Reviews

Forever

Amazon Prime "Forever"

I’m late to the party on this one, I know. But I have to assume that if I, a massive Fred Armisen fan, somehow just found out about the 2018 Amazon-original series Forever, there must be at least a few of you out there who would love this delightfully weird and wonderful series, if only you knew it existed.

 

Here’s the problem, though: Talking about Forever isn’t easy. Even explaining what the series is about isn’t easy. But to understand its charms, you really have to look no further than its opening five minutes. The show starts with what plays like an homage to the introductory scenes of Pixar’s Up. With nary a line of dialogue, we see the relationship between two awkward lovebirds—embodied delightfully by Armisen and fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph—grow and mature and become what it eventually becomes.

 

What’s great about this silent-movie sequence is that you understand everything you need to know about these characters before ever hearing them utter a word to one another. Armisen’s Oscar is the sort of chap who was likely nicknamed “Grandpa” before he was twenty. He’s a creature of habit and longs for the stability of til-death-do-us-part. Rudolph’s June is a free spirit who’s stifled by routine and perhaps indeed the very notion of security. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt within her, but she is repelled by it. Or perhaps she’s repulsed by her need for it. It’s an important but ambiguous distinction that the show explores but never fully resolves.

As wonderful as these opening moments are, though, Forever doesn’t really come into its own until the banter between Oscar and June takes centerstage. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any movie or TV show so perfectly capture the almost-secret shared language that develops between mates. At times, watching Forever feels almost like an act of voyeurism, even if the conversation we’re snooping on is as mundane as the perfect beach food or the best position in which to sit.

Amazon Prime "Forever"

And, yes, conversations like that are plentiful throughout the show’s brief eight-episode run. But they aren’t the point. Forever ultimately serves to grapple with the question of what happens when two wholly incompatible weirdos are nonetheless perfect for each other and committed to spending eternity together, when the notion of eternity terrifies one of them and is taken for granted by the other. And what makes it work is that the series explores interpersonal conflict in such a way that there are no good guys or bad guys in the

impasse between commitment and wanderlust, comfort and excitement, routine and spice. Writers Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang have the courage to explore their subject matter with refreshing nuance.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the show, it’s that after all of that nuance, Forever comes to a tidy (though wacky) conclusion a little too quickly, and in choosing where to end this weird adventure, Hubbard and Yang do put their thumbs on the scales a little. Armisen—much as I love him as a comedian—also struggles to bring the same level of gravity to serious scenes as does Rudolph, whose talent for navigating complex emotional shifts is awe-inspiring throughout.

 

Those are minor criticisms, though. If you love quirky love stories with a heaping helping of metaphor and metaphysics, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

 

The bigger criticism is that once again, Amazon makes it nearly impossible to find the 4K version of the series via streaming devices. Your best bet is to search for it on your computer and add it to your watchlist. Not that Forever needs to be seen in 4K HDR to be enjoyed, mind you. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about its cinematography or presentation for most of its roughly four-hour runtime. But still, if you’re going to watch it, one assumes you’d like to watch it in the best quality 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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really have a lot of desire to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when it was in movie theaters. Nothing about the trailer really grabbed me, but when it started getting rave reviews both from critics (97% on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “It is a game changer”) and audiences (94% positive), I figured maybe the trailer didn’t resonate with me but that the film would. Then, when it took home the Academy Award this year for Best Animated Feature Film, that clinched it.

 

Fortunately, Kaleidescape owners were able to get the film on February 26, a full three weeks before it’s released on disc on March 19, so I downloaded the film and settled in to enjoy.

 

This is and also totally isn’t the Spider-Man story that you know. It begins with the Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) we’ve always known, and has animated versions of several of the marquee scenes you’ll likely remember from the multiple live-action Spider-Man movies from recent years. But the real star of this movie is teenaged Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who was unknowingly bitten by a radioactive spider (don’t you hate when that happens?) and then crosses paths with Parker while he is in the midst of battling some baddies to save Brooklyn (again). During the battle, a particle accelerator opens up portals to alternate universes, bringing five alternate Spider-people into Brooklyn, where they all work together to stop Kingpin from unleashing the accelerator that could destroy not only our world, but the entire universe.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming for a few of reasons. One, it didn’t get bogged down in its own origin story, forcing us to relive —once again—how Spider-Man becomes Spider-Man. At this point we all know the story, and this was a theme that Spider-Verse repeatedly poked fun at. Two, after the recent Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield outings, Tom Holland’s Spidey just felt fresh and new, more wide-eyed and trying to figure things out. Three, it gave us

 a great sidekick in Ned (Jacob Batalon), who provided a much needed second personality as well as adding enough Tony Stark/Iron Man to keep the film feeling bigger than just “another Spider-Man” movie, while also giving it a place in the much larger Marvel universe.

 

I say all of that because I think those things equally apply to Spider-Verse which feels both the same (but in a good way) and yet totally new and fresh.

 

What really sets Spider-Verse apart is its totally unique visual style. And as much as I loved Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Incredibles 2also nominated in the Best Animated Feature category—after watching Spider-Verse, it’s not a surprise that it took home the Oscar as it has an innovative style and look that is really unlike anything that has come before it. You can tell you’re in for something different right from the opening Columbia title screen.

 

Animation always looks fantastic in 4K HDR and this is no different. The colors are bright and vivid and pushed to the boundaries, with the reds of Spidey’s suit particularly vibrant and heavily saturated. The blacks are also deep, with HDR used throughout to provide extra punch.

The visual look and style of Spider-Verse constantly changes throughout the movie, often during the same scene, and it definitely embraces its comic-book roots, with a style that often feels like comic panels have been brought to life. Images are

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

near photo-realistic, then switch to a cartoon panel-style, then to the Pop Art style of Roy Lichtenstein. The image has an incredible depth of focus that looks truly 3D at times. Frequently, things in the near- or background are heavily blurred to make you focus on specific portions of the frame. The style in some scenes reminded me of the film noir storytelling style of the Max Payne video game from years ago.

 

Beyond the visuals, a modern animated film often succeeds or fails based on the quality of the story and voice acting. While the theme of a band of strangers coming together to defeat a common enemy is nothing new, Spider-Verse never feels like a retread and manages to work in enough pop culture references to be clever.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The voicing is great, with Nicholas Cage as the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir, a private eye from 1933 who likes to drink egg creams and fight Nazis. Jake Johnson brings his hilarious Nick Miller New Girl vibe and mannerisms to Peter B. Parker, a Spidey who has gone through a nasty breakup and let himself go. You even get Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor

Mahersala Ali as Miles’ Uncle Aaron. John Mulaney does a good job with Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham, though something about his delivery reminded me of Nathan Lane’s Timon from The Lion King. (Also, I couldn’t get “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider Pig does. . .” out of my head whenever I saw Spider-Ham.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix is very aggressive throughout, with many discrete effects routed to all

channels and lots of height-channel information. There is also some serious low-frequency information that will rattle your windows and slam you in the chest. Dialogue is well recorded and remains easy to understand regardless what world-ending event is happening onscreen.

 

Spider-Verse is a fresh take on the superhero genre, and a visually stunning film that will look fantastic in a home theater, and is sure to entertain family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

A few years back, YouTuber Patrick H. Willems made a mock trailer for an imaginary X-Men film helmed by Wes Anderson. I’m honestly not sure if the video was intended to poke fun at Wes Anderson’s films or the whole concept of the X-Men, but I also kinda don’t care. I just want to see that movie. And in a weird way, I felt like I had come close to seeing it play out in reality as I watched the first episode of the new Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more to this stunning new series than that. After a bit, it starts to feel more like, “What if Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro teamed up to write and direct a mashup of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen?” Don’t worry if you have no idea what any of that means, by the way. All you really need to know is that The Umbrella Academy is a fun and introspective comic-book romp with lovably flawed 

characters, delicious action, and a wonderfully weird sense of humor. And as with all good pastiche, it manages to synthesize all of its comic book inspiration into something delightfully new and captivating.

 

The premise goes something like this: In 1989, forty-three women around the world mysteriously give birth despite having not been pregnant earlier that day. One mysterious billionaire tries to adopt them all, but only manages to assemble seven of them, six of whom he trains to become masked crimefighters. Fast-forward to today, and said billionaire has died, bringing this dysfunctional family back together to solve the mysterious circumstances of his passing.

What I love most about The Umbrella Academy is that it manages to do far more with its premise than you might expect (unless you’ve read the comics on which the series is based). Yes, part of the appeal here is watching super people do super things. But at its heart, the show manages to be both grander in its scope and far more personal. It tackles big questions, yes—questions about determinism vs. free will, about nature vs. nurture—but also grapples with issues like what happens when the repressed demons of our past start to break their restraints. (We’re talking metaphorical demons here. The show is weird and supernatural, but not that weird and supernatural.)

 

I also love the fact that showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Legion, Altered Carbon) resists the urge to lean on heavy exposition. The world of The Umbrella Academy isn’t our own, but it always errs on the side of letting the viewer get

The Umbrella Academy

immersed in the world rather than dragging us through it with CliffsNotes. There’s absolutely no explanation for why there’s a talking chimpanzee butler, for example, because it’s the most normal thing in the world to the inhabitants of the series. You just have to roll with it. And other mysteries that unfold do so mostly organically.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch simply as a display torture test. Despite the fact that

the resolution is limited to 1080p (likely a result of all the special effects, which would have been tough to render in 4K on a TV show budget), the stunning Dolby Vision high dynamic range proves that contrast and color vibrancy are more important than pixel count when it comes to rendering a jaw-dropping image.

 

If I have one nit to pick with The Umbrella Academy’s AV presentation, it’s that the compressed audio just doesn’t quite do the show justice at times. That’s largely due to the fact that it boasts the best pop-music soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of this wonderful music would rock so much harder in full-bandwidth Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.

 

That’s only something you’ll really notice if you have a truly high-fidelity sound system, though. And it’s seriously no reason to skip this brilliantly dark, hilariously weird, and wonderfully acted superhero romp.

—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.

Mortal Engines

On paper, Mortal Engines seems like a can’t-miss film. It’s an adaptation of the well-received Young Adult novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, comes from a screenplay by the writing team behind the epic The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, including Peter Jackson, and included a trailer with striking visuals. But with mostly weak reviews, scoring a meager 26% on Rotten Tomatoes (audiences were slightly more kind with a 56% rating), and a paltry $16 million box office take in the US and Canada, this Engine was perhaps a little too Mortal.

 

But I’m not one to let a bad review dictate what I’ll watch, and my faith in Peter Jackson was enough to have me eager to give this a view at home. As is often the case recently, ME was released on digital download a full three weeks before the disc version, so I downloaded the film from the Kaleidescape store in 4K HDR.

 

There are, of course, three ways to approach a movie based on a popular book: Read it before, read it after, or don’t read it at all. With The Hunger Games trilogy, I devoured the books prior to watching the movies, and this built a lot of anticipation for the films, which didn’t disappoint, IMO. With Ready Player One, I was inspired to read the book after watching, and felt that while the two works were markedly different in many respects, they both worked for their medium. My wife started reading ME but the story didn’t grab her, so I went into the film knowing very little.

 

The 128-minute movie starts off with just a bit of exposition to explain how mankind arrived at its current state. Some untold number of years ago—enough for people in our time period to be referred to as “the ancients”—a 60-minute war involving a Quantum energy weapon known as MEDUSA effectively destroyed most of the world, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. Out of the toxic remnants, a new age arose—the age of the great predator cities of the west. Of these cities, one of the largest is London, which roams around the Great Hunting Grounds of continental Europe practicing a philosophy known as “Municipal Darwinism,” where large cities on immense treads hunt down, ingest, and dismantle smaller cities for food, fuel, and any salvaged technology that can be repurposed.

 

Within the first 10 minutes you’re introduced to the main players which include Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is out to avenge her mother’s killer; Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of recent The Umbrella Academy fame), a historian who gets (literally) kicked off the London and is forced to bond with Hester to survive; and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and the Hobbit and Rings trilogies), London’s power-hungry head science engineer who is searching for old-tech in order to secure a new power source for London’s future and oppose the anti-traction league, a group of static cities that sit protected behind a giant shield wall.

Mortal Engines

The film’s opening scene is action packed, as the enormous London chases, captures, and ingests a smaller city. The film has massive scope, scale, and world building, with convincing CGI that shows how something on the scale of London-on-tracks would function from a technical level, and makes it appear these giant tracked cities are actually driving around. I’m not sure to what extent the sets were of practical design versus created inside a computer with CGI, but the visuals are impressive, presenting these immense mobile locations that drive around carving out huge ruts in the land with their enormous tracks. Some of my favorite parts of the film were just admiring the inner-working and design of London.

 

The film was shot in Redcode RAW at 8K and the home release is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate and looks terrific.The film is a feast for the eyes, and items have terrific texture and detail. Whether it is the fabric in actors’ clothing, the various states of disrepair on walls and items around the very Steampunk-inspired London, or the multiple bits of machinery, ME offers tons of detail in every frame. There are several closeups where you can see the individual strands of hair on an actor’s head.

 

The film spends almost equal parts in dark and light environments, and HDR is used to good effect throughout to produce images that pop with detail. London at night, various searchlights piercing the darkness, and various lights and gauges inside cockpits all retain deep, rich black with appropriately bright highlights. The fires inside London’s engine room also particularly benefit from the HDR color grading.

 

Sonically, ME is the stuff home theater owners live for. The bass is big and weighty, carrying the proper amount of heft for something the size of London driving around and smashing into things. There are also a lot of textural sounds—engines thrumming, gears turning, cables moving—giving life to scenes. Sound effects have tons of directionality, putting the full soundstage to use to create an immersive experience. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout, even in the big action pieces, something some recent films have been missing.

 

My only complaint with the audio is that the Kaleidescape digital download didn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie with such a dynamic and textured soundtrack, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with NBC Universal, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films in 4K HDR. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

While not perfect, and a bit light on plot, I found Mortal Engines engaging and entertaining, and it definitely looks and sounds fantastic on a proper system. 

John Sciacca

Mortal Engines

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.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

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.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

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.

Castle Rock

Castle Rock

“There is a lot of history in this town. Not all of it good . . .”

 

You might recall my post “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy” (or you might not—in which case, feel free to click that link and then come back to join me here in a bit . . .) where I opined how all of these streaming providers coming up with their own content was really frustrating viewers. One of the shows that inspired that post was Castle Rock, a new Hulu original series that takes place in the Stephen King multiverse.

 

Now, this is a show I really wanted to see when it was announced, as it checked all of my must-see programming boxes. J. J. Abrams involved? Check. Stephen King an executive producer? Check. Set in the Stephen King world with tons of King Easter eggs? Check. A solid cast featuring several actors who’ve previously been in King adaptations? Check.

 

But, as much as I wanted to see Castle Rock, I was not willing to add another streaming subscription to my monthly credit-card statement.

 

Fortunately, you can now experience Castle Rock without a Hulu subscription by purchasing the series on disc (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, or DVD) or via digital download in HD quality at the Kaleidescape store (which is how I watched).

 

So, before I get into my Castle Rock review, we need a little background . . .

Castle Rock

I am a really big Stephen King fan—or Uncle Stevie, as he likes to call himself. I’ve read all of his books, and seen many of the movies that have been adapted from them. The quality of King movies ranges from the fantastic (Shawshank Redemption, It, Misery, Stand by Me)* to the pretty good (The Green Mile, Thinner, Firestarter) to the abysmal (Cell, Lawnmower Man).

The problem with turning a Stephen King novel into a film is that when you try to compress 800-plus pages into a two-hour runtime, you end up chopping out so much material that the results are often just pale reflections of the original. Or you go the other way, trying to stretch something that worked well as a 10- to 20-page short story into a two-hour feature that just blunders around lost. (Two of King’s best adaptations—Shawshank and Stand by Me—were actually novellas, providing just the right amount of source material.)

 

The recent The Dark Tower film is a perfect example. Tower wasn’t a book but rather a magnum opus made up of seven books totaling nearly 4,000 pages. Trying to condense that much story into a single 95-minute film was an impossible task that only ended up angering and insulting fans.

 

King adaptations tend to work especially well as miniseries, where the source material can be given the room it needs to develop story and characters over multiple hours. Hulu showed they knew how to handle this perfectly with its 2016 eight-episode miniseries 11.22.63, which also happened to be the first pairing of Abrams and King. (Another outstanding example is Mr. Mercedes on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.)

 

Castle Rock is a ten-episode series that takes place in a small, fictional Maine town that will be familiar to King fans. Other King works set there include The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Mist. It’s important to stress that while King does get an executive producer credit, he wasn’t involved in crafting this story, or apparently much with the production, and it isn’t based on any of his stories.

 

Rather, Castle Rock is a new tale set in King’s established world and features numerous subtle and overt connections and allusions to previous King works. These include Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Diane “Jackie” Torrance (Jane Levy), niece of The Shining’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance, references to a certain rabid dog, events from The Body (which became Stand by Me), the Juniper Hill Psychiatric Hospital, and a certain prison no one wants to visit called Shawshank.

 

The opening episode, “Severance,” does a nice job laying the groundwork for what to expect from the series along with introducing us to several principal characters, including death row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who has his own troubled past connections with Castle Rock. He returns to the town after mysterious prisoner The Kid (Bill Skarsgard), who has apparently been kept locked in solitary confinement in a hidden section of Shawshank for years, utters Deaver’s name and nothing else. And there’s recently retired Shawshank warden Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who had been keeping The

Kid locked away for reasons known only to himself.

 

The series is slow in parts, but definitely picks up for the final episodes, with Episode 7, “The Queen,” being especially good and featuring a fantastic performance by Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver that really deserved some kind of award nomination. Another standout was the gore-filled eighth episode, “Past Perfect,” that actually had my wife scream out.

 

There are some nice King-esque jump

Castle Rock

scares along the way, along with tons of general creepiness as we slowly move towards solving the mystery of who is The Kid and how did he get here, along with the overall question of, “Why is Castle Rock so rotten?”

 

The video is mainly a palette of muted browns, greys, and cool blues, but images are clean and detailed. Even better is the 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix, which does a wonderful job of keeping dialogue understandable while still delivering a lot of sonic atmospherics that certainly add to the experience when watched on a surround system.

 

I appreciated the brief “Inside the Episode” rundowns for each episode by the series creators/writers, which offered some explanations and pointed out some of the Easter eggs. The download also includes two new features: “Castle Rock: Blood on the Page” and “Clockwork of Horror.”

 

Be sure to watch a couple of minutes into the credits after the final episode, “Romans,” as you get a nice glimpse into what might be in store for the second season that Hulu has already committed to.

John Sciacca

 

* I’m sure some of you noticed that I didn’t include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this list of fantastic King adaptations. Well, the truth is, while The Shining is indeed a great movie, it veers way away from the original source material, almost to the point of being a completely different work.

Castle Rock

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.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

I feel like Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those films that either really appealed to you or really didn’t register at all. I was born in 1970, so I grew up during a time when Queen’s music was played a fair bit on the radio. But I was only a casual fan, and outside of their Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits II albums, my music collection is Queen-free. I was curious to see the film, though, and learn more about the band, especially since I enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance in the recent Papillion remake.

 

I say this because I went into the movie knowing practically nothing about Queen outside of its hits, and Freddie Mercury’s stage presence, mustache, and wife-beater T-shirts. So my experience and impression of this movie will probably be different from those of someone who was a real fan of the band and familiar with its history. Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen’s formation and meteoric rise to success, specifically focusing on the life of flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury, culminating in a terrific recreation of the band’s epic Live Aid performance in 1985 and Mercury’s admission to the band that he had contracted AIDS. 

 

A movie focusing on actual people—especially someone with such a bigger-than-life personality as Mercury—rises or falls on the quality and believability of the actors portraying them, and I found Malek’s portrayal of Mercury to be spectacular, capturing his nuances and stage mannerisms as I remember them. This is helped quite a bit by some serious prosthetics to recreate Mercury’s signature overbite (caused by having four additional incisors, according to the film, which may or may not have contributed to his extended vocal range). In some of the early scenes I felt I could see the makeup, but that could have been more a factor of the 4K transfer being a tad too revealing. Is Malek a caricature of the actual Mercury? Maybe, but to my eyes the performance worked perfectly. Also, Gwilym Lee—or rather Gwilym Lee’s impressive wigs—transformed him into a lookalike of guitarist Brian May. (The film also features an almost unrecognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.)

 

The 2 hour and 14 minute run time zips by, moving from one milestone in the band’s career to the next. This is partly due to its hyper-compressed timelines, taking events that happened over years in some cases and boiling them down to a single scene. I’m not saying Bohemian plays fast and loose with the truth exactly, but it left me feeling like you weren’t getting the whole story and were watching a Cliff Notes version of actual events.

Bohemian Rhapsody

For example, the opening would have you believe Freddie just happened upon a band who’s lead singer suddenly quit and, “Guess what guys? I happen to write songs and sing a bit.” In actuality, Mercury had been writing songs and playing music for years, had been singing for a couple of other bands, and was friends with the band that would eventually become Queen. It also suggests “We Will Rock You” was just thrown together by May when Mercury was a few minutes late for a band meeting. And, contrary to the ending, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until two years after the famous Live Aid concert.

 

Whether it was naivety, ignorance, or the culture of the times, Mercury being gay wasn’t part of his narrative that I remember while growing up. (To be fair, I also remember thinking The Village People were just a cool bunch of guys who liked dressing up in wacky costumes, embodying different characters. Yeah, it was a different time and news travelled a lot slower back in the ‘70s . . . and I was like 10.) The film certainly addresses Freddie’s sexuality, but does so staying outside the bedroom. And like many of the other time-compressed moments, he seemingly goes from a happy, committed, hetero relationship to, “OK, I’m gay now,” following one lingering glance from a trucker outside a men’s room.

 

Mercury seemed to be constantly running away from things—his Zanzibar birthplace, his Parsi background, his family, his name (Farrokh Bulsara), his girlfriend, and ultimately his band—and rushing towards a future and lifestyle that ultimately killed him. I definitely came away from the movie with a far greater appreciation of the talent of both Queen and Mercury. The film’s portrayal of the recording sessions for their first album and “Bohemian Rhapsody” showed an experimentation and creativity that reminded me of Brian Wilson’s efforts with Pet Sounds or The Beatles and George Martin on Sgt. Pepper’s. I finished the film wanting to go to Tidal to experience their catalogue.

 

For a movie focusing on a rock band, it’s crucial the music sound great, and it truly looked like the songs were being played and sung by the actors. I felt Rhapsody scored a definite A here, and apparently they blended Malik’s singing in with Mercury’s (and others) vocals. The live shows sound especially good, with big kick-drum beats that send bass waves into your chest, and the finale at Live Aid is just terrific.

 

One major disappointment is that the Kaleidescape digital download doesn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie where music plays such a starring role, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with 20th Century Fox, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

For me, Bohemian Rhapsody does a great job of packing nearly 20 years of time into a cohesive story, and gets enough of the big stuff right that you can overlook the little factual errors.

 

It is available now for digital download, a full three-weeks before it will be released on physical media.

John Sciacca

Bohemian Rhapsody

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.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

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

 

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

 

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

Hunter Killer

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

 

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

Hunter Killer

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

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.