Reviews

Review: News of the World

News of the World (2020)

Tom Hanks has built up so much cred over the years from choosing excellent roles in major films that he is on the short list of movies I’m instantly keen on watching just because he is attached. When his latest, News of the Worldreleased theatrically on Christmas Day, I was anxious for it to get its eventual home release. It worked its way to PVOD in early February, and then finally debuted for sale on distributors like Kaleidescape on March 9.

 

I’ll be honest, I knew nothing of the Paulette Jiles novel the film is based on, short of my wife saying that she had started reading it and just couldn’t get into it. And if that wasn’t a ringing enough endorsement, it wasn’t like the film’s trailer was so compelling I felt I needed to rush out and watch. For me, Hanks’ track record of picking great films was the hook, and if the trailer or synopsis wasn’t enough to grab your attention, then you’re missing out on an enjoyable and beautiful-looking 

film.

 

The plot is pretty simple: Captain Kidd (Hanks), a former member of the Confederate Army, now makes his living traveling around small towns in Texas reading excerpts from various newspapers to gatherings of folks for ten cents a head. While heading to his next town, he stumbles across an abandoned young girl (Helena Zengel)—dressed in Native American clothing and who doesn’t speak any English—whom we eventually learn is named Johann. Kidd is told to take the girl to a Union checkpoint, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs representative is unavailable for months. This is essentially the first ten minutes of the film, with the remainder following Kidd as he travels to return Johanna to her surviving family.

 

Parts of the film reminded me a bit of Castaway, where 

NEWS AT A GLANCE

A satisfying tale set in the Wild West, fueled by terrific performances from the two leads and by absolutely fantastic-looking scenery and cinematography.

 

PICTURE
The visuals are so sharp and stunning they can almost pull you out of the time period of this film. 

 

SOUND     

While you do get some surround, the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix is very front-focused.

Hanks is mostly alone, save for Johanna who either doesn’t speak at all or speaks in non-subtitled Kiowa, with Hanks giving bits of exposition as he tries to interact with her. He is able to say much about the weight of burden, duty, and purpose with face, eyes, and pensive/troubled expressions. Interaction happens with others as the pair rolls on from one dusty, clapboard-fabricated small town to the next, discovering a variety of characters along the way, not all of whom are good.

 

The film is a definitely slow burn, a bit like Let Him Go. We see it building and edging towards the eventuality of Kidd reuniting Johanna with her family, but witness their growing relationship and her reliance on him along the way, with the unknown 

perils of what they’ll face on their journey or find on arrival. In my review notes, I wrote, “The movie is slow but compelling, with enough bumps of action and drama along the way to keep it gently moving forward, like soft gusts of wind that steadily keep a tumbleweed moving along.”

 

Writer/director Paul Greengrass is best known for his action films in the Jason Bourne series as well as bringing true accounts to the screen such as 22 July, United 93, and Captain Phillips, where he previously worked with Hanks. But instead of trying to force action here, Greengrass seems content to pull back and let us watch the story 

unfold, with the Wild West having enough hard challenges and unscrupulous people all on its own. Even the gunfights are a bit reluctant, with Kidd looking to avoid and escape trouble rather than embrace it.

 

One of the real treats here is Zengel, who was only 11 when the film was shot and who does a terrific job portraying twice-orphaned Johanna—a girl completely lost and alone in this strange world that seems to keep abandoning her. Zengel easily holds her own with Hanks, and is incredibly expressive and intense well beyond her years. What we have here is two great actors at different ends of their careers, and you can’t help but think we’ll be seeing a lot of Zengel going forward. She has already been recognized with four female supporting-actor nominations for her work here, including the Critic’s Choice, Golden Globes, and Screen Actos Guild. (The Academy Awards nominations have yet to be announced as I write this, but I’d be shocked if she doesn’t earn an Oscar nom as well!)

 

Shot on Arri cameras at 4.5K resolution, News is taken from a 4K digital intermediate and, oh boy, does it look it! I know we’ve written here about a film not being sourced from a 4K DI not being a deal killer to absolute resolution and looking good, but images here are crisp, detailed, and razor sharp. In fact, almost too much so, as the stunning visuals can almost pull you out of the time period of this film, which takes place in 1870 after the end of the Civil War. Images are clean throughout, but when the camera snaps into focus it’s like everything just goes Pop! You can clearly see single strands of Johanna’s hair or Kidd’s beard, or the thick, heavy texture of fabrics in hats, jackets, vests, and shirts. One encounter takes place on a rocky mountain, and you can see every stone and rock in sharp-edged detail, with every little crag and crack visible, including pebbles and bits of lichen.

 

The 2.4 aspect ratio is terrific for appreciating the huge, wide vistas of a Texas landscape that seems to just go on forever. The color palette is mostly dry, dusty earth tones, with an ever-present powder-blue sky, and home theater owners with a projector and scope screen are certainly in for a treat.

There are basically two times in the film: Day and night. Daytime scenes are bright enough, with the sun gleaming hard enough to occasionally make you squint, but reveal the incredible detail in the images. Night scenes—including those shot in darkly lit interiors—feel like they are lit mostly by available light and have deep and rich shadow detail doubtless helped by the HDR grading. Some scenes are lit by lamplight or candles or fire light, and the graduation to deep shadow at the edges of the shots has a very realistic quality.

 

Even though the film had a theatrical Dolby Atmos mix, we are “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master Audio soundtrack with the Kaleidescape download. While I have disagreed with fellow reviewer Dennis Burger in the past about Dolby Atmos (I being a huge fan and Dennis finding it occasionally distracting), the sound mix in News actually made me concede his point a bit.

 

The audio mix is very front-focused, with most of the presentation taking place across the front three channels. We do get some surround—such as when we are surrounded by hundreds of cattle milling about, or bits of rain pattering down outside a building where Kidd is doing a reading, or some outdoor ambience in  

News of the World (2020)

the form of bugs, wind, and distant coyotes—but primarily the mix is spread across the front three channels. What this does is keep all of your attention focused ahead and up on the screen—or straight-ahead as Kidd is fond of saying. There were parts where the height speakers could have been employed to position people scurrying about overhead, or perhaps howling coyotes or rustling winds far off in the surrounds in the distance, but this ultimately would have pulled you away from the action on screen.

 

There are some moments where the soundtrack kicks it up a notch, such as during a particularly heavy downpour, the heavy murmurs and oohs-and-aahs of a crowd during Kidd’s reading, or a severe dust storm. And when there are gunshots, they are loud and dynamic, with bullets whizzing and zipping across the front, splintering wood or ricocheting. The front-focused mix also gives you a chance to appreciate James Newton Howard’s score, which has a perfect, timeless western feel to it.

 

News of the World is a satisfying tale set in the Wild West that keeps your interest over its near-two-hour runtime, fueled by some terrific performances by the two leads, and absolutely fantastic-looking scenery and cinematography. While it might not be a film you’ll return to over and over, you’ll likely regret not seeing it at least once.

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: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

With Godzilla vs. Kong getting ready to debut theatrically and streaming on HBO Max on March 31, it seemed like a good time to revisit an earlier film in the franchise, Kong: Skull Island.

 

In the opening of my 4K HDR Wish List post, I wrote, “These are probably films you already own—or have definitely watched—and a new 4K transfer would be a great reason to revisit them,” and that definitely holds true for Skull Island. Released in 2017, I hadn’t watched the film in a few years, even though I had upgraded the HD version to the new 4K HDR version 

with Dolby Atmos some time ago when it became available at Kaleidescape.

 

While it doesn’t totally apply here, the quote “comedy is tragedy plus time” comes to mind. Skull Island didn’t really stand out in my memory as anything special, but on watching it this time, the movie was far more entertaining. Maybe it was the improvements in the audio/video quality, maybe it was having a better projector, maybe it was my daughter seeing it with us for the first time . . . Whatever the case, Skull Island just worked this time, having solid pacing, story, acting, and the right amount of quirky, just-shy-of-crazy, humor courtesy of John C. Reilly.

 

I’d also forgotten how much star power was brought to bear in this film. Along with John Goodman as head of the government agency Monarch, it unites four actors from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (which might be a record in a non-Marvel film, something I’d need resident MCU-expert Dennis Burger to confirm) including Tom Hiddleston (Loki), 

SKULL ISLAND AT A GLANCE

The film doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—Kong running around an island battling and smashing stuff.

 

PICTURE
It doesn’t have the hyper-sharp detail and resolution of more recent movies but still looks fantastic, with very clean image quality and sharp, well-defined edges. 

 

SOUND     

A dynamic Dolby Atmos mix with something almost constantly going on, including big dynamic effects and tons of ambient jungle sounds.

Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Brie Larson (Captain Marvel), and Corey Hawkins (small part in Iron Man 3 listed as “Navy Op”).

 

What Skull Island does right is to focus on what it is: Kong on Skull Island. There isn’t a long preamble or slow build-up but rather a small bit of pre-credits setup that establishes a later payoff, a short explanation of the science of how this island has remained off the charts for so long and why it’s so important to investigate it now, a bit of introduction to the team, and then BOOM! You’re thrust straight into the action. Within the first 25 minutes, we are transported to the island and in the thick of it. Kind of like with the recent Monster Hunter, you aren’t tuning into a film called Kong: Skull Island for a deeply philosophical examination; rather you want an engaging and entertaining story wrapped around Kong battling and smashing stuff. This film plays by believable rules and allows you to maintain a suspension of disbelief, with none of those head-shaking moments where the visual effects team does something solely for the purpose of impressing with their skills.

 

And speaking of the VFX, they are surprisingly terrific. If Kong looked fake, the film would fail, or if they shied away from showing him in all his glory, you’d know it was a cheat, but there are plenty of closeups of the giant ape, and his size, scale, and speed are all realistic and impressive. In fact, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for its effects work (losing to Blade Runner: 2049).

 

Set in 1973 with the Vietnam war winding down, warmonger Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson) is thrilled to have one final op with his Air Cav unit to investigate an uncharted island before returning home stateside. The soldiers head off to the island aboard a convoy of helicopters along with a small team of scientists including Goodman, an ex-British Special Forces tracker (Hiddleston), and a photographer Weaver (Larson). The idea is to test Brooks’ (Hawkins) “Hollow Earth” theory by flying around and dropping seismic charges on the island, but this gets the attention—and ire—of one mammoth 100-foot ape, who quickly dispatches the helicopters, leaving the team separated on the ground and trying to survive amidst other threats that are larger than life-sized.

 

Packard reminds me a bit of the saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to look at everything as a nail.” He’s an unabashed warrior, and he’s looking for a fight, and Kong is the obvious threat. If Kong has a social message underpinning the story, it would be looking for fights where there aren’t enemies, and learning to co-exist with those around us. But the film doesn’t beat us over the head with this, rather making a way to care about and root for Kong.

 

Eager to avenge his fallen soldiers, Packard goes off on his own agenda, ordering his men to hunt and destroy the ape, and he becomes the obvious antagonist to Kong’s role as island protector. Meanwhile, the separated team of Conrad and Weaver discover Hank Marlow (Reilly), a WWII-pilot who has been stranded on the island for 28 years and learned to co-exist with the natives. Together, they try to regroup with the remaining soldiers and travel across the island to the planned rendezvous point to escape to the mainland.

 

Shot on Arri at 3.4K resolution, Skull Island is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. While it doesn’t have the hyper-sharp detail and resolution of some more recent films, it still looks fantastic, with very clean image quality and sharp, well-defined edges. Still, some scenes are so clean and sharply detailed they could have been filmed yesterday. Closeups can have terrific detail, clearly showing individual stitching in the soldiers’ uniforms and exhibiting pore-level detail on all the actors’ faces, save for Brie Larson, whose face always looks angelically smooth.

 

Early, pre-island scenes in the film have a warm, earth-toned look with picture quality that was a bit reminiscent of The Brady Bunch, and the opening blue skies from the aerial dogfight have a bit of digital noise. On the island, colors are green and lush, with a variety of  shades for grass, trees, and foliage.

Many scenes are at night or in deep shadow, and HDR gives images plenty of depth and realism. An early scene in downtown Hanoi pops off the screen lit by bright neon lights; elsewhere there are brilliant flashes of lighting and vibrant, rich red-orange flames in the dark night of the island. The high bitrate of the Kaleidescape transfer also does a nice job keeping the island’s fog and smoke from becoming a digital mess.

 

Sonically, you get a glimpse of what you’re in for in the film’s opening seconds, with planes flying and fighting overhead and buzzing around the room. The overhead flyover—or tracking objects as they pass around and across the room—is a favorite of Atmos theater owners, and this definitely delivers, with plenty of other similar sonic moments, such as helicopters swirling around, announcements from PA systems, or the blare of master caution alarms. This is a dynamic Dolby Atmos mix that almost constantly has something going on, including big dynamic effects and tons of ambient jungle sounds like bugs and wind rustling leaves in trees.

 

The film also features a soundtrack heavily influenced by psychedelic, Vietnam-

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

era rock from the late ’60s, which is given a lot of room to play across the front channels and into the height speakers. The mix also does a great job of tracking audio objects, such as when things move left/right of center and then pass into the surrounds off camera. We also get a near-videogame use of localizing threats, as you’ll hear things coming up on the characters from the surround channels.

 

We also get to enjoy a healthy amount of low-frequency effects courtesy of explosions and Kong’s roaring and stomping.

 

Kong: Skull Island give a glimpse of the kinds of battles we can expect in Godzilla vs. Kong as Kong fights the Skull Crawlers, and be sure to stick around all the way through the end credits for a scene that leads into this upcoming sequel. As Marlow said, Kong is young and still growing, and we need him to keep growing to defend us from other threats. If GvK takes place in the present day, this will have given Kong almost 50 years of growing to prepare for this fight, and we’ll want him ready! Skull Island is a surprisingly fun time that makes for a great-looking and -sounding event in your home 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: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

If you need any further proof things are still in flux with theatrical releases, look no further than Disney’s latest full-length animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon. While theaters are opening around the country—including in New York, one of the top markets—studios are still being cautious with tentpole titles. And Raya is a perfect example of Disney re-testing the waters, as the company is trying a new strategy with the film, opting to release it both theatrically and via its Disney+ streaming service with the caveat of being a premium title requiring a “Premier Access” purchase of $29.99 for viewing rights. (The film will be available at no additional charge to all Disney+ subscribers beginning June 4.)

 

This is the second Premier Access title to debut on Disney+, following the 2020 live-action remake of Mulan. What makes Raya different is that it’s the first animated feature to debut on the service requiring an additional fee to view. Recent Pixar films Onward (which had a very short theatrical release prior to the COVID closures, then launched for sale on digital retailers for two weeks prior to landing on Disney+) and Soul (which opened exclusively on the streaming service on Christmas Day) 

were available for streaming at no added fee.

 

Raya also represents Disney’s first attempt to bow a movie simultaneously theatrically and at home—a clear sign the company is weighing the risk/reward of straddling the fence and seeing if its streaming subscribers will offset the lost theatrical revenue. Not everyone is thrilled with Disney’s decision, as Cinemark—the third largest US theatrical exhibitor—refused to show the film at any of its locations.

 

Fortunately, Disney makes it fast and simple to enable Premier Access for Raya. Simply click on the onscreen option and then enter the CVC information from your linked credit card and within seconds access is granted. With nothing to download, the film is instantly available for streaming.

 

Another interesting technical aspect of Raya on Disney+ is that it does not (currently) feature Dolby Atmos audio, even 

RAYA AT A GLANCE

Disney’s latest animated feature gets both a theatrical and a Premier Access release, making it available on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 fee.

 

PICTURE
The film’s bright and saturated color palette is visually arresting and a treat to look at. HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout. 

 

SOUND
The soundtrack is pretty lackluster. Dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivers any impact, even at reference volume.

though the film includes Dolby Vision and was mastered for Dolby Cinema. This is definitely a break from the norm for films (and even original programming like WandaVision) streaming on Disney+, as most feature Atmos. Perhaps it will be added later (as it was for Frozen II), but early viewers—including yours truly—had to do without.

 

Raya features the classic elements of Disney princess fairytales: A girl loses her family and is forced to grow and trust in herself to solve some major problem, having to trust and enlist others along the way to aid in her struggle. She even passes many of the “princess tests” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.

 

What kind of princess are you? Do you have magic hair? (No.) Magic hands? (No.) Do animals talk to you? (Kind of.) Were you poisoned? (No, but it’s mentioned.) Cursed? (There is a curse on the land.) Kidnapped or enslaved? (No.) Made a deal with an underwater sea witch where she took your voice in exchange for a pair of human legs? (Ummm, no.) Have you ever had true love’s kiss? (Big no.) Do you have daddy issues? (Yep.) Don’t even have a mom. (Yep.) Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up? (A big strong man does join her quest and helps, but he doesn’t solve her problems.)” Also, put a checkmark in the “stare at important water” category too.

 

But Raya is also most definitely not your typical Disney princess film as Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is indisputably Disney’s most bad-ass, girl-power princess ever, featuring a lot of attitude and swagger. She never backs down from a fight and engages in various forms of hand-to-hand combat throughout. In fact, Raya reminded me of the live-action Mulan remake in many ways, including the fact that there’s no singing in the film. (Another break for your typical Disney princess.)

 

The story takes place in the once prosperous land of Kumandra, where dragons co-exist with humans and bring water, rain, and peace to the land. Evil spirits called the Druun come, turning all humans to stone, and the dragons sacrifice themselves in order to save humanity, placing all of their spirits into a single magic gem. A power struggle to possess the gem causes the once peaceful land to split into five tribes: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon.

 

After 500 years, Raya’s dad, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe, holder of the gem, tries to reunite the tribes, but the Dragon gem is broken into five pieces, with each tribe taking a piece and causing the Druun to return and turning many to stone. Raya escapes, and armed with her father’s sword and riding atop her combination pill bug/armadillo/hedgehog creature Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), she embarks on a quest to find Sisu (Awkwafina), who is said to be the last surviving dragon. With hopes of ridding the Druun once and for all and bringing her father back, Raya’s quest leads her to all of the villages, which have their own visual style, and have Indiana Jones-like elements to complete.

 

Disney animation is top-notch, so the fantastic visuals shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are amazing levels of detail in closeups, with rich texture in fabric, wood, stone, and hair. Water—which plays an important role in the film—also looks photo-realistic, with incredible movement and reflection. Closeups of Sisu in human form reveal strands of hair that seem to be individually colored in her purple-pink-blue-white ombre style. And the care animators took in the way fabric drapes and moves on characters has lifelike realism. The computer animation style is different from Pixar’s, but equally top-shelf.

 

HDR provides beautiful depth, highlights, shadow detail, and rich colors throughout, especially when viewed on a Dolby Vision-capable display. The magic Dragon gem has a real Arkenstone quality, internally lit by shifting, glowing, sparkling shafts of light, and the Talon village at night is especially gorgeous, glowing with rich, warm, and vibrant lighting and lamps that leaps from the screen. Raya features a frequently bright and saturated color palette, and is visually arresting and a treat to look at.

 

Having watched the movie twice—once on my 115-inch JVC 4K projector and again on a 65-inch Sony 4K LED—I did notice that backgrounds frequently have a bit of a grainy/noisy/cloudy haze. As this is computer animation, it’s obvious it isn’t actually grain or noise, so I think it must be a stylistic choice the animators took to keep the world from appearing too perfect. They also frequently chose to use “portrait mode” styling on closeups, where objects not close up in frame are defocused.

 

Besides the movie not having an Atmos track, as mentioned earlier, I found the soundtrack to be pretty lackluster—unfortunately, a common complaint with many recent Disney transfers. Even played back at reference volume on my Marantz processor, dynamics were heavily compressed and rarely delivered any impact. It wasn’t until the film’s climax that it seemed like the subwoofers really kicked in, and even then, they were restrained and didn’t deliver the impact I expected. Whether this was a shortcoming of the film itself or my Apple 4K TV, I can’t say, but I was disappointed with the sonics. However, judging by the quality of the song “Lead the Way” (performed by Aiko) played over the end credits with a lot more dimension, dynamics, and space, I feel like it is the mix itself.

 

There are some atmospheric surround effects—particularly at the very beginning and end—such as wind, rain, forest sounds, and echoes, and the score is expanded across the front of the room, but primarily this is a front-channel-centric mix that feels like it is designed to be listened to through a TV or soundbar.

 

Raya and the Last Dragon looks gorgeous, and the voice acting—especially the always-likable Awkafina, who brings the right level of humor and quirkiness to Sisu—is on point. While the lack of any songs and a few intense scenes might limit its replay value for younger viewers, it’s an entertaining film that will appeal to many viewers, as attested to by its very favorable 95% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating and 85% audience score. I have two daughters —ages 14 and almost five—so for us, a movie night where we can all get together and enjoy a new Disney animated film was an easy yes.

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: Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories (1980)

Having considered a handful of Woody Allen’s most significant films, we now approach his most problematic work (that is, the most problematic for anyone who’s not a prisoner of the irredeemable present). Allen had been on a roll with audiences after Annie Hall and Manhattan but ran into a massive wall with Stardust Memories, which effectively alienated the broader 

following he’d created with those two earlier films and left him with the small but blindly devoted fan base that would allow him to keep making movies for the next four decades. As perverse as it sounds, it seems possible—even likely—he deliberately created Memories to offend, in a maybe too successful effort to cull the herd.

 

I wondered in an earlier review why Allen soon abandoned his nimble, well-rounded, creatively fertile persona to portray a thin caricature of himself in later films. The answer might lie here. Being too honest about himself and his perceptions created a backlash that might have been both personally traumatizing and a threat to his career. With his Zelig-like need to be accepted, Allen might have decided that, rather than continue to mine that hugely and uniquely fruitful vein, he should play it safe—or at least safer—from now on.

 

Some have called Stardust Memories his best film. It’s undeniably a great movie—it takes tremendous talent and 

MEMORIES AT A GLANCE

Allen’s most challenging film—the one that alienated his wider audience, permanently reducing him to cult status—and still one of his best.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black & white cinematography—like Manhattan but with more bite—holds its own in Blu-ray-quality HD but lacks the necessary subtlety only 4K HDR can deliver. 

 

SOUND     

Yes, there’s a gunshot this time, but the movie is mainly dialogue and vintage jazz, all of which would have sounded fine in either mono or stereo.

dash to go this picaresque and be this unvarnished and ambitious and still pull it off—but it just doesn’t hang together as well as the equally audacious Manhattan. And I think the fault might lie in the relationships he chose to portray and his too facile casting of his partners.

 

Allen tends to go for the Flavor of the Month with his actors, and while Charlotte Rampling might have photographed well, she just doesn’t have the chops to be believable as his deeply disturbed love interest. Marie-Christine Barrault fares slightly better as his more grounded alternative but, again, there’s just not enough depth there. Jessica Harper almost makes her part work,

but she’s not a significant enough screen presence to care about. While Allen was likely just staying true to his actual situation, and famous directors undoubtedly do tend to flit from one stimulating but superficial relationship to another, the film needed a deeper emotional resonance there to balance its incisive but ultimately wearying examination of celebrity.

 

I don’t want to give the impression I don’t like this film—I do. I just wanted to pinpoint where it sags. Stardust Memories shows a fierce courage—and Allen paid a huge price for going there. Many felt he was too brutal on his fans, but that misses the point. He’s mainly exploring why we manifest the worlds we do and his intense dissatisfaction with his current state, which he was largely responsible for. The suffocating fans were just an inevitable extension of that.

 

It’s got the loosest structure of any his non-gag-driven films, with a “meet the director” weekend at a seaside resort supplying the armature for him to hang his diverse impressions on, and he makes it work well. The problem (to the degree it is a problem) is that people assumed it would be fun to be inside Allen’s head for 90 minutes and were thrown to find the experience jarring, even disturbing. It’s as if he took another stab at the deeply subjective, free-associational original premise for Annie Hall (called “Anhedonia”) and this time succeeded in landing all the blows.

 

And let’s not forget that Stardust Memories is a comedy, and a funny one—his conversation with a bunch of street-wise aliens (“I have an IQ of sixteen hundred and I can’t even understand what you expected from that relationship with Dorrie”) might be the best bit in any of his films—but there’s not a single comic moment that isn’t deliberately troubled by darker currents—which is what makes the film so brilliant but also what threw audiences so hard.

Allen does somewhat balance, or at least temper, his unflinching take on his realty with a deeply bittersweet romanticism, which he sees as a necessary buffer while realizing that retreats into fantasy always come at a price (something he would explore with far more nuance in The Purple Rose of Cairo). That romanticism permeates the film, in how the Allen character treats his relationships, in the Django Reinhardt-inflected jazz soundtrack, and especially in Gordon Willis’s cinematography, which tightens the more epic style of Manhattan and gives it more bite.

My comments about how Willis’s images fare in this Blu-ray-quality HD download will sound eerily similar to my comments about his work in Manhattan. Everything looks good, but not as good as it should, and Memories really does need the subtlety of all the captured steps of grayscale to help soften the impact of the deliberately harsh material. The movie is perfectly watchable in this form—although intense pools of bright light are so harsh they’re distracting—but it would be not just better but a different experience in 4K HDR.

 

Stardust Memories remains a challenging film—partly because none of Allen’s other movies have pushed the audience so hard. In hindsight, it was the pivotal moment in his career. One of the running gags is his fans’ preference for his “early, funny” films, a sentiment he acknowledges and, through Memories, says he’s OK with because he knows that’s all behind him now. Time has since affirmed that judgment, exposing those early efforts as products of the cultural moment with not much long-term worth while revealing the many strengths of his mid-period work.

 

But this was also his first movie in years without Diane Keaton as his leading 

Stardust Memories (1980)

lady, and although her presence can be felt in the Rampling character, his inability to make the romantic relationships convincing does weigh Memories down. This is pure speculation, but it seems likely Allen would have continued doing far more adventurous work if the public hadn’t turned on him so viciously after this film. Looking to regroup, he likely assumed having a leading lady was key to remaining a viable director—which is when a very eager Mia Farrow appeared.

 

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The 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: Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Early on in Malcolm & Marie, John David Washington’s character—a filmmaker whose first film debuted hours earlier—goes on an extended rant about not being elitist. “I’m not trying to make a film for the three people in my media studies class that I respect,” he screams at Zendaya’s character, his live-in girlfriend. What’s curious about this is that Malcolm & Marie is that sort of film, and this is merely the first of many self-referential moments in a story that could accurately be described as a 106-minute argument.

 

Actually, “argument” is far too benign a word. What we witness in Malcolm & Marie is over an hour and a half of two people who ostensibly love each other attempting in real time to hurt the other as much as humanly possible. It’s brutal. It’s fatiguing. 

More than once, I found myself thinking this was the first sub-two-hour film that honestly needed an intermission, if only to give the viewer a moment of respite from the vitriol.

 

What makes it worth it are the performances from Zendaya and Washington, the former of which has earned every ounce of praise heaped upon her in her relatively short career. Both she and Washington demand your attention, though—and hold it. Both make you believe, indeed feel, every bit of the pain they experience, every iota of rage. Both absolutely rise to the challenge of carrying a feature-length film that contains no other actors, not even bit extras. Both are asked to do an incredible amount of heavy lifting and make it look legitimately effortless.

 

Both are, unfortunately, also tasked with doing more heavy lifting than should be necessary. And I say that because the script, written by director Sam Levinson, isn’t fully baked. That probably has a lot to do with the rushed production, since Malcolm & Marie was only made to keep the crew of Euphoria—the HBO series created and largely 

M & M AT A GLANCE

The film consists of two characters arguing, viciously, for 100-plus minutes—which might have worked better if more time had been spent on the script.

 

PICTURE
Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is comprised almost entirely of source music, which the mix pushes around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space.

written and directed by Levinson that also just happens to star Zendaya—employed during the pandemic. It was written hastily, and under different circumstances you could argue that it would have benefitted from a few months of additional work. Hell, you could argue that under any circumstances. Because the fact is that Malcolm & Marie commits one of the sins it admonishes: It just doesn’t know when to stop.

 

As a result, it gets a bit repetitive. Its ideas get a bit belabored. And yes, there are a lot of ideas being tossed around here, despite the premise. The argument between Malcolm and Marie ventures into territory ranging from identity politics and cultural appropriation to the validity of cinema as an art form. And most of these arguments have some real meat. I just wish Levinson had trusted himself to know when he’d made his point—if indeed he was trying to make a point—and move on.

 

Then again, both of his characters suffer from the same inability, so one has to wonder if it’s intentional. In other aspects, though, Levinson’s intentions are positively crystalline. Rather than make it obvious whose side of an argument he’s on, he uses these equally flawed characters, each of whom takes a different side of every thesis, to avoid creating sympathy for one point of view or another. Sometimes this works brilliantly, especially when it comes to cultural issues. When the topic of the tête-à-tête turns toward the subject of filmmaking, though, it all becomes a little too twee. It’s as if Levinson wants to have his cake and eat it too by having Malcolm launch into a tirade that seemingly intends to shield this film from criticism, only to have Marie dismantle his argument half-heartedly. It’s the only scene in the film that feels genuinely inauthentic. (Although I have to admit to being self-conscious about using that word, since the film also riffs on the notion of artistic authenticity.)

 

At any rate, given another couple of months in the oven, the screenplay could have resulted in a truly great film. Instead, we’re left with a merely very good one. And it’s not just the performances that make it worth watching, despite its flaws. It’s also a gorgeous production, beautifully composed and wonderfully shot on Kodak Double-X 5222 film. Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation of the imagery. There isn’t much in the way of specular intensity here, but the high dynamic range is employed effectively to maintain shadow detail and mid tones, despite the preponderance of truly inky blacks.

 

Surprisingly, for such a run-and-gun production, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is straight-up fire. You’d expect it to be a center-channel-heavy affair, and it is. But it’s comprised almost entirely of source music—jazz and funk and soul pouring out of the couple’s sound system—and the mix pushes those songs around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space and to keep the viewer oriented inside the gorgeous home in which the film was shot.

 

Put it all together and Malcolm & Marie is one of the most visually and aurally engaging films I’ve seen in ages. Whether or not that makes it worth your time really comes down to whether or not you think you can endure more than 90 minutes of two humans viciously dismantling one another. It can be tough to watch, and it’s occasionally too clever by half. But all in all, the film’s merits outweigh its flaws. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Muppet Show

The Muppet Show

When a series like The Muppet Show drops on a streaming platform like Disney+, most people have a tendency to consume it in one of two ways. The vast majority probably head straight for their favorite episodes. In this case, “The Stars of Star Wars” and appearances by Carol Burnett, Alice Cooper, and Paul Simon are almost certainly going to be zooming their way down the Information Superhighway to thousands if not millions of homes this week. And chances are good that, after getting their Greatest Hits nostalgia kick, a lot of folks will forget that the beloved variety show is even there for the streaming by the end of the month.

 

Another approach is to start with the first episode and binge right through to the end. But let’s be honest with ourselves, Muppets fans: The first season of the series was not its best by a long shot. It took a while for Henson and crew to find the 

vibe they were shooting for.

 

So, how should you approach the five seasons’ worth of episodes now streaming on Disney+? I think you should go way off the beaten path. Start with Glenda Jackson’s appearance in Season Five.

 

Who? Yeah, no, I don’t know, either. Apparently, she was an actor of merit back in the ’70s, but I’ve never seen either of the films for which she received Academy Award nominations (1970’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class). Call me an uncultured oaf. I’m OK with that.

 

For me, though, Jackson will always be the actor who appeared in the most off-the-rails episode of The Muppet Show ever made. Legend has it that most celebrities slated to appear on the show were a bit diva-ish in their demands, and most wanted to work first and foremost with Miss 

MUPPETS AT A GLANCE

The show hits Disney+ in its original edits, uncensored (although not free of warnings).

 

PICTURE
Despite being 1970s video upgraded to HD, the images are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy), but marred by some really egregious edge enhancement.

 

SOUND     

The mono soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic.

Piggy. Jackson, on the other hand, left the writers to their own devices, resulting in a ridiculous romp that strains the boundaries between Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. It’s a glimpse at what the show could have been had it not been a cultural phenomenon and a bit of a vanity project for the celebrity of the week. Of course, had it not been a cultural phenomenon, odds are we still wouldn’t be talking about it today, nor would Disney+ be spiffing it up for a big streaming release.

 

Well, “spiffing” might not be the right word. The video masters have been upsampled to HD, but given that the show was shot on videocassette in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, you should keep your expectations in check. There are no original film elements to restore here.

 

Still, colors are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy at times) and aside from some really egregious edge enhancement in spots (an artifact of the master tapes or the work of a heavy-handed archivist, I don’t know), the show looks better than you might expect. It’s certainly an upgrade over the DVD releases, even if things like the occasional aliasing in blue-screen comps and some moiré artifacts and chromatic aberrations are more noticeable in 1080p. 

 

So I’ll give the video a solid B. It’s easy to appreciate that The Muppet Show looks as good as it ever has and significantly better in spots. But it’s also a little distracting at times to watch at cinematic proportions. If you have a TV in the den or family 

The Muppet Show

room, it might be kinder (to the show and your eyes) to do your watching there rather than in the home theater. Thankfully, though, the monophonic soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic, despite the lack of stereo mixing.

 

Hardcore fans of the series will appreciate that Disney+ presents the original UK edits of most of the episodes. Remember, US networks originally rejected the show, so it was produced in England by ATV and aired in the US in first-run syndication, where one short musical number was generally cut for length, since we in the Colonies have to suffer through more commercials per hour. One or two of the episodes I spot-checked seemed a bit short to be the full UK originals, but it could be that other edits had to be made due to music rights issues. Only a couple of episodes seem to be missing entirely, best I can tell. The bottom line is that this appears to be the most complete and intact presentation of the show to date.

 

Interestingly, even episodes that have been outright 

censored on all previous home video releases are presented in their entirety here. (Although I did notice that the Jim Nabors episode, one of the few I’ve had a chance to stream from beginning to end, does start with a brief textual intro about racist stereotypes and the decision not to censor those segments. When I returned to that episode to transcribe the content advisory, it didn’t appear, so such warnings seem to be a “first time you watch it” sort of thing.)

 

At any rate, that’s not the point of this diatribe. The point is, The Muppet Show is such a delightfully offbeat time capsule, a snapshot of a bygone era before Jim Henson’s creation became a little too safe and a little too kid-friendly and its alignment started the inevitable shift toward Neutral Good for a few decades—ironically due in part to the influence of Disney. So I implore you not to approach it the way you’re probably inclined to. Start with an episode from a guest star you’ve never heard of. There has to be at least one.

 

Hell, take my lead and start with Glenda Jackson’s episode, just to get a taste of what head writer Jerry Juhl was capable of when allowed to run wild. Whatever you do, though, don’t treat this Disney+ release like a Greatest Hits collection. There are some truly amazing deep cuts here I think you’ll find legitimately surprising and occasionally shocking.

—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 Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Frank Mankiewicz once described Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 as “the least factual, most accurate account” of that election and the years that led up to it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, by contrast, not only the least factual account of that trial and its participants, but also the least accurate. I would call it a piece of political propaganda if I could only figure out what Sorkin was attempting to propagandize. His rewrites of history do give us a few clues, though.

 

There’s the scene, for example, in which he has Abbie Hoffman extol the virtues of our American institutions and blame their failings on a few bad actors. And hey, you may agree with that notion. I’m not here to argue whether that’s an accurate 

assessment of things. But if you’re going to put those words in anyone’s mouth, Abbie Hoffman’s would be the last lips through which they should pass.

 

Sorkin would have us believe that Hoffman actually said, “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people.” The closest Hoffman came in the trial to saying anything resembling that was, in fact, “Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.”

 

The problem is that Sorkin simply doesn’t understand the very real humans on which his characters are based and whose names they carry. Further evidence of this is the fact that he has radical pacifist David Dellinger punch a bailiff right in the middle of the trial. Is it a great dramatic 

CHICAGO 7 AT A GLANCE

Aaron Sorkin’s film makes for better courtroom drama than his A Few Good Men but plays too fast and loose with history and seems tone deaf to the personalities of the actual protagonists.

 

PICTURE
Warmed-up colors and cranked contrast give the stylized cinematography a film-like look.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is center-channel heavy, aside from the forgettable score.

moment? Sure. But the moment fist contacted face, any similarities between the real Dellinger and the one portrayed by John Carroll Lynch (quite well to that point) became null and void.

 

And, look, I understand that in compressing a five-month trial into a two-hour movie, some liberties are going to be taken. Eliding always involves some measuring of editorializing. But if you’re going to invent dialogue (and actions) for the purposes of dramatization, it’s important to at least be true to the character of the people being fictionalized. And at least with Hoffman and Dellinger, Sorkin betrays their principles to support his ideology (nebulous though it may be).

 

In the case of Dellinger, I think that probably boils down to the fact that a neoliberal like Sorkin can’t wrap his brain around radical pacifism, so he has to portray Dellinger as a bottled-up Nazi-puncher wannabe who simply controls his urges. And 

that’s not a knock against neoliberals; it’s an indictment of Sorkin for his inability to view things through any lens other than his own.

 

Really, the only character he comes close to getting right is Tom Hayden, played wonderfully by Eddie Redmayne. Actually, to call out Redmayne’s performance alone would be to slight the excellent work done by the rest of the cast, all of whom shine. It’s just a shame they’re given such flawed characterizations to work with.

 

But it isn’t merely flawed characterizations that drag The 

Trial of the Chicago 7 down. Sorkin over-sensationalizes certain aspects of history and bowdlerizes others. He reduces Bobby Seale’s ordeal, in which he was gagged and chained to a chair for three days of the trial, to a few seconds of indignity. Because to portray the events as they actually happened would be to give some small measure of ammunition to those who argue that our criminal justice system is fundamentally and systemically flawed, and Sorkin just can’t have that. Likewise, the scene of the sentencing of the seven remaining defendants is such a complete fabrication that I don’t even know where to begin picking it apart.

 

None of this really makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a bad movie, per se. As a purely fictional courtroom drama, it’s actually a lot more compelling than the other big litigation-porn picture for which Sorkin is known, A Few Good Men. As mentioned above, the performances are stunning across the board, especially that of Sacha Baron Cohen, who captures the mannerisms of Abbie Hoffman brilliantly.

 

At any rate, if you approach The Trial of the Chicago 7 as pure fiction, it’s actually one of the better-made courtroom dramas I’ve seen in quite some time, and Sorkin is proving himself to be quite the actor’s director. There are also a handful of really great scenes sprinkled throughout the film, such as one in which Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden bicker about the relative merits of electoralism versus mobilization. That exchange, like so many other aspects of the film, draws strong parallels between the political environments of the late ’60s and today.

 

The problem is that Sorkin so unartfully forces those parallels that it all feels a little too pat. And, ultimately, I think that goes back to the point I started off with: He just doesn’t understand the Left. He’s so committed to the establishment ideology of “My side is the good guys and the other side is the bad guys, and the system will all work perfectly if my side can just defeat the other side” that he can’t help but view the world through such Blue-tinted glasses. And there just isn’t any place for the Left in that worldview.

 

Despite all that, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an interesting film to look at. The cinematography is quite stylized, and the ArriRaw footage (captured at 4.5K) has obviously gone through some film-look processing. Contrasts are cranked to just this side of black crush (and probably would have crossed that line if not for the expanded dynamic range of Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation) and the colors have obviously been warmed up a good bit (although there’s a lot of warmth in the footage already, given that it was either shot with natural light or made to look like it was). The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is largely a center-channel-heavy affair, aside from the forgettable score.

 

You’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about The Trial of the Chicago 7 in the coming weeks. It has received all manner of Golden Globes nominations and will likely be the talk of the Oscars as well. That’s the only reason I’m reviewing it now. Knowing how Hollywood works, it’ll no doubt do well at both awards ceremonies. Truthfully, though, I think its accolades say more about the sorry state of cinema over the past year than anything having to do with this film on its own merits.

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: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne's American Utopia

When we think about the closures and scheduling upheavals caused by the pandemic, at Cineluxe we generally focus on what this has meant for theaters and movie releases, but it has had an equally disastrous impact on live events like plays and concerts. The Great White Way—Broadway—officially closed to the public on March 12 (and remains closed), and most large concert tours have been postponed as well.

 

At the intersection of play/performance, concert, and movie is David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee. Utopia has been available for streaming on HBO Max since October 17, and recently made available to other digital retailers like 

Kaleidescape, where it is offered for both purchase and rental.

 

Inspired by Byrne’s 2018 tour for his tenth solo studio album, American Utopia, Byrne worked the concert into a Broadway show that ran at the Hudson Theater from October 4, 2019 to February 16, 2020. (It is set to return to the Hudson for a four-month run starting September 17.)

 

For the pop-culture impaired, David Byrne is most known as the lead singer and principal creative force behind Talking Heads. In high school, I thought Byrne was about the smartest and coolest rock star around. I loved Talking Heads, owned every album, and wore out countless batteries devouring their albums on my Walkman. But, sadly, I never had the chance to see them perform live.

 

I did do the next best thing, which was to go and see the band’s seminal concert film Stop Making Sense more than

UTOPIA AT A GLANCE

This Spike Lee-directed film of Talking Heads frontman Byrne’s concert/performance piece is on par with the classic Stop Making Sense.

 

PICTURE
The image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, but the HD presentation does lead to some artifacting.

 

SOUND     

The mix is restrained and front-centric, with most of the audio in the center channel, with the surrounds deployed for light fill.

once, including several midnight showings at the Berkeley Theater, where people of all ages would get up and dance down in the aisles and down in front of the screen. It was fantastic. I’ve since seen Byrne perform live on three occasions, including the American Utopia show when it came to Charleston in September 2018.

 

While the Utopia film is very similar to the concert experience, it does differ a bit in the set list and song order. While I’m sure Byrne has reasons for the songs selected and their order in establishing and telling his story, there is plenty here for fans to enjoy. In total, the show features 21 songs, including a sampling of Talking Heads songs spanning six different albums like “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Road to Nowhere,” as well as music from five different Byrne solo albums.

 

Part of the joy of going to a live show is being able to focus on the bits you want to watch—say a particular performer, or maybe some interplay between band members happening off-center. Obviously, with a film you are limited to what the director chooses to focus on, and Spike Lee mainly opts to keep Byrne in frame (the smart choice), switching between tight, medium, and wide shots that show the full stage and all of the performers. He also offers other camera angles the paying audience would never have access to, such as some interesting overhead shots that show some of the band’s choreography. I never felt distracted by the cuts or camera selection and felt they did a good job of serving the show.

 

Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as the best concert film ever, with a lot of credit going to director Jonathan Demme, but I feel most of that film’s look, pacing, and style is really due to Byrne, who excruciatingly choreographed and stage directed everything, leaving Demme to just point cameras in the right direction and stay the hell out of the band’s way. Much the same can be said for Utopia, where Lee is just tasked with capturing Byrne’s vision and not calling attention to himself or pulling viewers out of Byrne’s performance. The fact that Sense is sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and Utopia is currently at 98% certainly speaks to the caliber of both.

 

Like with Sense, the Utopia performers don’t all take the stage at once. As Byrne described the gradual reveal of the band at the time of Sense‘s release, “If the curtain opened and everything was there, there’ll be nowhere to go. It tells the story of the band; it gets more dramatic and physical as it builds up.” The same is true here.

 

Except here we are able to better connect with the performers and truly see and appreciate everything they are doing. There are no cables, no gear, no big drum kits or other instruments, or wire tethering the performers to a single spot. Instead, they are all totally free and unencumbered to move about the stage. Some of the coordinated movements reminded me of stripped-down halftime marching band.

 

Byrne’s penchant for letting the music do the talking is also on display in the costuming, with all 12 band members identically clad in grey-suits, grey shirts, and no shoes (save for one who is discreetly wearing shoes designed to look like bare feet).

 

While the show is mostly one song flowing into another, there are little bits of non-sequitur dialogue Byrne uses to set up songs, such as how our brains lose connections as we grow from childhood or, prior to playing “I Should Watch TV,” how he used some of his original Talking Heads record contract money to purchase a Sony Triniton TV. There are also some semi-political jabs about immigrants, voter apathy, and Black Lives Matter, especially in the cover of the Janelle Monáe song “Hell You Talmbout,” which lists the names of various African-Americans who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, imploring listeners to say the names of the dead while images of the slain person held up by a family member are flashed on screen.

 

The stage is a simple grey square surrounded on three sides by silvery, vertical hanging fine metal chain that looks a bit like chainmail armor. The fine pattern in this chain produces a bit of line twitter and artifacting that is most visible on medium

range shots showing the back of the stage, potentially a limitation of the HD resolution. Still, image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, which is the focus.

 

Instead of props and gimmicks, Byrne uses stage lighting to carefully highlight and frame the performers, using bright lights to reveal and shadows to conceal where you should focus your attention.

 

The audio presentation is very front-channel centric—primarily in the center but spread out across the left/right with just a bit of musical fill into the surrounds. Bass is not overwhelming, but your sub is called into action when appropriate. I’d say it is more of a restrained audio mix versus the big sound of a live show. Bass plucks and drum beats aren’t going to cave your chest in, and the music mixed into the surround speakers is so low as to be all but inaudible at a typical listening position. Surrounds are primarily used for crowd cheers, which get big and room-filling especially following one of the hit numbers. The mix is nice and clean, though, letting you hear all of the lyrics or focus on a particular instrument.

 

One of my favorite audio moments in the show is when the band plays “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).” Here, Byrne introduces the band members 

David Byrne's American Utopia

as they start playing their instruments one at a time, letting you clearly hear how the song is assembled and appreciate that the band is actually producing all the sound you’re hearing. (This was also a highpoint for me from the live show.)

 

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, and I’d say that if you liked the one, then you’ll definitely like the other. (With the converse also probably true. Don’t expect Utopia to make a concert lover out of you if watching live music performances isn’t your thing.) And if you regret missing out on your chance of seeing Sense live, Utopia is the closest you’ll get without finding a time machine. The staging, the stark set, the performances, and even some of the song selections all feel very reminiscent of Sense, but in a good way, reimagined for a new band and performance. We also have a Byrne who is nearly 40 years older and a fair bit less nimble, and of course no Jerry, Tina, and Chris, but that’s always a wish for another day.

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: Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter (2020)

Based on the Capcom videogame franchise of the same title and coming from the same team—writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and actress Milla Jovovich—that brought us what feels like a lifetime full of Resident Evil movies, don’t expect Monster Hunter to deliver a lot in the way of subtlety, rich character development, or introspection.

 

What you do get is pretty much 90-plus minutes of pure action, maybe not so much hunting monsters but sure as heck spending the majority of time running, hiding, and avoiding them. (And, yes, there is definitely some hunting.)

 

Monster Hunter never shies away from what it is or what it’s trying to be, namely an action-packed, popcorn-munching film, which keeps our characters in mortal peril for virtually the entire time. There is no Spielbergian building of tension and 

suspense, making you wait until deep into the movie before finally letting us catch a glimpse of the monsters. Nope. From the opening minutes, Monster Hunter throws us straight in to the action, showing us these big-baddies and letting you know just what you’re in for.

 

I didn’t have any prior knowledge or experience of the game, but unlike Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, this is a case where the film’s trailer tells you exactly what you’re gonna get: Jovovich kicking ass and fighting for her life in a strange world against Kaiju-like creatures. Plus, I expected it to deliver a pretty thrilling and engaging Dolby Atmos sound mix. (Spoiler: It totally does!)

 

Like nearly every recent film, Monster had a bit of a ping-pong journey to its theatrical release. Originally scheduled to be released in September 2020, the film was delayed to April 2021, then moved back to December 30, then 

HUNTER AT A GLANCE

Based on the video game, this movie provides 90-plus minutes of pure monster-hunting action. 

 

PICTURE
Images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. HDR plays a big role, with loads of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights.

 

SOUND     

The real treat here is the dynamic and aggressive Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which is by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

Christmas week, finally debuting in the states on December 18. It bowed on home video via digital retailers February 16, with a planned physical release expected on March 2.

 

The film opens with a ship sailing through a vast ocean of sand, with a giant creature slipping under sand dunes, stalking and attacking it. The Admiral (Ron Perlman) tries to fight off the creature, but it appears he is unsuccessful and at least one of the crew is lost. We cut to “our” world and see a team of soldiers led by Captain Artemis (Jovovich) tracking a lost group of soldiers. A freak and strange storm pulls the convoy through a vortex into the sandy world, where they discover the destroyed remnants of the missing team. A bow-wielding Hunter (Tony Jaa) in the distance tries to get their attention, but they are attacked by a Diablos, the same massive horned monster that had attacked the ship. The soldiers flee from the monster into a cave where . . . well, let’s just say things aren’t a whole lot safer.

 

Artemis ultimately teams up with Hunter and they form a plan to kill the Diablos and make their way to the mysterious Sky Tower (which looks like a combination of Mordor from Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s Dark Tower) on the horizon.

 

As mentioned, the film is based on a game, and it has a real videogame pacing and structure to it. We get our mission, meet a foe, meet other enemies, add to our party, get training and level up, beat the foe, move towards an objective, and then encounter the end boss. There are also nods to anyone who played the game. like the “Meowscular Chef,” a random one-eyed sushi-preparing pirate cat creature that shows up near the end.

 

Hunter speaks in an unsubtitled foreign language not understood by Artemis, so there’s not a lot of chatting between the two beyond things like, “This is chocolate. Choc-o-late. You eat it.” In fact, the two begin their relationship ridiculously trying to kill each other, repeatedly punching, kicking, throwing, and even stabbing. I mean, they are the only humans around and we know they are going to end up working together, so why they inexplicably waste time and energy fighting is really kind of pointless. (Maybe it’s from the game, but whatever.) What we do get to see is that Jaa has some legit fighting chops, holding black belts in Wushu and Tae Kwondo, along with being highly skilled in Muay Thai and more, and from all of her years in action films, Jovovich at least appears that she can hold her own.

 

With an estimated budget of $60 million, the effects shots and world building in Monster actually look really good. There was only one scene where the CGI looked a bit janky and called attention to itself. The creatures’ world seems appropriately vast, and they never shy away from showing the creatures close up and in detail. And from the conclusion—and mid-credits sequence—it’s pretty clear they’re hoping this movie catches on and are primed for a sequel.

 

There’s no mention of the resolution used to capture Monster but images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. Closeups have sharp focus and show tons of detail, such as the texture in uniforms and helmets, or on the attached straps, buckles, and webbing. Edges are always sharp and defined, and I was never distracted by any visual flaws.

 

High dynamic range plays a big role in the image quality of Monster. Most of the film is a bright, desert sun beaming down to gleaming white sand contrasted against the blue skies and drab green/brown of the soldier’s cammies. There are also loads 

of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights—either sunlight pouring in through holes in underground caves, candles burning in the dark, or big blasts of fire in the night sky. We also get the piercing blue-white of lightning strikes and glowing runes, not to mention the preternatural white of Jovovich’s teeth.

 

For home theater viewers, the real treat here is the Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which I would say is about as dynamic and aggressive as any I can think of. There are intense audio levels from all channels, and near constant activity from the height speakers. If you’ve been looking for a movie that shows off your investment in that new processor or additional speakers, look no further!

 

From the opening moments, you’ll be immersed in the sounds of the wooden ship creaking and groaning all around, as the sails and lightning snap and crack overhead. Vehicles crash and roll over (and over) across the top of the room, creatures skitter and crawl overhead and around, Ospreys and baddies whoosh and fly overhead, bullets fly, sand and wind blows, thunder booms. This mix is non-stop and by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

 

Bass is also authoritative and powerful when called on, with monsters’ collisions and impacts energizing all the air in the viewing room. The only thing I might 

Monster Hunter (2020)

have liked was a bit more dynamics on the gunfire, but, really, in all of the cacophony, it might have been too much. And through all the mayhem, the little dialogue we do get remains clear and anchored to the center channel.

 

If you’re looking for a film that will lead to a deep discussion afterwards, this is not for you. I mean, they didn’t exactly bury the lede in the title. But if you’re in the mood to unplug, sit back, and enjoy a loud, raucous good time in your theater, have a few jump scares, and take a break from a ton of adult-language or gore, Monster Hunter should fit the bill. And for Atmos owners, the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

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 Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

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.