Reviews

Review: Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat (2021)

The pathway from video game to film has been oh-so-tempting for Hollywood over the years. You have a successful, beloved intellectual property with a built-in audience just lying there for the taking. All you have to do is pick it up and run to the bank. (And plan for the inevitable sequels, of course.) But, in reality, this has been a long road lined with sad and often terrible examples of attempts to adapt one form of entertainment for another. 

 

The problem is, a video game generally doesn’t need a lot of premise and backstory—just give it enough to make it an interesting concept and then throw the player into the action and let them know what the end goal is. If the gameplay is good and fun, it will be a success. A movie, however, needs to have an interesting story with well-written dialogue delivered by 

interesting and believable characters. No matter how dazzling the effects or action sequences, if there isn’t enough substance to hold it together and move it along between these big set pieces, it will be a failure.

 

When you talk of video games having—and missing—their game-to-film translation, Mortal Kombat is on the shortlist.

 

I can remember when the first Mortal Kombat game hit arcades in 1992. It was a sensation that looked and played unlike any other game that had been released to that point, with realistic-looking (for the time) human characters that stood toe-to-toe fighting to the death, beating the hell out of each other including visible blood spray. And then, when the fight was over, the winner was allowed to perform a gruesome finishing move on the other player (if they knew 

KOMBAT AT A GLANCE

Finally, an R-rated Kombat film that’s brutally faithful to the game franchise.

 

PICTURE
The experience will depend partly on your streaming device, but images are mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, with some scenes looking soft.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is pretty active and engaging, with lots of video-game-like surround effects.

the right secret button/joystick combination) known as a “Fatality.” People would line up to play and watch, hoping to learn some new special move, or see a new Fatality performed.

 

With each version of the game, it just got bigger—more characters, more weapons, more fighting locations, more hidden Easter Eggs increased, and more violence, especially the fatalities, which ratcheted up in gruesomeness exponentially.

 

After becoming one of the most successful fighting games in history—with rich and deeply developed often interwoven backstories for its multiple characters by creators Ed Boon and John Tobias—it was bound to attract Hollywood’s attention, and in 1995 Warner Brothers gave us the first Mortal Kombat film. (And, yes, I did go to the theater and see it on opening night, thank you very much.) Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this film actually did a pretty good job of bringing the game to the screen, with some elaborate fight scenes, and featuring many of the game’s beloved characters. However, its PG-13 rating hindered it from truly tapping into the game’s spirit. 

 

This was followed up in 1997 with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which was, well, terrible. The effects and acting were dismal, the movie tried to cram in too many characters and introduced a game concept—Animalities—that just fell flat. And with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%, needless to say, critics were not kind.

 

While the Mortal Kombat gaming franchise continued to see regular updates, the failure of Annihilation cooled the film series more than an ice blast from Sub-Zero. 

 

Cut to 2010 and a video supposedly “accidentally” uploaded to YouTube resurrected Hollywood’s interest. Kevin Tancharoen directed and shot Mortal Kombat: Rebirth essentially as a pitch to demonstrate to studios how he envisioned rebooting the franchise. This short film quickly gained viral traction and was the gritty, dark, rooted-in-reality Mortal Kombat that many wanted from an MK film. Warner, however, wasn’t ready to back a film, instead greenlighting Tancharoen to make a generally well received Web series titled Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which lasted two seasons from 2011 to 2013. Tancharoen thought he was in line to make a third Mortal Kombat film, but it never materialized, and he detached his name from the project. 

 

In 2015, the Kombat ball started rolling again, with James Wan of Saw and Insidious fame signing on to produce a reboot. A script was completed in 2019, with filming to be done in South Australia. The film’s release was originally set for a March release, before being moved up to January, and then moved back to April 16, before finally releasing in both theaters and HBO Max on April 23. 

 

As a long-time fan of the franchise, I had been eagerly awaiting this new installment with an R rating that promised to be truer to the game’s violent nature, including Fatalities, especially after the film’s Red Band trailer dropped on February 18, 2021. (Apparently, initial cuts of the film were a little too game-accurate, as it initially bordered on receiving an NC-17 rating and required some edits and trims to get the MPAA to give it an R.) 

 

The film begins fantastically, opening in 17th-century Japan with Lin Kuei ninja assassin Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) leading a group of fighters to confront Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) of the rival Shirai Ryu clan and his family. Fans of the game franchise will know that these two are long-term bitter enemies, but the movie tells you nearly everything you need to know about how these characters feel towards each other in the opening moments, as well as that some characters have superhuman abilities and that the fighting scenes will be fast and brutal. 

 

From here we cut to our time, where we learn that the realm of Outworld—the most brutal and murderous of all the realms—and home of soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is only one death-match tournament away from conquering Earthrealm. The name of these tournaments? Mortal Kombat. Shang Tsung sends his warriors to Earthrealm to find and kill those chosen to be Earth’s champions, people identified by a dragon-mark tattoo.

 

Here on Earth, ex-Special Forces member Jax (Mehcad Brooks) is also searching for these champions, and he finds former MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan). After Young and his family are attacked by Sub-Zero, Jax sends him to see his old teammate, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), where she is keeping another person with the dragon tattoo, smart-mouthed Kano (Josh Lawson).

 

Together this group heads off to the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a protector of Earthrealm, where they meet two other chosen fighters, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), where they begin their fight training with the goal of unlocking their “arcana,” a special unique power given to all chosen fighters, all the while trying to fend off attacks from Shang Tsung’s warriors.

 

Mortal Kombat is a fun, violent (especially the final act), mostly entertaining movie that will likely have the most appeal for fans of the game franchise, who will appreciate the subtle nods to the franchise sprinkled liberally throughout as well as the 15 characters (at least by my count) represented. Many of the cast are trained fighters, and the skill is evident in the fight scenes, which are all cool and brutal and showcase each fighter’s individual skills and talents, with many moves lifted straight from the game. And for those worried the film wouldn’t be able to capture the game’s brutality, rest assured that the numerous fatalities—including Kung Lao’s hat buzzsaw—are well represented. 

 

For me, the opening scene between Sub-Zero and Hasashi in Japan offered some of the best parts of the film, and I wish it could have retained this feeling and spirit throughout, being less a video-game movie and having more an epic feel. I liked that the film took itself seriously, and kept the jokes—mostly limited to quips from Kano that helped lighten the mood—to a minimum. (I always found the Johnny Cage character from the 1995 film to be a little too tongue-in-cheek.) 

 

When the film tried to get deep into the lore of the Mortal Kombat’s mythology, with characters trying to explain things in dialogue that works fine in a video game but becomes complicated or awkward to relate in exposition—or when cutting back to Outworld to insert some plot point—it bogged down a bit, and will likely become less entertaining to non-gamers. Also, the third act felt a bit rushed, like they were in a bit of a hurry to get to the climax and wrap things up. 

 

Shot on Arri at 4.5K, the HBO Max presentation is sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. Of course, when streaming, you’re limited by a variety of factors, so individual streaming experience with vary. I found the images to be mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, but some scenes—especially the opening—had a softness to them. Usually when watching a film sourced from a 4K DI, I notice the enhanced resolution and detail in many shots, but that wasn’t the case here. It isn’t that the film looked bad—it just had the potential to look better, and we’ll have to wait for an eventual 4K Blu-ray or Kaleidescape download to see its full potential.

 

Even still, we get some nice detail in closeups that reveal the scarring and battle-wear on characters’ faces, or to appreciate the texture and craftsmanship in different costumes. The CGI is also quite good, especially the all-digital Prince Goro, who moves and fights with believable realism—well, as believable as any four-armed super-being from Outworld can be. Images are also mostly clean throughout, with just one scene—when Earth’s heroes are transported to an almost all-white void—that was plagued with some digital noise, which could have been compression artifacts introduced from streaming. 

 

Mortal Kombat definitely benefits from HDR, with lots of scenes shot in dark locations—inside buildings, at night, in caves—where we retain good shadow detail while still getting bright, punchy highlights. Scenes like Jax walking around a dark warehouse with a flashlight or the fluorescent lights in Sonya’s trailer all pop. Effects scenes like Lord Raiden’s lightning bolts or the bright-red beam from Kano’s eye laser, the glowing armor on Young’s suit, or fireballs all have lots of vivid colors and detail. 

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is pretty active and engaging. But, as I’ve found with other HBO Max films streamed through my Apple 4KTV, I needed to bump the volume about 10 dB higher than my normal listening level to really experience the dynamics and low end. 

 

From the opening scenes, we get the subtle ambience of forest sounds filling the space, followed by a room-filling thunder- and rainstorm. The speakers are also used effectively to help you locate characters moving around the space, such as Sub-Zero creeping around behind you or Reptile scurrying around the back of the room, through the sides, and up into the ceiling. 

 

The height speakers are also actively used to put you into the moment, such as when Sub-Zero unleashes a snow flurry with chunks of ice hurtling and smashing from the ceiling and down all around the space, or when Raiden puts a protected forcefield around the characters, which you can hear swirling around the room, or when Nitara (Mel Jarnson) flies around the space and screeches overhead. The fight scenes also see much use of all speakers, with characters being slammed up into the ceiling, thrown into the side walls, blades whooshing past overhead, and fire engulfing the space. 

 

As a fan of the franchise, I wasn’t disappointed, and I enjoyed the latest Mortal Kombat reboot. But I also didn’t leave feeling like I’d gotten exactly the movie I really wanted. Fortunately, the end sets the film up for a sequel—and co-writer Greg Russo said he has plans for this to be the first in a trilogy of films—so there will likely be more Kombat in our future. For HBO Max subscribers that can handle a bit of brutality with their fantasy, Mortal Kombat makes for a fun (adult)night at your theater.

John Sciacca

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

Review: Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Many consider Hannah and Her Sisters one of Woody Allen’s best films. Some call it his best. I find it an incredibly uneven affair. It does have undeniably strong sequences, scenes, and moments that represent tremendous growth in Allen’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also has some off-key and sometimes embarrassingly lame elements that keep it from achieving a satisfying balance. And it’s about 20 minutes too long.

 

Allen really hit his stride as an actor’s director here. He’s able to draw effective performances out of a large and diverse cast, ranging from the Studio Era stylings of Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan to the Bergmanesque gravity of Max von Sydow 

to the looser, more indie vibe of Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey—both of whom are exceptional, especially Hershey. Even Carrie Fisher is something other than grating for a change. The one person who can’t seem to find the right groove is Michael Caine, who has his good moments but who seems determined—like Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity) and Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)—to do some kind of Woody impression. It doesn’t work.

 

And then there are Allen’s cringe-worthy efforts to begin dismantling his own persona. I understand that he didn’t want the nuanced version of the Woody character to detract from the more dramatic plot lines and hoped to use his character’s misadventures—mainly his scramble to find a religion he can buy into—as comic relief. But while occasional lines land, his scenes just aren’t funny. Allen always had a pitch-perfect ear for comedy, so he had to have known the bits set at the ersatz SNL were hopelessly

HANNAH AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s most ambitious but uneven films, it does perfectly capture New York in the mid ’80s and features a still impressive performance by Barbara Hershey.

 

PICTURE
Carlo Di Palma’s subtle cinematography needs that slight pop that Blu-ray-quality HD just can’t provide, but is pleasing here nonetheless.

 

SOUND     

Nothing very adventurous happens sonically, which is as it should be.

flat. I remain baffled by what he was going for here, and how he could have so readily abandoned a painstakingly molded character that had not only served him well but had become an unparalleled vehicle for expressing, mocking, and dissecting the age.

 

To return to Barbara Hershey for a moment, films like Boxcar Bertha and The Stunt Man had given her a reputation as something of an indie-film bimbo, so it was heartening to see her get the chance to play a fully fledged, non-objectified character and run with it. Ultimately, this film doesn’t revolve around Farrow’s Hannah or Caine or Allen or Wiest but Hershey, who stands firmly at its emotional core and brings it a substance and energy it might have been lacking if the role had gone to someone else. It’s a great loss for the movies that she never again got to play a part this good.

 

People were pleased but not necessarily surprised when Allen was able to create characters who evoked the world around him in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, but they were shocked to find he could craft well-rounded and not-so-predictable roles like Hershey’s—or 27 years later, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.

 

Like a lot of people, I had assumed the ugliest decade in American culture was the ‘70s, so it was a jolt to be reminded that the ‘80s were actually worse. Most of the characters here look like they got their clothes at the Salvation Army, and there’s an elevated sloppiness to the whole culture that’s, in retrospect, kind of repugnant. Of course, some of this was unique to New York, which was just emerging from its nadir in the mid ‘70s and making the grunginess of midst-of-being-flipped neighborhoods like SoHo chic in an effort to inflate real-estate values. But the scene near the end where Allen comes across Wiest in a Tower Records, with its salmon and teal cutouts, glandular lettering, and Barry Gibb posters, reminded me 

we all would have been better off if the ‘80s had never happened.

 

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma deserves great praise for taking the streets, storefronts, walls, and doorways of the older, decaying New York, the affluent shabbiness of downtown lofts and sprawling Upper West Side apartments, and the carefully cultivated disregard for personal appearance and making it all look beautiful. I doubt any other film has ever better evoked November in New York. This Blu-ray-quality HD download is an acceptable viewing experience, but Di Palma’s shooting style is so subtle that there are moments here that look flat when they should have an understated but distinctive pop.

 

Di Palma is also important because he helped dispel the myth that a lot of Allen’s greatness as a director came from using Gordon Willis as a crutch. By this point, Allen had developed a basal aesthetic and technique he was able to successfully translate from film to film regardless of who was doing the shooting, giving lensers like Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, and Javier Aguirresarobe the latitude to enhance his material without having to prop it up.

 

This is the film where Allen began to be accused of what was called at the time yuppie porn. There’s some justification for that because Hannah did help lay the 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

groundwork for more unfortunate later works like Match Point. But the greater sin on display here could be called “assimilation porn,” which he paid a disproportionately high price for in the anti-Semitic backlash to his custody trial, when the seemingly hip but inherently conservative New York and Hollywood elites he showcased so well turned on him so viciously.

 

While it’s not possible to put Hannah and Her Sisters in the highest tier of Allen’s work, that’s not to say it can’t be a gratifying experience. Most of the characters are well crafted, most of the performances click, most of the presentation was satisfying, and he almost perfectly captured New York at that moment in time. Only Allen’s uncertainty about what to do with his own persona keeps it from coming together into a more fulfilling whole.

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: Better Days

Better Days

Derek Tsang’s Better Daysan Oscar nominee for International Feature Film—is a frustrating movie that’s worth the frustration. Its imperfections don’t keep it from being a powerful and moving story and its convolutions aren’t wholly justified, but if tasked with trimming it down a bit, I’m not sure what I would cut. It’s also plagued by issues forced upon the filmmaker by the Chinese government. But before we dig into all of that, let’s talk about what makes it unique and beautiful nonetheless.

 

Adapted from the novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days is the story of Chen Nian, a gifted young woman preparing for her college entrance exams while also suffering horrific treatment at the hands of bullies. That makes it all 

sound a bit trite, but there’s no way to convey in a few sentences how horrible the bullying on display here truly is. Think Lord of the Flies on steroids, just in an urban environment.

 

Shortly thereafter, Nian attempts to report the beating of a street thug and gets drawn into his life after nearly being killed by the gang attacking him. And again, Tsang shows a level of restraint here most directors wouldn’t. We don’t see Xiao Bei being beaten because we don’t need to. The look on her face tells us everything we need to know about the violence she’s witnessing.

 

The story that follows is equal parts Romeo and Juliet (sans the family feuds), Lord of the Flies (but with societal pressures standing in for the lack thereof), and a touch of Mean Girls (without the humor), but it combines its influences into something unique. The plot does get a bit messy at times but it holds together thanks to the 

BETTER DAYS AT A GLANCE

Nominated for the International Feature Film Oscar, this brutal tale of bullying and societal strife is compelling and satisfying despite some meddling by the Chinese censors.

 

PICTURE
Even at 1080p on Vudu, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups, without any significant artifacts.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel soundtrack manages to be creative without being gimmicky, with the ambient sound effects beautifully mixed.

performances of Dongyu Zhou as Chen Nian and Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei, as well as Tsang’s gifts for visual storytelling.

 

For all its ugliness, Better Days is a beautifully shot film, with some of the best application of color theory I’ve seen on any screen in some time. The portions that take place in Nian’s school are awash in secondary hues and pastels that starkly contrast with the browns and grays of Xiao Bei’s underworld. It’s a shame the film wasn’t released in 4K HDR because the color palette really deserves the expanded gamut 10-bit video would bring. So, too, do the darker scenes, where the dynamic range feels constrained. Shadows simply don’t reach as deep as they should, and the image lacks of a bit of dimension as a result.

 

Otherwise, Vudu’s HDX presentation is admirable. The film was shot in 3.2K resolution and finished in a 2K digital intermedia, so it’s not as if we’re losing out on a lot of resolution in the 1080p presentation. Indeed, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups. And I didn’t see any significant artifacts in Vudu’s stream. If you’re going to rent this in the digital domain, though, pick your provider carefully. I can’t imagine Amazon Prime would do justice to the cinematography, given how drab and fuzzy most of that service’s HD streams look. My advice would be to stick with Vudu or iTunes. 

 

Either way you go, though, the 5.1 soundtrack (delivered on Vudu in Dolby Digital+) is a lot better than you’d probably expect. The mix manages to be creative without being gimmicky. There’s a scene early on where a character is listening to headphones and pulls them out of her ears one at a time. The sound mix follows her lead, planting the audio she hears dead center at first, then leaning to the left before fading away completely. Ambient sound effects are also beautifully mixed, be it the sounds of rain, traffic, or simply the background din of an overpopulated cityscape. 

 

Vudu also presents the film with baked-in subtitles, and the only soundtrack option is the original Mandarin. This, of course, shouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but it sort of is.  I know next to no Mandarin, and what little I do know comes from wuxia films and kung-fu flicks. But even I picked up on the fact that the subtitles are occasionally lacking. Regional idioms in particular are stripped of all their flavor in favor of more generic translations. 

 

That does little to rob the film of its impact. What does suck a bit of soul out of it is the blatantly tacked-on coda that reads more like hostage video than a legitimate expression of the filmmaker. After the story has wrapped back on itself beautifully, like a narrative ouroboros that manages to let go of its own tail, we’re subjected to some tacked-on text—accompanied by cheery music—that would have us believe the Chinese government has stamped out all the bullying and all the societal ills represented in the film have been rectified. 

 

That left me stunned. It was so incongruous with everything else about the film that I went digging. And I found that this was far from the only meddling the Chinese government did. And with that, it all makes sense—the little plot threads that don’t feel properly resolved, the heavy-handed exposition at the hands of the film’s police characters . . . all the little nagging problems I had with the film can seemingly be blamed on the interference of the CCP. 

 

But Better Days rises above those flaws to be a compelling movie with universal applicability. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the weight of societal and familial expectations and the tolls of living in a society where the choices made in one’s youth represent a fork in the road, with one path leading to a comfortable but oppressive life and the other toward the freedom of squalor and destitution. I wish we could see the film Derek Tsang wanted us to see, because I can only imagine how much more impact it had before all the government censorship. But none of that is to say that I’m dissatisfied with the movie we got instead.

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 Courier (2020)

The Courier (2020)

If you are a regular reader of reviews here at Cineluxe, you’ll know that I have been on a somewhat topsy-turvy cinematic journey lately. In the past ten days, we’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Gattaca, The Ten Commandments, and Nomadland. After all this, my long-suffering wife hit me with, “When can we watch something I want to see?” As a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, The Courier was the perfect solution. 

 

After originally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 under the title Ironbark—the code name given to the Russian agent—the film was slated for a August 2020 US release under its new name. Due to the pandemic, it was delayed

until March 19, 2021, and then received a PVOD release on April 16, where it is currently available as a rental via Kaleidescape and other digital retailers.

 

I’m always a sucker for films “based on a true story,” and that’s what we have here—a Cold War spying tale based on events leading up to and around the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

 

High-ranking Russian military intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides to start delivering classified information to the West about Soviet capabilities. Since he is under constant surveillance by the KGB, any contact with traditional espionage assets would blow his cover, so the CIA and MI6 agents working the case decide to recruit a regular salesman, Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), to make contact.

THE COURIER AT A GLANCE

This slow-burn “based on actual events” spy thriller is light on action but big on acting, atmosphere, and tension.

 

PICTURE
The image quality is mostly terrific, with just some brief moments with soft focus and elevated blacks. 

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is devoted mainly to delivering dialogue but there are some subtle atmospherics throughout.

Wynne begins by starting business operations in Moscow, where he meets Penkovsky organically through his dealings. After an evening at the ballet, Penkovsky makes arrangements to start delivering materiel to Wynne, who begins shuttling sensitive information out of Moscow and back to his handlers. As the Cold War starts heating up around US/Soviet relations involving Cuba, Penkovsky is eager to get out more information that will help, but the ever-present KGB is always closing in, and it becomes a cat-and-mouse game for Penkovsky and Wynne over how much they can get out before deciding to pull the plug and extract Penkovksky and his family to safety.

 

The acting, writing, and sets all make for an engaging story, but if you like your spy films laced with action and intrigue of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a slow-burn of a spy film more akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also starred Cumberbatch). In fact, there is but a single gunshot in the film, and it is delivered as a message of what happens to those that decide to become traitors against the State. 

 

Of course, some of the tension is removed from the story as we know how the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, but getting another glimpse into the closed-door intrigue that surrounded this event that likely took mankind to its closest point of all-out nuclear war is always fascinating. Also, having no idea of the events surrounding this story, there was tension in how it plays out with the will they/won’t they rescue attempt. 

 

And the truth of it is, this is probably far more how actual spying is handled. Days and weeks of normalcy as you blend in and carry out your regular routine, interspersed with a few potentially terrifying moments when a bit of information is stolen (photographed in this case) and then exchanged and taken out of the country, while hoping that if something goes wrong, the people on your side will be able to do something to help you.

 

Cumberbatch seems to have carved a niche for himself in playing the brilliant everyman non-action hero in roles like Alan Turing, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, and Julian Assange, and he inhabits the role of Wynne believably as an affable businessman used to pleasing and impressing clients to get the sale. He even committed himself physically to the role, losing a dramatic amount of weight for the film’s conclusion, helping to portray a very convincing time of suffering. The only other notable actor here is Rachel Brosnahan from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, who plays Wynne’s CIA contact, agent Emily Donovan. Even with lesser-known actors inhabiting most of the roles—sometimes a good thing when recreating actual events—the acting and performances are all convincing and top-notch. 

 

Shot at 4K resolution, there is no mention of the resolution of the digital intermediate, but image quality is almost consistently terrific throughout. I found a few scenes where focus was a bit off and black levels seemed a bit elevated, not quite achieving true black. And there is one scene when they are having a night out on the town in the West End of London that appears to use some older footage that is pretty glaring in its feel compared to the rest of the film.

For the most part, The Courier has clean, sharp images, especially in closeups. We can really see the thick wools, fabrics, and patterns in the suits worn by the British and Russian characters and can clearly see all of the lines and pores in actors’ faces and single strands of hair, or individual beads of sweat that break out across Wynne’s forehead.

 

I thought some of the best-looking images were during the exterior scenes filmed  in England and Prague (which doubled for the USSR). With lots of natural light, you could see the fine detail in the architecture and brick work, or the stones in the streets. A shot at a golf course shows individual blades of grass on the putting green and all of the fine dimples on the era-appropriate Dunlop 65 golf ball.

 

There are quite a few scenes where actors are filmed sitting in front of a bright window or light, and HDR helps to deliver lots of pop here while still retaining some nice shadow detail. We also get some added pop to the bright white colors on starched English collars.

 

Sonically, this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack mainly concerns itself with delivering clear, intelligible dialogue, and it does that well. Some scenes

The Courier (2020)

benefit from subtle atmospheric sounds, such as the buzz of lighting in a subway station, birds chirping all around in an outdoor camping scene, kids playing and moving about at a playground, or the roar of a U2’s engines as it flies overhead. It also gives the soundtrack some nice space across the front channels. There aren’t a lot of dynamic audio moments—save that single gunshot—so this certainly won’t be a soundtrack you’ll use to demo your sound system.

 

For me, The Courier represents the perfect use of a high-quality Kaleidescape rental option. It was a film both my wife and I really wanted to see but not one we’re likely to want to return to over and over, so being given the option to download and enjoy it in the highest quality without requiring a purchase was a great solution. For those looking for a spy film that is more about tension than thrills, The Courier offers a fascinating look into the lives of people who helped change history for the better. 

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: Nomadland

Nomadland (2020)

As part of the site’s effort to review all of the major film’s nominated for Academy Awards, I ended up watching Nomadlandnominated for Best Motion Picture, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography, after already nabbing the Golden Globe for Motion Picture and Director—last night. This viewing came immediately on the heels of watching the recently released fully restored version of The Ten Commandments, and since these two films couldn’t be more disparate, this made for an interesting juxtaposition. 

 

Whereas Commandments was an epic, nearly four-hour saga on sweeping scale involving the lives of an entire nation of people with literally thousands on screen at certain moments, Nomadland is a quiet, introspective film that focuses almost 

entirely on the life of a single person, Fern (Frances McDormand), with just brief glimpses into the lives of others around her she happens to cross paths with. But between the two movies, Nomadland is the one I find my mind returning to.

 

The film opens with all the exposition you need to know via a title card that reads:

 

On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.

 

Following the loss of her job, and basically the end of her town—which used to be large enough to have a golf course and airport, we learn—Fern decides to get rid of most of her belongings, move into a van, and travel the country alone looking for work. As she travels, she meets a variety of people who offer bits of help, advice, and wisdom as she

NOMADLAND AT A GLANCE

This Oscar-nominated tale of a solitary wanderer starts out feeling predictable and depressing but turns out to be an affirmative and compelling experience.

 

PICTURE
The cinematography beautifully captures the wide, sweeping vistas, with deep shadows and contrast as you look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix is surprisingly immersive, with nearly constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment.

moves from one seasonal job to the next, slowly working her way around the center of the country and then west.

 

As Bob Wellsreal-life nomadic van dweller and founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous—says, the tyranny of the dollar has turned us all into workhorses, and now that these workhorses are being sent out to pasture, they are banding together to take care of and help each other. 

 

As best I can tell, there is only one other “actor” in the film, David Strathairn, who plays David, a man Fern encounters at one of her Nomad RV destinations, and then crosses paths with again down the road. The rest of the characters are all just “regular” people, many of them actual nomads playing themselves. Spend a moment letting the end credits roll and you’ll see that every character (save Fern) uses their actual name. 

 

I think this is part of what lends the film its authenticity, and helps McDormand to tap into delivering such a real performance. She is playing off the real thoughts and feelings of others, and finding an authentic character. I’m not often taken with the subtleties of the actor’s craft, but there were moments here where I was struck by how powerful and rich McDormand’s performance was. There are a couple of pivotal moments where the anguish and expression on her face help you tap into the anguish of the moment, letting you really feel and empathize with her plight. In another scene, you can see the subtle change in her expression that conveys a realization that dawns on her. 

 

When I’m working on film reviews, I keep a notebook in my lap where I’ll jot down notes. Typically, they are things about audio or video quality I want to remember to mention, but with Nomadland I found myself writing down how the movie was making me feel and think—that’s a pretty powerful difference, and I think what makes this film so interesting.

 

Some of my observations include: “You can have almost nothing but still have pride and take care of the things you do have,” “Choosing how to live and die on your own terms,” “Journey of self-discovery and exploring and enjoying the simple pleasures of what is around you,”“Making the most of every situation,” “Developing friendships where you can find them and learning to rely on the kindness of strangers,” and “Just because you are down, doesn’t mean you are out.”

 

I also had a real change of heart towards Fern as I witnessed her journey. Early on, I wrote that she was “living a depressing, solitary existence staying in her van; living, sleeping, eating and spending days working thankless job at Amazon.” But by the film’s end, I changed that view, writing “Fern is a strong, capable, brave, and durable survivor of a woman.” 

 

Director Chloé Zhao—who also wrote the screenplay based on Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century—chooses to keep the camera in close and tight when characters are on screen, making you focus on them and to really see the emotion in their faces and expressions. 

 

Having made the cross-country drive four times myself, you truly see just how wide and vast this nation is, and what seems so small in our digitally, always-connected world is really huge when you have to travel each and every mile of it, and we experience some of this in Fern’s journey. The cinematography does a beautiful job of capturing the wide, sweeping vistas of open plains and ranges, with deep shadows and contrast as we look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets. 

At first, I just thought Fern had wanderlust, and maybe that is a part of it, but at the end of the film—a time period that is a little more than a year—she goes back to one of the small towns to return to her seasonal position at an Amazon fulfillment center. I feel it is more just a need to stay on the move and not be trapped in one place and to be able to come and go on your terms.

 

Shot in 3.2K resolution, the digital intermediate is taken from a 2K source, but I never felt at a loss for clarity or resolution. Images are beautifully clean and sharp throughout with tight focus. Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether the lines and creases in characters’ faces, or individual whiskers and strands of hair, or texture in rocks.

 

Image contrast, depth, and realism is also enhanced by HDR. Several scenes are filmed around campfires, and these have a rich, glowing golden-red light along with deep, rich shadows. This also helps lend more realism to the frequent vistas as Fern looks off to the horizon.

 

I wasn’t expecting a lot in the way of surround sound with Nomadland but I was surprised how immersive the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix was. There 

Nomadland (2020)

are near-constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment. Whether it is the creak and groan of springs and metal inside the cramped environs of Fern’s van, or the sound of traffic, people milling about, or dogs barking off in the distance, or the rush of wind outside, the audio mix does a really nice job of drawing you into each moment. While it is mostly pretty subtle, this background audio gets pretty dynamic as Fern steps onto the floor of the Amazon distribution center, giving you a feel for the noise and bustle of that job. The audio also does a nice job of conveying Ludovico Einaudi’s mournful-sounding piano soundtrack.

 

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy or be as affected by Nomadland as much as I was. I can see this a film that you return to on occasion when you’re searching for something in your life, or maybe just wanting a glimpse into the freedom of other possibilities. Whether or not this will take home the Oscar for Best Picture, I can’t say, but in a year of questionable box-office releases, Nomadland is definitely a high point and worthy of your attention. 

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 Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)

When you talk about classic films that have served as the basis for modern movies being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, you’d have to include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. With a budget of $13 million, it was the most expensive film of its day, and its success likely went on to lead studios to greenlight other epic films like Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Lawrence of Arabia, which certainly paved the way for bigger and bigger films down to our day. 

 

As I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, as much as I’m a film lover, I have some gaping holes in the list of classic films I’ve seen. After checking off Spartacus and My Fair Lady I was happy to add Commandments to my list, especially when the new 4K 

HDR version released for the film’s 65th anniversary arrived at Kaleidescape.

 

With a run time of 3 hours and 51 minutes, Commandments is a whopping 127.1 Gigabyte download, meaning there is a significant amount of information here that couldn’t fit onto a single 100 GB 4K Blu-ray disc. For those looking to see this movie in its finest quality, the Kaleidescape version is the way to go.

 

According to Paramount Home Entertainment’s press release:

 

As part of the restoration done in 2010, the film was scanned in 6K and those files were the basis for this brand-new Dolby Vision version, which shows off the full beauty of the original VistaVision negative. The VistaVision format used special cameras to feed 35mm film into the camera horizontally in order to capture a wider image spread over two 35mm film

COMMANDMENTS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic gives a great sense of what it must have been like to see an “event” film in the age of the movie palaces.

 

PICTURE
Colors are rich and vibrant throughout, and there’s a surprising amount of detail in the images, although the seams sometimes show in the Academy Award-winning effects work.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix is mainly spread across the front three channels, resulting in clear presentation of the dialogue.

frames, giving VistaVision twice the resolution of regular 35mm film. In addition, Paramount spent well over 150 hours doing new color work and cleanup on the scan. The move to Dolby Vision created the opportunity to further improve the look of the film: blacks are enhanced and improvements were made to smooth out special effects mattes to create the most vibrant and pristine image possible. The 4K film presentation contains an introduction by DeMille, an intermission, an overture/exit music card, and an entr’acte card, along with a DTS-HD 5.1 lossless soundtrack.

 

Viewing these epics certainly gives you a glimpse into the spectacle that was not only filmmaking but film-going in that earlier era of cinema. At nearly four hours, this would have been an evening event that played at a classic movie palace like Radio City Music Hall, possibly with a live orchestra performing before the movie, and it’s easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed filmgoers out for a night on the town working their way down aisles and into the auditorium to find their seats while the overture that precedes the film plays. As the music stops, the screen fills with images of curtains opening to reveal director DeMille introducing the movie and explaining the lengths they went to to ensure its accuracy and how they relied on historians to fill in the missing 30 years of Moses’ life not chronicled in the Bible. In fact, it’s not until 8:30 into the run time that all of the credits and opening pomp have concluded and the film actually starts.

 

Of course, with a film of this length, audiences would get restless, so there is an intermission—more accurately an entr’acte—where they could file out to the lobby, use the restroom, grab some concessions, and discuss the film’s exciting first half. 

Following the conclusion, the house lights would raise and the audience would slowly shuffle out as the film’s score played and an “Exit Music” card filled the screen.

 

I’ve been to many opening nights of major films, but they no longer carry this kind of gravitas and event feel, a bit how I imagine air or train travel would have been like in the early days.

 

This first half of the film (up to the entr’acte at 2 hours 16 minutes) concerns itself with the biblical account of Moses found in Exodus Chapters 2-3, where Moses (Charlton 

Heston) is found as a baby floating in a basket on the Nile River and raised by Bithiah (Nina Foch), a daughter of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke). Sethi’s son, Rameses (Yul Brynner) is jealous of Moses’ success and attention and rivalry for the throne, and after Moses kills an Egyptian, master builder Baka (Vincent Price), Rameses banishes Moses from the land, where he is forced to wander in the wilderness. There he discovers Jethro (Eduard Franz) and marries his daughter Zipporah (changed to Sephora in the film, Yvonne De Carlo), and ultimately receives his assignment from God (in the form of a burning bush) to release his people from Egypt’s bondage. The second part of the film focuses on Exodus 5-14, with the ten plagues delivered against Egypt, and Pharaoh Rameses ultimately freeing the slaves from bondage and letting them leave Egypt, only to change his mind and then confront Moses at the Red Sea; and then accounts from Exodus 20 and 32 where God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses while the people craft a Golden Calf to worship after Moses has spent so long on top of Mount Sinai.

 

Despite DeMille’s opening comments, there is some liberal interpretation of the events actually recorded in the Bible, with characters added, storylines extrapolated, and timelines moved around. A more accurate telling of Moses’ story can actually be found in DreamWork’s excellent 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt. I was also surprised the film chose to gloss over and just mention seven of the ten plagues, arguably some of the most exciting parts of the Exodus account. We also get the classic “Old Hollywood” oddness of casting young people to play older characters, with the woman playing Moses’ adoptive Mother, Foch, actually being a year younger than Heston. 

 

Accuracy aside, this is a sweeping tale that is a visual spectacle, especially the grand outdoor scenes filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula. Where Spartacus was known for hiring a cast of thousands to portray the Roman armies, I never really felt like I was seeing that immense scale of people up on screen. Here, however, in the scenes where the Israelites are working as slaves building monuments and then when leaving Egypt, the screen is literally filled with people and animals, giving it a massive scope and scale. The sheer enormity of the production and logistics of filming these scenes is incredibly impressive, especially when you understand that every person and animal on screen is real—something that would surely be created far less expensively in CGI today. The results of the restoration process are certainly impressive, with clean, sharp-edged images and tons of detail throughout. Excessive grain has certainly been cleaned away, but without giving the film an unnatural look. 

 

Closeups reveal the intricacy and ornate designs of Egyptian necklaces and jewelry and carvings, or the texture of fabric and cloth worn by Pharaoh, and the pebbling and wear in stone blocks or monuments. Even long-range shots—such as one of a mass group of slaves harvesting straw to make into bricks—have great depth and focus.

 

Colors are also rich and vibrant throughout, such as when Moses returns from Ethiopia with tribal people in bright-colored dress, or the many golden elements throughout Egypt, or the sparkles and shimmer found in drapes, Pharaoh’s headdress, and other costumes. Shadow detail is good throughout, including interior scenes lit by torches producing nice golden hues and rich shadows. 

 

Interestingly, there were two moments when the color “green” is specifically mentioned where the objects are not green. One is when an Ethiopian princess says she wants to give Moses “this green stone from our mountains” and the stone is blue 

looking, and another scene where they are told to raise a green pennant and the pennants are more a teal/light-blue color. Whether this was due to missing elements or just the difficulties of working with the Technicolor film negative I can’t say.

 

I also never noticed any of the excessive soft focus (Vaseline on the lens) that seemed to plague every scene showing Varinia (Jean Simmons) in Spartacus. Image quality throughout Ten Commandments was consistently terrific, less a couple of scenes (such as one of Moses wandering in the desert and another where he goes to the burning bush) that looked far more aged/less restored than others, perhaps due to damage to the original negative.

 

Of course, one can’t expect perfection from a 65-year-old film, and there are bits where Commandments shows its age. Process shots filmed using either matte paintings or rear projection are noticeably softer and grainier, making them stand out even more. There are significantly visible black edges around objects in the foreground of composite shots. Also, some of the scenes—for example the women bathing before Moses is discovered—look like they are shot on a set.

 

While certainly dated by today’s standards, the Academy Award-winning effects 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

in the film—Moses’ staff turning into a serpent, Death coming into the Egyptians’ homes, and especially the parting of the Red Sea—still hold up remarkably well, and I can only imagine how impressive they would have been for their time.

 

Sonically, even though the film has a new 5.1-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, it is mostly a three-channel affair across the front speakers. Dialogue remains clear and easy to understand, anchored in the center channel, with the orchestration given some room and width across the front left/right speakers, as well as some of the crowd and army noises. If anything was mixed into the surround speakers, it certainly didn’t overly call attention to itself.

 

With the advent of CGI, it’s likely we will never have a modern film of the scope and scale of The Ten Commandments. Ranked as one of the AFI’s Top 10 epic films of all time, and nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), The Ten Commandments is certainly a film worthy of your home theater. There’s also no doubt it has ever looked better than what we have here, and while its runtime is a bit daunting, the intermission provides a natural breaking point, making it easy to split over two evenings, giving you a wonderful trip back into classic Hollywood. 

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: Gattaca

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

On the surface, Gattaca might seem a bit of an odd choice for Sony to select from its catalog to give a new 4K HDR restoration and transfer. Released in 1997—meaning it missed the 20th anniversary and is a bit early for the 25th—with a reported budget of $36 million, the film only brought in $12.5 million at the box office. Even with relatively high Rotten Tomatoes critics (83%) and audience (87%) scores, and sitting at No. 22 on IMDB’s list of the top sci-fi movies of all time, the film never really gained much traction and likely wasn’t on anyone’s list of titles that needed a 4K release. However, the themes of institutional discrimination—based on genetics here rather than race—make it pretty timely for viewing, and much 

of the science in this set in the “not-too-distant future” seems pretty much within grasp of our modern technology.

 

I generally like a dose of action with my sci-fi, but that’s not the deal here. In fact, for a sci-fi film, Gattaca has almost no action or even special effects. Instead, it relies on the strength of its premise, and succeeds by just telling an interesting, compelling, and believable story performed by a superb cast. It also has a pretty compressed timeline, with the principal action taking place over a span of just a few days (with some flashbacks to fill in story points), which keeps it moving along.

 

With eugenics being the principal driver of the film’s theme and plot, the title “Gattaca” comes from the letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA, being adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. In this future, all humans are genetically-typed at birth, and any inherent flaws, like a propensity for bi-polar disorder, heart conditions, and even

GATTACA AT A GLANCE

This 1997 sci-fi tale of genetic discrimination still holds up and looks great in this 4K HDR restoration.

 

PICTURE
The UHD transfer delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob the movie of its original film look.

 

SOUND     

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack focuses most of its attention on delivering clear dialogue but also uses the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive.

a predicted lifespan, are cataloged. This information, which is stored in a national registry, follows you through life, determining what you are eligible to do. Those with any issues are considered “Invalid” and relegated to performing menial jobs, essentially locked out from being able to succeed.

 

To ensure children have the best options in life, genetic engineers can help with designer DNA—for a price. With these modifications, they can not only eliminate any flaws or defects to make sure children are “Valid,” they can also give them additional skills and traits to excel, and even a lengthened lifespan. But, the better the modifications, the higher the cost. DNA is the commodity in this world, and everything from dating to job interviews is based on a quick scan of one’s genetic material. 

 

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a natural-born child with no genetic modifications, but his genetic profile contains numerous flaws, including a 99% chance of a heart defect and an estimated lifespan of just 30.2 years. Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), on the other hand, was dealt a near-perfect genetic hand and his profile will open any door. Unfortunately, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. With help from a black-market matchmaker—and some body modifications—Vincent becomes a “borrowed ladder” and assumes Jerome’s identity. This creates a symbiotic relationship where Vincent is able to pursue his dream job due to the doors Jerome’s DNA can open—“You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix under your arm”—and Vincent uses his income to support Jerome in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. And with the interview consisting of just a single urine sample of Jerome’s “pure” DNA, Vincent lands the job at Gattaca Aerospace, where he is on track to serve as engineer on an upcoming rocket to the Saturn moon Titan—a launch window lasting just seven days that opens once every 70 years. 

 

Vincent and Jerome go to great lengths and are fanatical about keeping Vincent’s DNA and true identity hidden. Things are going great with Vincent excelling at his position at Gattaca, but just days before the scheduled launch, a director there is murdered inside the labs and the feds are called in to investigate—a process that involves vacuuming up all genetic materials there and DNA testing all employees. When a stray eyelash identifies that an Invalid—Vincent—was inside Gattaca, he becomes the prime suspect, and Detectives Hugo (Alan Arkin) and Anton (Loren Den) doggedly pursue him. During this, Vincent falls for co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), who becomes a further piece he needs to juggle and keep his truth hidden from. 

 

As the countdown to launch looms, and with the Feds closing in with random and more invasive genetic testing, will Vincent be caught or will he go to space? 

 

Gattaca has a very cool and stylish look, feeling a bit noirish. Although set in the future, the vehicles, the architecture and interiors, and even technology like watch phones and DNA readers, have a retro look. The film doesn’t concern itself with trying to be too futuristic—there are no holograms, hover vehicles, or robots, which makes it easy to buy into.

 

Originally filmed on 35mm stock, this version is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Images are clean throughout, with just a bit of grain and noise in some scenes, like light-blue skies or some blown-out whites, and edges are nice and sharp as well.

 

While the movie doesn’t have the tack-sharp look of modern digitally shot movies, it delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob it of its original film look. Closeups show the pinpoint detail and stitching in clothing, or pores and whiskers on actor’s faces, less Uma Thurman, whose face looks smooth and flawless. Only one scene really jumped out—at 1:25:30, near the end of the movie, where Vincent and Irene are talking after his true identity is revealed—where the grain 

was so cleaned away that images were startlingly modern-looking.

 

Color is also used throughout to give Gattaca its look. We have futuristic cool blues, metallics, greys, and blacks in some scenes and rich golden hues in others, especially when Vincent is looking back on his past. The HDR grade does a nice job here of delivering these colors as well as deep, clean blacks along with nice shades and rich shadow detail, and with bright highlights and punchy greens from computer monitors and screens.

 

Gattaca also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix, and while most of the attention is focused on delivering clear dialogue, they also used the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive. During the opening scenes, we see bits of fingernails and snips of hair falling on screen in slow motion, and these land and bounce with heavy bass thunks, and we get the delicate sounds of each hair landing and being placed exactly in space in the front of the room. The listening room also fills with little atmospherics to establish a scene, like hums inside a building, wind blowing, or machinery noise.

 

The height channels are used to expand the soundtrack by playing the reverb and echo from PA announcements in the Gattaca offices, or lifting music from a jazz 

Gattaca (1997)

club or piano concerto up for a fuller presentation. The frequent rocket launches—viewed off in the distance by Vincent—also flare up into the ceiling and deliver some nice low end from your subwoofer. Another scene has Vincent crossing a very busy freeway, and the roar of traffic fills the room with the rush of cars coming from everywhere. Occasionally, this echoing and reverb of voices seems a bit overdone, such as when characters are talking inside the Gattaca offices, but it never lasts long enough to be too distracting.

 

Gattaca might be the perfect sci-fi film for people who aren’t really too into sci-fi. While it develops slowly and is light on action, the plot is intriguing, the acting is top-notch, and the visuals are compelling. And at just 106 minutes, it is long enough to develop its story and characters, but not too long to wear out its welcome. Also, the idea of wanting the opportunity to achieve your hopes and dreams regardless of the preconceptions others place on you—or your DNA—certainly makes Vincent a relatable character.  

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: Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

As different as they are, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The two films overlap in time, and they both employ Fred Hampton as a character—the former in a bit part, the latter as its protagonist—and have some tangential overlap in terms of the other players involved. 

 

But while Sorkin’s film is a whitewashed work of puerile fantasy masquerading as dramatization that takes a bunch of radicals and employs them as distorted pawns in a piece of propaganda designed to glorify the safe, center-right establishment, Black Messiah is an almost entirely honest portrait of a human being who also just so happened to be a revolutionary. It may be 

one of the most honest biopics I’ve ever seen.

 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It does exhibit a few of the problems inherent in compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour narrative. But let’s set the quibbles aside for a moment and dig into what makes Black Messiah so great, despite its flaws.

 

The first thing is its acting. Almost across the board, the performances are captivating. The dialogue in particular is delivered with such authenticity that you almost have to wonder how much of it was improvised. People often misspeak and correct themselves, or stammer and repeat themselves, but almost none of it feels scripted or rehearsed.

 

This is all the more impressive when you consider that so much of what comes out of the Fred Hampton character’s mouth exactly mirrors speech uttered by the real Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya absolutely inhabits the role, and if you have

JUDAS AT A GLANCE

The story of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the people around him features consistently strong acting while avoiding most of the biopic clichés.

 

PICTURE
A study in rich, earthy hues, this is a surprisingly gorgeous film that doesn’t try to ape the look of its era.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix gives the music, which runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, room to breathe, although the improvisational approach to the acting make dialogue sometimes hard to make out.

any doubts about how well he’s captured Hampton’s mannerisms, speech patterns, gift for rhetoric, and undeniable charisma, you only need to watch a few minutes of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton.

 

In any other film, a performance like this would be a standout, but Kaluuya’s naturalism and believability is the rule rather than the exception. Equally compelling is Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. I can’t say how accurate her portrayal is since Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri) is an incredibly private person. Accurate or not, though, Fishback does more with a downturned look or a furrowed brow than most actors could convey in a soliloquy. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her because her essential humanity simply radiates off the screen.

 

LaKeith Stanfield is also fantastic as William O’Neal, the car-thief-turned-FBI-informant who acted as both agent provocateur within the Illinois Black Panther Party and also one of the key catalysts in Hampton’s assassination. Stanfield has perhaps

the most difficult job in the film, in that he has to portray internal conflict and nervous insincerity without Mickey Mousing it, and he does so almost flawlessly.

 

Also wonderful is Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who recruited O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to Hampton. It would have been really easy to play Mitchell as a villain, but as with Fishback, Plemons brings a 

lot of nuance to the part, mostly through his facial expressions. I’ve frankly rarely seen so much acting done with so few words.

 

Even the tertiary players turn in such authentic performances that at times you forget you’re watching a dramatization. The only less-than-stellar performance is by Martin Sheen, who shares the role of J. Edgar Hoover with ten pounds of prosthetics. He simply isn’t a good enough actor to do the part justice, and instead comes off like Martin Sheen wearing a good Halloween costume. If anything, he makes Hoover into an almost comedic mustache-twirler, which downplays the man’s true maliciousness.

 

As much credit as the rest of the cast deserves, some praise also needs to be aimed in the direction of screenwriter Will Berson and King himself, who shares screenplay credit. Whichever of the two wrote the lion’s share of the dialogue needs to be employed on any films set in this era, because no matter how good your actors are, it must be near impossible to write characters that deliver lines like “Right on!” and “Dig!” without devolving into parody. And there’s a lot of that sort of talk in the film—rightly so. But as with the acting, the language here simply rings true, except in those cases where its intentional inauthenticity is essential to the plot. 

 

There’s a fine line to walk when compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour dramatization, and Berson and King also deserve a lot of credit for mostly making the right choices. On the one hand, you have to pick between honesty and clarity. In almost every instance, the screenwriters err on the side of honesty, which means that some narrative threads can be a little tough to track at times, and do require you to keep a lot of data in RAM. When dealing with a film like this, I’ll take “a little too messy” over “a little too neat” any day of the week. The only time it ventures into too-neat territory is with its “thirty shekels of silver” scene near the end. I understand its metaphorical necessity, but the details of the scene are a bit of a white lie.

 

There’s also a choice to be made with a film like this between fact and truth. In almost every instance, the script errs on the side of truth. That means that sometimes similar events are amalgamated to avoid narrative redundancy. Some people are combined or, puzzlingly, renamed. But by and large, Black Messiah is more interested in providing a truthful portrayal of who Hampton was than getting every minor historical detail perfectly correct, since those details would only make sense in the context of a narrative that would span weeks or months, not mere hours. 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a surprisingly gorgeous film, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. Shot on a variety of Arri lenses in the ArriRaw format at 4.5K resolution and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, it is a study in rich, earthy hues. Its environs are dingy, its characters rarely well-dressed, and there’s a paucity of light that gives the picture a stark look at times. It’s a contrasty affair overall, and I dig the fact that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t attempt to film-look the footage. In short, Black Messiah doesn’t look like it was shot in 1969, because that would be redundant. The art design of the film establishes the setting; the processing of the imagery doesn’t need to.

 

What I like best is that there’s nearly nothing arbitrary about about the look of the film. The camera moves when it needs to move. Scenes are framed the way they need to be framed. There’s one gorgeous shot in which we stay tightly focused on O’Neal as he calls his FBI handler on a payphone. When he hangs up, the camera pulls back to take in his desolate surroundings. But it’s not a gratuitous composition. After his call, O’Neal is smaller, engulfed in a larger landscape, to spotlight the fact that he feels small, helpless, overwhelmed. It’s a subtle choice, indicative of the sort of decisions Bobbitt makes with the camera. After that scene, I stopped scrutinizing the cinematography because there’s such a wonderfully subliminal and effortless mastery to the composition of each shot that, by analyzing it, I found that I wasn’t letting it do its job. 

 

The high dynamic range is used primarily to give the imagery some expanded wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale. It’s a study in the subtle contrasts between inky blacks and nearly inky blacks. Kaluuya in particular has a very dark complexion, and in some scenes his features and facial expressions would have been lost in the shadows if not for HDR.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation preserves everything wonderful about its look, as well as its sound. You wouldn’t think this sort of film would benefit from a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it does. Interestingly, most of the ambient overhead effects are reserved for the score, which is a delightfully eclectic blend of jazz and funk with—at times—hints of Stravinsky and Holst peppered in for good measure. The music runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, and the Atmos mix gives it room to breathe, to ebb and flow in interesting ways you might not even

consciously notice.

 

If there’s any criticism to be leveled at the sound mix, it’s again an issue that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Given the natural rhythms of the dialogue, the spontaneous inflections and in-the-moment verisimilitude of it all, recording ADR for Black Messiah would have robbed it of much of its authentic energy. As such, the dialogue seems to have mostly been captured on-set, and at times it can be a little hard to parse. This movie is best experienced on a system with a lot of dynamic-range capacity and a hell of a good center speaker.

 

This is definitely a film you want to watch if you want to understand Fred Hampton—not as a mythical being, as the title would suggest, but as a man, community leader, reformer, and father-to-be. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t really interested in whether or not you like Fred Hampton or the Black Panthers. It doesn’t ask you to laud or loathe them. It’s just interested in showing you who they were, what they were about, and why they were such a threat to the institutional powers of the day. And it does so in the least heavy-handed way possible.

 

It’s hard to watch this film and not come away understanding that the most 

Judas and the Black Messiah

dangerous thing Hampton ever did was uniting the white southerners of the Young Patriots Organization and the Puerto Ricans of the Young Lords with the Black Panther Party to form the Rainbow Coalition. But King doesn’t force that realization on you. Nearly any other filmmaker would have done so, especially given how important this plot point is to the film’s overall thrust. It’s the key detail that turns Hampton’s story from one of racial struggle to one of class struggle, and most storytellers would have browbeat the viewer to drive this home. That King draws the dots but resists the urge to connect them speaks to his confidence not only in the intelligence of his audience, but also in his abilities as a filmmaker.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah may not be perfect, but it’s definitely one of the most (actually, one of the very few) important films I’ve seen in recent years. And if you missed its free-to-view run on HBO Max, you owe it to yourself to rent it as soon as possible. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best films of the 1970s—maybe the best—and one of the most influential. That last part is ironic, in a way Altman would have appreciated, because there’s no way it can be in any legitimate sense true. Altman and Kubrick created films that came from such an intricate and hermetic personal aesthetic that it’s impossible to build upon them without having the effort result in tone-deaf travesty. That doesn’t mean legions haven’t tried, but all have failed.

 

I asked Altman once what he thought of the fact that The Long Goodbye closed almost as soon as it opened but has become possibly his best-known work. He deflected, with a purpose, saying that his Philip Marlowe fell asleep in the early ‘50s—the 

era of Chandler’s source novel—only to wake up in the early ‘70s, finding that his sense of chivalry was no longer in fashion and could only lead to disaster. Altman’s Marlowe would quickly become suicidal if he found himself transported to our sociopathic present.

 

The Long Goodbye both is and isn’t a detective movie; is an unforgiving evisceration of Chandler’s work and a very heartfelt tribute. It’s so cynical it verges on nihilism while it openly tries to figure out which values, if any, still have meaning. And because it lives both in and outside genre, it gets to feed from both worlds, very much like early Godard. There are very few films that feel this much like a movie.

 

Altman, of course, makes none of it easy, constantly toying with the audience like a sly, somewhat sadistic, cat. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did everything they could to make the film gritty, flashing the footage, flattening 

GOODBYE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman uses Philip Marlowe to take aim at post-Counterculture LA in what might be the best film of the ’70s.

 

PICTURE
The wall-to-wall grittiness of the film’s subversive beauty 
is retained in this Blu-ray-quality HD download.

 

SOUND     

The stereo mix does just fine with Altman’s layered dialogue and John Williams’ laughably good score—this movie doesn’t need surround.

the palette, pumping up the grain. The result eschews superficial prettiness, which tends to be fleeting, to tap into something much more sublime.

 

This is John Williams’ best score (no, I’m not being facetious) exactly because it’s so awful. Williams isn’t known for having a sense of humor so I have to wonder if he didn’t just write a bunch of straight cues, not fully aware of how Altman was planning to deploy them.

 

And then there’s Elliot Gould’s almost non-existent range as an actor, which Altman turns to the film’s advantage by making his Marlowe continually spout lame, often improvised, wisecracks. Altman has everything around Gould do the acting for him, which results in Marlowe coming across as a smug but ultimately lost figure.

 

To add irony to all the other irony, The Long Goodbye probably holds up as well as it does both because it’s Altman’s most genre-driven movie, and because enough of what’s best of Chandler’s work manages to survive the merciless beating it receives here to permeate the film and give it a resonance unique to Altman’s canon.

 

And if all of that is just a little too high-brow for you, watch this movie just to revel in the secondary casting. Sterling Hayden is still astonishing as the washed-up writer on a fatal binge. Just as nobody seeing him as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle could have anticipated his performance as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, nobody seeing those two earlier films could have ever seen his Roger Wade coming. And yet there’s something at Hayden’s core that creates a through-line that joins those characters in a way that goes well beyond their having been played by the same performer. 

And nobody seeing Henry Gibson on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Laugh-In could have anticipated his Dr. Veringer in a million years. Gibson and Altman conspired to pull off a tremendous practical joke that’s simultaneously, when seen from just the right angle, chilling. It’s that he’s the least likely villain ever that makes him so apt.

 

As for the presentation: How do you judge the image quality of a film that went out of its way to not look very good? To reference my earlier thought, there’s that beauty that comes from aping the styles of the present, which rarely ages well, and then there’s the beauty that comes from staying true to the demands of the material, even if it takes you to deeply unpleasant places. The Long Goodbye is gorgeous exactly because it’s lurid, and because it’s as lurid in the heart of the Malibu Colony as it is in a decrepit city jail. While there’s plenty of Southern California sunshine in evidence, it’s always accurately shown as monotonous or piercing, never pleasant.

 

This Blu-ray-quality HD download does a pretty good job of honoring what Altman and Zsigmond wrought, and you can’t help but recoil in horror at the thought of some culturally myopic tech team scrubbing it free of grain and trying to expand 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

its dynamic range. Still, matching the movie’s original resolution would likely yield huge improvements, and a deft touch with an appreciation for grunge could conjure up something amazing.

 

In a similar vein, should an upgrade someday come, someone should post a sign reading “Hands Off the Soundtrack” on the mixing-room door. This film would not benefit from a surround mix—stereo suits it just fine.

 

The Long Goodbye is the kind of art that appears when you just don’t care at all but can’t help but care a lot. It feeds from a wellspring of paradox and, while it wraps things up, it never really resolves a thing. There are no reliable guideposts. Nothing triumphs; nothing is vanquished. That constant troubling creates an energy that keeps Altman’s film vital and relevant, and impossible to dismiss as simply smart-ass. The result is nothing but a mess, but a strangely elegant one that somehow still rings very true. 

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: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I was nine when the Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. I was never really a fan of the Star Trek TV series, but I was excited to see that movie as I was all hyped up on space and alien movies following Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the trailers looked like it would be an exciting film with good effects—really all a nine-year-old could hope for. 

 

The reality was, that film was so boring, I haven’t felt any need to ever see it again. Even 40-plus-years later I can recall going to sleep, waking up, and then going back to sleep again, just waiting for it to end. I’m sure my memory has clouded the reality of it, but I recall it being filled with agonizingly slow closeup pans of the Enterprise that felt like they lasted 30 minutes, as the

camera just moved all around the ship over and over. It was like the filmmakers were just so proud of this ship they had created, they wanted everyone to appreciate each and every inch of it.

 

Had this dud of a film been the first Star Trek movie today, it likely would have killed the franchise, with studios far less likely to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a second chance.

 

Fortunately, three years later under a different director we got what is widely considered the best film in the original series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Even so, Paramount strongly hedged its bet, giving Khan roughly 25% the budget of The Motion Picture.) We got a great villain, action, an easy-to-understand plot, and a massive shock of an ending that also set up the next film. This was the Star Trek critics and fans alike wanted, nabbing

KHAN AT A GLANCE

Probably the best film in the Star Trek franchise holds up surprisingly well in 4K HDR, despite some subpar effects shots and occasional softness.

 

PICTURE
When the shots are sharp, the images are clean with lots of detail. Solid blacks and punchy highlights throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is heavily focused on the front channels and pretty undynamic by modern standards.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ and Audience scores of 87 and 90% that have only been bested by one other film in the franchise, J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot starring Chris Pine at Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto filling the role of Spock.

 

Having recently rewatched the latest trilogy of films (all available in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio on both 4K Blu-ray and from Kaleidescape), and with Kaleidescape running a special pricing promotion on all Trek films, I thought it was time to revisit Khan and see how it held up after almost 40 years. And besides being a great film, Khan is also the only movie from both the William Shatner and Patrick Stewart eras that has been given a 4K HDR makeover, making it ready-for-primetime in a modern home theater.

 

The version available from Kaleidescape is a Director’s Cut that includes some three-plus minutes of additional footage. It’s been so long since I watched the film, I can’t tell you what was added back in, or if it has any real impact on the story. 

 

The movie begins with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) administering the famous Kobayashi Maru simulation to Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) who—as expected—fails badly. Admiral Kirk (Shatner) is now out of active command, depressed and sitting behind a desk at Starfleet. After some Romulan ale and a chat with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk decides to join the Enterprise crew on a routine training mission that, well, turns into not being so routine after another starship—the Reliant—is taken over by the genetically engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who was abandoned by Kirk on a planet to fend for himself 15 years ago. Khan has been plotting his revenge on Kirk for years, and now with the Reliant under his command—as well as possession of a powerful planetary terraforming device called Genesis—he is ready to deliver some revenge . . . a dish best served cold! 

 

For a “fresh” perspective on the movie, I watched with my 14-year-old daughter and her similar-aged friend, neither of whom had ever seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV shows. For them, the movie was a bit slow, taking too long to get to the action. They also found the effects and some of the acting a bit, shall we say, “dated” to put a kind word on it. 

 

While having nowhere near the level of lustful gazing found in The Motion Picture, we are still treated to a few lengthy slow shots as the camera gives us plenty of time to appreciate the Enterprise in all her glory, and Montalban’s enthusiastic performance of Khan is still great, with his impossible-to-ignore physique on display throughout. (Remember, he was 62 when this was released and looks like he just stepped out of the gym following a serious Chest-Day workout.) 

 

Compared to Star Wars—a film that had a similar budget and that debuted five years before—the effects in Khan are noticeably sub-par. (And, admittedly, haven’t benefitted from decades of the ILM effects’ team reworking . . .) Laser blasts and photon torpedoes look like they’ve just been drawn in, some of the ship flying sequences and explosions are clearly models, and one scene is very obviously on a stage with matte paintings. We also don’t get near the stage dressing and attention to detail—just take a look at a lot of the switches and knobs aboard instrument clusters on the Enterprise and it appears they don’t do anything. Of course, some of these are just byproducts of the era—and the difference of what we’ve come to expect from high-quality CGI—that are more noticeable now with 4K’s enhanced resolution and detail. 

 

Filmed in 35mm, the original negative “was in terrible shape” and received a 1080p remastering back in 2009 for the Blu-ray release. There’s no word (I could find) about the sourcing of this 4K HDR version, but my guess is that it is taken from a 2K digital intermediate.

 

The big thing you’ll notice here is how clean the images look. Right from the get-go, the title sequence and blackness of space just look clean and sharp. The shots in space all look especially good, with deep blacks and bright white star points. There is a fair bit of grain in the opening scenes aboard the Enterprise, but that seems to be less noticeable as the film goes on, or maybe I just got used to it. 

 

Another thing that really stood out is a pretty noticeable change in focus and sharpness in some scenes, sometimes even when cutting back and forth to two characters talking. At first, I thought it was maybe vanity defocusing to not show Shatner’s

age (51), but it wasn’t—he’s sharp and clear in some shots, and soft and diffuse in others. This is all the more noticeable because of the generally sharp edges and images throughout most of the film, with some images looking as clean and sharp as a modern production. When focus is sharp, closeups have tons of detail, revealing every line and wrinkle in Kirk’s face, pores in Khan’s chin, or the heavy facial makeup on Spock. You can also really appreciate the rich, thick burgundy felt texture of the uniform jackets worn by the Enterprise crew.

 

There are some bright highlights in the form of some strobing lightning flashes, stars, explosions, and video screens, but where HDR really benefits is in shadow detail and just overall realistic, natural-looking images. Color gamut didn’t look especially expanded, but we get some nicely saturated reds and greens.

 

The 4K HDR download features a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which differs from the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD audio found on the Blu-ray disc (and Kaleidescape Blu-ray download). This mix is heavily focused on the front three channels, and definitely seems pretty undynamic by modern standards.

 

Audio effects like wind sounds, sirens, alarms, and explosions get a bit of width, as does James Horner’s score. My processor’s Dolby upmixer did its best to 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

expand the soundstage, with some steam and engine sounds placed overhead; and the Enterprise jumping to warp speed had it streak high up across the ceiling. Fortunately, dialogue is pretty clear throughout.

 

Time has been mostly kind to Wrath of Khan, and it certainly has never looked as it does here. For Trek fans, this is a no-brainer—it’s great to revisit the original crew of the Enterprise on one of their finest voyages. But for those new to the series—and younger viewers—they might be better served jumping into the new films, which are certainly heavier on the action, effects, and sonic bombast. 

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.