine, high-fidelity music, you’ll likely notice a bit of that here. But it’s never distracting; it never pulls you out of the experience of the film.

 

Had my fingers been the ones fiddling with the mixing knobs, I probably would have turned in a subtler surround sound mix for the music. But I think I would have been wrong. The disco tunes—as well as the score music by Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb—explode from every corner of the room and, of course, gave my subwoofers a proper beating. There was one brief instance, during the last appearance of “More Than a Woman,” where I thought the mix leaned a little too hard on the surround channels, and as a result pushed the vocals down in the mix. But that’s my one and only criticism. Other than that, the surround sound mix is a hoot and a half. I only wish there was a music-only soundtrack option.

 

Speaking of which, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is unfortunately devoid of 

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

extras, but that’s hardly surprising. In the digital domain, the only provider to include all of the goodies from the 40th-anniversary Blu-ray release a few years ago is Apple. So if you’re itching to see retrospective documentaries, hear John Badham’s audio commentary, or check out the director’s cut—which adds four minutes to the runtime and isn’t available in 4K, as far as I can tell—your options are limited.

 

But if you’re just itching to revisit the film again in top-shelf quality, Kaleidescape’s download is everything you could hope for in terms of audiovisual presentation.

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: Oxygen

Oxygen (2021)

It nearly beggars belief that Netflix’ Oxygen wasn’t developed entirely in the COVID-19 era. It is, after all, exactly the sort of science-fiction thriller you would expect to spring from this moment: Small, constricted, with a limited cast, restricted scenery, and a strong thematic undercurrent of fear, isolation, and uncertainty. 

 

It wasn’t until I finished watching the film, though, and went digging for a bit of background information that I realized this is a project I’ve been following for a while now. Based on a 2016 script by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen was originally supposed to be an Anne Hathaway film by the name of O2. After Hathaway left the project, it dropped off my radar. But sometime after that, Noomi Rapace stepped in to fill her shoes, only to depart the project and open the door for Mélanie Laurent to star as the film

transitioned from Hollywood vehicle to independent French/American picture distributed by Netflix.

 

Laurent stars as a character initially known only as “Omicron 267,” a medical patient of some sort who wakes up in a casket-like cryochamber with no memory of who she is, why she’s there, or what’s going on. To say that she carries the film would be an understatement. For the most part, hers is the only face we see onscreen, aside from some intermittent flashbacks. The only other major character is MILO (Medical Interface Liaison Operator), an Alexa-like A.I. digital voice assistant that operates the cryochamber and quickly informs Omicron 267, upon her waking, that her oxygen is limited and depleting rapidly.

 

This makes for a tense and interesting twist on both the ticking-clock and buried-alive story tropes, and for the most part the film plays out in real time, as Omicron 267—who eventually recovers memories of a former life as a

OXYGEN AT A GLANCE

This sci-fi take on the ticking-clock and buried-alive tropes keeps you locked in a high-tech coffin with a single actor for 100 minutes. 

 

PICTURE
The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used to good effect in Netflix’ virtually artifact-free presentation.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack keeps things interesting by using the side and height channels to introduce some sonic variety into the character’s sealed world.

cryogenic doctor named Elizabeth Hansen—attempts to call for help and, when that fails, tries to find her own way out of this high-tech coffin while also piecing together and making sense of her fragmented recollections.

 

There are some interesting and surprising narrative twists along the way, but none of them would work if not for the Laurent’s exceptional acting prowess. Without being able to move much more than her head and arms, she delivers the sort of performance most actors must dream of being able to turn in. Credit is also due to Mathieu Amalric, who gives MILO’s voice the sort of depth and nuance you wouldn’t expect from a digital assistant. In some ways, his performance recalls Douglas Rain’s turn as HAL 9000, but while Rain had the unenviable task of playing a sinister artificial intelligence, Amalric infuses MILO with the sort of ambiguity that leaves you guessing as to whether or not he’s being intentionally infuriating.

 

In those scenes where Liz struggles to stumble upon the syntactic commands that will invoke the response she’s hoping for from MILO, for example, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the arguments my wife has with Alexa as she fumbles for the exact combination of words that will result in an adjustment to the thermostat controls, or music playback in the back of the house but not the front, or the dimming of some little-used light in one corner of the house or another. 

 

It’s Liz’s interactions with MILO that make Oxygen legitimate science-fiction, though, rather than merely a high-tech, futuristic thriller, as the film has something interesting to say about our increasing reliance on A.I. and the pitfalls associated with anthropomorphizing these highly intelligent but unthinking virtual automata.

 

The other thing that keeps Oxygen consistently engaging is its cinematography and sound design. There are only so many angles from which you can photograph someone inside a box so small as to restrict its occupant entirely to a supine position, but director Alexandre Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre make it work. In many shots, the camera clings so closely to Laurent’s face that her cheeks are in focus while her nose starts to bleed into the background bokeh, which couldn’t have made the film’s transfer easy to encode. Thankfully, Netflix’s presentation remains virtually artifact-free.

 

The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used here to good effect, especially in rendering the various screens, readouts, and synthetic surfaces that litter Liz’s electronic coffin with high specular intensity without over- or under-doing the shadows. And all aspects of the image that are in focus at any given time are delivered with exceptional detail and sharpness. 

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also keeps things interesting by injecting MILO’s voice and the occasional phone call coming into the cryochamber into the surrounds and height channels. Normally, this sort of gee-whiz sound mixing would irritate or distract me, but it works here, mostly because it reinforces the notion that MILO serves dual functions—as a character on the one hand, but a mere function of the environment on the other. 

 

My only real beef with Netflix’ delivery of the sound is that the service defaults to the English dub, which leaves much to be desired. The voice actors chosen to replace Laurent and Amalric as Liz and MILO match neither the intensity nor the nuance of the original performances and drag the quality of the production’s down at least a letter grade and a binary operator suffix. 

 

Mind you, Oxygen isn’t a perfect film even in the original French. At 100 minutes long, it tiptoes right up to the edge of overstaying its welcome and could have stood to lose about 15 or 20 minutes in the editing room, even at the risk of further undermining the film’s nigh-real-time conceit. But Laurent’s performance in particular, combined with the interesting concept and fascinating visuals, make it a worthwhile film despite its flaws. 

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: The Sting

The Sting (1973)

I was three when The Sting was originally released theatrically, and I can’t recall how old I was when I first saw it, but it was one of those films that was just love at first sight for me. The story, the acting, the twists, the dialogue, the style, the chemistry . . . it was unlike anything else I’d seen at the time, and I still feel I get a bit more out of it on each viewing. So I couldn’t have been more excited when I heard that Universal gave it a 4K HDR restoration for its almost-50th anniversary! (You might recall that The Sting was on my 4K HDR Wishlist, so I’m thrilled we can cross this one off!) While you can pick up the 4K Blu-ray disc when it’s released on May 18, the film is available for download in full quality now from Kaleidescape. 

 

I’m sure there are more apt comparisons, but The Sting reminds me a bit of The Usual Suspects and The Game in that you really need to pay attention to what is being said and what is happening on screen. While the twists might not be as

elaborate and complex as those in modern films, there are still enough curveballs that paying close attention pays off, especially the snappy dialogue, which features a lot of gangster and grifter colloquialisms.

 

Another thing that comes to mind with The Sting is the classic Hollywood saying, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Of course, the chemistry and back-and-forth between Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff) and Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker) is what really drives the film, re-teaming them with director George Roy Hill following their successful outing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, but there are no throwaway performances here. While there are lots of bit parts, everyone really digs in to give the most of their performance, specifically Ray Walston as J.J. Singleton, Harold Gould as Kid Twist, and Dana Elcar as FBI Agent Polk. Robert Shaw is also fantastic as crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (“You’re gonna remember that name, you

THE STING AT A GLANCE

The classic Redford/Newman con-man flick gets a 4K HDR upgrade, with somewhat mixed results. 

 

PICTURE
Once you get past the unacceptably soft opening, UHD helps improve the presentation, although inconsistently.

 

SOUND     

Derived from the original mono soundtrack, the DTS-HD 5.1 mix is pretty center-channel heavy but that’s OK since this film is all about the snappy dialogue.

follow?”), giving small glimpses into the character that will be Quint in Jaws in just a couple of years.

 

The film opens with a small team of grifters led by Hooker pulling a fast-con on an unsuspecting victim. Unfortunately for Hooker, they con the guy out of $11,000 he was carrying for crime boss Lonnegan, a guy who is known for taking petty revenge. When Lonnegan has one of Hooker’s partners killed, Hooker looks to get even and pull off a big con on Lonnegan. For this he seeks the aid of Gondorff, a once-great con man who is now on the lam hiding from the FBI. Hooker convinces Gondorff to join him, and together they put together a team of con artists to help them execute the elaborate con. But unlike small-time cons, Gondorff says, “You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him . . . a guy who’d kill a grifter over a chunk of money wouldn’t support him for two days.”

 

The plot and con are elaborate but easy enough to follow, and believable enough that it could work, requiring skill, timing, guts, and a group of guys to pull off. And even though the film is 129 minutes, the time zips by, with cons-in-cons happening in the film’s subplots that will keep a new viewer guessing up till the end credits roll.

 

Originally filmed on 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, with a DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix from the original mono soundtrack that appears to be the same as was included with the 2012 Blu-ray release. 

 

Take note: The film’s opening minutes do not look good. In fact, they are a messy, overly grainy soft mush that had me actually check my system to see if I had accidentally selected play on the DVD version of the film. It was just about the time that disappointment was turning to anger that the image quality snapped to life and things started looking markedly better. I can’t offer any explanation for the poor quality of the opening but will just say persevere through the first couple of minutes and things definitely get better.

 

Even still, I found that image quality was a bit inconsistent throughout. There would be moments when a closeup would reveal startling sharpness, detail, and clarity, but then other shots would be soft, lacking focus or real detail. This is, unfortunately, the reality when dealing with film elements nearly 50 years old but even still, this will be the best you’ve seen The Sting look and it is still certainly worth the upgrade.

 

At its best, the detail can be startling, letting you really appreciate Edith Head’s Oscar-winning costuming, with rich, thick fabrics and fine details and patterns. There is a scene right before the big card game on the train where Redford is wearing a navy suit with pinpoint dots and Newman is in a plaid that really looks sharp. 

 

The film has a very period style and look to it—with hand-drawn title cards introducing each act of the con—with a lot of browns and earth tones in the color palette. But there are some nice pops of color, such as the bright reds, yellows, and blues outside the merry-go-round where Gondorff is holed up or the garish reds of a gentleman’s club. The HDR grading is pretty mild here, though we do get some nice pop from light bulbs in an elevator shaft, or from crisp white tuxedo shirts. However, HDR does help to deliver nice shadow detail and depth throughout, giving the images a more realistic look. I found the

black levels to be nice and dark, and mostly noise-free, with some film grain apparent throughout, but rarely objectionable (well, once you get past the opening).

 

As mentioned, this release doesn’t get a new audio mix but, remembering that the original audio was mono, the 5.1-channel sound—with the vast majority kept across the front channels—is fine for servicing the story, keeping dialogue clean and clear and locked into the center channel.

 

One thing I notice with these higher-resolution remixes of older films is that Foley sounds—such as footsteps running—are far more noticeable. We do get a bit of ambience that pushes the sound out beyond the center channel in the form of some street sounds, and some rumble from a couple of trains passing by outside (and seemingly overhead and all-around thanks to my processor’s upmixer). Marvin Hamlisch’s Academy Award-winning score based on Scott Joplin’s ragtime also gets some room to stretch out across the front channels, particularly in a montage where they are getting ready to gather their crew, which is mostly silent save for the musical score.

 

Having received 10 Academy Awards nominations (including a Best Actor for 

The Sting (1973)

Robert Redford, who lost to Jack Lemmon for his role in Save the Tiger) and pulling seven wins including Picture, Director (Hill), Original Screenplay (David S. Ward), Set Decoration, Costume Design (Edith Head), Editing, and Music, The Sting is a classic of American cinema. And with Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience scores of 94 and 95% respectively, it still holds up.

 

Aside from a couple of uses of the N word, which are a bit jarring for modern viewers (the film is set in Chicago in the ‘30s), this is something that can be enjoyed as a family. (My 14-year-old daughter watched it for the first time and loved it.) Whether you’ve never seen it, or have enjoyed it dozens of times, The Sting has never looked better, and is a wonderful film that belongs in every collection.

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: Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (2021)

Beginnings definitely aren’t Dave Filoni’s strong suit. As much as I’ve raved about his efforts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that show took at least a season to find its footing. The followup, Rebels, also went through an awkward adolescence before developing into another incredible series—seriously some of the best Star Wars storytelling in the Disney era. 

 

As the architect of the galaxy far, far away in the animated domain, Filoni puts a lot of faith in his audience’s ability to invest in a long game, but the flipside is that we in the audience have to put a lot of faith in him, to trust that things will pay off in the 

end. And they always do, at least so far. What, then, to make of the fact that The Bad Batch, the latest Star Wars series to spin from Filoni’s mind, starts off pretty darned good?

 

Before we dig too deeply into the execution of this new Disney+ series, let’s get some horse-race stuff out of the way for those of you who are interested. The Bad Batch is a direct sequel to The Clone Wars. In fact, the first four episodes of the seventh season of TCW—which aired on Disney+ last year, five years after the show’s original premature cancelation—served as a transparent backdoor pilot for this show, which follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of rogue clones in the earliest days of the Galactic Empire.

 

The first episode overlaps with the final four episodes of The Clone Wars and the third act of Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which is starting to become pretty well-worn territory in the new Star Wars canon. But rather than use 

BAD BATCH AT A GLANCE

This Disney+ followup to Clone Wars and Rebels hits its stride pretty early on for a Star Wars animated series. 

 

PICTURE
The animators take advantage of HDR to extensively explore light and shadow, resulting in one of the best uses of Dolby Vision in a cartoon to date.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack alternates between an intimate center-channel-heavy mix and a more bombastic, surround-channel-friendly affair that puts you right in the middle of the action.

the fall of the Republic, destruction of the Jedi, and rise of the Empire as a denouement or conclusion, the new show uses them as a jumping-off point, which quickly leads into territory that hasn’t been explored in live-action or animation.

 

Not to drop too much geekiness on your screen here but what makes Clone Force 99 (aka The Bad Batch) special is that they’re defective (or “deviant,” in their own words), and as such immune to the programming that causes the Clone Army to become proto-Stormtroopers in the new Empire. Each has a mutation that gives him a special skill but also makes him less controllable. And you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to guess that their uniqueness will eventually put them at odds with the new totalitarian regime. 

 

Neither do you have to be too observant—although perhaps you do need to be of a certain age—to recognize that this Bad Batch shares a lot of similarities with another group of small-screen anti-heroes, The A-Team, as well as big-screen misfits like The Dirty Dozen.

 

In the two episodes that have aired thus far—the 75-minute “Aftermath” and the 30-minute “Cut and Run”—we don’t really get a sense of what if any role this unruly team will serve in the impending rebellion. In fact, we don’t really get much of a sense of what the show’s formula will be, aside from the “formed family on the run from the Man” trope already explored in Rebels. 

 

But that sort of doesn’t matter—at least not yet. The Bad Batch doesn’t stand or fall on a unique premise. What makes the show work already is that it has established a consistent tone and style in just two episodes, something Clone Wars and Rebels fumbled around with for a bit too long. It also seems to already know what it’s about—mainly, the internal tug-of-war that arises from being an iconoclast searching for a purpose and a meaningful role in a society that seems to be falling apart.

 

In terms of its look, the series definitely builds on the foundation of Clone Wars, relying on similar character models and generally following the trend of taking a sort of Gerry Anderson-esque “Supermarionation” vibe and injecting a healthy dose of articulation and fluidity into the animation. 

 

Computing power has, of course, come a long way since Clone Wars first hit screens in 2008, though, and Filoni and his team don’t seem compelled to stick to the style of that series slavishly. The animation in The Bad Batch is much more detailed, and the backgrounds in particular benefit from much more richness, depth, and sophistication. 

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the visuals, though, is the way the imagery benefits from high dynamic range. The Bad Batch was created from the ground up for exhibition on Disney+, not broadcast TV, and as such has much more freedom to use shadows and light in interesting and effective ways. It remains to be seen if it maintains this Botticellian chiaroscuro aesthetic as it moves into new and unexplored environments—and it seems it will—but it already represents among the best application of Dolby Vision in animation to date. 

 

Big props are also owed to composer Kevin Kiner, who returns to deliver a very different musical landscape from those he developed for Clone Wars and Rebels. With the former series, his music skewed heavily toward a Star Wars prequel-era style, and with the latter he had to at least evoke the music of the original trilogy. With The Bad Batch, though, he has managed to create a new and different musical language that nonetheless feels perfect for the franchise. There’s a mix of traditional and experimental, of orchestral and electronic, that feels like Star Wars without aping John Williams or Ludwig Goransson or even Kiner’s own previous work in this universe. 

 

The sound mixers seem to realize that they have something special to work with in Kiner’s score, because they give it oodles of room to breathe, both spatially and proportionally. At its most intimate, the sound mix is a center-speaker-heavy affair. At its most bombastic, it uses the entire Dolby Atmos soundscape to drop you right into the conflict. For the most part, though, it’s a three-channel, front-heavy mix, with dialogue following the characters from left to right across the screen and Kiner’s music filling the front soundstage, leaking into the surrounds to give it some ambience and an additional sense of space.

 

In short, The Bad Batch is an audiovisual treat of the best kind. And while the series itself hasn’t quite risen to the narrative or thematic heights of its predecessors, it’s off to a consistently entertaining start, which is something that couldn’t be said of Filoni’s previous animated Star Wars adventures. It also seems to be playing things a little safe at the moment, trying too hard at times to recreate the magic of its predecessors. If it can break out of that rut (and knowing Filoni’s past work, I have every reason to suspect that it will), The Bad Batch has the potential to be something truly great. 

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: Nashville

Nashville (1975)

Shot in a city meant to be a not-too-flattering microcosm of the whole of American society on the cusp of the country’s Bicentennial and released during what should have been a celebratory but turned out to be a very flat and bitter, still hung over from the ‘60s, year, everything about Robert Altman’s Nashville screams that this is supposed to be an important film—which is deeply ironic since Altman was rightly known as an iconoclast who openly mocked the idea of important films. And yet he succeeded mightily in creating a movie that was, and remains, important without succumbing to any of the lazy pretentiousness of Oscar fodder.

 

Given all that, Nashville needs to be approached on its own terms; and within the context of the country at the time; and, maybe more importantly, from the vantage of the state of the country today. And that all needs to be done without turning this

review into a scholarly essay.

 

The widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio says this is supposed to be an epic, but any action that approaches the epic is treated ironically, and the framing is mainly deployed—similarly to The Long Goodbye but on a much more ambitious level—to capture intimacy; the chaotic intimacy of people alone in groups, but also of people just alone.

 

Altman saw the country rapidly devolving into individuals encouraged to fetishize their own importance, leading to what the French philosopher Paul Virilio called, awkwardly, totalitarian individualism—an overinflated, ultimately fascist, sense of self that at the end of the day only reinforces how unimportant each individual is. This is probably the strongest through-line in Adam Curtis’s documentaries, that Americans keep confusing narcissistic indulgence with freedom—something corporations are happy to exploit because vanity makes people easy to sell to, and that 

NASHVILLE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman’s intimately epic look at the state of society c. 1976, filtered through the lens of the country-music scene. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR transfer restores much of the subtle vibrancy missing from earlier home-video incarnations but is occasionally a tad saturated.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix doesn’t do much to add separation to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue but does give a nice sense of presence to the frequent performance scenes.

political groups ride just as hard because it creates the illusion of free expression while stifling meaningful dissent in resentment and rage.

 

All of this was just beginning to coalesce at the time Altman made Nashville, with corporations groping toward figuring out how to channel the earnest childishness of the ’60s, guiding it through things like EST, Scientology, Ayn Rand, and Tony Robbins so that when people looked around, all they saw were themselves. Altman got a lot of this right but missed one crucial thing—like a lot of others, he assumed the Carterian malaise would lead to the emergence of a viable third party. What it got us instead was Reagan.

 

Every character in the film reinforces this theme of crippling isolation—and it’s a massive cast—but there’s no redundancy. Instead, each portrait contributes to a mosaic that, when you step back and consider the whole, is devastating. On an emotional level—in a film about the death of emotion—the two key characters are Gwen Welles’ endlessly pathetic Sueleen Gaye and Keith Carradine’s promiscuous troubadour, Tom. Sueleen, hopelessly naive—and dumb—is imperviously optimistic, while the sociopathic Tom exploits the Romantic notion of the wandering minstrel to bed down every woman he encounters. They represented the two poles of American existence at the time, positions that have only become more entrenched, grotesque, and infinitely more dangerous since.

 

Stepping to one side of all the sociopolitical stuff for a second, you have to marvel at the consistency of the performances Altman was able to draw from such a sprawling group of players. It’s almost impossible to single anybody out because everyone gets their standout moments, but it’s worth focusing in particular on Ronee Blakely, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, and the always underrated but strangely compelling Henry Gibson. The weakest link is David Hayward—and it’s not really his fault because he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but Altman’s conception of the lone gunmen was stuck in ‘50s psycho-dramas so he failed to grasp how non-human these emptied-out souls tend to be—ironic since he accurately sensed the same thing in Carradine’s Tom.

 

Nothing in this film is supposed to be beautiful—not in the gauzy Geoffrey Unsworth style admired at the time or the kind of relentlessly smart-ass and ultimately trite compositions we’ve come to idolize since. Like in The Long Goodbye, Altman is going for a deceptive flatness, a grittiness, relying on telephoto lenses so he’s more spying on the characters, having them reveal themselves, than framing them. The “pretty” shots are deliberately vicious, and always tied to Geraldine Chaplin’s clueless documentary for the BBC—the masses of parked school buses turned into a kind of refugee camp and the truly gorgeous in its grunge shot of the crushed and mangled junked cars.

 

That last shot is a good way of judging the quality of the 4K HDR transfer, which for the most part seems faithful to Altman’s visual plan but occasionally wanders off the reservation—especially early in the film, where some of the shots look a little

oversaturated, so traditionally pretty that they border on cartoonish. Not that Altman ever made this easy for anybody, constantly looking for ways to approach the idea of Hollywood movies from the obliquest possible angles, so anyone not completely on his wavelength is inevitably going to make mistakes transferring his work. But the material is compelling enough that you don’t notice the visual stumbles unless you seek them out.

 

Altman was notorious for his overlapping dialogue, which could occasionally lapse into mannerism but works for the most part here. That approach has been so widely adopted since that it really shouldn’t throw anybody coming to the film at this late date. But the 5.1 mix doesn’t seem to do much to improve the separation between the voices. The music is well, but not spectacularly, presented—but that was part of Altman’s point, that feeble, desperate tunes like these are just crap meant to be born off by the wind.

 

I’m probably making Nashville sound heavy and brooding. It’s not. But it’s not exactly light and fluffy either. Altman does a great job of keeping things moving and of creating a pleasant enough surface for people who want their movies to be nothing but bright and shiny distractions. But everything just beneath that surface is troubling, and piercing, and disturbingly prescient. This isn’t the whiny kiddie

Nashville (1975)

darkness of contemporary film. Altman saw how truly dark things were about to become and recorded it all as faithfully as he could. Nashville is a document of a past lost and a future more than earned.

 

I can’t wrap this review up without talking about the ending—not that anything I, or anyone, could say could do it justice. All I can do is point toward it and say that no one has ever presented something this clear-sighted and brutal before or since. Altman managed to perfectly sum up the entire film there—not really narratively, but thematically, aesthetically, and emotionally. It’s all very wry and detached but it had to be because, without that distance, it would be impossible to bear.

 

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Speed

Speed (1994)

There are two movies I can say literally changed my life without any hyperbole. The first was Speed. (The second was Heat, but that story will have to wait for another day, and another review . . .) In 1994, my friend Travis’s dad purchased a modest home theater system from a big-box store. As I recall, it was a JBL package actually comprised of two systems—one called Music that included two speakers and a subwoofer, and one called Movies that included a center channel and rear speakers. Once the system was installed, Travis invited me and another friend—Pierre—over to see a movie. Pierre’s dad happened to own a LaserDisc player and had just purchased Speed on LaserDisc, so that seemed like the perfect actioner for three guys to watch.

 

While I’d certainly seen the Dolby Surround logo plastered on TV shows at the time touting the new-ish home technology (I remember it being prominently displayed during The Simpsons intro), I had never actually experienced a home surround 

system of any kind. And even though it was “just” four-channel Dolby Pro-Logic, I was blown away. From the opening moments of the film, hearing the elevator cables snap and spring behind me, with sounds spread across the front of the room, and explosions that seemed to have real depth, I couldn’t believe you could actually have a movie-like surround experience in your own home. I was enthralled with the movie and couldn’t believe how much the audio elevated it.

 

I left Travis’s house a total home theater convert, knowing I needed something like that of my own. That set me on a journey down the rabbit hole of researching all the different technologies then available (this was right on the cusp of Dolby Digital—or AC-3 as it was known then—being launched on the home market), that ultimately led me to determine I no longer wanted to continue my career as a golf professional but wanted to become a custom installer and install systems like this for a living.

SPEED AT A GLANCE

A breakout film for both Reeves and Bullock, this seminal ’90s actioner receives the 4K HDR treatment. 

 

PICTURE
Images are mostly clean and detailed throughout retaining a film-like look with just a bit of grain visible in some of the outdoor sky scenes or bright lights.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio track is surprisingly effective and aggressive for a 5.1 mix, with deep and dynamic bass.

Pretty powerful for a movie that doesn’t even last two hours that I watched heavily letterboxed on a 32-inch tube TV! 

 

As you can imagine, I have a pretty big soft spot in my heart for Speed, so I was thrilled when I saw that 20th Century Fox was giving it a new 4K UltraHD transfer with HDR grading. Was I mildly disappointed that they chose not to do a Dolby Atmos immersive audio mix for the movie rather than stick with the same 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio that was used on the original Blu-ray? Sure. But I was really impressed with how dynamic and aggressive this mix was, especially when run through a modern theater processor utilizing an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS-Neural.

 

Any time you revisit a beloved film years later, it’s always a bit of a concern that things won’t hold up. Will the effects be dated and unbelievable? Will dialogue be cheesy? Will plot points that were credible 20-plus-years-ago now have gaping holes in them? Happily, Speed still totally holds up, being just as entertaining and engaging now as ever.

 

At the time, Keanu Reeves’ career was certainly on the rise, following major roles in Bill & Ted’s, Point Break, and Dracula. But he wasn’t the action hero we know today from The Matrix and John Wick films, and his role as dauntless SWAT officer Jack Traven definitely had audiences looking at him in a new light that didn’t include any surfer-dude lingo. Even less known was Sandra Bullock, and it’s safe to say her role as sudden hero Annie in Speed turbocharged both of their careers. (Though she does seem remarkably bubbly and cute for someone thrust into the situation of driving a bus to keep people alive that could be blown up at literally any second . . .) The film is also anchored by solid performances from Dennis Hopper as baddie Howard Payne, Joe Morton as police captain McMahon, and Jeff Daniels as Keanu’s partner, Harry. This is also the directorial debut of Jan de Bont, though he had cut his chops as cinematographer on action films like Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, and Lethal Weapon 3, where he developed an eye for pacing and framing. 

 

While it has been called Die Hard-on-a-bus due to its near relentless action, Traven having to overcome one formidable hurdle after another, and Payne always anticipating one step ahead (and, of course, de Bont’s association with Die Hard), the film is different in that it takes its time to get to know the characters around the action, making you more involved in the story. It also jumps straight into the story and action, with none of the lengthy buildup found in Die Hard.

 

After officer Traven and his partner Harry foil a bomber’s attempt at ransoming hostages trapped in an elevator, Payne detonates a bomb on a city bus to get Traven’s attention. He then informs Traven that he has planted another bomb on a different bus that will explode if the bus slows below 50 MPH—or if anyone attempts to leave the bus. Traven must find a way to keep the bus’s speed above 50 MPH in LA traffic until Payne can work out his ransom demands of $3.7 million from the city, all while Harry attempts to uncover and track down the bomber.

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. While there is a bit of grain visible in some of the outdoor sky scenes or bright lights, it was never objectionable. Images are mostly clean and detailed throughout, retaining a film-like look without having detail scrubbed away or looking soft. I did notice that some shots—such as early scenes inside the elevator car—have some focus or softness issues, but this is likely due to the original production. 

 

While you can’t expect the tack-sharp look of a modern digital production, what you do notice is the clarity and sharpness throughout, especially during closeups. There are scenes where it cuts between Payne watching TV broadcasts and closeups of him, and the difference in resolution and detail is startling. Later scenes where they are on the bus at the airport look especially terrific. Beyond revealing all of the lines, wrinkles, and whiskers in actors’ faces, you see detail like the winding in the strands of the elevator cabling, the sheen and texture of metal, and the fabric detail. One early scene of Harry is so 

sharp, you can clearly make out the different texture in the fake sweat used on his face. Longer shots—such as aerial shots when the camera pulls way back to reveal the bus amidst freeway traffic—also don’t have the overall sharp focus of modern cameras, but still look far better than any of the prior releases.

 

The wider color gamut helps things like explosions to really pop with bright red-orange fireballs. We also get some vivid color from red traffic safety cones, orange-white road signs, and yellow painting in the subway. Black levels are sufficiently deep and clean, with a couple of scenes showing police uniforms that actually appeared a bit too dark, not revealing any detail. Bright lighting like fluorescents in the elevator shaft and in the subway have a lot of pop. Overall, color and images look very natural.

 

As mentioned, while Speed didn’t receive a new sound mix, it is surprisingly effective and aggressive, especially when played through a modern AV processor. The opening scene that captured my attention on first viewing all those years ago is still audibly dynamic, now with the twang and tension of elevator cables happening overhead as well as behind, giving much greater sense of height to the space. The sound designers really leaned into every opportunity to create an exciting mix, with the sounds of the bus smashing into objects off to the side, 

Speed (1994)

water from smashed barrels splashing up overhead, traffic and siren sounds all around, or falling debris from explosions. Helicopters pass around the room and up overhead, and the subway finale has lots of sounds streaking up the sides of the room as well as atmospherics up on the ceiling.

 

Bass can be deep and dynamic when called on, such as the elevator smashing into the lobby, or a variety of explosions. Dialogue is anchored to the center channel, and remains clear and intelligible throughout.

 

With most of the film’s visual effects being practical, they definitely still hold up. And, yes, that includes the bus jump and the fact that they did actually blow up that plane. (The subway scene at the finale shows its age a bit, and with the enhanced resolution the model work is more noticeable.) Speed remains a ton of fun to watch, and if you haven’t seen it—or just haven’t watched in a while—this new 4K HDR transfer looks and sounds terrific and makes for a great night at the movies!

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 Flash

The Flash

I like my comic book heroes in red. Since I was a kid (a gentleman never tells, but it was during the Silver Age of Comics), my favorite comics character has been The Flash. I was drawn to him (the Barry Allen Flash—there have been several Flashes in comics lore) because of then-writer John Broome’s explanations of the science behind The Flash’s speed, and his gadgets (like the Flash suit that would pop out of Barry Allen’s ring and expand upon contact with the air), and the weapons the villains used. Even the outlandish stuff had its roots in plausibility, and as a kid, I was fascinated.

 

For those unfamiliar, Barry Allen is a police investigator imbued with the ability to move at incredible speed after a laboratory accident. Taking on the role of superhero The Flash, he devotes himself to fighting crime and other injustices.

 

Historically, the movies and TV haven’t been all that kind to The Fastest Man Alive. (I’ll leave out his various appearances via animation.) The original 1990 TV series starring John Wesley Shipp was more than a little too campy (though Shipp made a 

perfect Barry Allen), and the forced humor made the series feel as if it was embarrassed by itself. While he certainly gave a convincing performance, I found Ezra Miller’s wise-guy turn as The Scarlet Speedster in Justice League to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original character—and make no mistake, icons like The Flash are ingrained into the pop-culture cosmos, and how they’re portrayed matters.

 

The current The Flash CW TV series, now in its seventh season, is much better than any previous small- and big-screen incarnations and in fact is really good, save the occasional moments of dumbness and some clunker episodes. (This season’s “The One With The Nineties” is particularly cringeworthy.) Grant Gustin stars as Barry Allen/The Flash, and brings a winning combination of charm, nerdiness, self-doubt, and enthusiasm to the role. His thin, muscular build is perfect for The Flash, evoking the coiled-spring energy of a whippet. (And man

THE FLASH AT A GLANCE

Now in its seventh season, this series is, if not true to the letter then entertainingly true to the spirit of the original comic.

 

PICTURE
Beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows.

 

SOUND     

The sound effects complement the eye-popping visuals, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore.

is that suit tight—no room for pandemic binge-eating!) Candice Patton is absolutely wonderful as Iris West-Allen, far more than just The Hero’s Love Interest, showing a strength, independence, and intelligence, while also being totally enamored with Barry.

 

The cast has changed over the years, with Tom Cavanagh (particularly delightful in various incarnations of scientist/adventurer Harrison Wells), Carlos Valdes (Cisco Ramon/Vibe, Flash’s friend and conscience and all-around irresistible techno-geek), Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow/Killer Frost), Jesse L. Martin (Joe West, father of Iris and Wally West/Kid Flash) and Danielle Nicolet (Cecile West, Joe’s wife) as the other recurring main characters. Other current Team Flash cast members include Kayla Compton (Allegra Garcia, cub reporter and wielder of electromagnetic energy), Efrat Dor (Eva McCulloch/Mirror Monarch, ruler of an alternate universe), and Brandon McKnight (Chester P. Runk, a goofy young scientist rescued from a failed experiment and rehabilitated by the team).

 

Naturally, Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone. While the series remains largely faithful to the premise and spirit of the comics, purists may bristle at some of the changes. Instead of being struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals in a lab accident, Barry gains his speed via a particle accelerator accident at S.T.A.R. Labs, which also creates other “metahumans”—both heroes like Vibe and King Shark (c’mon, the coolest superhero name ever), and the Rogues Gallery of new and classic Flash villains like the Reverse Flash, Abra Kadabra, The Trickster (played by Mark Hamill!), and Gorilla Grodd. Iris West is black, not the sleek blonde sophisticate of the comics. Joe West is Barry’s foster father, nonexistent in the original comics but which, admittedly, creates a complex dynamic between Barry, Iris, and Joe that the series explores with surprising depth. The Top and Mirror Monarch are women, not men.

 

But many important details are the same—the fictional Central City is still the main locale, and (well, this is important to me) the Flash’s costume is largely faithful to the original, sleek and skin-tight, not like that gawd-awful suit of armor the movie-Flash is burdened with. Then there’s the Speed Force, a crucial element in both the comic and the TV series. (I won’t give any more about that away here.)

 

The actors are all convincing in their roles, and likable, although keep in mind this is a CW series, so the mandatory twentysomething angst is ladled on all-too-thickly at times in all of its trademark CW soap-opera excess. There is much drama with a capital D and contemplation of The Meaning of Life and What It Means to Be a Hero. The recurring theme of The Flash bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders (in one story arc, almost literally) can get tedious at times.

 

With all that said, what really makes The Flash stand out is its heart. It’s far from being a one-dimensional, well, comic book series. It’s got humor and charm without being goofy, and it’s easy to really care about the characters. Over the course of seven seasons (with the seventh still in progress and an eighth on tap), there have been several richly-detailed story arcs with powerful characterizations and plot motivations, along with some genuinely moving moments. (The ending of Season One is devastating.) The love between Barry and Iris, and the affection of the members of Team Flash for each other, is touching, with real emotional depth.

 

But hey, a comic book series is all about escapism. And there’s plenty of it in The Flash. The special effects are literally dazzling. When the Flash runs, he looks terrific, with blurred motion, lightning streaking, and the world dizzyingly whizzing by. The special effects are mostly fantastic, some instances of cheesy CGI notwithstanding. (Was this season’s rendering of Fuerza a pandemic-induced rush job?)

 

The villains are by turn outrageous, disturbing, over the top, fun, self-parodying, or a little of all of that—grab the popcorn and enjoy the ride. The series is beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—you won’t see many claustrophobic, grainy interiors here. It’s a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows. And this being CW, the actors and actresses are . . . not hard to look at. The recurring gag of Cisco getting to name The Flash’s villains is a repeatedly funny schtick. The sound effects really complement the eye-popping visuals and the Sultan of Speed’s fleet-footed flights, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore. Fun stuff!

 

About that humor and pseudo-science: Clearly, the writers aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Some of the explanations for the metahumans’ powers, and how to defeat them, are so preposterous they must be nod-and-a-wink intentional. Whether this makes you chuckle or snort, YMMV. In one scene, Team Flash takes great pains to break into a lab to recover some dark matter, required to power some critically-needed device. After a brief search, they find what they’re looking for in a small suitcase labeled, “Dark Matter—Handle With Care.” Well, duh! But the square, straitlaced Golden Age Barry Allen would never play in today’s world.

 

Here I am, an old guy watching a comic-book character. Unapologetically. And enjoying the heck out of it. Would I think The Flash was a dumb show if I was a child, or teenager, or Gen whatever-er? Who knows? Who cares?

 

If you’re looking to get a break from pandemic world or migraine-inducing cable news or a bad day at the home office, delving into The Flash may be a respite you’ll enjoy. Let the Speed Force be with you.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.