John Sciacca Tag

Review: Let Him Go

Let Him Go (2020)

For a film featuring the star power of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane—who last shared the screen in 2013’s mega-budget superhero film Man of Steel as the “adoptive” parents of Krypton’s most-famous son—Let Him Go was a bit of a sleeper. Though, to be fair, nearly every film—save Tenetthat has had any kind of cinematic release during the pandemic could be forgiven for sliding in under the radar. Released on November 6, 2020, Let Him Go enjoyed several weeks in theaters before being made available as a PVOD offering during the long Thanksgiving weekend. It is now available for purchase in 4K HDR quality from digital retailers like Kaleidescape.

 

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Larry Watson, Let Him Go is a domestic drama that gradually ignites into a thriller as we eventually meet all the players and the entirety of the situation has unfolded. A bit like watching a fuse of unknown length slowly burn, the film kind of plods along for the first two-thirds, but then ramps up in tension as you sense the fuse is getting closer to triggering an explosion, leaving you unsure what and whom it will ultimately destroy. Based on

Kaleidescape’s brief synopsis—“Grandparents take matters into their own hands to protect their grandson and daughter-in-law from a family of psychopaths”—I was expecting an actioner something akin to Taken with a western vibe, but that wouldn’t be a fair description at all. I’d say the pacing and vibe here is a bit more No Country for Old Men.

 

In the film’s opening minutes, the only son (Ryan Bruce) of George and Margaret Blackledge (Costner and Lane) dies, leaving behind his widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) and their infant son Jimmy (played by twins Otto and Bram Hornung). We jump ahead three years to see Lorna is now married to Donnie Weboy (Will Britain), who has no interest in getting to know the Blackledges. One day while out shopping, Margaret witnesses Donnie physically abusing Lorna and Jimmy, and when she goes to confront him about it, discovers the family has abruptly left Montana without so much as a goodbye and headed to live with the Weboy family. Convinced of the worst, headstrong Margaret 

LET HIM GO AT A GLANCE

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane star is this slow-burn domestic drama, set in Montana, that eventually explodes into a thriller.

 

PICTURE     

Image quality is uneven, with some closeups bristling with detail while wider shots tend to be a tad soft.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack presents dialogue clearly and uses little atmospherics to help establish different scenes and environments.

informs ex-policeman George that they need to track the family down and save young Jimmy, and she is going with or without him. When they finally discover the Weboy clan, well, things turn . . . creepy. (I wasn’t sure that was the right word here, but on checking the exact definition—“producing a nervous shivery apprehension”—that definitely feels like the right adjective.)

 

At 113 minutes, Let Him Go never feels in a hurry but steadily ambles, without too many surprises along the way, toward its violent conclusion. What makes it so entertaining and engaging are the performances by Costner and Lane, who are intense and real, and make you feel as if they’ve lived a simple but happy life together on a ranch in 1960s Montana. This is especially true of Lane, who takes the reins in many scenes and is the driving force in the story. Additionally, the off-kilter performances of Donnie’s uncle, Bill (Jeffrey Donovan), and Weboy matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville) add to the believability that things could spiral out of control with a family that holds control over a small North Dakota town. Conversations between them seem perfectly normal but brew with a deep undercurrent of creepy unease, tension, and read-between-the-lines threats. Manville isn’t in many scenes but she steals the room whenever she is there. As a parent, I was especially taken by the performance of the Hornung twins as young Jimmy. Their mannerisms, expressions, and demeanor make you ache and care for this little boy.

 

There is no mention of the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate, but I found image quality to be a bit uneven at times. While some closeups bristled with detail and held the actors’ faces in crisp focus, others—specifically wider shots—were a tad soft. It looks as if the cinematographer chose to keep the main subject in focus at the expense of 

objects around it, which were often slightly defocused, something apparent on my 115-inch screen and 4K projector. This was especially noticeable in some of the big vista shots, where sweeping backgrounds didn’t have the sharpness and detail they could, with fields of grasses or trees clearly softer looking. The 2.39:1 aspect ratio does a beautiful job presenting the wide vistas of what is supposed to be Montana and North Dakota, but, on the whole, I’d say images had a more film-like “softness” rather than sharp digital detail.

 

It appeared many scenes were filmed using available natural light, giving lots of shadow detail, such as the opening early-morning scene filmed in a stable. A couple of scenes shot by firelight look especially good, with warm lighting and shadows dancing across the actors’ faces, and the dusky, nighttime skies are always clear and noise-free.

 

The film has a mostly muted, beige/tan, earth-tone color palette, with pops of colors from green grass or cars and trucks. A conflagration clearly popped with blazing reds and oranges, as did bright sunlight streaming in through windows.

 

Released cinematically with a Dolby Digital sound mix, the Kaleidescape download has a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack that presents

Let Him Go (2020)

dialogue clearly first and foremost. I was pleasantly surprised by how much the audio uses little atmospherics to help establish different scenes and environments. Whether it is the sounds of traffic outside, the low rumble and bell of a distant train, whistling winds, the hum of an AC compressor in an apartment, or bird and insect noises, there was a surprising amount of ambient audio sounds spread around the room to help place you in environment. A scene near the finale has creaks and groans of an old home that upmix nicely into the overhead, height speakers. While there isn’t a lot of gunfire, the few gunshots are loud and dynamic and have an authentic quality to them, making you jump a bit at their power. The audio also does a nice job presenting Michael Giacchino’s mournful soundtrack, with simple guitars, cello, and strings that have a soulful, melancholy feel evocative of older westerns.

 

Let Him Go is not a fun movie. In fact, near the end, my wife got up and said, “This is just too sad. I can’t finish it.” But with an 82% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it is a thoughtful, well-made, well-acted film that will leave you appreciating the family you do have and perhaps contemplating just how far you’d go to save a loved one. Also, if you learn no other lesson from viewing, perhaps it should be, “Don’t pull a gun unless you are good and ready to use it.”

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: Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)

With the horror show that was 2020 finally behind us, a lighthearted post-apocalypse film with a different take on the genre might just be the perfect thing for your next movie night. Originally slated for a theatrical release, Love and Monsters instead debuted on VOD via digital retailers on October 16, as well as seeing a small (just 387 theaters) theatrical release for the October 16-18 weekend. Like many VOD titles, this one didn’t get a lot of press, so unless you’ve been cruising the digital-release updates on your favorite provider—iTunes, Fandango, Vudu, Kaleidescape—you probably missed it.

Post-apocalypse films typically follow one of two themes: Hordes of zombies relentlessly attacking the survivors or survivors forced to fight against each other for the few remaining resources. Love takes a different approach to this, giving us a new but entirely relatable “enemy,” making for a far more light-hearted journey, as well as a fresher take on this “love” story.

 

In the opening moments we’re told the governments on Earth decided to launch a massive rocket barrage in order to ward off a planet-killing asteroid. While they destroyed the asteroid, no one counted on all of the chemical fallout causing massive mutations among earth’s insect and reptile populations, with these creatures growing hundreds of times their normal size, with increased appetites to boot.

 

In the seven years following the fallout, 95% of Earth’s population has been wiped out, with the remainder joining up in colonies and living underground in shelters to survive. 

MONSTERS AT A GLANCE

Populated with mutant insects instead of zombies, this lighthearted post-apocalyptic tale is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

 

PICTURE     

While not the last word in sharpness or detail, the images are clean and clear with some shots looking almost 3D and with HDR giving them punch and realism.

 

SOUND     

The videogame-like 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack is immersive and exciting, with the surrounds used throughout to help establish environments.

It’s in one of these colonies where we meet our unlikely hero, Joel (Dylan O’Brien, best known from his starring role as Thomas from The Maze Runner trilogy). While well liked in his colony for his skill at repairing the radio and making a mean minestrone, he is worthless when it comes to fighting against the creepy-crawlies, completely freezing up on any encounter.

 

After discovering that his old high-school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), is living in a colony just 85 miles—or 7 days walk—away, he decides he’s tired of hiding underground and that he’s going to risk the journey for love.

 

Along the way, Joel befriends a dog, meets up with two seasoned survivors, Clyde (the excellent Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who give him some much-needed training, gets attacked by a variety of mutated critters, and learns what it takes to survive and actually live again.

 

While zombie films essentially have waves of the same kinds of undead hordes, Joel is confronted with a constant variety of insects, with different looks and attack patterns that keep it visually interesting and exciting, with Joel never knowing where the next attack is coming from. (Though, spoiler, it’s almost always from below . . .) Also, the violence and gore here is decidedly “family-friendly;” Instead of humanoid creatures getting brains blown out in a shower of gore or chewing on human flesh, we get insects dying in mostly bloodless manners. Other than several uses of sh–, the film is pretty unobjectionable, and definitely something you could enjoy with a teenaged crowd.

 

The filmmakers also did a nice job of worldbuilding, littering the landscape with old, wrecked military weaponry and remnants of giant insect corpses as well as abandoned vehicles and shelters, and the insects have enough detail to make them both gross and creepy.

 

Information on the technical specifications of Love and Monsters’ transfer wasn’t available, but images are clean, clear, and sharp throughout. Though it didn’t have the constant tack-sharpness and hyper-detail of some modern transfers—making me think it is maybe a 2K digital intermediate—there is still tons of detail in closeups, revealing the micro-stubble and texture in Joel’s face. What I really noticed was the image focus and depth of field, with some shots having a near three-dimensional quality. Even with groups of people together—such as inside Joel’s bunker—all of the characters are distinct, captured in sharp, clear focus.

 

With images alternating between the stark, fluorescent- and flashlight-lit darkness of bunkers and the bright, sun-filled outdoors, HDR really helps to give images punch and realism. Lighting and shadows in the dark interiors also look 

appropriately dark, with clean dark blacks, punctuated by the bright fluorescent lighting. Outdoor scenes are filled with vibrant and realistic looking earth tones, with beaming sunlight that will make you squint against the light coming off your screen.

 

While “just” a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack, I was impressed with how immersive and exciting the mix was played with Dolby Surround upmixing through my Marantz processor. In fact, far more of my viewing notes were about the audio than the picture quality, with sound used throughout to establish environments like inside Joel’s bunker with lots of metallic groans and echoes or sounds of dripping water, or deep metallic thunks and clanks as heavy doors are opening/closing, or the wind rustling through grasses and trees in outdoor areas.

 

The surrounds are used extensively to help locate an imminent insect attack, with the creatures slithering and skittering in from the side or back of the room, or the sounds of weapons whisking past, reminding me a bit of the way a good videogame mix helps you to localize the threat. While not an immersive mix with true discreet height effects, the height speakers are fed sounds of flares popping and jets streaking overhead, sounds of rain and thunder during a storm, as well as creature sounds during some of the insect battles.

Love and Monsters (2020)

Your subwoofer adds weight to the explosions, metallic collisions, and insect burrowing, and dialogue remains clear and intelligible.

 

While Love and Monsters doesn’t break any new ground—handsome boy risks death to go and get pretty girl—it’s just fun to watch, due in large part to O’Brien’s charming turn as Joel and the variety of critters he runs across, as well as some dry humor injected from Clyde, whose survival lessons reminded me a bit of Zombieland‘s “Rules.” If you’re looking for a slightly edgy film you can watch with the family—my 14-year-old daughter, Lauryn, really enjoyed it, with just enough tension and sudden scares to keep her engaged and entertained—that isn’t animated or doesn’t involve superheroes, Love and Monsters is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

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 Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Even with theaters still closed across much of the country, this has been a big past few days for movie releases, with three big-budget titles hitting streaming services. Christmas Day saw the release of Soul on Disney+ and Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max as well as in theaters, along with the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, showing theatrically here in the States but available for streaming on Netflix in some international territories. And on December 23rd, Netflix released the George Clooney directed and starring sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

 

Unlike films that were destined for the big screen and then re-routed to streamers as a theatrical release proved unsafe (or unprofitable), it appears Sky was destined for Netflix from the get-go—though it did see a very limited theatrical release in a total of 232 theaters in the Netherlands and South Korea. With an estimated budget of nearly $100 million, Sky is one of the 

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

Most recently known for playing himself in ads pitching Nespresso coffee machines and the billion-dollar sale of his co-founded tequila brand, Casamigos, Clooney’s legacy of bankability and choosing good roles—his turn in the dismal Batman & Robin notwithstanding—still gives him quite a bit of star power, and his involvement was my primary reason for being interested in Sky.

 

Based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Sky opens in February 2049, three weeks after some unspecified cataclysmic event has poisoned the planet with radiation, wiping out most of life on Earth and rendering it uninhabitable. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the sole person at the remote Barbeau Observatory scientific base in the Arctic Circle, suffering from a terminal illness and spending his remaining days drinking, monitoring deteriorating world conditions, and performing transfusion treatments to prolong his life.

SKY AT A GLANCE

This George Clooney directed & starring straight-to-Netflix space epic will intrigue sci-fi and Clooney fans but will probably be pretty slow going for everyone else.

 

PICTURE     

Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail. There are lots of bright highlights that benefit from the HDR grading.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments with their own unique sounds.

Lofthouse discovers there is still a single active space mission, the Aether, which is returning from having explored the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23—a moon that had been discovered years before by Lofthouse. Knowing that the ship returning means a death sentence for its crew, Lofthouse attempts to contact the Aether to warn them off, but the antenna at his station isn’t powerful enough to reach the ship. One evening, he encounters a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inside the station, who refuses (or is unable) to speak but identifies herself as Iris through a drawing. Lofthouse decides to take Iris and head to another base with a larger antenna to warn off and save Aether’s crew.

 

The film bounces back and forth between Lofthouse and Iris on earth and the small five-man crew aboard the Aether, headed by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Interspersed with these events, we have flashbacks where a younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) remembers an old girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), who left him to pursue his science after a pregnancy scare.

 

Just shy of a two-hour runtime, The Midnight Sky feels a bit slow and plodding and almost like two different movies, with Lofthouse struggling on Earth and the astronauts off doing their thing in space. While Clooney—who lost 30 pounds to play the role and sports a David Letterman-esque shaggy beard—does his best, I just never felt connected to the characters enough to care about them. We find out he’s terminal in the film’s opening moments, so it isn’t like his character’s arc is a real mystery. And we barely get to know anything about the astronauts, and not caring or being invested in the six characters makes for a slow journey.

 

Clooney is essentially by himself the entire time, and the scenes between him and Iris before going on their trek to the other station are all one-sided bits of dialogue in the confines of the Observatory that wear on and don’t create the mystery I think Clooney was going for.

 

The film tries to create additional drama along the way, both on Earth and in space. Lofthouse and Iris are caught in blizzards, circled by wolves, and experience the almost requisite fall-through-ice, which, let’s be honest, would have left them dead of hypothermia within minutes in the extreme frigid conditions. In space, the ship experiences a trajectory deviation that puts them into uncharted space where they are bombarded with meteorite ice crystals that destroy critical parts that require a spacewalk to repair. And, well, if Clooney’s previous space film, Gravity, taught us anything about spacewalks, it’s that they can be . . . hazardous.

 

With the big budget, the special effects look first-rate, specifically life aboard the Aether and the exterior shots of the ship, which you get to see in great detail during the spacewalk. Had these scenes not been believable, the movie would be a real #Fail. Also, the freezing exteriors were shot on location at the top of an Icelandic glacier with sub-40-degree temps and 50 MPH winds, so Clooney’s misery and frozen beard are all real.

 

One interesting choice was having a younger actor play young Lofthouse, but with his voice mixed in with Clooney’s. Having just watched the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, where one character is digitally de-aged to questionable effect, my wife and I debated which more pulled you out of the story: The obvious CGI de-aging or the distraction of having the wrong voice come out of a real face. Ultimately, I think they were equally distracting in their own ways.

 

Framed in an unusual 2.11:1 aspect ratio, Sky was shot digitally in a combination of 4.5 and 5.1K, and the Netflix transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail, such as tight shots on Clooney’s face where you can (for better or worse) see every strand of hair in his beard, or see the fine pattern in his plaid flannel shirt.

 

There are lots of bright highlights throughout that benefit from the HDR grading, such as the constant glowing white lights and consoles aboard the Aether along with its pulsing blue engines (thrusters?), and the bright monitors and screens in the Observatory. One scene inside a crashed airplane is a darkened interior lit by the bright probing beam of a flashlight with really nice shadows and detail. K-23 also has a bright, rust-orange color that gets a boost from the wider color gamut.

 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments—inside the Observatory, inside the Aether, outside on the Arctic—with their own unique sounds. Besides the overhead speakers being used to expand the music’s soundstage, there are some nice, hard-panned height effects, such as helicopters flying overhead, swirling and howling winds, or the echoing report of gunshots. There aren’t many gunshots (three, I believe), but they are loud and dynamic, the first making my wife jump, and the meteorite strikes have some decent bass impact.

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score of 53%, and Audience Score of just 25%, The Midnight Sky isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or Clooney, there are certainly worse ways you could pass two hours. If you need your sci-fi to be filled with action and adventure—with a definitive resolution and conclusion—you’ll want to give this one a pass. Fortunately, if you do give it a go, the cost is $0 (on top of your Netflix subscription) and the movie at least looks and sounds good.

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: Soul

Soul (2020)

Disney’s gift to families arrived on Disney+ yesterday in the form of Pixar’s 23rd feature-length film, Soul, which is arguably the largest title to debut on the streaming service without requiring the purchased premium access of the recent live-action Mulan remake. (Onward had a brief theatrical release before being moved to the streaming site.)

 

Soul definitely tackles Pixar’s biggest, most complex, and heady adult ideas and themes to date. While other Pixar films have dealt with the death of a main character (notably the loss of a parent in Onward), here we get a version of both the afterlife and pre-existence—and I’d say despite the pleasing visuals (especially in the vibrant and colorful Great Before) and big-eyed 

cuteness of the ever-smiling new souls, it isn’t really a children’s movie at all. But the genius of Pixar films has always been that they are able to entertain and appeal to viewers across large age groups, and the jokes and themes here are certainly geared towards an older audience, such as what some of those sign-spinners are really up to, what happens to hedge-fund managers, and why the Knicks keep losing.

 

Jazz—or “black improvisation music” as Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) father calls it—also plays a prominent role throughout the film, a musical genre that isn’t typically kid-friendly, and it also features “real,” poignant adult conversations between characters, such as the chat Joe has with his longtime barber Dez (Donnell Rawlings).

 

You could consider Soul to be the final (?) film in director Pete Docter’s reverse life-cycle trilogy, which began with 2009’s Up that focused on a person nearing the end of his life, followed by 2015’s Inside Out, which put us in the

SOUL AT A GLANCE

Pixar’s 23rd feature—debuting on Disney+ without a theatrical release—is a very adult take on life and the before- and afterlife.

 

PICTURE     

Image quality is reference-quality throughout (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos audio does a great job of presenting the film’s jazz score, with music swirling overhead and around the room, and with plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout.

mind of a pre-teenager figuring out her emotions. With Soul, we actually roll back to pre-existence, discovering how people get their unique personality traits and find that “spark” that motivates, excites, and inspires them.

 

The movie begins with Joe, a part-time middle-school band instructor, getting hired on full-time at the school. While his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), is thrilled at the prospect of Joe having a steady paycheck, insurance, and security instead of his gigging lifestyle, Joe feels he’s turning his back on his dream of being a jazz musician. When one of his former students, Curley (Questlove), calls him to see if he’s available to audition to play piano with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) Quartet that evening, Joe nails the try-out and leaves on Cloud Nine, oblivious to everything going on around him. This leads to him walking into an open manhole, and, well, coming around as a soul ascending towards the great white light of the Great Beyond. But Joe isn’t willing to accept that he has died on the night of his big break, so he fights to get back to his body on earth.

 

And that is just the first 11 minutes of the movie.

 

From here, we transition to the Great Before—rebranded as the You Seminar—where mentors work with new souls who are given unique and individual personalities to prepare them for life on Earth. (One soul proclaims, “I’m a manipulative 

megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic.”)  Another group of souls is sent to become self-absorbed, causing one of the counselors to say, “We really should stop sending so many people through that pavilion.”

 

The final step in a soul receiving its full personality—and getting its Earth pass—is for it to find its “spark,” or that thing that 

drives you. Joe is assigned to Mentor 22 (Tina Fey), who has been stuck as a new soul for years with no desire to go to Earth, having broken previous mentors such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mohammed Ali.

 

With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral traveler who sails about The Zone, a place between the spiritual and physical, in a tie-dye-sailed ship listening to Bob Dylan and helping lost souls find their way, 22 and Joe make it back to Earth, but not exactly in the way the Joe is hoping. I thought the film was going to take a Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin All of Me turn, but it doesn’t. Without spoiling, I’ll say Joe comes back in a way where he can still communicate with 22 but with no one else.

 

The movie has three distinct animation styles and looks defining the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and life on Earth. The Beyond is rendered in very contrasty black and white with just the color of the souls headed towards the ultra-bright light (a scene that reminded me of Carousel from Logan’s Run, whether intentional or not), whereas the Great Before is vibrant, filled with glowing blue, pink, and purple pastels and almost neon-tube drawings with things glowing bright around outlined edges and having a very ethereal look. Earth is hyper-realistic with a more muted, natural color scheme.

 

Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at. While the Great Before has colors that leap off the screen (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), it is the scenes on Earth that really show off Pixar’s animation prowess, with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on. The texture, layering, and fading colors in street graffiti, the floor of the barbershop and look of Dez’s shoes, the distressing in iron railings, the sweat that appears on musicians’ faces after a long gig, the variety of people walking around the streets of New York, the micro-bits of fabric at the edges of Joe’s sweater, or the reflection off a glossy piano lid revealing the workings inside. Remembering that every . . . single . . . pixel of detail, every micro imperfection, every scratch and nick, every reflection, every subtle lighting effect, has been painstakingly created by deliberate artistic choice takes appreciation to the next level.

 

You can also really notice the choices the Pixar artists make in how they animate different things. While they’ve settled on the look of people, other items like buildings, backgrounds, and furniture get near-photo realistic detail. Other things like photos of jazz greats in a stairwell, or the stage at the club, land somewhere in between.

 

As mentioned, jazz music is a prominent, recurring theme throughout the film, and the Dolby Atmos audio does a great job presenting this, especially when Joe is really grooving and in-the-zone, where music swirls overhead and around the room. Voices in the Great Before are echoey, while the street sounds and cacophony of New York sound appropriately overwhelming. There are also plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout, such as the flatter, low-ceilinged sound of music in the Half Note, the clack of tracks aboard the subway, or the buzz overhead as Joe stands under a neon light. Most important, dialogue is always clear and perfectly intelligible.

 

Soul is a deep story that actually takes a bit of unpacking, and it looks so good you’ll likely want to revisit it more than once, where you’ll likely discover plenty of new things to appreciate—and possibly pause to try and pick out the Easter eggs scattered throughout. Finding out what things make a life, and learning to enjoy the simple pleasures and experiences life has to offer is the real heart of Soul, and this is another win for Pixar.

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: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

With the dearth of new content available to release to the home market, studios have been mining their catalogs of older titles, giving them fresh, new 4K HDR video remasters and (frequently) Dolby Atmos immersive audio tracks to entice viewers to purchase—or repurchase—a classic. The latest film to get a (gasp!—has it actually been that long?!) 30th-Anniversary remaster release is Total Recall.

 

I actually saw Recall in the theater in 1990. That was right in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as king of the big-screen blockbuster, following his roles in two Conan films, The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, and the comedy Twins (followed shortly thereafter by Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, and Eraser). Arnie in a film all but 

guaranteed audiences that they were in for a big-budget, wild action ride.

 

Besides his imposing physicality and quasi-believability of being able to wipe out hordes of bad guys, Arnold also managed to bring some humor to the big action role, proving to have surprising comic timing and dryly delivering one-liners that brought another facet to the action genre.

 

Based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick (who also penned “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the basis for Blade Runner), Recall is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and it definitely has his stylistic thumbprint all over it, especially in the over-the-top gun violence and massive bullet wounds and in-film adverts, which are heavily reminiscent of his other films RoboCop and Starship Troopers.

 

The sci-fi plot actually has a bit of depth and complexity to 

RECALL AT A GLANCE

This sci-fi actioner from the height of Schwarzenegger’s fame receives the 30th-anniversary 4K HDR treatment.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is true to the movie’s 35mm origins, retaining a respectable amount of grain, while HDR makes the saturated, neon Martian reds pop.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is mainly restrained and front-forward, with the surround channels used extensively to expand the music score.

it, thanks to Dick’s source material. Taking place in 2084, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is continually plagued by dreams of being on Mars with a mysterious woman. Thinking that a virtual trip to Mars might satisfy him, Quaid heads over to Rekall, where they implant memories in your brain. These implanted memories are indistinguishable from actual memories, and Rekall promises to make you feel like you’ve had a luxury vacation experience without ever leaving Earth and for a fraction of the price.

 

Complications arise during the implant process, and Quaid is quickly sedated and dumped in a cab. His life turns upside down when people—including his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone)—start attacking him. Lori tells him that his life and memories are all fake and just implants from The Agency, and she has been assigned to watch over him. This leads to Arnold delivering one of the film’s iconic lines, “If I’m not me, who the Hell am I?” Narrowly avoiding a raid, Quaid is given a briefcase with money, papers, gadgets, and a video message from himself, but as someone named Carl Hauser who tells him that he, as Hauser, underwent a memory wipe to escape The Agency after discovering an alien artifact on Mars. After Hauser walks Quaid through the process of removing a tracking device, Quaid heads to Mars.

 

Is Quaid still on the table at Rekall, stuck in his dreams, living implanted memories? Is he actually Hauser? What memories are real and can be trusted? And if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

 

With a huge (for the day) budget of $65 million, the movie features elaborate sets, makeup, costume design, and world building. Mars feels like a fleshed-out, alien world that has been colonized by humans, including various mutations from intense radiation, and the interiors—especially the location of the alien artifact—seem appropriately huge. Further, practical special effects abound throughout—as well as some relatively new for the time CGI. Recall actually won an Academy Award for Visual Effects. (It was also nominated for Sound and for Sound Effects Editing.)

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Some film grain remains visible throughout, but it is never distracting. The film certainly didn’t receive the massive grain reduction smoothening Terminator 2 did. In general, most scenes—especially those filmed in the bright outdoors—are clear and sharp. Don’t expect the ultra clarity, sharpness, and detail of modern digital images, but you’ll definitely appreciate all the detail the source material has to offer.

 

I remember being especially impressed with the scene of Quaid pulling the tracker roughly the size of a golf ball out of his nose, wondering how they pulled that off. While this would have certainly been a CGI effect today, it was accomplished with the use of an elaborate, incredibly realistic-looking puppet, and the effect still holds up, even under 4K’s enhanced resolution, where you can really appreciate the detail that went into it. The same goes for the mutant Kuato.

 

Some scenes—such as on board the subway—look a bit soft. Even within scenes, there can be a bit of inconsistency. When Quaid is in the Rekall offices, the fine check print in McClane’s (Ray Baker) jacket can alternate between being crisp and defined to looking soft and unstable. The added resolution also reveals the limitations of the video screens used at the time. 

(Anyone remember the Proton and Curtis Mathis brand names?)

 

What really pops from this new HDR color grading are the vibrant, deeply saturated reds of Mars. From the opening credits, you get these searing, neon reds, giving a glimpse into what is to come. HDR also gives pop to the bright lights on the subway, and the neon lights and signs in Venusville, Mars’ red-light district. Blacks are also deep and clean, providing a solid background for the rest of the images to pop.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos mix is fairly reserved, certainly by modern standards, with most of the mix taking place in the front of the room. Even with a mainly LCR mix, you get a lot of width across the front, with action spread far left and right. The mix also does a great job with the dialogue, which is clear and understandable throughout.

 

The height and surround channels are used pretty extensively to expand the musical score, using the additional speakers for a far more room-filling experience, especially inside the Last Resort Club on Mars where loud music booms from all around.

 

The sound mixers did take some opportunities to extend sound effects into the 

Total Recall (1990)

room to heighten certain moments. Aboard the robot-driven “Johnny Cab,” we get some nice creaks and groans happening overhead, during gunfights there are some ricochets into the surround speakers, subway announcements emanate from the height speakers, reverb sounds in the mine shafts, and wind swirls and blows overhead when there is a atmosphere breach.

 

While Total Recall shows its age in parts—some of the scenes between Schwarzenegger and Stone are a bit groany—it remains a fun action ride, driven forward with near constant action and a good bit of depth to the story. If your only experience with Total Recall is the disappointing 2012 Colin Farrell remake or from watching the original film on DVD, this new 4K HDR remaster is a must-see. 

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: Tenet

Tenet (2020)

I don’t believe I’ve written more about any single subject this year at Cineluxe than I have about Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet. Nolan has been quite vocal about his preference that his films be seen on the largest screen (i.e., IMAX) possible, and was insistent Tenet receive a theatrical release rather than bow on a PVOD streaming service. In accordance with his wishes, it was one of the first films to show theatrically in the States after closing restrictions were lifted, but it had a pretty dismal performance at the box office, grossing under $58 million in the US and Canada—not great for a film that had a production budget of $200 million.

As a fan of Nolan’s work, I went and saw Tenet at a theater, renting out the entire auditorium for a private watch party, and I had been looking forward to its home video release ever sense. I left that first viewing . . . confused. The story is incredibly complex, with physics concepts like entropy (“a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system”) and inverting (or reversing) entropy being key plot points.

 

Further complicating Tenet is Ludwig Goransson’s often aggressive, kinetic soundmix and blasting sound effects that pummel you almost constantly, especially during key sequences when you’re struggling to keep up with who is where (and when). Add to that the fact that characters are

TENET AT A GLANCE

Christopher Nolan’s big & loud cerebral spy thriller arrives on home screens—which means you don’t have to risk your life anymore to go see it.

 

PICTURE     

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX, Tenet looks gorgeous, with reference-quality video throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio mix is both fantastic and—thanks to some overly emphatic bass and hard-to-hear dialogue—damnably frustrating.

frequently speaking behind masks, which makes some of the dialogue all but impossible to understand. And it just adds to the frustration when you’re constantly asking yourself, “What did (s)he say?”

 

As I wrote after my first viewing:

 

Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. It will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.

 

Prior to watching for the second time, I did a bit of homework. Googling “Understanding Tenet” produces quite a few results of blogs, theories, threads, and videos from people who have really dug into the film and tried to dissect it to make it a bit more 

viewer friendly.

 

Concepts like the Sator Square were new to me, and discovering how Nolan weaved this into the story added to my appreciation. You’ll notice that the words below read forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, forming a palindrome in both directions, playing into Nolan’s forwards-backwards time concept with Tenet.

 

SATOR

AREPO

TENET

OPERA

ROTAS

 

While there is still a good bit of the film I don’t fully understand—maybe on a third or fourth viewing!—I will say I got far more out of a second viewing, thanks to the foreknowledge of why people were doing things and some other visual clues Nolan throws in if you know what to look for. And, with apologies to Mr. Nolan, I think Tenet actually works better at home.

 

Of course, if this is your first viewing, I’d suggest going in “blind.” Part of the fun is being thrown into this world and trying to figure out how to make your way in it. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy) says to our hero, the Protagonist (John David Washington), “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

 

Nolan has said that while Inception was his heist film, Tenet is his version of a spy thriller. When boiled down to its essence, it’s about The Protagonist trying to stop Russian Oligarch/arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. How the Protagonist goes about uncovering Sator’s plans and draws close to him, how Sator intends on destroying the world, and how the Protagonist goes about stopping him are what make the story so twisty-turny and visually compelling. The film also benefits from the strong performances of Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s suffering wife, Kat, and Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s partner, Neil. And Pattinson’s handling of Neil also makes me think that he is up to the task of playing Bruce Wayne whenever the next Batman film is released.

 

There are a couple of ways to watch Tenet, and depending how you do so will also affect your viewing experience. With the 4K HDR version from digital retailers like Kaleidescape or Vudu, you will see a constant 2.2:1 aspect ratio film. However, those watching the physical disc (4K or standard

Blu-ray) or watching the HD version of the film from Kaleidescape will see the film alternating between 1.78:1 and 2.2:1 ratios, switching to 1.78:1 for the scenes shot on IMAX. If you’re watching on a traditional direct-view TV, or have a 16:9 aspect-ratio projection screen, you will likely enjoy the alternating ratios, as the big action scenes will get bigger, filling your entire screen. But if you own a widescreen projection system—as I do—the constant 2.2:1 ratio is likely preferable and less disruptive to the viewing experience.

 

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, Tenet looks gorgeous. It doesn’t have that tack-sharpness of movies shot digitally, but looks like a movie shot on film in all the right ways. Grain is absolutely minimal, and the images on screen just look natural and terrific. In looking through my viewing notes, I wrote down the words “clean,” “clear,” and “crisp” repeatedly.

 

Edges are sharp and defined, and closeups bristle with detail. Much of Tenet takes place in the world of billionaires, and the trappings of luxury are beautifully displayed. You can really see and appreciate the character styling in the fine detail, texture, patterns, and prints in the clothing worn by the main characters. One scene where the characters are dining aboard Sator’s mega-yacht had so much fine detail to appreciate in the tablecloth and linens and other bits on the yacht that it was almost distracting. Daylight shots of the Amalfi Coast are also just stunning to look at, with the beautiful array of colors and sharply defined buildings contrasted against the craggy cliffs and water.

 

Blacks are clean, clear, and dark, and we get plenty of bright highlights in the form of explosions or bright lighting. Colors are bright and punchy when called for, like bright yellows of safety vests, or the red-orange of fireballs, or the warm, golden hues of a candlelit dinner. Throughout, Tenet delivers reference-quality video, with images that look incredibly natural, sharp, and detailed. While it might have been impressive on an IMAX screen, it absolutely looks fantastic viewed on a high-quality home theater.

 

As much as I wrote down about Tenet’s video quality, I have more notes about the audio. Presented in 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (Nolan famously eschews immersive mixes like Dolby Atmos), the mix is both fantastic and damnably frustrating.

 

It’s fantastic in the way it is just filled with atmospheric sounds both subtle and overt in virtually every scene. Interiors are densely layered with little sounds—echoes, ocean sounds, machinery noises, background chatter, etc.—that fully place you in that space. While not an immersive mix, my Marantz’s processor did a wonderful job of upmixing the 5.1-channel track to provide a fully hemispherical presentation. A scene where gas is filling a room literally fills your room with the hissing jets of gas coming from all around. Another scene has the Protagonist in the middle of a train yard, and when the trains pass by left and right of him, the cacophony of the squealing and groaning and clacking of the wheels makes you experience what the characters is experiencng.

 

Dynamic sounds are dynamic and loud. Gunshots sound fantastic, having appropriate weight that engages the subwoofer and delivers the zip and snap of close misses, with bullets slamming into things with appropriate force. Wood splinters, metal thunks, glass shatters. Both the opening opera scene and later gun battle on the highway are perfect audio demos to show off your system. 

You’ll also never need to wonder if your subs are working, which is a part of why the audio mix can be so frustrating. Bass is frequently on the verge of being overwhelming—I wrote down “bombastic”—or crossing over into just walloping you with low-end for no apparent reason, often from the musical score, which frequently is filled with a steady, deep, low-frequency hum, pulse, and throb. But when things blow up, your sub needs to be there to deliver, and it will produce couch-rattling, chest-stomping bass.

 

Dialogue intelligibility is still a very mixed bag. At its best, you can understand what characters are saying; at its worst, dialogue is so drowned out by background effects and music that it’s impossible to understand, or even hear at all in some cases. I’d say most of the film’s dialogue—spoken behind oxygen masks or just in very noisy environments—is challenging. On this second viewing, I decided to not to struggle and opted to just turn the subtitles on from the get-go, and that made for a much more entertaining experience. If you want to argue that you shouldn’t have to turn subtitles on to fully understand a film, you’ll get no argument from me.

Tenet (2020)

But this is the audio mix Nolan wanted, and it’s the audio mix we’re stuck with, warts and all. Nolan says he likes viewers to experience the confusion and disorientation his characters would be feeling, and that he uses “dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.” Fortunately, at home you have the option of enabling subtitles—and rewinding—in case you missed something.

 

Whether you love it, hate it, are confounded by it, or just curious over the hype, Tenet is an experience that plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. And seeing giant practical effects play out on a big screen—yes, they literally blew up that 747—in pristine quality is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, unlocking the “I understand Tenet” achievement demands multiple viewings, which provide more appreciation and understanding over subtle details, giving it huge points for replayability.

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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

While translating the three volumes of The Lord of the RingsThe Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—into three films made perfect sense, being the only way to try and bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy to the screen with any semblance of being faithful to its beloved source material, turning The Hobbit, or There and Back Again into a movie trilogy—An Unexpected Journey (reviewed here), The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies—seemed more like an effort to re-cash-in on the massive success of Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy. Especially when you consider that the Hobbit was only about 300 pages.

 

Yes, the Hobbit trilogy feels a bit long and plodding in parts, with the relatively straightforward story from the book heavily padded and expanded by weaving in bits from Tolkien’s later writings, as well as fabricating completely non-canon subplots 

and a love triangle at the studio’s insistence, and returning popular characters from the Rings trilogy to appeal to fans and to more closely tie the two trilogies together. And, yes, the Hobbit trilogy relies far more heavily on CGI effects and trickery than the practical effects of the Rings films. And, yes, it pales in comparison to the spectacular achievement Jackson achieved with his Rings trilogy.

 

And yet, I so loved the world of Middle Earth that Jackson brought to the big screen that I am happy to let him take me on another journey—or three, as the case may be. And with the incredible box office success of the Hobbit films—out-earning Rings—it’s clear many others were also happy to be able to spend more time in Middle Earth.

 

Plus, if you have agreed to follow Jackson on the nearly eight-hour journey of completing The Hobbit trilogy, why would you not just go all-in and watch the nine hours of the Extended Editions, which flesh out scenes and add a 

JOURNEY AT A GLANCE

A bit of a forced exercise, The Hobbit trilogy still represents a satisfying return to Middle Earth for fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

 

PICTURE     

An Unexpected Journey translates well to 4K HDR, with crisp, detail-filled images and an HDR grade that adds warm and depth to candle and firelight scenes.

 

SOUND     

An incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to upgrade to Atmos.

bit more to the storytelling? Granted, these Extended Editions don’t add nearly as much as the Rings versions, where Two Towers got an extra 44 minutes and Return of the King a whopping 51 extra minutes. But still the added footage expands some scenes and gives us a more complete look at the characters and the story. With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson restored only 13 minutes to the theatrical release, giving us a run time of just over three hours.

 

Journey’s opening 10 minutes set up the quest the party is about to undertake. Sixty years ago, the Dwarves of Erebor lived in Lonely Mountain, led by Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas), the King under the Mountain. These dwarves were legendary miners and grew incredibly wealthy off gold and diamonds. However, those mountains of gold and riches attract the fire-breathing dragon

Smaug, who destroys the nearby town of Dale and drives the Dwarves from their mountain and takes their treasure.

 

Through signs and portents, Thrór’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), determines it is time to retake the mountain and reclaim the treasure for his people. From his people, Thorin forms a company of 13—an unlucky number—and Great Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arranges for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a simple stay-at-home Hobbit from Hobbiton, to join their company as the 14th member . . . and also as their burglar.

 

But this comes as a complete surprise to Bilbo, especially when 13 Dwarves arrive one night unannounced and eat and drink him out of house and home. Bilbo is reluctant at first—especially when hearing about Smaug—but ultimately the call of adventure is too much and he joins the quest.

 

Since we are in Middle Earth, there is constant danger and peril along the way. The company encounters Trolls, Orcs, Goblins, and Wargs intent on killing them—and eating them—before they get anywhere near the Lonely Mountain. The group also gets help from the Elves of Rivendell, including Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), some giant eagles, and another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).

 

Unexpected Journey also delivers the pivotal moment that sets up the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: When Bilbo happens to discover a certain magical ring forged in the fires of Mount Doom and thought to be lost forever after it is accidentally dropped by Gollum (Andy Serkis).

 

While entertaining on its own, Journey definitely doesn’t feel complete and is clearly meant as just the beginning of the quest, ending with our characters in sight of their goal and giving a tease of the events that are to come in the (more exciting and entertaining, in my opinion) second part, The Desolation of Smaug

 

Shot digitally and using modern color-correction techniques, The Hobbit didn’t require the lengthy restoration of the 

Rings films, but it definitely still benefits from the enhanced 4K resolution, HDR grading, and new Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

The film looks fantastic, with reference-quality video throughout. Images are clean, sharp, detailed, and noise-free. Closeups reveal all of the fine detail you could ask for, from the wispy, single strands of hair in Gandalf’s beard to the scratches, wear, and engraving on swords and axes to the texture, layering, and detail in the costumes. You can really appreciate the beautifully smooth complexion and perfect texture of Elven skin (“All high cheekbones and creamy skin. Not enough facial hair,” according to Dwarf Kili) compared to all the other characters. And I never noticed the delicate blue and silver flecks in Gandalf’s grey robes or the fine detail and patterns in Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) silvery-white robes until now.

 

Beyond delivering bright highlights, the new HDR grading adds depth and realism to dark and lowlight scenes lit by candle- or firelight. Early on in Bilbo’s house, the interior glows in rich, warm, golden lighting and shadows from candles. We also get glorious, vibrant shades of green throughout the Shire, as well as gleaming piles of gold, bright white moonbeams, a rich palette of fiery reds, and the ethereal glow of the Arkenstone. Blacks are also deep, and we get terrific shadow depth and detail.

Journey also has an incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to make that Atmos speaker upgrade. The height speakers are almost constantly in use playing some bit of ambient sound like birds singing and trees blowing, or filling the room with music or other sounds of Middle Earth.

 

The mixers seemed to take every opportunity to create an immersive experience, placing sounds overhead and all around the room whenever appropriate. During the opening, we are immersed in the mining operations of the Dwarves, with hammering and the pulleys moving gold whirring all about and up overhead. The surrounds and height speakers are also frequently engaged for dialogue, either to locate a character behind you or overhead, or to give a booming “Thou shall obey!” quality to Gandalf’s voice. Gollum’s home is filled with all kinds of reverb and echo, with water drips, and noises around. And you can hear spiders scuttling up overhead and just outside of Radagast’s house.

 

When action is called for, the mix gets kicked up another level. From the opening we hear Smaug swooping and flying around, the rustling of winds whipping 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

through the room, and Smaug spewing fire and carnage into every corner with couch-rattling bass. A fight between Stone Giants during a pouring thunderstorm also has boulders smashing around, with appropriately massive low end.

 

I don’t recall having any dialogue issues with An Unexpected Journey, so I can’t say that the new Atmos mix improves on this, but I can say that dialogue comes through loud and clear—even when not emanating from the center channel speaker.

 

They say that time heals all wounds, and maybe the eight years since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released is enough for you to give it another chance if you weren’t impressed the first time. Regardless of your initial theatrical impressions—or thoughts on the film itself—I can say it looks and sounds fantastic, and certainly completes and fills out Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, giving us the backstory of events that led to Frodo taking on his quest to destroy The One True Ring.

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: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)

Much like Spartacus, My Fair Lady is a gem from Hollywood’s golden age of the early ‘60s that I had yet to see. Also like Spartacus, it’s available in a gorgeous new 4K HDR transfer that is available for streaming from sites like iTunes. But to truly experience the transfer in its full glory, the 89.8 gigabyte download from Kaleidescape is the best option.

 

A third trait My Fair Lady shares with Spartacus is that it was restored by Robert Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Godfather Parts I and II). Harris originally restored the film in 1994, but was then hired by CBS in 2015 to perform a full digital restoration to prepare the film for its 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release.

This was a lengthy restoration that took over six months and started by taking a new 8K scan of the original 65mm negative. Restoration involved a good bit of repair to scratches, tears, and splices, color correction, cleanup, and dust removal. All told, some 12 million glitches were said to have been digitally removed, and faded colors were returned to their original vibrancy using an archival print from the Motion Picture Academy as a reference.

 

Immediately following the film, a vibrant pink title card proclaims, “Paramount Pictures has made a High Dynamic Range version on [sic] this film based on the efforts of Robert Harris, Fotokem, Audio Mechanics and the many others who helped with the original restoration.” (The press release from 20th Century Fox on the extensive restoration is pretty interesting reading.)

LADY AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR transfer from a 65mm print breathes new life into Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical.

 

PICTURE     

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges—which is especially impressive given that this is a 56-year-old film.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be.

As mentioned, I had never seen this film before, and at first blush Lady seems like a lot to ask of a modern viewer. It’s not exactly like a 56-year-old movie based on a 64-year-old musical stage play set in early-1900s London that lasts just under three hours (170 minutes) is something you’d plan for your next movie night. Also, the plot of a priggish linguist taking on the challenge of teaching a poor Cockney street girl “the majesty and grandeur of the English language” to fit into polite society, doesn’t really grab modern eyeballs (though I do love Kaleidescape’s concise synopsis, “A London guttersnipe transforms herself into a proper lady under a language professor’s stern tutelage.”)

 

However, as intrigued as I was about the quality of the new 4K HDR transfer—especially after how impressed I was with Spartacus—it was really Audrey Hepburn starring as Eliza Doolittle that sealed the deal for me. Audrey is truly a timeless beauty, and it is just a treat to be able to watch and appreciate her—a testament to her charms, talents, and classic style that she is still such a draw so many years later. If there’s any question how much my wife and I adore Ms. Hepburn, our youngest daughter’s name is Audrey . . . 

 

A little digging reveals some pretty interesting things about Lady. With a production budget of $17 million dollars (nearly $143 million when adjusted for inflation), it was the most expensive film shot in the US at the time. Based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, it had been adapted into a stage musical in 1956 that played on Broadway and in London. That version had Rex Harrison cast as Professor Henry Higgins (which he reprised in the film) with Julie Andrews playing Eliza. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, though Audrey Hepburn was notably snubbed from receiving a Best Actress nomination, rumored because many wanted Andrews to have the lead (she wasn’t considered well-known enough to star in such a big film) and because nearly all of Hepburn’s singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. (Hepburn was told she would be 

RELATED REVIEW

Spartacus (1960)

able to do most of her singing, and worked on the vocals for some time, but 90% of her lyrics were dubbed according to Hepburn.) The film went on to win 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Cinematography. It also has extremely favorable critics and audience scores from Rotten Tomatoes, with 95% and 90% respectively.

 

As a musical with 25 numbers, including the Overture over opening credits and Finale (all lovingly pre-bookmarked for easy and instant access by Kaleidescape’s Movie Guide team), I was thinking this would be a near-three-hour song-fest with all of the dialogue sung, but that (pleasantly) isn’t 

the case. In fact, quite a bit of the movie is spoken, with characters breaking into song as the moment calls. I was also surprised how many of the songs I was familiar with, just not knowing they were from Lady. “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” were all tunes I’d heard, but now have them in context.

 

While I find myself still humming “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” even a couple of days after, my two favorite numbers were “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Show Me.” “Luck” is performed by Doolittle’s father, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), with some humorous lyrics extolling the benefits of how some luck can get you out of tricky situations like doing hard work, getting hooked by a lady, or helping out a neighbor in need. “Show Me” is performed by Eliza (dubbed by Nixon) about how a potential suitor needs to show his attentions with actions, not words.

 

One character that does take a bit of getting used to is the surly Professor Higgins. He is in love with himself and linguistics, and shows large measures of disdain to all around him but mostly Eliza whom he meets after overhearing her extremely Cockney accent as she is trying to sell flowers outside an opera. After a chance encounter with another linguist, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), we have the opening number “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” which basically establishes the premise/bet that Higgins believes he can teach anyone—even Doolittle!—to speak in such a way that not even the King could tell she didn’t belong, and that would be then the key to them having a better life.

 

But Higgins hurls a constant barrage of verbal assaults at Doolittle throughout the film, including calling her creature, baggage, garbage, guttersnipe, squashed cabbage leaf, deliciously low, horribly dirty, draggletailed, barbarous wretch, and more. Some of these are off-hand descriptions while others are shouted insults. His feelings are also pretty well summed up in the number, “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”. I would say that his character is incredibly misogynistic. However, someone online argued that he is actually a misanthrope (“a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society”), which actually seems more accurate.

 

That Higgins shows not the least bit of interest, compassion, concern, or care for Doolittle—even on a human level, let alone a romantic one—makes the ending feel that much more forced. But what is more classic Hollywood than the leads coming together at the end?

 

So, how’s it look? In a word, stunning.

 

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges. Cobblestones in the street are clearly outlined and detailed, as is the distressing and texture in cement columns. Early on, Higgins is wearing a hat with a very fine check plaid, and the tight lines are clearly defined and visible. In another scene, he is moving about his grand library and even though the camera is some distance away, you can just about read the fine print on the books’ spines. And near the end, Higgins sits in a white rattan chair that has incredible detail to its tight lines and pattern.

 

We also get terrific depth of field and focus. Shots such as at the Ascot Gavotte race or at the embassy dance show dozens of actors at once, all in crisp focus. You can also appreciate the costumes—especially Doolittle’s Ascot outfit and embassy gown—and other little attentions to detail and set dressing. It really demonstrates the benefits of being able to extract every bit of detail from the 8K scan of the original 65mm negative and Super Panavision 70 process. 

 

I was only occasionally aware of any film grain, and it certainly was never distracting, but at the same time it didn’t look like it had been scrubbed away, softening the picture.

 

They definitely took a light touch with the HDR grading, but we do get some nice bright whites, especially in men’s crisp tuxedo shirts and Doolittle’s race dress. Blacks are also nice, dark, and noise-free, whether in nighttime street scenes or in 

tuxedoes. The added contrast also provides more realistic and lifelike images throughout.

 

Don’t expect to use the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio mix as demo material to show off your sound system. But it keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be, and if there was any audio mixed into the surround speakers, I didn’t notice it. I did notice that the mixers used the front three channels to give characters some room to move, not locking voices just to the center channel, but letting them move left and right of center. This was also noticeable in the horse-race scene—the film’s most dynamic sonic moment—as the horses race from far right to far left. The orchestration is also given a lot of space to play in the front, with music having a nice tall soundstage helped a bit by some processor upmixing to the front height channels.

 

Dialogue was mostly intelligible throughout, but I did have some difficulty early on when Doolittle is speaking in her heavily accented voice. Whether this was just me having trouble with the dialect, the mix, the other crowd noises occurring at the same time, or some combination of all of the above, I can’t exactly say.

 

My only quibble with the audio is in the dubbing of Audrey’s lyrics. I know it was a

My Fair Lady (1964)

huge musical of the time and that audiences expected professional singing quality, but dammit if Gerard Butler can be the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera then Audrey could have sung for Eliza. We know she can sing from “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even taking the dub-snub away, it is the fact that the musical numbers have a noticeably different tone and quality to them, and the voice change just pulls you that much more out of the scene, but especially so in the numbers “Just You Wait” and “The Rain in Spain,” which has Hepburn singing some of the lines and Nixon clearly coming in and sounding vocally and tonally different.

 

I can’t imagine My Fair Lady looked or sounded any better even on the night of its premiere. This transfer has images that look great for a modern film, let alone one that is 56 years old, and it dazzles up on a home theater big screen. While the near three-hour runtime is a fairly serious commitment, I found it thoroughly entertaining and definitely see why this movie is considered such a classic. I dare say you’ll never see Audrey Hepburn looking ever so loverly as she does here. 

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 Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Proving that nothing has power like a great story, Hollywood routinely returns to classic literature to resurrect and retell new versions of beloved stories. Here at Cineluxe we’ve recently reviewed the latest versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to those we’ll add Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

Counting this version, the Copperfield novel (which carries the cumbersome full title of The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) has been made and remade into movies and TV series more than a dozen times since 1911, including two animated versions.

Dickens admitted Copperfield was his favorite work, writing, “Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The story was originally published serially over 18 months and totaled more than 600 pages. Any time a work of that length is translated to a film-sized chunk—even one with Copperfield’s two-hour runtime—heavy edits are required. However, judging from Dickens’ verbose writing style—partly the nature of serialized writing, which was often paid by the word—much could be trimmed while still retaining the heart of the story.

 

The titular role of David Copperfield is played with terrific sincerity by Dev Patel. We follow the character’s life and tragedies from birth up through marriage, as he moves throughout England and slowly climbs his way up in society. (“You can’t take something from someone who has nothing!”)

COPPERFIELD AT A GLANCE

This latest filming of Dickens’ favorite novel condenses the book’s 600-plus pages into a two-hour runtime full of colorful characters and witty dialogue.

 

PICTURE     

Images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout, with HDR deployed lightly to enhance the natural look of the visuals.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sticks mainly to the front channels, but the surrounds are used occasionally to add ambience to naturalistic effects.

Patel is joined by a terrific supporting cast that really leans into playing the over-the-top side characters who wind in and out of Copperfield’s life. These include Hugh Laurie as the delightfully eccentric Mr. Dick, who is convinced that the thoughts of King Charles I are stuck in his head since Charles was beheaded; Benedict Wong as the alcohol-obsessed Mr. Wickfield (who “takes his wine with an enviable degree of enjoyment”); Ben Whishaw as the sniveling and class-obsessed Uriah Heep; as well as Tilda Swinson as David’s great aunt, the donkey-hating Betsey Trotwood; Peter Capaldi as the eternally yet optimistically in debt Mr. Micawber; Morfydd Clark, who plays both David’s mother Clara; and his first love interest, the eternally childish Dora Spenlow, who likes to carry around and speak via her puppy, Jip.

 

One of the film’s storytelling techniques is that Copperfield regularly recalls and mimics and then writes down quotes and snippets of conversations he has or overhears with these peculiar acquaintances, keeping these scraps of papers in a box he carries with him and later uses to turn into stories that he ultimately sells to make his way. 

 

While I’ve yet to read the novel, the dialogue is so witty, sharp, and biting I wonder how much was lifted from Dickens’ text and how much is original. Lines like “I see my father’s gravestone shadowed by trees bending towards one another in the wind like giants whispering secrets” certainly feel true to Dickens’ flowery writing style.

While there is frequent humor, it is often subtle and restrained. Lines like Mr. Dick’s comment, “[Does she mean] to visit violence on the boy? Yes. She’s a remarkable woman. Very kind,” are typical of the type of humor to expect.

 

Details on the resolution of the transfer aren’t clear, but images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout. We are especially able to appreciate the bright outdoor scenes that offer countryside views for miles. The rocky beaches of Yarmouth show every stone in clear, individually outlined detail, and you can practically feel the texture of the bricks, stones, plaster, and wood that comprise the construction of various buildings.

 

The film uses a light touch with its HDR grading, which is used to create images that look consistently natural, with lots of rich, deep shadows and bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows. Deep, clean blacks are present when called on, such as at the bottle factory Copperfield works at in his youth.

 

The Kaleidescape transfer includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does a fine job presenting the film’s dialogue. While most of the audio is kept in the front of the room, the surrounds are used occasionally to add some convincing and scene-appropriate ambient effects, such as street and

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

city sounds, noises on the factory floor, life at the beach, or the creaks and groans and strains of ropes aboard a boat. The musical score also mixes up nicely into the overhead speakers to expand the soundstage, as do sounds from an intense thunderstorm near the film’s conclusion.

 

Several of the actors speak with pretty thick accents, making some of the dialogue tricky to understand at times, though these moments are usually brief and can certainly be rectified by turning subtitles on.

 

While the film meanders along a bit slowly, it is a fine and interesting journey to take. The movie inspired me to download the novel to my iPhone, and if a film can move you to read a book, that is a version of success on its own, I’d say. So, while I can’t compare how closely writer and director Armando Iannucci’s vision hews to the original, it certainly feels both true to the book’s spirit, story, and quirky characters while being fresh, inventive, modern, and unique in its approach.

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 New Mutants

The New Mutants (2020)

While we have beaten the proverbial Tenet theatrical-release horse to death here, when all the dust settled, it was actually not the first major film to “restart” theatrical exhibition here in the States. Nope. While Tenet debuted on September 3, it was 20th Century/Marvel Entertainment’s The New Mutants, which opened on August 27 that actually holds that “honor.”

 

And much like Tenet, the box office returns for Mutants were pretty disastrous by normal metrics, bringing in just over $7 million its opening weekend, and going on to gross just under $24 million in the US. Of course, these aren’t normal times, 

and Mutants is now seeing something of a second life in streaming, where it topped the charts of both Fandango Now and Vudu for both number of rentals and revenue. The movie is also available for download from Kaleidescape in 4K HDR with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack.

 

Unless you’re fairly deep into the X-Men comics franchise, Mutants likely didn’t show up on your radar. It had been languishing in production purgatory after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox (the film was originally scheduled to be released in 2018), literally couldn’t have been released at a worse time, received almost no advertising support, and didn’t fit into the shoebox of the typical X-Men superhero series, resulting in a hybrid teens-with-powers/horror-ish film that feels targeted at the YA market and doesn’t really feel that connected to the rest of the franchise. It also didn’t help that the film received franchise-low Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 33% and 56%.

MUTANTS AT A GLANCE

Vaguely related to the X-Men franchise, this diverting teens-with-superpowers entry checks off all the usual genre boxes without breaking any new ground.

 

PICTURE     

Shot at 8K, the film reveals terrific levels of detail, with so much depth and definition to the images that they look 3D.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is dynamic and active, providing immense bass energy when needed.

In retrospect, Disney likely should have released Mutants straight to Disney+, where it could have gotten more mileage promoting the film as another exclusive to drive subscriptions. But, to paraphrase the Anton Chigurh line from No Country for Old Men, this film has been traveling for years to get here, and now it’s here, and we’ve got to call it: Is The New Mutants worth seeing?

 

In short, mostly yes. While it isn’t a great or really even memorable film—my wife commented, “Well, that was pretty meh” as the end credits started—it moves quickly through its 94-minute runtime, features a talented cast—including Anya Taylor-Joy, who is quickly becoming a major star (and who is absolutely wonderful to watch as Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit mini-series, btw)—and, perhaps most important to Cineluxe readers, looks and sounds great in a home theater.

 

The film opens as an F5 tornado is ripping through a Native American reservation, with Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) narrowly escaping with her life as the sole survivor. She awakens at a hospital, chained to a bed, with no idea how she got there, where she is greeted by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes informs her that this is a special hospital, and that Moonstar is a mutant who needs to remain there until she learns what her abilities are and how to control them.

 

Moonstar quickly meets the hospital’s other “patients”: Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Robert da Costa (Henry Zaga), and Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy).

 

As the characters get to know each other, we get the usual bit of teen interpersonal drama and learn they are all mutants who were brought there by Dr. Reyes after some horrible—and fatal—tragedy in their lives. The stories—and the characters’ powers—reveal themselves as Moonstar gets to know the other patients and tries to figure out what her own powers are and what she needs to do in order to leave the hospital. While this is happening, the characters start experiencing ultra-realistic hallucinations related to their personal tragedies.

 

Is it a hospital, a prison, or a cage? Who is the superior Dr. Reyes keeps referring to? And just what are Moonstar’s powers?

 

These are the key questions the movie hangs on and wants to keep you guessing at, but unfortunately, they just aren’t deep enough to make the film fully successful.

 

As a “casual” X-Men fan (I’ve watched all of the movies, but don’t read any of the comics or graphic novels), the only real connections I found between the X-universe and Mutants was a brief mention of the X-Men (the teens feel they are being groomed to eventually go and join them) and a vision Moonstar had where she saw a facility that looked exactly like scenes in Logan where X-23 was created. While there’s nothing wrong with a series branching out and going its own, new way, when you have such a rich universe to pull from as X-Men, it is a bit surprising that it didn’t have any more tie-ins.

 

Also, this film seems overly ripe for an end-credits scene that would tease . . . something. (Director Josh Boone originally planned for this to be the first of a trilogy of films.) The ending just screams “There’s more to come,” but there isn’t.

 

Prior to viewing the movie, I had no idea what it was about, and after watching the trailer, I expected it to be a horror film going for scares about being trapped in this asylum. In fact, its genre is even listed as “horror.” But it just isn’t scary. It tries to be, with some flashback/hallucinations and a moshed-up Slenderman/Venom-looking group of baddies called the “Smiling Men” (voiced by Marilyn Manson), but it never generates the tension, suspense, or startle moments to make it succeed as a horror film. Also, you never really get to care enough about any of the characters or feel they are ever in any real peril to be concerned something might happen to them. And when you take that element away, I’m afraid what’s left just isn’t strong enough.

 

Another issue I had was that the actors are all given over-the-top accents that seem to vary in consistency throughout the film. Maybe they felt the audience needed to be hammered over the head with thick Russian, Scottish, Cuban, and Deep South accents to believe the characters’ backstories.

 

Finally, I am just so sick of Hollywood’s insistence on pushing a gay agenda. Of the five main characters, two happen to be gay. Of course, we are then given that prerequisite long moment as they stare into each other’s eyes before having that first, closeup kiss. This same-sex relationship does nothing to serve the story or develop the characters and feels solely there to check a “Does the movie have a gay character?” box. According to recent studies, about 4.5% of society identifies as gay or bisexual, and I don’t understand why this has to be such a trend throughout movies, TV, and streaming series.

 

Having said all that, I didn’t dislike the movie, and was never bored watching.

 

Where Mutants is worth praising is in its technical specifications. Captured in DXL Raw at 8K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images look fantastic. Shots reveal terrific levels of detail in the costumes, showing

texture and detail of the fabric, the stitching, and the weave of the material. The images are so clean and clear, they make the fabric nearly tactile.

 

Some of the edges of the structures in the outer courtyard area of the hospital have so much depth and definition, they are almost 3D looking. You also get tight and jaggie-free lines in the brick and mortar of the buildings and the shingles and tiles on the ceilings.

 

Beyond just giving the film an overall more realistic color palette, the added dynamic range of Mutants’ HDR grade also brings more pop to things like lightbulbs, fluorescent lights, white T-shirts, or the glowing reds, blues, and oranges of the mutants’ powers in action. One scene really demonstrating the benefits of HDR is during Guthrie’s hallucination. Here we are transported into a dark mine shaft illuminated by the bright lamps atop miners’ helmets, but deep shadows and detail are retained amidst the piercing beams of the lights, with nothing looking washed out and no noise or banding.

 

Sonically the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active with some immense bass energy when called for. From the film’s opening tornado, the room comes alive with howling winds swirling all around along with explosions that will shake your 

The New Mutants (2020)

couch. Height speakers are frequently used for things like PA announcements, thunder and rain sounds, or to add ambience to expand the sonic space. Take something that is as seemingly “sonically simple” as the scene when the mutants all gather in an attic. Listen to this scene for a bit and then pause the movie, and you’ll notice the myriad of small sounds that suddenly vanish. This is a wonderful bit of layering to make a “quiet” room actually sound quiet.

 

Ultimately, The New Mutants is kind of like a cinematic fast-food meal—the story is mostly entertaining—albeit somewhat predictable—and mostly satisfying while watching, but nothing you’ll rave about afterwards.

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.