John Sciacca Tag

Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise (2021)

While there have been a lot of theme park rides based on successful movies, the number of movies inspired by theme park rides is far fewer, and has a much spottier track record. On the one hand, we have the atrocious The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy in 2003 and, on the other, we have one of the most successful modern franchises in the Johnny Depp-driven Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of course, if you’re Disney, any successful crossover helps drive traffic—and dollars—to one of thglobal theme parks, so the temptation to mine your existing intellectual property is tempting.

 

There are few rides more iconic in Disneyland lore than the Jungle Cruise. It was there on Day One when the park opened in July 1955, was one of Walt’s personal projects, and has remained in operation (with changes and updates, of course) ever

since.

 

Like with Pirates, the thing that makes the Jungle Cruise ride ripe for adopting into a movie is that it offers a perfect jumping-off point for any possible adventure that can happen, with the ability to weave in some nods to the ride along the way (kind of the way Pirates worked in the scene with the locked prisoners begging the dog to bring them a key, one of the iconic moments from the ride). Put some people on a boat, set them on a cruise, introduce a quest and some mayhem along the way . . . the thing practically writes itself! Disney felt the same as well, since a film based on the ride has been in the works since as early as 2004, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen attached to star at one point.

 

This year, Jungle Cruise finally made it out of production and into theaters on July 30, with some big-name leads in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt carrying the action. As has been common to Disney films 

JUNGLE CRUISE AT A GLANCE

This family-friendly Dwayne Johnson vehicle nicely follows the theme-park-ride-to-big-screen path carved out by Pirates of the Caribbean. 

 

PICTURE
Images are clean and sharp throughout but there isn’t the razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix provides near constant jungle sounds during the trip down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room.

during the pandemic—see Cruella, Luca, and Black Widow—Jungle Cruise saw a simultaneous debut both theatrically and as a Premier Access title for $29.99 on Disney+.

 

I went into this viewing highly optimistic. Disney has been on a pretty good role recently, and I feel like they’ve developed a solid formula for delivering big action films that hit the right balance of humor and fun that appeals to family watching. Also, I felt Johnson was at a point in his career that he wasn’t going to be attached to a stinker, and he’s proven that he can not only carry a big film but deliver a deft comedic touch—see Jumanji: The Next Level—which was what a Jungle Cruise captain would need to be true to the spirit of the ride. 

 

Plus, I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. My parents actually met working there. My dad was a ride operator and my mom worked at a Sunkist orange-juice stand near the Jungle Cruise. I’ve been on the ride dozens of times, including when it actually was an E-ticket attraction, and a ride on the Jungle Cruise is a requisite during any visit to the park. 

 

So, yeah, I’d say the deck was a bit stacked in favor of me enjoying the movie.

 

And, no real surprise, I did.

 

If you’ve read any other reviews of Jungle Cruise, you’ve likely heard that it borrows heavily from films such as The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Disney’s own Pirates films. But that’s OK. If you’re going to borrow, might as well use some classic films as your template. 

 

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) are looking for the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree whose petals can cure any illness or injury. They end up being cursed by a chief and can never leave sight of the Amazon River. Cut to 1916, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) steals an ancient arrowhead that is the key to unlocking the location of the tree, and she, along with her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), heads to South America where she hires a boat from Frank Wolff (Johnson) to guide them down the Amazon and to the tree. Along the way they are chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in a German submarine, before he ultimately joins forces with the cursed conquistadors in an effort to recover the arrowhead and locate the tree to help the German war effort.

 

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt works really well, and it’s nice to see a female lead that is in on the action instead of being relegated to the role of sidekick, something they definitely play up repeatedly for laughs with her brother MacGregor. And the opening pre-title card scene with Johnson taking a group of tourists on a jungle cruise lifts many lines—corny dad-jokes, quips, and puns—and sight gags that are lifted straight from the Disneyland attraction, including the always popular “back side of water” gag. 

 

I wasn’t able to locate any specifications on the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate for this transfer, but my guess would be that this is sourced from a 2K DI. Images are clean and sharp throughout, revealing lots of detail in closeups, but just didn’t give that razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI, especially on long shots. Also, with the extensive amount of CGI used throughout, it would likely be in a 2K workflow.

 

I watched the film twice, once on my Apple 4KTV on my 4K JVC projector at 115-inch diagonal 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and then again on my Xbox One S on a new Sony 65-inch OLED. What I mistook on the projector for a bit of softness in the opening scenes in a London University revealed itself to be more smokiness and haze when viewed on the OLED, but on both the colors and clarity definitely got a nice uptick when the action moves to outside.

 

One serious complaint is that there are several instances where subtitles are used for German and Spanish speakers. Disney chose to place these subtitles below the image. While this won’t impact viewers on 16:9 aspect-ratio screens, those with a 2.35 (or wider) screen will find that the subtitles are blown off the screen and totally unreadable. This will certainly be rectified when the film is made available to Kaleidescape, which uses technology to reposition the subtitles back into the viewing area. But for my Disney+ experience, it meant rewinding, zooming the image down to 16:9, and then rewatching the scenes so we could see what had been said. Talk about pulling you out of the movie!

 

As mentioned, closeups can have plenty of sharpness and clean, ultra-fine detail. You can see the weave in the hats worn by characters or the texture in MacGregor’s many outfits or the tiny squares in a screen covering a window. You can also clearly see the markings and engravings when the arrowhead is viewed in closeup.

 

With lots of dark and lowlight scenes, Jungle Cruise certainly benefits from HDR. Whether it is viewing characters in the warm glow of firelight or lanterns, seeing sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, characters moving about in caves, or deep inside the jungle, we get lots of rich shadow detail and bright highlights. Jungle greens are rich and lush, as are the vibrant reds, with several scenes with fire, along with the jacket worn by Joachim and the busses on the streets of London. 

 

Sonically, the Disney+ version includes Dolby Atmos packed in a lossy Dolby Digital+ wrapper versus the more dynamic and lossless Dolby TrueHD version that will accompany a disc or Kaleidescape release. Even still, there is plenty here to find entertaining, though you’ll likely want to bump the volume 5 to 10 dB over your normal listening levels (as seems to be the case with most of Disney+ streaming). There are near constant jungle sounds when sailing down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room, with a variety of birds squawking overhead. When scenes cut to/from the open outside of the Amazon, you can “feel” the change in the room, just by how it expands in the outdoors, making a really nice effect. We also have a lot of audio effects wrapping overhead and around the room from creaking vines and snakes slithering about, or a swarm of bees that flies around the room, or the splashes of water coming over the sides of the boat during a harrowing rapids ride. James Newton Howard’s score is also given a lot of room to expand throughout the room, making it much fuller sounding.

 

There are a few moments where the subwoofer comes into play, and these were definitely more dynamic when played through my Xbox versus my AppleTV, which just seems to compress and crush dynamics. There is a deep rumble of massive waterfalls, the explosions of a torpedo, and the low chug of the boat’s engines. 

 

While it is mostly family-friendly fare, there is some mostly bloodless violence and stabbings, along with several intense moments (snakes crawling out of skulls and other creepy-crawly stuff) that were definitely too much for my five year old. While rated PG-13, most kids 12 and up will probably be OK to watch. 

 

Ultimately, Jungle Cruise delivered exactly what I expected, which was a fun time with some good action, a few laughs, quality acting, some quality visual effects, and nods to one of my favorite amusement-park rides. After the dour seriousness of Fast & Furious 9, this struck the right note of how a film can provide a night of fun and entertainment without taking itself too seriously.

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.

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

“Hate-watch” is defined as “watching [something] for the sake of the enjoyment one derives from mocking or criticizing it.” I think that kind of sums up my feelings about the Fast & Furious franchise, which is now improbably in its ninth full-length film plus a spinoff in the form of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. What started out as a small crew, led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), who drove souped-up muscle cars to hijack trucking shipments, now finds this “family” of drivers, thieves, and hackers somehow thrust into a situation where they need to travel the globe—and into space!—to save the world from a cyberterrorism attack.

I think I’ve seen all of the movies in the franchise but I’d be lying if I thought I could explain how we got to the events of Fast & Furious 9, or attempt to untwist all of the complex relationships—he/she’s betrayed us; he/she’s dead; he/she’s back again—that have happened over the course of the automotive soap opera that is the previous films.

 

Honestly, though, understanding any of those prior films and having a lot of backstory knowledge of them isn’t really important to watching—hate or otherwise—FF9. In fact, I’m not sure I can totally unravel all of the plot points of for you. About five minutes into the film, I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. We’re in the jungle now . . ?” and trying to describe the movie to a co-worker made me feel a bit like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites attempting to define “irony” during a job interview.

 

The best thing to do with this film—along with about any 

FF9 AT A GLANCE

The ultimate car-chase franchise strikes out in new directions—even outer space—leaving all plausibility behind. 

 

PICTURE
Although taken from a 2K digital intermediate, the image quality is so terrific throughout—just clean, sharp, and detailed—you’d think it was a 4K DI transfer.

 

SOUND     

The aggressive Atmos mix uses all of the speakers to immerse you in the action, with your subwoofer getting a nice workout as well, delivering a satisfying low-end that can rattle your couch.

recent entry in the Fast franchise—is to check your sense of reality at the door, grab a bowl of popcorn, turn off the lights, and just let all of the glorious action wash over you. Why are things happening? How are things happening? Is that even possible?!? Quiet, Poindexter, you’re thinking too much! Just expect that this film will do virtually everything short of literally jumping a shark.

 

You’ve likely heard the saying “Give the people what they want,” which is clearly a message long-time series director and writer Justin Lin took to heart. While the film has a meager Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 59%, it racked up a near-franchise high 82% audience score, so Lin clearly understands the formula—action, action, and more action!—his fans expect.

 

Similar to the upcoming James Bond film, FF9 was never going to be released anywhere but the movie theater, and it had five different release dates between 2019 and 2021 before finally hitting theaters on June 25. Producers were right to wait, as the film has brought in nearly $625 million at the global box office to date, making it the top-grossing American film to date

in 2021. It was released as a PVOD rental on July 29, where it is available for Kaleidescape owners as a Premium Rental for $21.95, in full 4K HDR and Dolby TrueHD Atmos quality.

 

If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be happy to know that the gang is mostly here for this one, and the film includes nearly every returning member of Toretto’s crew from past films save for Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). (Deckard Shaw [Jason Statham] has a brief mid-credits appearance in what I’m assuming is a tease for the next film.) We also have Charlize Theron returning as baddie Cipher, along with a new antagonist in the form of Jakob (John Cena), who is

Dun dun DUH!!!—Dominic’s long-estranged brother! Sure, for a guy that has talked about almost nothing but the importance of family over the course of eight previous films, you might have expected him to have mentioned the fact that he had a brother at some point, but just refer to that part about thinking too much and asking too many questions. The film does a decent job of providing some backstory for this new brother dynamic, with some flashback scenes spread throughout that show the origins of their rocky relationship and how racing has always been in the Toretto blood.

 

While fans are coming to FF9 expecting a ton of over-the-top action set pieces with crashes and explosions aplenty—and, rest assured, you’ll get them—with a film like this, you’re also expecting to have a fun time. (Which is why Hobbs and Shaw is ultimately a far more entertaining film to watch.) Part of the problem is that the movie takes itself so seriously—especially Diesel, who sulks and growls his way through nearly every take—that it misses the fun part. John Cena has some comedic chops that are wasted here. Instead he spends most of his time on camera trying to out-brood Diesel.

 

The only two characters that seem to remember this isn’t actually life and death and meant to be entertaining are long-time members of Toretto’s crew, Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). The scenes between them offered the film’s few chuckles as well as some really self-aware fun-poking at some of the franchise’s more ridiculous bits with lines like, “I was just thinking if this was a movie, this would be the part where . . .” or “You know ain’t no one gonna believe this, right?” or “I’m not even going to mention that part about the submarine [from the last movie]” that lets the audience know that these guys are aware of the ridiculous situations we’re watching.

 

I’m not sure there’s any point in trying to explain the plot. For one, I’m not sure I could, and, let’s be honest, the film’s plot isn’t what’s going to bring you to the table for this. Suffice to say, there’s this super-weapon thing called the Aries—a two-part device that if assembled and activated basically gives someone control over every computer on the planet. Or something. Dom’s crew is trying to get it before Jakob and his crew, and they follow various clues and bits of information around the world—South America, London, Tokyo, Edinburgh, Tbilisi—in an attempt to stop him. Insert car chases, crashes, gunfire, fist fights, and explosions throughout. Oh, and they launch a modified Pontiac Fiero into space. You know, the yoozh. 

 

So, is it worth your time? Well, I’ll say this . . . it looks and sounds great, so if you’re willing to invest nearly two and a half hours in something for the sake of a  quality home theater experience, this delivers. While IMDB reports it was filmed in 3.4K and this is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, thimage quality was so terrific throughout—just clean, sharp, and detailed—

I was sure this was a 4K DI transfer. The only exception tis the flashback scenes that occur in 1989 and look much softer, grainier and “film-like” by design.

 

Closeups reveal tons of facial detail, including every pore and bit of stubble on Diesel’s face and head, or the texture in the ever-present ribbed muscle-T’s that make up the entirety of Torreto’s wardrobe. There’s also plenty of detail in long shots, with scenes shot in London and Edinburgh looking fantastic, with razor-sharp building edges and clearly defined brick and stonework.

 

There are a lot of moments for the HDR grading to shine, with bright headlights gleaming during night races, flashlights and fluorescents illuminating dark garages, tunnels, and hideouts, or the bright neon lighting and signs in Tokyo. The actors’ faces are also often shown in warm, golden-colored lighting, and HDR gives nice shadow depth and detail.

 

The audio mix also delivers with an aggressive Atmos mix, using all of the speakers to immerse you in the action. You get cars racing well outside the main channels, along the side walls and into the back of the room, things zipping and flying overhead, dust and debris from explosions cascading down all around, and the zing of bullet hits. In the film’s quieter moments, we also get some nice 

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

ambience with outdoor sounds of bugs, birds, and wind noise. Your subwoofer will get a nice workout as well, with explosions and collisions that deliver satisfying low-end that can rattle your couch.

 

With the shortage of new content hitting the home market, FF9 provides a big summer blockbuster to “enjoy” that will likely be a crowd pleasure for a big movie-night watch party. And fans/haters of the series will be happy to hear there are already two more films planned to conclude the series. Obviously, if they don’t use Fur10us as part of the next title, someone should be fired.

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: In the Line of Fire

In the Line of Fire (1993)

I can remember sitting in the theater when the first trailer for In the Line of Fire came on. Trailers were different back in those days, and didn’t have the best bits from the film slickly excised and edited down to a two-minute sizzle reel that all but gave everything away. In fact, the first third of this trailer just showed “Nov. 22 1963” on screen, with a red ticking second 

hand while a voiceover described how a Secret Service agent had been a split-second too late to save President Kennedy and had spent a life second-guessing himself. When the second hand gets to the bottom of the screen, the 6 in 1963 (from when Kennedy was assassinated) slowly starts rotating while you hear a phone call begin, with the caller menacingly taunting the agent over what happened back in Dallas. Finally, as the 6 rotates into a 9 for 1993, when the film was going to be released, the camera pulls back to reveal crosshairs centered on the number, and the 

caller says, “I see you, Frank. I see you standing over the grave of another dead president.” Cut to Clint Eastwood grabbing a pistol, racking the slide, and turning to the camera and growling, “That’s not gonna happen,” and you’ve got a film I’m 100% gonna see.

 

It had been some time since I’d revisited In the Line of Fire, so I was thrilled to hear Sony Pictures was giving it a new 4K HDR remaster with a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, giving a reason to rewatch this classic.

 

Plot-wise, the film is pretty straightforward. Ex-CIA nut job Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) has decided he is going to kill the president but he wants to make it a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), 

who served on Kennedy’s Presidential detail, and was standing feet away from the car when Kennedy was fatally shot. (Digitally inserting Eastwood into archival photos with Kennedy in Dallas added some realism to the film, a year before Forrest Gump did it.) As Leary plans for the assassination, he continues to call and taunt Horrigan, who, with help from partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), agent Lily Raines (Rene Russo), the rest of the Secret Service, the FBI, and even the CIA, track down every clue and lead to try and identify and stop him before he takes his shot.

 

There are so many things that just work for me in this movie. For one, the film is long enough to allow the pacing to feel steady and unhurried but not too long that it wears out its welcome. The plot moves along at a realistic pace, constantly doling out enough bits of information and details to keep you engaged and involved, but that gives the film 

LINOF FIRE AT A GLANCE

The Eastwood vs. Malkovich battle of wits gets a new 4K HDR remaster and Dolby Atmos mix. 

 

PICTURE
One of the better film-to-4K transfers, the movie is sharp, clean & clear, and just beautiful-looking throughout.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive and is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present.

added realism. Much of what the Secret Service does is just brute-force, manpower investigation, and we get enough scenes of that to give us a sense of what is actually involved in working the protection detail for the most powerful man in the world but not so much that it becomes tedious or like a documentary.

 

Eastwood is great as grizzled Horrigan, looking to end his career by getting another chance at stopping the “big bullet,” proving to himself that he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kennedy’s back in Dallas. Instead of just a one-note agent or character that has slipped into alcoholism or some other abuse, we see Horrigan off the clock, listening to jazz, playing piano, having what feels like a life instead of just being some two-dimensional construct. Similar to how Eastwood played Bill Munny going out for one last ride in Unforgiven, here he’s clearly at the end of his career in a young-man’s game, looking to go out holding his head high. 

 

Equally great is Malkovich as ex-CIA “wet boy” Leary. Much of the first half of the film involves Leary taunting Horrigan over the phone about his failings in Dallas. “If you’d reacted to that first shot, could you have gotten there in time to stop the big bullet? And if you had—that could’ve been your head being blown apart. Do you wish you’d succeeded, Frank? Or is life too precious?” For the film to work, you need a strong, smart foil to Horrigan, and to believe Leary is not only willing, but capable of pulling off the assassination, and Malkovich’s intense performance—specifically some of his later phone calls with Horrigan—shows how smart, unhinged, and willing he is.

 

Something else I noticed during this viewing is how director Wolfgang Peterson (who did another fantastic film about a Presidential assassination attempt in Air Force One) kept Leary’s face hidden, obscured, or shown only in tight closeups or deep shadow for the first 30-plus-minutes of the film. It reminded me of Jaws and other “monster” movies in this way, as you are kept a bit in suspense waiting for that character to be revealed.

 

I have been very impressed with many of Sony’s 4K home releases, and I’m happy to say In the Line of Fire looks as good as any of them. This release is taken from a scan of the original camera negative and master interpositive to create a new true 4K digital intermediate with HDR color grading. I was a little nervous for about the first 30 seconds, where the opening sky shots of DC show a lot of noise, grain, softness, and general lack of detail, but then the camera cuts to shots of the city, buildings, and traffic and it just snaps into sharp, clean, clear focus, and it remains just beautiful-looking for the remainder of its two-plus-hour run time. 

 

Throughout the film, I just kept thinking that it was as if layers of imperfections had been wiped away, and we were seeing exactly what it must have looked like through the camera viewfinder. Detail wasn’t scrubbed away into softness; it’s just that everything that isn’t the film is removed, and every detail is left clean and easy to appreciate. With the possible exception of some huge restoration projects like My Fair Lady and Spartacus, this is one of the better film-to-4K transfers I can remember watching. It is just terrific-looking, and a benchmark for other studios of how a 35mm film-to-4K transfer should be handled.

 

The most detail is definitely appreciated in closeups, with faces showing every pore, line, and whisker, or beads of sweat that pop up on foreheads. It’s not like you need 4K to appreciate the complexion differences between a (then) 63-year-old 

Eastwood and 39-year-old Russo, but this sure lays them bare. You can also appreciate the textures in different clothing, from the pebbling of a tuxedo shirt Eastwood wears, to the fine check, plaid, and striping patterns in suits and jackets. Long shots, such as the big crowd scenes during the President’s outdoor rally speech in Denver, look quite good also, with lots of depth, detail, and color, as does the sharpness and detail in the brickwork during the building chase scene.

 

The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it delivers very realistic colors and shades, along with some nice, deep, and clear blacks and good shadow detail. There are some nicely vibrant colors as well, such as the scene with the reds of carpets, flags, and the First Lady’s dress at an embassy dinner. There are also some bright whites from button-down dress shirts. Night scenes also pop with car headlights and other lights in the dark.

 

While this Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive, it is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present. Dialogue is kept centered in the front, but we get a lot of expansion off screen that helps sonically put you in the moment. Sounds like cars and traffic, people chattering in offices or crowd scenes, sirens and dogs barking, 

In the Line of Fire (1993)

and other street sounds help establish the environment. A perfect example is during the opening scene aboard the counterfeiters’ boat, where you’ll hear the little groans and creaks and noises of the boat filling the room.

 

The audio mix becomes more aggressive when appropriate, such as the big throaty roar of large planes flying overhead or coming in for landing, the rumble of motorcycles driving through the room, passing along the sides of the listening area and into the back, or PA announcements. There aren’t a lot of gunshots, but the few there are—specifically when Leary is at the lake—have a lot of dynamics, with the report echoing out over the water. 

 

While Eastwood is better known for his westerns and Dirty Harry films, In the Line of Fire is one of my favorites in his oeuvre, and I’m thrilled we now have a reference-quality version to enjoy at home. Whether you’ve never seen it or watched it numerous times, it’s a classic that has never looked or sounded better that makes a worthy add to any collection!

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.

A Quiet Place, Part II

A Quiet Place, Part II (2021)

John Krasinski has clearly attended the Chris Pratt school of “how to reinvent your acting career after playing a lovable goofball for years.” Best known as the office-nice-guy—and the other half of the Jim-and-Pam dynamic—Jim Halpert from his nine seasons on The Office, Krasinski has left quiet-Jim behind to become more of an action star, playing the roles of a special-forces operator in 13 Hours and  young CIA-operative Jack Ryan in Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. Krasinski has also stretched his talents into writing and directing, most notably with the surprise hit A Quiet Place back in

2018, which he wrote, directed and starred in along with his wife, Emily Blunt.

 

After the huge success of A Quiet Place—raking in over $350 million at the box office against a budget of just $22 million—a sequel was all but inevitable, and Krasinski once again returned to bat the writing/directing/acting cycle.

 

While production began in June 2019, the film took the usual pandemic-postponed path before finally making its way to big screens. Originally planned for a March 2020 release, it was pulled when cinemas across the country closed, and then continued to be pushed back. Much like Christopher Nolan and Tenet, Krasinski was fairly insistent that this movie be seen in a theater as a shared experience, and not to be pushed to a streamer or PVOD release.

 

The film ultimately hit theaters on May 28, where it had one 

QUIET PLAC2 AT A GLANCE

This bigger-budget sequel to the 2018 megahit manages to deliver the horror without leaning on the gore. 

 

PICTURE
Shot on 35mm film, some shots look soft and grainy while others are sharp & clear, with HDR lending shadow depth and detail to the many low-light scenes.

 

SOUND     

A terrific Atmos mix filled with directional cues, many of them subtle, and lots of atmospherics.

of the biggest post-pandemic openings before finally coming to the Paramount Plus streaming service and becoming available for digital download via other retailers—including Kaleidescape—on July 12 after a shortened 45-day exclusive theatrical window.

 

While Quiet Place 2 could be viewed on its own without having watched the original—the opening has a bit of setup to understand what is happening—you’d really be doing yourself a disservice by doing so. Not only does the first film give you a lot of context to better understand the characters and events of the second one, it is also a terrifically entertaining movie in its own right. 

 

While the first film begins some 89 days after a sudden and unexplained invasion by a horde of blind, armored alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing and super speed intent on killing every human they encounter, and follows the Abbott family as they learn to survive in near total silence to remain hidden from the creatures, the second one begins at Day One of the invasion. Not only does this provide a bit of exposition for new viewers, it also gives the film a chance to bring Lee Abbott (Krasinski) back for a bit.

 

After the opening, Quiet Place 2 jumps ahead to Day 474 of the invasion, some short time after the events of the first film. The Abbott family of Evelyn (Blunt), hearing-impaired teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and adolescent son Marcus (Noah Jupe) are still living on their farm, caring for the baby born near the end of the first film. After noticing some signal fires on the horizon, the family sets out to try to find a safer place and any survivors, where they meet up with an old family friend, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who is living in an abandoned steel factory that provides a measure of sonic security from the aliens. 

 

While scrolling through a radio dial looking for any signals, they stumble across a station playing “Beyond the Sea” on repeat. Believing this is a clue to where other survivors are living, Millicent sets off on a quest to find them and see if she can weaponize her cochlear implant by playing the high-frequency feedback it produces through the radio’s transmitter. But not all of the human survivors are good, which adds another element to the danger. 

 

The film’s taut sub-90-minute runtime (excluding end credits) has very little fat and moves along at a brisk clip. Something is always happening to move the story forward, and by splitting the family into three groups, there is always some measure of tension and suspense. And because characters are generally whispering or communicating via American Sign Language, it forces you to pay attention, almost leaning forward in your seat, making you even more susceptible to the films several quality jump-scare moments. 

 

It has been some time since I watched the first film, but I feel like this had more action and excitement, and certainly gives a far better look at the aliens. With a much larger budget, in excess of $55 million, it also feels like a “bigger” film without losing the focus of the first film. Also, while this seemed like the kind of movie that all but screamed for a mid- or end-credits scene to tease a further installment, there isn’t one. 

 

A fair bit of Quiet Place 2 looked a bit soft and grainy to me, which made a lot more sense after I learned that it was shot on actual 35mm film. While the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, it definitely doesn’t have that tack-sharp look of modern digitally-shot productions. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of shots—specifically closeups—that have abundant sharpness, clarity, and detail; it’s just that there are also quite a few moments—specifically long shots or scenes with extreme low-lighting—that are soft and a bit grain heavy, and more resemble a good Blu-ray transfer than a true 4K film.

 

Many of the scenes are shot in dark or very low-lit interiors, such as one of the principal locations inside an abandoned steel foundry and often inside an old forge with the door closed. Here HDR gives us nice shadow depth and detail, delivering very natural and realistic image quality. There are also quite a few scenes filmed by firelight (actual fires, candles, or lighters) that benefit from HDR’s wider range. 

 

For a movie with “Quiet” in its title, you might not expect the sound mix to play an important role, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, both this and the original film have absolutely terrific Dolby Atmos mixes that really help throw you into 

the scenes. Sound is an incredibly vital element to the story, and the mixers take every opportunity to provide directional cues to what is happening, heightening the suspense of the action.

 

There is so much tense silence where little clicks, creaks, and noises inform you what is happening—or when you are thrust into Regan’s silent hearing-space, when she is without her cochlear implant (which plays a significant role in both films), where sound can go almost totally silent.

 

There are tons of little atmospheric sounds throughout that really draw you into the experience. Whether it is birds chirping and wind rustling, the clicking and skittering noises of the creatures moving around and overhead, the tinkling of glass bottles, or the flooding rush of a fire sprinkler, you are frequently immersed in the action.

 

My one sonic nit was that some of Murphy’s dialogue could be a bit difficult to understand. He often speaks with a semi-closed-mouth husky-voices whisper that can make understanding a bit of a challenge.

 

A Quiet Place, Part II is almost like a classic horror film where suspense and what

A Quiet Place, Part II (2021)

you don’t see provides much of the scares, and it is the perfect “scary movie” for people who don’t like what the modern horror genre has become. The violence is mostly bloodless, and not the focus of the film.

 

Not only does it make for a great night at the movies, I think it actually plays better in a well-designed home theater outfitted with an array of Atmos height and surround speakers for the full experience. At home, you aren’t at the mercy of suffering through popcorn chewing, drink slurping, candy rustling, and audience chit-chat that would otherwise break the moment, allowing to really enjoy the ride!

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 Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

I’ve said it here before—I’m a sucker for submarine movies. Das Boot, U-571, Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hunter Killer . . . I’m game for them all. If the movie takes place aboard, or features a lot of action inside, a sub—preferably one from the modern era—I’m all in. The tension of trying to slip past a boat actively searching for you, the pings of active sonar and the splashes of depth charges, the sounds of torpedoes streaking by as they narrowly miss, and the near inevitable moment when someone has to have a hatch closed on them to keep the sub from flooding . . .

 

And to the list of the best modern submarine films, you’d have to include The Hunt for Red October, based on Tom Clancy’s first book of the same name. For its 30th anniversary, Red October has been given a new 4K HDR release, which is available 

on physical media as well as for download from Kaleidescape.

 

What makes Red October different from your typical sub movie is that while there is some action—a handful of torpedo launches and a gunfight—the movie isn’t really about subs shooting at each other, or about a sub in some kind of trouble, stranding men in a confined and water-filling coffin, but really more a tense spy thriller that happens to revolve around—and take place aboard—submarines, as well as the mental chess match between the two principal actors.

 

Red October—both the book and the film—introduced the world to Jack Ryan, an aspiring CIA analyst with expertise in the machinations of the Soviet system, who eventually worked his way up to being a pretty capable field officer, and ultimately becoming President of the United States in the Clancy literary universe. Ryan has (so far) been 

RED OCTOBER AT A GLANCE

This classic light-on-gunplay-and-torpedoes Jack Ryan spy thriller gets a 30th-anniversary 4K HDR upgrade. 

 

PICTURE
While much of the film looks terrific, particularly closeups of the actors and shots aboard the USS Dallas, the video quality is uneven throughout.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix is true to the original film while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater, although the bass is pretty mild by contemporary standards.

portrayed by no less than five different A-list actors, including Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and John Krasinski (Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series).

 

Taking up the mantle for this first film was Alec Baldwin, who was a perfect choice to play the everyman Ryan totally out of his depth being called to leave the desk and take his analysis into the field, face-to-face with the enemy. Ryan is someone far more likely to outwit an opponent with his mind than to engage him with his fists or a gun, and Baldwin handled the role perfectly, and it was disappointing he didn’t return to reprise him in future films. 

 

Set in 1984, the Soviet Union launches a new Typhoon-class nuclear missile submarine named “Red October” captained by veteran sailor, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). The October is fitted with an advanced prototype “caterpillar” drive that uses a hydro-propulsion system that will make it virtually undetectable by traditional means, letting it creep up off the coast of a city and unleash its payload without any time to respond. While on a routine patrol, Jonesy (Courtney B. Vance), a star sonar operator aboard the USS Dallas, a USS Los Angeles-class attack submarine, picks up the Red October as it is putting to sea, tracking it for a while before it suddenly disappears. When news about the October’s capabilities are known, USS Dallas’ skipper, Captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), receives orders to relocate the October, track her, and remain in position to destroy her if need be. 

 

Simultaneously, the Soviet government launches nearly its entire naval fleet out to sea. Is it an unannounced exercise? A rescue mission? Or a prelude to war? 

 

After briefing Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Ryan brings his analysis to the Joint Chiefs, positing that he believes Ramius is not looking to start a war but rather looking to defect. Unsure of the Russians’ intentions, and with a lot of US naval assets headed towards confrontation, National Security Adviser Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan) believes Ryan’s postulation enough to give him three days to confirm his theory. This puts Ryan on a flight out to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, where he must convince Admiral Painter (Fred Thompson) to get him aboard the Dallas to make contact with Ramius. Meanwhile, the US fleet is in a race to intercept and engage Ramius before the Russian navy can find and destroy him. Of course, the Soviet Union is not going to sit idly by while a rogue captain hands over a multi-billion-dollar flagship submarine to its enemy, so how to solve the issue of getting hold of the submarine while it is being hunted and make the Russians believe it was destroyed?

 

Red October holds up remarkably well even after 30 years. Sure, some of the tech (primarily the screens aboard the subs) looks dated, but the story is still tense and believable. One thing that did take me out of the film a bit more on this viewing is the almost total lack of Russian accents by the actors portraying Soviets. Of course, Connery has his classic Scottish brogue, making no effort to conceal it, but even others (Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Neill) just don’t sound Russian. The film does use an interesting “device” to switch from actors speaking Russian with subtitles to speaking English, but I can’t help but think that if they remade the film today, it would have a more “authentic” Russian crew.

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new, true 4K digital intermediate with a new HDR color grade. While many parts of the film look terrific, and have clean, sharp, defined edges and detail—particularly closeups of the actors, or shots aboard the USS Dallas—video quality is really uneven throughout. 

 

The opening had a lot of noise and grain and just general lack of detail, and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was watching a Blu-ray version of the film for much of it. (I actually checked my processor to make sure it was receiving 4K HDR content.) But the best-looking images snap you back to just how good the film can look. And then there are other scenes—such as when Ryan is briefing the Joint Chiefs—which were so badly focused and lacking in details they rivaled VHS quality, especially apparent when blown up to my 115-inch screen.

 

The filmmakers differentiate the look of the interiors aboard the Red October and the Dallas, not only through the set design but also the lighting, and it is almost as if they used different cameras or lenses for these shots. The October never looks as sharp or detailed as the Dallas, which just looks cleaner and clearer. 

 

There is a series of green graphic overlays that appears throughout the film, and these look bright, crisp and sharp. But the traditional white subtitles during the opening—when the Russian crew is speaking Russian-are blurrier, though near the

end these subtitles also look sharpened and cleaned up as well.

 

The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it does a nice job of giving some extra pop to all the screens and buttons aboard the subs, as well as deeper, more realistic blacks throughout, and some bright glints and highlights off the equipment inside the subs or on the medals worn by sailors. We also get some nice depth of color when the sub is rigged for red, or the flashing yellow alarm lights. There were a couple of underwater shots that exhibited a slight bit of banding, and some of the visual effects shots of torpedoes or green screen had a bit of white edging.

 

Red October received three Academy Awards nominations, including Sound and Sound Effects Editing (for which it won), and the 4K release includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix that is both true to the original while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater. I watched with DTS: Neural X upmixing engaged on my Marantz processor, and the film provided a surprising amount of atmospherics and immersion.

 

From the get-go, you are surrounded by the sounds of winds swirling and rain pouring overhead. Then aboard the subs, we get the sounds of humming 

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

machinery, crew noises, hatches opening/closing, etc. Other moments, like the pressure crushing in on the hull of the Dallas as it makes a deep dive with pops and groans of the metal, or the sounds of a helicopter hovering overhead, or the loud ping from active sonar scans, or the zip of torpedoes streaking past, all help to put you right into the action. I actually had the opportunity to spend a night aboard an active aircraft carrier, and the sounds of flight ops and the steam-powered catapult launch system were spot on.

 

Bass is pretty mild by modern standards, but we do get a bit of subwoofer involvement when torpedoes detonate, or the low hum of engines running. 

 

While this new transfer isn’t without some flaws, it is still the best we’ve had at home, and remains a fun, exciting night at the movies, with a PG rating appropriate for all members of the family. With a lack of new releases on the horizon, The Hunt for Red October is a classic that is certainly worth revisiting. 

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: In the Heights

In the Heights (2021)

When you say “musical,” some people just have a natural aversion, reacting with a blanket “I don’t like/see musicals.” But if you haven’t seen a musical in years, you have missed out on a real paradigm shift in the genre, with “modern” musicals being incredibly hip and relevant, and likely 180 degrees different from what you’re imagining.

 

If you’re connecting the dots on the modern state of musical theater, where we break away from the big, classic Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical numbers and end up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking rap-

infused Hamilton, there are few clear milestones we can connect on the map along the way that would include Hair and Rent.

 

It’s also safe to say that there wouldn’t be Hamilton had there not first been In the Heights. While the story is in no way connected to Miranda’s epoch-defining musical, you can’t help but feel the catchy beats, tempos, meter, breaks, and rat-a-tat-tat style that made Hamilton so groundbreaking were crafted and forged during his writing of In the Heights.

 

Heights debuted on Broadway in March 2008 and received 13 Tony nominations (ultimately winning four, including Best Musical), and had a successful multi-year run before going on a world tour. Interestingly, Universal Pictures had planned for a film adaptation in 2008, but that fell through. Warner Brothers stepped in, bringing in Jon Chu to direct after his success with Crazy Rich Asians. The film opened 

THE HEIGHTS AT A GLANCE

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big stage musical finally makes it to the big screen.

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR/Dolby Vision presentation presents the actors and the Brooklyn locations sharply, cleanly, and with a lot of punch. 

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t have a lot going on in the surround or height channels, but creates a wide, detailed soundstage across the front, allowing you to pick out individual voices in the layered singing.

theatrically on June 10, while simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, where it is being shown in 4K HDR with both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.

 

Miranda—likely recognizing he had aged out of playing the lead, Usnavi, but also realizing attaching his name would give the film another level of cachet—takes on the role of the Piragüero, a street snow-cone vendor. While it’s a small role—just one sub-two-minute solo—he doesn’t throw away his shot, making the most of his screen time. (And be sure to stick around through all the credits to see Señor Piraguas get the final word with Mr. Softee.)

 

The filmmakers throw in some nods to Hamilton, such as the on-hold music played in the background during a phone call, as well as a cameo by Chris Jackson (who played George Washington) as Mr. Softee. Less subtly, we have Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton) taking over the lead role of Usnavi.

 

Some changes were made to turn the stage play into a film, such as reordering the songs and actually removing a key lyric in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) song “Pacienza Y Fe” that reveals one of the film’s major plot points far earlier. They also

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Hamilton

chose to have Usnavi telling the story to a group of kids, using this device to have him deliver some plot points via voiceover. One of the film’s continual themes is sueñitos, little dreams, the things that keep you motivated and going, and we learn you can barely walk down the block without running into someone’s dreams.

 

During the film’s lengthy opening number, “In the Heights,” Usnavi, who runs a small bodega that serves as a hub of the community, introduces us to most of the key players as well as telling us a bit about their story. In addition to Abuela, who is like a surrogate grandmother for the

neighborhood, helping to keep them centered in their Latin roots, we meet Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who runs a local taxi dispatch; Rosario’s eager employee-on-the-rise Benny (Corey Hawkins); and Rosario’s just-home-from-Stanford daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is seen as the barrio’s best chance of getting out and succeeding. We also meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a nail-salon worker who aspires to be a fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s not-very-secret affections; and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young undocumented helper.

 

A few big moments drive the story forward, such as several characters looking to move out of the Heights, a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 sold at the bodega, and a blackout that shrouds the neighborhood in darkness—and heat—for a couple of days.

 

While I was never bored—and really enjoyed many of the musical and dance numbers—at 2 hours and 22 minutes, there are slow parts and by the end the film does start to feel a bit long. Like the Emperor said in Amadeus, “There are simply too many notes.” Now, I’m not sure which notes I would excise—every song serve a purpose—it’s just that after two hours, I was ready for it to wrap.

 

Shot at 7K resolution, the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the movie is really beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes are shot outside on location in Brooklyn Heights, and the natural lighting gives the film a great look. Skin tones look natural, with loads of color and shadow detail, and a huge depth of focus. 

 

Overall the film just looks clean, focused, and sharp throughout. For example, the huge array of street dancers shown at the end of the opening number as well as in the community swimming pool after “96,000” are shown with great depth and clarity. Long shots showing buildings reveal tight, sharp lines of brick-and-mortar. Closeups also reveal all kinds of detail, such as in the opening number—as the camera moves through Usnavi’s store, we can clearly see every can, box, and label on the shelves. Faces show every pore, line, and whisker, and you can see the pinpoint detail in Rosario’s button-down shirts and suit jacket, as well as the intricacy of Abuela’s hand-sewn handkerchiefs. 

 

There are not a lot of effects shots, save for one big dance number (“When The Sun Goes Down”) on the side of a building. However, there are two shots at the public swimming pool where Usnavi looks obviously green-screened in that were mildly distracting. This also speaks to how sharp the rest of the film looks that these moments stood out in contrast.

 

HDR is used to pump up the brightness of neon signs/lights in store windows, and to give the night scenes—particularly in a dance club and on the street after the blackout—more punch. In fact, the song “Blackout” would be a great demo scene, with bright flashlights, candles, sparklers, and fireworks punctuating the dark night. Abuela’s song “Pacienza Y Fe” is performed in a subway car/station lit with bright overhead lights and lots of deep shadows that really benefit from HDR. 

 

Interestingly, even though it is mixed and presented in Dolby Atmos, the soundtrack—at least as presented by HBO Max—doesn’t feature a lot of height information, and virtually nothing in the rear/surround back speakers, with just some music going to the side and front heights.

 

The mix does give us some nice width and directionality across the front, letting characters and sounds move far off screen left/right as appropriate. There is also plenty of detail to let us hear individual voices in the layered singing, letting you pick out a given singer in the sonic space. We also get some nice ambient sounds that gently fill and expand the room, such as sounds of traffic, trains, sirens, dogs barking, and wind and birds in the neighborhood. 

 

Sonically, the musical numbers are the big star here, and the instruments and vocals are given a lot of room across the front channels, with some space added in the front height and surround speakers. Many of the songs are upbeat and up-tempo and you can’t help but tap your toes. Some of my favorites were “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Champagne,” and “96,000,” which name-checks such disparate pop culture moments as Lord of the Rings, Tiger Woods, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  

 

If you liked Hamilton—and how could you not?—then I daresay you’ll enjoy In the Heights, as its DNA runs thick throughout. By moving from the confines of a stage to a film shot throughout Brooklyn with a huge cast of dancers and extras, it expands the scale of the movie and also likely its appeal. Asking it to convert everyone into a musical lover is a big ask, but there is no disputing that it has loads of heart and looks terrific, and is certainly worth a night in your theater. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Growing up, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was one of my absolute favorite films. I was only one when it was originally released theatrically, but it made its TV debut on Thanksgiving Night, November 28, 1974 (and was shown again on Thanksgiving 1975 and again in May 1976) and I can remember those televised presentations being something I greatly looked forward to and that our family would plan an evening around to watch. (Remember those days of scheduled viewing before everything was just available instantly at the press of a button?)

 

It was so easy for young me to fantasize about being Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) for those 100 minutes, rooting for him as he beat the odds to find the fifth and final Golden Ticket and won the chance to go behind the closed and secret gates of one of the world’s greatest chocolate factories and meet the amazing Mr. Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) with Grandpa Joe (Jack 

Albertson). And once inside, to rise above the shenanigans of all the bad little girls and boys to win the ultimate prize. The film’s ending then leaves it open to your imagination to ponder what might happen next and what the future holds for Charlie and his Chocolate Factory.

 

As a parent now with kids of my own, Willy Wonka is still a treasured favorite we return to regularly, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to come home and randomly find my daughter Lauryn watching it, pulling it up on our Kaleidescape and saying she just felt like seeing it again.

 

For me, Willy Wonka is a perfect family film. It doesn’t try to cram in a lot of innuendo or double entendres going for a cheap adult laugh. Sure, there are jokes and quips between adults that young viewers might not understand, but isn’t that just life as a kid watching adults interact?

 

The kids are kids, not adults playing kids, and they all 

WONKA AT A GLANCE

The mischievous family classic gets an appropriately gentle upgrade to 4K HDR. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K transfer looks like layers have been pulled away, giving you a glimpse into the Chocolate Factory likely better than what was shown in 1971.

 

SOUND     

The DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix doesn’t break any new ground, providing a bit of width to the soundstage. The most dynamic aspect is the musical numbers, which get room to breathe across the front speakers.

engender certain exaggerated qualities—the gluttonous German Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), who tries to eat everything in sight; the “I want it now!” spoiled brat Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole); the perpetual gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson); and the TV-obsessed Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen)—that make for easy lessons in bad behavior. At the center of it is Charlie, a poor boy doing what he can to help out his family, trying to do his best in a world that seems constantly stacked against him, and looking for a break. But even Charlie isn’t perfect, being tempted by the intoxicating bubbles of Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting drink.

 

There is just enough about the Chocolate Factory that is edgy and off-kilter to make it mysterious—“No one ever goes in, and no one ever comes out”—but not too scary. (Well, except for the boat ride on the Wonkatania, where there are those creepy images, including a sudden startling moment of a chicken getting its head chopped off.) 

 

Then you have Wilder’s brilliant performance as Wonka. I can remember watching Wonka walking out of his factory for the first time, slowly limping along with a cane as he painfully ambles his way towards the gate, not knowing what to think of this mysterious figure who hadn’t been seen in public for years. Then in an instant, Wonka appears to trip before performing a somersault and leaping up to greet the crowd with a big smile and open arms. It sets the whole mood for who he is. There is a manic look in Wilder’s eyes that, along with his crazy hair, makes him a believable confectionary genius, with splendid quips often mumbled to no one in particular. Even with his mischievous, quirky, and downright bizarre behavior, there is a tenderness in his performance that makes you feel Wilder’s Wonka really loves kids, and has been rooting for Charlie to win, something I think Johnny Depp really missed in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

 

I have been waiting for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory to get a 4K restoration, and I’m happy to say it has definitely been worth the wait! The new 4K HDR transfer, taken from a 4K digital intermediate scan of the original 35mm film, looks gorgeous. Images are clean, sharp, and detailed throughout, looking like layers have been pulled away and giving you a glimpse into the Chocolate Factory likely better than what was shown in 1971. Right from the get-go, it’s clear that the picture has been refreshed and renewed in the best way. 

 

Closeups can have startling detail. Shots of Grandpa Joe show singular wispy hairs flying off his head, and every pore and whisker on his face, and shots of Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) let you see the details on the scar on his cheek. You can practically read every word of fine print on the lengthy contract the kids have to sign before heading into the factory, with the tiny letters being sharp and defined, and see the fine detail, such as the check pattern on Violet’s dad’s jackets or the plaid of Veruca’s father’s suit, and make out the engraving on the coin Charlie finds in the gutter. 

 

While the HDR grade is fairly modest, it lends a natural quality to images throughout. We do get some nice pop from the flashing of light off aluminum foil wrappers or the gleaming white shirt of Charlie’s science teacher. HDR also adds some depth to the Fizzy Lifting room, where Charlie and Grandpa Joe float up to the ceiling amidst a black background and chrome/steel grid, with iridescent bubbles floating everywhere. One scene that did seem a bit overblown was during the “Cheer Up, Charlie” song, where Charlie is walking in front of the moon and streetlights, which all had pretty clear blue rings around them. Whether this was from too much HDR or something in the original film, I can’t say.

 

What really benefits are the colors, which just pop, and are bright and vibrant, especially inside the factory and in the candy shoppe with its many brightly colored labels and candies. Things like the red-orange label of the Wonka bar or Wonka’s

purple jacket really have more vibrancy. Skin tones also look natural, well, except for the Oompa Loompas, which are appropriately orange. There is a bit of film grain present, particularly noticeable in shots of powdery blue-grey skies, but it is never distracting, and certainly hasn’t been scrubbed away into softness.

 

Some of the sets—particularly the scene inside the factory with the chocolate river—look a bit dated. The enhanced clarity and resolution reveal that a lot of the props are, well, props, with some of the “magic” spoiled by the fact that you can actually see that the candy isn’t real and that some of the striping is just colored tape and that much of the ground cover is synthetic turf. Also, the compositing of images on TV screens—specifically when Charlie is watching Violet—also stands out a fair bit. But most of the film holds up terrifically well, and the story is certainly timeless.

 

Sonically, this new 4K transfer gets a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix that certainly doesn’t break new ground. Dialogue is kept well anchored to the center channel and is clear and intelligible throughout. We get a bit of width across the front, such as cars and trains passing far left/right outside the screen, or the ticking of a clock. The most dynamic aspect of the mix is the musical numbers, which get some room to breathe across the front speakers, and even get a bit

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

of bass extension for a nice and full presentation. If there were any actual “surround” sound effects, they were subtle enough to go unnoticed.

 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a terrific film that definitely benefits from 4K’s added resolution and wider color gamut, and makes for a wonderful family-viewing experience. As Mr. Wonka says, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. He lived happily ever after.” 

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: Cruella

Cruella (2021)

Walt Disney Pictures has gotten into a bit of a rut with its live-action films recently, choosing to take the safer road of remaking classic animated titles like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan instead of trying to break new ground. With Cruella, we get an entirely new origin story of one of Disney’s classic villains, Cruella de Vil from 1961’s 101 Dalmatians.

 

Even though I’m a fan of Emma Stone (who stars as both Estella and Cruella), I didn’t have especially high hopes for this film. I wasn’t a big fan of the 1996 live adaptation of 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close (who happens to serve as an executive producer on Cruella) and didn’t think de Vil’s backstory would be interesting enough to make a compelling movie, and would 

just end up diluting what was such an iconic character.

 

Boy, was I wrong!

 

I enjoyed Cruella far more than I expected to. Here we learn what makes her tick, see where her sense of fashion and design came from, and discover what ultimately leads her to becoming the villain we all know from the original Disney animated film. And while she is just a straight villain in Dalmatians—what could be more heinous than wanting to steal puppies to harvest their fur for coats?—here Cruella is an anti-hero living on the streets and fighting for her adopted family against domineering fashionista The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who holds the London fashion world in her fist along with a secret to Estella’s past.

 

Beyond the writing and wonderful costumes and set dressing, you have to give much of the credit to the film being so entertaining to Stone, who is just so wickedly delightful and mischievous as Cruella. You really can’t help

CRUELLA AT A GLANCE

Disney goes punk (sort of), transporting the Dalmatians villainess’s back story to the world of mid-’70s London high fashion. 

 

PICTURE
The extended color gamut lets things like the bright red of London’s buses really pop, providing great shadow detail and creating a more natural-looking image.

 

SOUND     

This isn’t a dynamic Atmos soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good job of helping the film lean on its jukebox of classic-rock tracks.

but root for her even though you know where her path ultimately leads. The scenes featuring Stone and Thompson are also some of the best, and the idea to make Stone two characters with distinct looks and personalities allowed for the two to share more screen time.

 

We learn early in the film that Estella loves fashion and design, but she also has a bit of a cruel streak, a personality her mother refers to as Cruella. To fit in—and stay out of trouble—Estella pushes her Cruella nature aside, dyes her hair red, and lives as a creative and eager-to-please girl hoping to start a new life in London. But when things become too much for Estella to handle, she turns to Cruella—the wild black-white haired girl with a hard edge, sharp tongue, and cruel streak—to step in and take care of business.

 

Like every film released in the past year, Cruella had a bit of a twisty trail to market. Originally scheduled to be released theatrically on December 23, 2020, it was delayed to May 28, 2021 where it also simultaneously bowed as a Premier Access title on Disney+, maintaining the $29.99 pricing Disney has established. After less than a month in theaters, Cruella was released to digital retailers on June 25, including Kaleidescape, which offers the film in a full 4K HDR version with Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio.

 

While the filmmakers did loads to try and tie this prequel to the original animated title, they weren’t dogmatic about it, and they made changes (such as setting the film in the ‘70s) that helped to modernize the story. Retained are Cruella’s friends/family/henchmen Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and this pair provides most of the film’s comic relief (though I found the laughs to be more chuckles than guffaws, and some of the antics—such as chasing around a small dog dressed as a rat—will likely appeal more to youngsters.) Estella’s/Cruella’s relationship with Jasper also helps to humanize his character, as we see him wanting to accept his friend, but not always liking what that means, with Horace more content just trying to figure out, “What’s the angle?” to whatever scheme they were planning. 

 

There is also a wonderful scene of Cruella maniacally driving a giant saloon through the streets, swerving back and forth crashing into things and hunching over the steering wheel with a crazed look that is a moment from the animated title brought perfectly to life. And absolutely stay through the first part of the end credits where the film really dovetails into the original. 

 

Shot on Arri in a combination of 3.4 and 6.5K, Cruella’s video transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images are clean, sharp, and detailed throughout. The filmmakers shied away from intense, tight, pore-revealing closeups on the Emmas, but even still we are given loads of detail throughout. 

 

Fashion—specifically haute couture—plays a huge role in the film, and the costume design and attention to detail is fantastic and easy to appreciate due to the video quality. The sheer number of costumes worn by Stone and Thompson—let alone the numerous additional designs made for fashion shows and worn by party-goers—is amazing, and will likely garner Cruella an Academy Award nomination. With the resolution and sharpness of the video, you can easily appreciate the layers, textures, and small details that went into the many costumes, easily noting the different fabric weights, fine stitching, and design. 

 

Shot on location throughout London, the film has an authentic feel to it. Whether it is the set dressing of London streets, a near-perfect recreation of the famous Liberty department store, a variety of estates—principally Hellman Hall—or numerous visits to Regents Park, a making-of doc included with the Kaleidescape download shows the extent to which the filmmakers went to cover every minute detail, including many things that didn’t even appear on camera. All of this makes Cruella feel like a real world. There are many exterior scenes, which look terrific, especially shots of London at night—with the many lights, buildings, and shadows—looking especially good. 

 

The extended color gamut also lets things like the bright red of London’s buses or the light show at Cruella’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” outdoor fashion show really pop. Beyond just giving great shadow detail and a more natural-looking image, there are some eye-reactive uses of HDR, including headlights at night and the pop and flash of camera bulbs, some red-orange-white flames in a big fire, and the bright white sheen of satin material or the glossy highlights coming off black leather/vinyl. 

 

Sonically, the soundtrack is the big star here. The film takes place in London in the 1970s, when the punk rock movement was starting to take hold, and features an extensive soundtrack of era-appropriate music including The Doors, Queen, Blondie,

The Clash, and The Rolling Stones. In fact, the music is like an extra character in the film, helping to establish the mood and emotion of nearly every scene, and giving it an edgier, punk vibe that fits Cruella and her fashion-design-sense to a T. Also, the music is given plenty of room to stretch its boundaries across the speakers and up into the height channels, providing a ton of space and presence. In fact, the expansiveness and immersive music soundtrack throughout Cruella is a great sales pitch for Atmos music in general!

 

Dialogue is clear and well presented in the center channel, with the exception of some of Cruella’s voiceover narration, which can be a bit forward-sounding.

 

I wouldn’t call this a dynamic surround soundtrack, with most of the audio kept across the front of the room, but it does a good enough job of serving the story. We do get some establishing ambience in scenes, such as park and street noises—cars and people in the distance, the sound of water in fountains, or another scene in a jail has off-camera whistles, phones, chattering, and the jangle of keys to place you in the moment. During another big moment, a swarm of bugs come flying out and then travels overhead and around the room before exiting to all sides. I did notice on moment that highlighted more the subtle detail of the soundtrack, when The Baroness is having lunch in a car and she throws her 

Cruella (2021)

trash—including a metal fork—out the window, and you can hear the delicate sound of the fork hitting the road.

 

While the film is mostly family-friendly fare—not a single swear or sexual moment to be found!—it does carry a PG-13 rating mainly for some intense themes (it’s implied dogs are killed) and peril (one character is left in a burning room to die). At over two hours, this also might be a bit much for younger kids to take on, and it definitely features a story with depth and themes designed more to appeal to adults. 

 

Cruella is one of the most original live-action films to come out of Disney in recent years, and if it didn’t grab your attention in the theaters or on Disney+, now is the perfect opportunity to enjoy it in highest-resolution at home! 

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: Luca

Luca (2021)

When I was in high school, my favorite band was Talking Heads and I had this weird kind of love-hate anxiety when they would release a new album and I would go to listen for the first time. Would I love the new album because I actually loved it, or would I make myself say I loved it because it was from the Heads, or would lead singer David Byrne have taken them off on some new musical direction that meant I actually didn’t love it, and couldn’t even bring myself to lie that I did?

 

That’s a bit how I feel about a new film from Pixar.

 

Pixar Animation is about one of the surest bets around when it comes to delivering solid entertainment. And I don’t mean only in animated titles, but in just great movies in general. While I used to get a bit concerned because Pixar trailers used to seem 

so generic and uninteresting—always fearing, “Well, this is the one where Pixar finally misses the mark . . .”—I have come to realize the company just doesn’t produce great trailers, often because their stories are so layered you can’t really hope to encapsulate the whole spirit in a one-to-two-minute spot.

 

So, even though I wasn’t really overly excited by the trailers for Luca, the 24th film from the studio, which premiered on Disney+ this past Thursday (June 18), I wasn’t overly concerned. But, I’m sad to say, I think this might actually be the company’s weakest film to date, certainly rivaling 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, which is widely considered the worst film in the company’s canon.

LUCA AT A GLANCE

Awful thin for a Pixar movie, especially on the heels of the nuanced and adult, Oscar-winning Soul

 

PICTURE
Luca just looks gorgeous—the colors are straight-up eye candy throughout.

 

SOUND     

Kind of like the story itself, the movie’s Dolby Atmos mix is just satisfactory.

It’s not that Luca is a bad film by any means. In fact, it might even be a good movie. It’s just that it’s not a great one, and that is the nearly impossible situation that Pixar has placed itself in—after delivering film after film of greatness that anything less than a home run is considered disappointing.

 

I think the letdown is compounded by the fact that Luca follows Soul, the company’s most adult and ambitious title to date, which was so full of, well, soul. Soul took on incredibly deep and heavy issues and had such richly developed characters that the light and saccharine sweetness of Luca just seems all the emptier because of it.

 

But for Pixar, Luca lacks the depth, weight, and multi-dimensional story we’re used to getting. It’s just . . . simple. It’s hard to really care too deeply about its characters because the story doesn’t give us enough to care about them. Sure, there are tons of metaphors and parallels you can draw. The characters’ goal is to win a race that will give them enough money to buy a Vespa, which the film literally tells us is freedom—the freedom to get out and see the world beyond your four walls, especially exciting for Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who has lived a very sheltered and protected life. (“I never go anywhere. Just dream about it.”) The characters are also hiding the secret about what they really are (sea monsters), looking to fit in and gain acceptance from the small Italian city of Portorosso which hates/fears what they really are. And if you want to draw a parallel to the LGBTQ community here, well, it doesn’t take much of a stretch (Especially at the end, when two more characters come “out.”) 

 

The film takes place around the ‘50s-‘60s on the Italian Riviera, where sea monster Luca spends his days herding fish like a shepherd. One day while out swimming, he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who shows him that when dry on land, they transform into human form. Alberto pushes Luca beyond his comfort zone, until one day Luca’s parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) discover what he has been doing and threaten to send away to the deep to life with bizarre—and semi-translucent—Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen). 

 

Luca and Alberto swim over to the city of Portorusso, where they attempt to blend in with the “land monsters” and fulfill their dream of getting a Vespa. They befriend Giulia (Emma Berman) whose dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) happens to be a major fisherman and sea-monster hunter. (Who is clearly inspired by—and is the spitting image of—the dad from Pixar’s short “La Luna.”) The film builds to the Portorusso Cup Triathlon, a race where the winner gets a trophy and prize money, with the boys in constant fear of getting wet and revealing their secret.

 

One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout. The animation here is definitely more cartoony, not having that hyper-realistic look found in some of Pixar’ss films (e.g., the jazz club scene in Soul). Even still, the colors just burst off the screen, and this will make your video display really pop. You can also tell that the Pixar animators and writers took the time to research life in a small Italian Riviera city, with lots of accurate little details thrown in throughout. (This is also the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who clearly tried to bring as much Italian authenticity and love to the project as possible.)

 

Water is notoriously difficult to animate and render, but here it just looks fantastic. Also, even through Disney+ streaming (via my Apple TV), I didn’t notice any banding issues as the sunlight filtered from the surface down through various layers, colors, and shades of the ocean—something that looked especially natural on the OLED with Dolby Vision. Another scene had water crashing into a rocky shoreline, with clear and individual detail to each rock, with the foam, froth, and bubbles in the water incredibly detailed. There are also subtle detailed touches like the different shades of color in the sand as water lapped in and out. There is also super-fine detail in the clothing worn, letting you clearly see the differences in fabric texture, patterns, and weaves worn by characters.

 

Much of Luca takes place in daytime in the town of Portorosso, with brilliant sun shining in piercing blue skies; bright, emerald grasses; and multi-colored buildings, or the warm, golden-orange hues as the sun sets. It all looks gorgeous. 

 

Kind of like the story itself, I found Luca’s audio mix to be just satisfactory. Dialogue is well rendered primarily in the center channel (though it does occasionally follow characters as they move off screen), making it clear and intelligible throughout, but even though it is a Dolby Atmos mix, it was very subtle and reserved. The one dialogue distraction was Giulia’s accent, which seemed to come and go, and was especially pronounced when she is sprinkling in some word or phrase in Italian, kind of like how a Latino chef will go out of their way to over-emphasize some ethnic word like “chili relleno” to let you know just how legit they are.

 

Italian songs of the era are sprinkled throughout, and they get some room across the front channels and a bit up into the overheads, but the rest of the effects are pretty sparse. There were some instances of the sounds of boats passing up overhead, or a harpoon thrown that passes by, but I didn’t find the sound mix dynamic at all. (Again, whether this was a streaming issue or an Apple TV issue, I can’t say.) 

 

I did notice that the soundfield opened up a bit as Luca leaves the water and goes onto dry land. It wasn’t through a big use of audio, but rather just the sonic sense that the room had expanded with sounds of gentle wind, rustling leaves, and birds that let you know you are up in the human world.

 

Is Luca worth seeing? For Disney+ subscribers, I’d say definitely. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, and it’s a fun, albeit simple, story.

 

And, it’s not that Luca is a bad film. In fact, you could easily say that while Soul was a Pixar title made for adults, Luca sets its sights squarely on a younger audience, with a coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, childhood dreams, and overcoming fears that never gets too deep or strays too far away from safety and cuteness that kids will be drawn to. And if Luca came from any other studio (well, with the exception of Disney Animation, Pixar’s parent company), it would likely be heralded as a triumph. It’s just that Pixar has come to make us expect so much more.  

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.

Ep. 20: The State of the Streaming Art

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Mike, Dennis, and John look at how far the streaming world has come from the Game of Thrones disaster two years ago, with HBO Max now offering reference-quality video—a standard more and more services are now able to meet. They also consider whether the affordable day & date model the studios adopted during the pandemic is likely to last, the problem of subscription overload, and wonder why Hollywood even bothered with the Oscars this year.

 

Highlights

 

  1:39   a brief description of the progression from Game of Thrones‘ lousy video to the reference-quality images in              Those Who Wish Me Dead

  2:38   streaming codecs can now handle chaotic images, like of a forest fire, without distortion

  4:24   the paucity of 4K HDR titles on HBO Max

  5:14   the increasing number of streaming services capable of reference-quality playback

  5:53   how even HD now looks better on Netflix and Disney+

  7:16   Amazon and The Criterion Channel need to improve their HD playback

10:11   how streaming quality is determined by the quality of both the service and the hardware

10:30   Roku vs. Nvidia Shield vs. Apple TV vs. TV apps

11:20   John expresses concerns about streaming’s audio quality

13:04   Dennis discusses Dolby Labs’ tests that show streaming is capable of reference-quality audio

14:04   Apple TV+ vs. Disney+ vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Amazon vs. Hulu vs. The Criterion Channel

16:12   will streaming soon become the only home-video format?

19:12   the increasing problem of too many subscriptions

21:31   Sony distributing its films on Netflix and elsewhere instead of setting up its own channel

25:05   will streaming continue to do day & date or will big movies go back to debuting in theaters first?

29:21   will the strength of streaming coming out of the pandemic doom movie theaters?

33:20   was there any real value in doing the Oscars during the year of a pandemic?

34:33   the Oscars don’t adequately take streaming into account, especially streaming series

39:30   John talks about the promise of Sony’s new Bravia Core streaming service 

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Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

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.

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.