TV

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

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.

Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Between passively sitting back and watching a movie and actively being involved in every action and decision while playing a videogame lies a relatively uncommon bit of media called an interactive film. Kind of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series those of us who grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember, interactive films feature a story that unfolds differently depending on the choices you make at several moments throughout, resulting in a variety of possible conclusions.

 

With its latest installment in the Black Mirror anthology, Netflix is going interactive with the new film Bandersnatch. According to Netflix, “Bandersnatch is an interactive film that reacts to your choices. You’ll be able play on newer smart TVs, most 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

streaming media players, game consoles and web browsers, and iOS and Android devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. If your device is compatible, you’ll see the interactivity badge on the film below [in the upper right-hand corner of the image].”

 

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to enjoy Bandersnatch. Of 

the multiple Netflix-capable streaming devices in my home, several weren’t compatible, including a new Apple 4K TV, Dish Hopper 3, and Samsung UBD-K8500. Those who use Google Chromecast are also left out of the fun.

 

What did work was the Netflix app in my Sony XBR65X930D TV (two generations old at this point) and my Xbox One S. (PlayStation4 is also said to work though I wasn’t able to test.)  I could also enjoy the interactive experience using the Netflix 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

app on my iPhone 7—but watching a movie on a phone is a fairly soulless experience and certainly not recommended. Also, it wouldn’t work when I used the Netflix App from the Microsoft Store on my PC, but would work on the same PC when I just went to Netflix.com.

 

When you try and play Bandersnatch on a non-supported device, you’ll be taken to a two-minute trailer featuring scenes from previous Black Mirror episodes with multiple characters saying, “I’m sorry . . .” and then the primary Netflix account receives the email shown at the left.

 

Bandersnatch’s running time is listed at 1 hour 30 minutes, but your actual adventure could last quite a bit less depending on your choices. Fortunately, if you end up making a “wrong” decision, the film will give you a chance to go back and re-choose. A brilliant touch is that if you decide to make a different decision, you’re greeted with a quick fast forward kind of recap of the decisions you’ve made to get you to where you are. It’s bit like a customized series recap, and I found it pretty cool instead of just throwing you back to where you were. 

 

The first choices are pretty benign and come just a few moments into the film, where you pick which breakfast cereal you’d like to start the day with, followed by what 

music you’ll listen to on your ride into work. As the story progresses, the decisions start becoming weightier and have more impact on the story: Will you drop acid? What will you do with a dead body?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Selection is a simple left, right, and enter, and the branching between storylines is truly seamless in that there are absolutely no breaks, hiccups, or interruptions whatsoever in the action or audio as your choice is carried out. You’ll also start to notice subtle things like in-movie ads that are based on prior choices you made. From a technical standpoint, Bandersnatch is masterfully executed and was fun to watch, err, play.

 

Without spoiling the fun, Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), who is working to turn a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch, into an interactive video game. The film also includes Colin Ritman (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) as prodigy video-game designer and somewhat mentor to Butler.

 

The story becomes very meta when Butler starts having a psychotic breakdown because of the workload and stresses of immersing himself in creating the game. He begins questioning reality and starts to feel he is no longer in charge of his own life—like there is someone else out there deciding things for him; what breakfast cereal he’ll eat, what music he’ll listen to . . .

 

The seeming “free will” and open ended-ness of the bulk of the story is a bit limited in actuality, and the film ultimately guides you to toward the end, which will have wildly different conclusions depending on choices you make late in the film. But how you get there—and how many times you’ll need to go back and make a different decision—and what sub-stories you see along the way varies based on your choices.

 

Most of the endings are a bit dark, twisted, and macabre, fitting in with what Black Mirror viewers have come to expect from the series. But I found them all varied and interesting enough that I enjoyed going back and re-choosing decisions over a period of 2.5 hours until I felt I had seen all the possible outcomes.

 

Bandersnatch is presented in 4K HDR and looks good, especially the many night and dark scenes in Butler’s room. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also does an admirable job of keeping dialogue intelligible while adding some nice atmospheric effect.

 

Black Mirror is an episodic show that has been described as a modern version of The Twilight Zone revolving around technology. IMDB describes it as “An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

 

For those who are fans of the series, or just looking to expand their viewing options for an evening, Bandersnatch is unlike anything you’ve watched before and definitely makes for an interesting experience.

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.

Blue Planet II

My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries. No, seriously, a lot of documentaries. Air a special about dinosaur dung or the restoration of a 1967 barn-find VW Beetle or how a famous actress invented frequency-hopping encryption during World War II, and we’re pretty much guaranteed to boost your Nielsen numbers for the night. Here’s the thing, though: We watch a lot of documentaries exactly once. That seems pretty normal to me. After all, do I really need to re-learn how Lego bricks are made?

The one exception to this rule is David Attenborough’s captivating nature docs, because there’s absolutely nothing normal about the treasures this wonderful man has bestowed upon the world. If you’ve never seen one of his series, I’m truly envious that you have the opportunity to discover him for the first time. His infectious, childlike sense of wonder about nature, combined with the wisdom you’d expect of a natural historian with 92 years under his belt, makes each of his series seem like a sci-fi/fantasy exploration of a planet in a galaxy far away. There’s a weird and wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing, somewhere in the middle of one of his shows, that we actually live on this weird and wonderful world.

 

A scant 11 months after the incredible Blue Planet II first aired here in the Colonies, my wife and I have already devoured the series from start to finish three times. And as we were sitting down for our fourth feast this weekend, we finally decided to retire the 4K broadcast recordings clogging our DVR and move on to a proper home video release.

 

Netflix seemed the logical place to turn to, since the series just made its way to the service this month. And it took no more than a few seconds of viewing to note that their version was a huge step up from the original 4K satellite broadcast. Kudos to Netflix’s engineers for compressing such a visually complex image as well as they have. Simply put, Blue Planet II looks brilliant streaming in 4K, as long as you’ve got a good ‘net connection.

 

But shows come and go on Netflix. I can’t count the number of times that utterly re-watchable favorites have been yanked at pretty much exactly the same time I had a hankering to watch them. So, when I noticed that Blue Planet II is also now available on Kaleidescape—along with a whole host of other programming from BBC America—downloading it was a no-brainer. At a hefty 193 gigabytes, the seven-episode mini-series is not an impulse download, but as I said above, this is a show that’s already in heavy rotation in the Burger casa. I knew it was worth the wait.

 

I just didn’t realize how wait-worthy it would turn out to be. As lovely as these alien undersea vistas are via Netflix, they’re positively stupefying in Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth presentation. The tiniest of details simply fly off the screen here. And

thanks to the High Dynamic Range presentation—something Blue Planet II lacks via Netflix, for whatever reason—you can’t help but be sucked right into the image, eyelids peeled, jaw agape, breath bated, mind blown. If the Broca area of your brain can crank out much more than the occasional “whoa” while watching a technicolor cuttlefish hypnotizing its 

cancrine prey in Episode Three, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Switch over to the Netflix stream (or the YouTube clip above), and that scene almost seems monochromatic by comparison.

 

Even if you’re not a biology nerd or a connoisseur of great documentaries, Blue Planet II is an absolute must-own on Kaleidescape (or on UHD Blu-ray, if you haven’t made the leap into the discless future just yet). It’s perhaps the most torturous AV demo material I’ve lain eyes on in ages. It’s the title you’ll pull up when skeptical guests ask, “Do I really need this HDR business?” Because Blue Planet IIs answer to that question isn’t a mere “yes.” It’s a yes with an exclamation point, delivered in a charming British accent, with a wink and an unforgettable lesson about the kooky unexplored corners of our own globe.

Dennis Burger

Blue Planet II

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

The Expanse

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.