John Sciacca Tag

Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I was nine when the Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. I was never really a fan of the Star Trek TV series, but I was excited to see that movie as I was all hyped up on space and alien movies following Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the trailers looked like it would be an exciting film with good effects—really all a nine-year-old could hope for. 


The reality was, that film was so boring, I haven’t felt any need to ever see it again. Even 40-plus-years later I can recall going to sleep, waking up, and then going back to sleep again, just waiting for it to end. I’m sure my memory has clouded the reality of it, but I recall it being filled with agonizingly slow closeup pans of the Enterprise that felt like they lasted 30 minutes, as the

camera just moved all around the ship over and over. It was like the filmmakers were just so proud of this ship they had created, they wanted everyone to appreciate each and every inch of it.


Had this dud of a film been the first Star Trek movie today, it likely would have killed the franchise, with studios far less likely to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a second chance.


Fortunately, three years later under a different director we got what is widely considered the best film in the original series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Even so, Paramount strongly hedged its bet, giving Khan roughly 25% the budget of The Motion Picture.) We got a great villain, action, an easy-to-understand plot, and a massive shock of an ending that also set up the next film. This was the Star Trek critics and fans alike wanted, nabbing


Probably the best film in the Star Trek franchise holds up surprisingly well in 4K HDR, despite some subpar effects shots and occasional softness.


When the shots are sharp, the images are clean with lots of detail. Solid blacks and punchy highlights throughout.



The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is heavily focused on the front channels and pretty undynamic by modern standards.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ and Audience scores of 87 and 90% that have only been bested by one other film in the franchise, J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot starring Chris Pine at Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto filling the role of Spock.


Having recently rewatched the latest trilogy of films (all available in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio on both 4K Blu-ray and from Kaleidescape), and with Kaleidescape running a special pricing promotion on all Trek films, I thought it was time to revisit Khan and see how it held up after almost 40 years. And besides being a great film, Khan is also the only movie from both the William Shatner and Patrick Stewart eras that has been given a 4K HDR makeover, making it ready-for-primetime in a modern home theater.


The version available from Kaleidescape is a Director’s Cut that includes some three-plus minutes of additional footage. It’s been so long since I watched the film, I can’t tell you what was added back in, or if it has any real impact on the story. 


The movie begins with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) administering the famous Kobayashi Maru simulation to Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) who—as expected—fails badly. Admiral Kirk (Shatner) is now out of active command, depressed and sitting behind a desk at Starfleet. After some Romulan ale and a chat with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk decides to join the Enterprise crew on a routine training mission that, well, turns into not being so routine after another starship—the Reliant—is taken over by the genetically engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who was abandoned by Kirk on a planet to fend for himself 15 years ago. Khan has been plotting his revenge on Kirk for years, and now with the Reliant under his command—as well as possession of a powerful planetary terraforming device called Genesis—he is ready to deliver some revenge . . . a dish best served cold! 


For a “fresh” perspective on the movie, I watched with my 14-year-old daughter and her similar-aged friend, neither of whom had ever seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV shows. For them, the movie was a bit slow, taking too long to get to the action. They also found the effects and some of the acting a bit, shall we say, “dated” to put a kind word on it. 


While having nowhere near the level of lustful gazing found in The Motion Picture, we are still treated to a few lengthy slow shots as the camera gives us plenty of time to appreciate the Enterprise in all her glory, and Montalban’s enthusiastic performance of Khan is still great, with his impossible-to-ignore physique on display throughout. (Remember, he was 62 when this was released and looks like he just stepped out of the gym following a serious Chest-Day workout.) 


Compared to Star Wars—a film that had a similar budget and that debuted five years before—the effects in Khan are noticeably sub-par. (And, admittedly, haven’t benefitted from decades of the ILM effects’ team reworking . . .) Laser blasts and photon torpedoes look like they’ve just been drawn in, some of the ship flying sequences and explosions are clearly models, and one scene is very obviously on a stage with matte paintings. We also don’t get near the stage dressing and attention to detail—just take a look at a lot of the switches and knobs aboard instrument clusters on the Enterprise and it appears they don’t do anything. Of course, some of these are just byproducts of the era—and the difference of what we’ve come to expect from high-quality CGI—that are more noticeable now with 4K’s enhanced resolution and detail. 


Filmed in 35mm, the original negative “was in terrible shape” and received a 1080p remastering back in 2009 for the Blu-ray release. There’s no word (I could find) about the sourcing of this 4K HDR version, but my guess is that it is taken from a 2K digital intermediate.


The big thing you’ll notice here is how clean the images look. Right from the get-go, the title sequence and blackness of space just look clean and sharp. The shots in space all look especially good, with deep blacks and bright white star points. There is a fair bit of grain in the opening scenes aboard the Enterprise, but that seems to be less noticeable as the film goes on, or maybe I just got used to it. 


Another thing that really stood out is a pretty noticeable change in focus and sharpness in some scenes, sometimes even when cutting back and forth to two characters talking. At first, I thought it was maybe vanity defocusing to not show Shatner’s

age (51), but it wasn’t—he’s sharp and clear in some shots, and soft and diffuse in others. This is all the more noticeable because of the generally sharp edges and images throughout most of the film, with some images looking as clean and sharp as a modern production. When focus is sharp, closeups have tons of detail, revealing every line and wrinkle in Kirk’s face, pores in Khan’s chin, or the heavy facial makeup on Spock. You can also really appreciate the rich, thick burgundy felt texture of the uniform jackets worn by the Enterprise crew.


There are some bright highlights in the form of some strobing lightning flashes, stars, explosions, and video screens, but where HDR really benefits is in shadow detail and just overall realistic, natural-looking images. Color gamut didn’t look especially expanded, but we get some nicely saturated reds and greens.


The 4K HDR download features a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which differs from the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD audio found on the Blu-ray disc (and Kaleidescape Blu-ray download). This mix is heavily focused on the front three channels, and definitely seems pretty undynamic by modern standards.


Audio effects like wind sounds, sirens, alarms, and explosions get a bit of width, as does James Horner’s score. My processor’s Dolby upmixer did its best to 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

expand the soundstage, with some steam and engine sounds placed overhead; and the Enterprise jumping to warp speed had it streak high up across the ceiling. Fortunately, dialogue is pretty clear throughout.


Time has been mostly kind to Wrath of Khan, and it certainly has never looked as it does here. For Trek fans, this is a no-brainer—it’s great to revisit the original crew of the Enterprise on one of their finest voyages. But for those new to the series—and younger viewers—they might be better served jumping into the new films, which are certainly heavier on the action, effects, and sonic bombast. 

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

Review: Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking (2021)

On paper, Chaos Walking had all the makings for the start of a major franchise. Based on the successful award-winning trilogy of novels from Patrick Ness, the film is an adaptation of the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s also led by two major young stars: Tom Holland of recent Spider-Man MCU fame and Daisy Ridley from the final trilogy of Star Wars films. And it’s directed by Doug Liman, who also helmed The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat), with a significant budget of $100 million.

But history has shown us that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, and even though you have all the right ingredients and budget for a gourmet meal, you can still end up making a nothingburger. Which isn’t to say that Chaos Walking is a bad movie. In fact, it plays really well in a modern home theater with a very clever and active Dolby Atmos soundtrack and clean, sharp visuals. It’s just that watching it, you could see that it had the potential to be so much more.


I’m a fan of dystopian Young Adult fiction. I’ve read the trilogies in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, but I’d never heard of the Chaos Walking series, so I can’t offer any commentary on 


This adaption of the ‘Tween trilogy of the same name doesn’t live up to its potential, but does provide some diverting eye and ear candy.


The film looks great, with the images always clean and sharp.



The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, with the height channels frequently employed for ambient effects and dialogue.

how true the movie remains to the book. Sometimes, that’s the best way to go into a series, without bringing any of the preconceived ideas and expectations from a 500-page book that a film can almost never live up to. (I’d submit The Dark Tower as a prime example on how to run totally roughshod over a beloved series of books in a single 90-minute film.)


Chaos Walking had a torturous path to the big screen. After announcing Liman as director in 2016, principal photography began in 2017, with an original release date set for March 2019. However, after poor initial screenings, and scheduling conflicts of the leads delaying reshoots, and then a global pandemic, the film didn’t see its theatrical debut in the States until March 5. Following poor reviews (22% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and even poorer box office (grossing just $17 million worldwide), the film arrived on PVOD on April 2. It is now available as a premium rental option from Kaleidescape for $19.99, where it includes a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack.


The film opens with a title card reading:


“The Noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.”

—Unknown New World Settler


It’s the year 2257, and the settlement of Prentisstown on the planet New World is inhabited only by men. Every citizen’s thoughts are on display for all to see and hear, something they call The Noise. The town is run by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) along with Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), who we learn early on doesn’t get on well with the Holland character. 


We’re told that the native aliens on the planet, the Spackle, came and killed off all the women. One day while out walking in the forest, Todd Hewitt (Holland) comes across the wreckage of a crashed spacecraft. The sole survivor is Viola (Ridley), a woman who has no Noise, who goes on the run after hearing and seeing Todd’s Noise. The men of Prentisstown capture Viola, and she is questioned by the Mayor where she discloses that she was in a scout ship from a larger vessel filled with 4,000 people due to land any day. Viola escapes, and when it is clear that the men mean to do her harm, she and Todd go on the run looking for help in a neighboring settlement.


I found the premise interesting and compelling, and the plot device of seeing/hearing all of the men’s thoughts was a nice way of delivering exposition, along with some humor courtesy Holland, whose Noise is especially chatty, with his quips reminding me a bit of his Peter Parker. I also felt that Holland and Ridley did the most with what they were given, and Mikkelsen seems to dig into his role as the Mayor. It’s just that it never really got going, or offered enough information, character development or motivation, or drama to gain any real momentum—especially when the film’s big “surprise” reveal takes place about halfway through and then just leaves us with a typical chase as Prentiss and his men try to track down Viola and Todd.


Fortunately, the film at least looks great. Filmed on Arri at 6.5K, this is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and images are always clean and sharp. You can appreciate the different textures, patterns, and wear in the fabric worn by characters, and see great detail in the closeups of actors’ faces. The focus is also razor sharp in scenes, with objects having clear and

defined edges, letting you see individual twigs, sticks, and branches in the forest.


New World is very organic, with lots of forests and the settlement a bit like an Old West mining town, with an earthy color palette. There are a few shots of Viola in space prior to landing, and these have a far more modern feel—brighter, with lots of contrast from space and planets and the mechanical elements of her ship. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, and the HDR grade helps with lots of shadow detail in the forest, as well as bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows and cracks in wooden slats.


The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, and there are tons of ambient sounds from the forest scenes as characters move about New World or when a gadget blasts laser bolts all around the room. One scene has characters hiding under floorboards and overhearing a conversation, and you hear the creak of wood and the conversation happening up overhead.


The Noise plays a big part in the film, and the mixers use this as a nice audio element, placing characters’ thoughts up into the height channels or filling the room with literal noise in large crowd scenes. Because the Noise is mixed up into the height speakers, sometimes that dialogue can be a bit tricky to understand, 

Chaos Walking (2021)

especially when many other layers of sounds are happening, but you can clearly hear all the important parts. And you’ll hear “I’m Todd Hewitt—control your noise” being thought over and over (and over . . .) as he tries to block his thoughts from others.


There aren’t a ton of moments requiring big low-end effects, but your subs are called into play —occasionally significantly—when appropriate, such as when Viola’s ship is entering the atmosphere or during a galloping horse chase.


With an audience rating of 71%, Chaos Walking definitely has some appeal. And with it being released in theaters just a month ago, it is some of the freshest content you can view at home. While its leads probably have more appeal to a ‘Tween crowd, Chaos’ premise is compelling enough to hold your attention, and the eye and ear candy certainly make for a fun evening 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

Ep. 16: Kaleidescape Turns 20

The Cineluxe Hour logo

In the early 2000s, everyone assumed it would be the large electronics companies like Samsung, Pioneer, and Sony that would figure out how to best organize DVD collections so they could be enjoyed in a home theater or throughout the home. So we were all surprised when the answer came not from the big boys but from a small Silicon Valley startup called Kaleidescape.


Founded by Michael Malcolm, Cheena Srinivasan, and Dan Collens, Kaleidescape used its expertise in networking and data storage to create an elegant way to store, access, and enjoy movies, a solution that eluded—and continues to elude—the major electronics companies. With its iconic user interface, ability to jump past trailers and warnings straight to the film, in-house curated metadata for each movie, and compatibility with virtually every control and automation system, Kaleidescape showed the world exactly what movie management should look like. 


In the ensuing two decades, Kaleidescape has rolled with the emergence of Blu-ray Discs and then online digital downloads, staying one step ahead of the new delivery technologies to create solutions that always put the customer experience first. Its movie store now offers the largest and most comprehensive collection of films in highest-quality 4K HDR and lossless audio from all the major Hollywood studios.


To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, we recently talked with co-founder Cheena Srinivasan, Kaleidescape customer-turned-new-CEO Tayloe Stansbury, and recently appointed marketing VP Norma Garcia-Muro about the company’s history, its current status, and its future opportunities. (Click here to read bios for Cheena, Tayloe, and Norma.)


Here are the highlights:


  0:50  John Sciacca talks about his experience reviewing the first Kaleidescape product.

  2:10   An early conversation John had with Cheena about online content delivery.

  3:21  Cheena describes the reaction to Kaleidescape’s introduction.

  3:52  Cheena on the founding of the company.

  5:24  Cheena on the development of the first product.

  8:30  The revolutionary impact of the onscreen display.

12:05  How Kaleidescape is more a software company than an AV company.

14:59  Tayloe’s early experiences as a Kaleidescape customer.

18:31  The development & introduction of the movie store.

22:23  The importance of backward compatibility.

24:14  The evolution of Tayloe’s Kaleidescape system.

26:22  How the Kaleidescape experience has remained the same as the hardware has evolved.

29:16  Norma on the movie studios’ perception of Kaleidescape.

31:55  Norma on her marketing initiatives for the company.

33:25  The unique passion Kaleidescape customers feel for the product.

35:43  The introduction of rental & PVOD titles to the service.

42:38  Kaleidescape’s status as a unique product & service.

44:39  Tayloe on the company’s near-term future.



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.

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

Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

While it’s probably possible to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka “The Snyder Cut”), released last week on HBO Max, on its own without discussing all of the baggage that comes with it, some context seems appropriate to establish why and how this all came to be.


First, we need to travel back to 2017. Snyder had completed two DC films for Warner Bros., Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which were going to establish and launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), setting it up to stand against the tide of Marvel heroes. As Snyder was deep in the process of completing his followup film, Justice League, tragedy struck his family when 20-year-old daughter Autumn took her own life. 


Understandably, Snyder and his wife Deborah (who was working as producer on the film) felt unable to continue with the demands of production and battling with the studio to get the film completed on his terms, and they decided to step away to focus on their family. 


Warner, with millions already invested and most of Snyder’s filming complete, brought in Joss Whedon to direct and bring the film across the finish line. Many had complained that Snyder’s vision for the DCEU was too dark (Batman v Superman had a 

dismal critics’ score of just 29%), and that Whedon’s more light-hearted approach combined with his prior success working on two Avengers films (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) was the right tone to help get the DCEU back on track.


Whedon took over the reins, rewriting, reshooting, and editing the film, injecting some humor to lighten the dark tone as well as making major trims to meet Warner’s alleged mandate of hitting a two-hour runtime—frankly an overly ambitious goal in a film planning on introducing three major new characters that would help carry the film and drive the DCEU forward, resurrecting another, setting up a new franchise Big Bad, and then having this newly assembled team save the world.


The result was 2017’s Justice League, a film Snyder says his wife and executive producer Christopher Nolan told him never to see as it “would break his heart,” and one that 


The subject of much social-media-driven fan expectation turns out to be an improvement on Joss Whedon’s stab at the film, resulting in a fuller, but not exceptionally better, experience.


Image quality is clean throughout, though never bristling with sharpness and detail—which might be due to HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth.



A pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room, but with somewhat limited low-end dynamics.

seemed to disappoint more people than it pleased. (Though it must be pointed out that both its critics’ and audience ratings were higher than Snyder’s BvS . . . )


Over the years, rumors started circulating that Snyder had all of the footage he shot during his time in the director’s seat and that he had assembled a rough-cut that he’d shown to some friends and insiders, and that this true vision of Justice League was a film that righted all wrongs.


Fans glommed onto this and started a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement filled with the usual social-media fervor, including toxic and hateful rhetoric and cyberbullying on Twitter and Reddit and at least one death threat. Even members of the Justice League cast and crew started showing support for the release of Snyder’s version of the film, and the movement continued to grow.


A lot of hate was spewed at Whedon, who—at least as far as I can tell—handled it all like a silent professional. Also, it’s important to remember that he never asked for any of this. He wasn’t clamoring to take the film away from Snyder—he was brought in at the 11th hour to save a major project. This is kind of like a pinch hitter being brought in to replace an injured 

player who’s told by the manager that he has to bunt, and then being crucified for not living up to the crowd’s expectations.


At any other time, this likely would have never gone anywhere, but then Warner launched its streaming service, HBO Max. Hungry to gobble up subscribers with unique and desirable content—and with a huge legion of rabid fans out there clamoring for it—Warner gave Snyder the go-ahead—and budget—to finish his version, announcing that it would stream exclusively on the new HBO Max platform.


Whether you want to compare this to negotiating with 

terrorists or not, it actually makes a lot of sense from Warner’s perspective. This groundswell of fan support created a ton of social-media buzz and free advertising that the studio literally couldn’t have purchased. At a time when much of Hollywood was shut down, it also fast-tracked a marquee title exclusively available on its streaming service, with less than a year passing between the announcement and the film’s availability. While the estimated $70 million required to finish the VFX and do some reshoots might sound like a lot—especially on top of the estimated $300 million Warner had already sunk into the film—it certainly isn’t unheard of for a tentpole title. (You might recall Disney paid $75 million for the worldwide rights to Hamilton, and Apple paid $70 million for Tom Hanks’ film Greyhound.) It also brings a ton of interest back to the DC Universe, with multiple new films in the pipeline, and likely considering any additional monies spent on the Snyder Cut as investments in future properties.


So . . . that kind of sets the stage for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.


After all the protests and demands and waiting, is this four-hour-and-two-minute film a better experience that’s worth your time? Yes.


I can’t think that too many people would prefer Whedon’s JL to Snyder’s, as the ZSJL is just a far more complete and finished experience. (And currently stands with a critics’ score of 74% and audience score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.) 


But, it’s also a totally unfair comparison. Warner would have never given the four-hour-plus ZSJL cut we have here a commercial theatrical release back in 2017, especially following the dismal ratings of BvS. And it isn’t enough of a film to be split into two-parts à la the final Avengers films—which had “earned’ their two-part release over 20 films of world and character building—and even if it had been allowed to be released at an extended three-hour runtime, that would still have required an hour of trimming from what we have here.


Honestly, much of the film and overall experience feels overly indulgent. This isn’t to say it isn’t mostly entertaining, it just feels like . . . a journey. And sometimes a long one at that. Here, Snyder is free to do whatever he wants without the limits of time nor benefit of any outside input of test screenings to see ways to improve (reminding me a bit of George Lucas surrounding himself with “Yes!” men when working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy). 


Beyond the runtime, we have Snyder’s decision to release the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with a title card reading, “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision” appearing just before it begins. Sure, this might play great—and larger—on a giant commercial IMAX screen. which is Snyder’s ultimate goal, but for the 99.9% of HBO Max viewers who will be watching it on a 16:9 screen (let alone a 2.35:1 screen without the benefit of masking!) this “huge” movie feels smaller. 


At least Snyder pulled back from one of his original goals, to release the film in black & white. (He says “the ultimate version is the black-and-white IMAX version of the movie.”) Also, it feels like he was reaching for an edgier R rating for some reason, throwing in three completely arbitrary and out-of-place-feeling F-words to force the MPAA’s hand. Sigh . . .


At times, the movie feels like a kitchen-sink approach, lacking editorial restraint. Scenes like the singing after we see Aquaman entering the water or the ballad played over the lengthy slow-motion of The Flash saving future girlfriend Iris West just feel drawn out.


Even though Snyder has said he wouldn’t use a single frame of footage he hadn’t shot, fundamentally the ZSJL is much the same as Whedon’s 2017 movie, and watching it doesn’t feel like a wholly new experience so much as a fuller experience—kind of like skimming the Cliff’s Notes for War and Peace versus sitting down and pondering every word. The film still has Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) looking to locate and unite the same band of heroes: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Once joined, the newly formed League fights alien-baddy Steppenwolf (a CGI character voiced by Ciaran Hinds), trying to keep him from collecting three otherworldly Mother Boxes he plans to join into a planet-killing unity. After claiming the Boxes from the Amazons and Atlanteans, the League uses the box entrusted to humans centuries before to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to help in their fight—a showdown against Steppenwolf and his horde of Parademons in an abandoned nuclear reactor in Russia.


Much of the order of the film is the same and all the big fights and encounters remain. The tone is just darker and heavier throughout, with virtually all of the levity and quips gone. You get a sense of the difference in tone and narrative structure from the very opening. Where JL 2017 opened with (a heavily CGI de-mustached) Superman talking about hope and pondering his favorite thing about Earth after doing some Superman rescue, ZSJL opens with Superman being killed (from the end of BvS), his death screams echoing around the globe and causing the Mother Boxes to awaken, thus announcing their presence to Steppenwolf.  


Everything is just way more developed, with characters getting far more fleshed-out backstories, particularly pre-Cyborg Victor Stone. (One thing that isn’t “developed” is Whedon’s random Russian family stuck in a house near the power plant. That foolish little subplot has been excised.) We also get a much deeper look into Aquaman’s Atlantis. Relationships make more sense because they have two more hours to be explored and expanded, and the team coming together feels more authentic because it isn’t just thrown together over a matter of minutes. 


Battles are also longer, more intense, and more violent, with action shown from different angles and perspectives. In Whedon’s JL, Steppenwolf seems virtually unstoppable as he just rolls through the heroes claiming the boxes, only to ultimately have Superman appear at the 11th hour to save the day. In the ZSJL we get a sense the band of heroes could defeat Steppenwolf even without Supe, and his conquests are much harder fought along the way. Another big change—though not fundamentally affecting the film, although it would have guided the DCEU going forward had Snyder’s ultimate vision for continued films prevailed—is that Steppenwolf (who also has a completely different look here) is not the Big Bad but rather just a servant of ultimate baddy, Darkseid (another CGI character, voiced by Ray Porter), who would have been akin to Marvel’s Thanos. 


We have to assume that with all the trouble—and expense—Warner has gone to give Snyder this mulligan, everything we see is exactly the way he wanted. Which makes it interesting that Snyder chose to divide the experience into “chapters,” with six parts followed by an epilogue:


Part 1: Don’t Count on it, Batman

Part 2: The Age of Heroes

Part 3: Beloved Mother, Beloved Son

Part 4: Change Machine

Part 5: All the King’s Men

Part 6: Something Darker

Epilogue: A Father Twice Over


While it makes for convenient stopping points when watching (the end of Part 3 is almost a perfect halfway point), and seems ready-made for episodic streaming, these part “breaks” within the film don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to introduce what’s coming, and actually take you out of the moment a bit. 


Visually, you get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio fairly quickly (especially if you have some screen masking), with the more vertical presentation making our standing heroes appear taller. In practical terms, this took my 115-inch 2.35:1 screen (92-inch 16:9) down to a 75-inch 4:3 experience, which certainly was a bit less cinematic. The HBO Max presentation is in 4K HDR, including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. 


Shot on 35mm film and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, image quality is clean throughout, though I never felt it was bristling with sharpness and detail. In fact, in between Parts 3 and 4, we watched the first episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier on Disney+, and that looked sharper and more detailed. I was never taken by the micro detail in fabric or razor sharpness in a scene—in fact, some shots were noticeably softer than others. It certainly didn’t have the visual pop of other IMAX films, such as Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Whether this a case of the limitation of HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth or the source material is difficult to say. 


As mentioned, this is a dark film in tone, theme, and visual style. Much of it takes place either at night or in some darkened interior. Even the “daylight” scenes—such as between Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams)—outside in a cornfield are shot at near dusk. Blacks are nice, clean, and deep, and we get a lot of visual pop courtesy of HDR. Things like lights streaming in through windows, computer screens, and headlights all have a realistic look. We also get some nice punchy colors in the form of things like Cyborg’s glowing red eye, Amazonian’s golden outfit, and roaring flames. 


While I wouldn’t call the streaming experience “reference quality” video, it certainly goes beyond merely “watchable,” and makes me look forward to a second viewing in full-resolution video quality from Kaleidescape.


Sonically, the film has a pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room. Whether it’s sirens, alarms, machinery, echoes, birds, wind, or motor sounds, interior spaces are rich with different audio cues to place you in the space. The battles also make good use of all speakers, throwing action into all corners of the room.


Even viewing at reference volume level, I found the mix to be missing some of the low-end dynamics I would have expected. Again, I can’t say this is due to the mix itself (unlikely), the limitation of streaming via HBO Max (definitely a factor), or the audio output of my Apple 4K TV (also suspect). While bass wasn’t non-existent, it never had the wallop you’d expect from a big-budget superhero film, and it wasn’t until the climax with the Mother Boxes where I ever really felt like bass was reaching a tactile level I could feel in my seat. Again, it makes me look forward to a second viewing on Kaleidescape in a lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. 


Now that it’s finally here, you have to ask whether the film was worthy of the social movement that helped bring it about and make it a reality. I’d say, no. 


However, I’d also certainly concede it is the better Justice League film, offering a far richer viewing experience that is definitely more in line in with the style and tone of Snyder’s two DC films that preceded it and giving us a glimpse into where he thought the DCEU would head. And if completing it and bringing it to the public brought Snyder and his family any personal closure from their tragedy, then that’s another positive. Among movie fans—especially the superhero-loving kind—Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to be a watercooler topic for some time, and it will be interesting to see what—if any—lasting impact it will have on Warner’s plans for the DCEU going forward.

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

Review: News of the World

News of the World (2020)

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


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



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


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


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


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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

News of the World (2020)

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


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


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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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


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

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


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


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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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


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


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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

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


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

were available for streaming at no added fee.


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

John Sciacca

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

John Sciacca’s 4K HDR Wish List

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List

I knew going into this exercise that my list wasn’t going to contain the big, weighty titles Dennis and Mike came up with (though Amélie was on my list in my original draft—one of my very favorite foreign films that I agree with Dennis would definitely look terrific in 4K HDR!) While those two gentlemen have an almost scholarly knowledge of film history, director and cinematographer styles, and influences, I am just happy most times to sit back and be entertained. Having said that, my list definitely mirrors my taste in movies, featuring tons of mainstream titles that have received multiple Academy Award nominations and wins, and includes the No. 2 and 3 top-grossing films of all time! With few exceptions, these are probably films you already own—or have definitely watched—and a new 4K transfer would be a great reason to revisit them.



Of course, I’m speaking about the longer, fleshed-out Special Edition version that restores a much needed 31 minutes to the theatrical release, but after 18 years, it’s time. And not only would a 4K HDR version be most welcome, so would an HD Blu-ray release! Somehow, this James Cameron film never got past DVD, and it would definitely benefit from the full 4K treatment. With lots of dark underwater shots and bright lighting, The Abyss is another great candidate for a 4K HDR transfer, and all of the water drips and acoustics aboard Deep Core would certainly benefit from an expanded Atmos sound mix.



James Cameron’s world of Pandora was so real, some people actually felt depressed when the movie was over. Just think how gorgeous Pandora would look at night in 4K HDR, with all of that bioluminescent plant and animal life glowing on the screen. Still one of the best 3D experiences I’ve ever had, Avatar in 4K would have incredible richness and depth, and would also be a great lead-in to the sequels that are supposedly coming . . . one day. 

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List

This happens to be the 60th anniversary of the film so it’s the perfect opportunity to relive this Blake Edwards classic! And after seeing how fantastic My Fair Lady looked in its recent full restoration with a new 4K HDR scan, I can’t wait to see how Tiffany’s would look. And, of course, any opportunity to revisit Audrey Hepburn is one worth taking.



One of the greatest submarine films ever made—arguably the greatest—Wolfgang Petersen’s 209-minute epic director’s cut is a claustrophobic, cramped, sweaty adventure as you spend hours trapped in the tight, pressurized confines of a German U-

boat on the run, getting to know the crew and see how they tick and work under pressure. The dark interiors of the sub will definitely benefit from HDR, and a new Atmos soundtrack will expand the already immersive Dolby Digital version.



The rumor mill says this one will likely be coming later this year to correspond with a new, fifth Indy film, but until the Trilogy actually arrives, these movies will be on the top of many people’s 4K wish list. Perhaps the greatest serial film ever made, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action classic, and seeing how great the Star Wars films (specifically Empire Strikes Back) looked and sounded, I’ve no doubt these films will become home theater reference titles when they get here! From the sparkle of gold, to the intensity of flames, to the bright reds and deep shadows inside the Temple of Doom, the Indy franchise should look and sound fantastic in 4K!



With a lot of hazy, smoky, foggy images shot over the water, this Russell Crowe-led film will really benefit from the higher bitrates and resolution of a 4K HDR transfer. It also features a fantastic soundtrack and audio mix with lots of creaks and groans from the ship that will truly be elevated (literally!) by a new Atmos immersive mix.(I’ve long used the opening 

scene to demo surround systems in my custom showroom, and even in 5.1 it delivers an immersive experience!) Unfortunately for now, we can only imagine how those cannon blasts, explosions, and splintering wood and shredding sails will sound in a lossless sound mix.



One of my favorite films, you don’t come to The Sting for terrific audio and video but rather for the story, the chemistry between the characters, and the snappy dialogue. Even still, it would be great to see this movie shined up like a new penny, letting you appreciate the wardrobe and set design like never before, ya folla? And a new audio mix would give Marvin Hamlisch’s ragtime arrangements more room to shine.

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List

At the risk of making this list overly Cameron-heavy, I had to throw in Titanic as well. One of the most successful films of all time, it definitely deserves to sail again in 4K. The lengths Cameron went to to recreate that ship’s first (and last) voyage are legendary (down to redoing the visual effects to make sure the stars were correct for how they would have been that night!), and I’d love to revisit Jack and Rose in full 4K HDR splendor to fully appreciate all of the details and designs. 



From a visual standpoint, this 2010 Tron reboot should look fantastic, with tons of glowing neon lighting inside the computer world overlaid against deep blacks, giving this the potential to be a true HDR tour de force. All of those bright transitions and shades against black can also be a real cause for banding and noise, making another reason why Legacy could look truly reference in HDR. Plus, the Daft Punk mix will (hopefully) get some expanded room to breathe and fill the room with an Atmos mix.

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

Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne's American Utopia

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

David Byrne's American Utopia

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


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

John Sciacca

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

From Customer to CEO: A Conversation with Kaleidescape’s Tayloe Stansbury

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

I first had the opportunity to speak with Tayloe Stansbury last November, just days after his appointment as Kaleidescape’s new CEO had been announced. He took an interesting journey to becoming the CEO, going from being a customer to joining the board in August 2020 and then being named head of the company. During that earlier conversation, it was clear Tayloe shared our passion for movies and home theater, so we jumped at the chance to talk to him again to discuss home theater, trends in the industry, and his plans for driving Kaleidescape forward.

—John Sciacca

Could you tell me what got you into home theater and a little bit about your primary viewing system?

Sure. I got into it about 20 years ago when I got a projector. It was one of those “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” moments—the projector then turned into a whole bunch of other equipment.


Somewhere along the line my dealer got me interested in Kaleidescape. My first reaction was, “Yeah, so what’s wrong with Apple TV?” This was about 10 years ago. But he convinced me, and I bought a small system—an M500 movie player and a 1U server—and we loved it, just because of the convenience and not having to sit through all the FBI warnings and extraneous previews and so forth that DVDs used to force on you.


From there, the system has grown. We swapped out our Madrigal, Revel, and Proceed equipment for mostly Meridian equipment. The projector is now a SIM2. It’s about 10 years old but it’s just an awesome 5,000-lumen device. It’s still gorgeous and it’s still powered with a Kaleidescape M500. So we now have a Storm processor, Meridian speakers, SIM2 projector, and three 1Us serving up a whole bunch of content. We also have Stratos and Terras in some of our other systems as well.


What kind of insights did being a longtime Kaleidescape customer allow you to bring to your new role as CEO?

In any company, it’s best to think of the customer first because that’s who you’re serving and that’s who you’re building your 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

products for. Coming into this as a longtime customer means I have a very clear outside-in perspective that’s enabled me to think about a number of problems a little bit differently.


One thing I know from having been a customer is that people don’t like having to buy the same content twice. You buy a movie at one resolution, and then you have to pay for it all over again when it’s offered in a higher resolution. Or 

you already bought the content on disc and loaded it onto a Premiere system, but now you want to get a Strato and Terra system but don’t want to have to repurchase a lot of the same content.


So one of the changes we’ve made is to offer format upgrades at a much lower price. And for people coming from a disc-based world, we’re offering disc-to-digital transition pricing for when you’re doing a Strato add-on to a Premiere system so you don’t feel like you have to buy your content from scratch all over again.


Spec’ing a Kaleidescape into a big six-figure system is a no-brainer, but how do you make the case for including one in a mid-to-low five-figure system where people tend to want to go with a Roku or an Apple TV?

Great question. First, not everybody who buys a high-end system gets a Kaleidescape. It’s crazy to think that someone’s spending $100,000 on a theater and then feeding it with a relatively low-bit-rate source device. When you’re playing a 4K HDR movie on a Kaleidescape compared to playing a 4K movie on a streaming device, you’re getting about four times the video bit-rate and about 10 times the audio bit-rate. It’s a pretty profound difference.


You might watch the streamer and say, “Wow, that actually looks and sounds pretty good.” But then play the same scenes again on a Kaleidescape and you’ll really see and hear the difference.


It’s just as important to build a balanced system whether it’s for a secondary viewing area or a dedicated theater room. It doesn’t make sense to have any weak links in the chain, especially with the source that’s feeding all your movie content. By overspending on the latter parts of the chain, like the video display, speakers, and amplification, and underspending on the

first part, which is the source component, you’re getting garbage in, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense.


As you transition to lower-priced systems, there does come a point where the advantage and richness of a high-end source starts to become 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

overkill. But it actually happens at a much lower price point than one might think. Even a $25,000 theater or media room is going to be better served by having a Strato in it than by spending that same amount of money on better speakers or amplification. Having that clarity at the source driving what might be slightly less-expensive things downstream actually gives you a better balanced system overall.


And once you have a server, the cost of adding a player is only about three grand at current pricing. At that price, you’ve got to say, well, why wouldn’t you put one with every TV in your house, if it’s a 4K display and has a decent sound system associated with it?


Where are you seeing more pushback on the lower-end sales, from integrators or from customers?

It’s an awareness problem across the board, with people not understanding the difference it can make in the overall experience. For customers, it’s being aware of the importance of a premium content source to power their system. I think integrators get that, but may not be aware that Kaleidescape also offers integration options like being able to automate the room lighting and curtains, because the movies can cue the correct aspect ratio, they can lower lights and close curtains as the movie begins and can start raising the lights as the credits are rolling.


Theater closures due to the pandemic have upended traditional movie distribution. What impact has all this had on Kaleidescape?

Certainly there has been limited or no ability to go to theaters for a while, which is driving people who want to see movies to watch them at home. Twenty years ago, the possibility of having a home experience that would approach the theater experience wasn’t even there. But today, it absolutely is. So the content you’re getting from a Kaleidescape system is coming at a video and audio resolution that’s equivalent to what you’d be getting in a theater. And the sound systems you can get for the home have become much more affordable—and that’s now the more expensive part of the system. The ability to have an

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

absolutely cinematic experience at home without having to sit on somebody else’s popcorn is pretty amazing now.


Kaleidescape grew last year as a result of a lot of people watching more movies at home. We’ll have to see when theaters fully reopen whether people flock back to them or if this has put a permanent dent in their behavior.

One of the other changes is the ability to watch a movie when it comes out, as opposed to waiting for it to show up on video distribution. And we now have a rental feature that includes Premium Video on Demand (PVOD), so certain content can be released the same day it appears in theaters.


How did the rental option come about and what does it mean for system owners?

We thought it was important to offer this to our customer base because there are times when you’re like, “Do I really want to buy this movie?” Now you can just go ahead and rent it, and if it turns out you love it, we’ll credit half your rental price to the purchase. And of course then you don’t have to download it again. The rental is downloaded exactly the same as before—it’s the exact same bits you get when you buy a movie, so there’s no penalty in quality.


We’ll see how this plays out and if it changes people’s behavior. It might enable us to go to a new class of buyer because a lot of people don’t consider themselves movie collectors; they just like to watch movies. But they don’t typically watch them more than once, or it’s once in a long while that they’ll watch a classic again, like a Star Wars.


I think there’s been a misconception that probably goes all the way back to the beginning of Kaleidescape that it’s really a product for people who want to be able to organize their disc collections and make them instantly available, that this is a product for collectors as opposed to cinephiles, who just love to watch movies. This new service makes it clear you don’t have to own a single title.


They say the first 100 days in office are some of the most important, and by my reckoning you’re coming up on that number.

Pretty close.


How far have you gotten with your wish list and where do you see things going over the next year or so?

Coming with the perspective of a long-time customer really helps bring more outside-in thinking into the company. So that 

Tayloe Stansbury Interview

was the big pivot I wanted to make. The examples I gave earlier were a result of thinking about things from the customer’s perspective.


That was the big mission I had, and it’s still ongoing. We have a large 

installed base, with many of them running older systems. We’d love to get them upgraded to Strato and Terra systems. So we’re putting together some programs to facilitate that.


It seems like there are three groups you’d want to talk to: The integrators who sell and service your product, current customers, and potential customers. What message would you have for each of those groups?

Since many of the dealers and integrators have a dated view of the company, it’s important to get the word out that we’ve got new changes coming, new policies coming, so it’s a different thing than when they checked in on us some years ago. Getting that message about vibrancy to dealers is super important.


With existing customers, we need to convey that we want to take care of them, we want to get the movies they might have in lower resolution upgraded to the highest res they can run on their system without price being a barrier. When they start running short of disc space, we want to make sure we notify them of the options they have for upgrading for more space.


For prospective customers who may not have heard of Kaleidescape, we want to get the word out through increased marketing testimonials and the like that this really does give you a better home cinema experience than you can get through any other source.


What trends do you see driving the luxury home entertainment market, and where does Kaleidescape fit into all that?

Watching movies at home has obviously grown in the last year. I don’t think theaters are dead, but if you can have a similar or better experience at home, a lot of people are going to be drawn to that. And that, of course, is the space we play into. And within that space, what we play to is the high end—people who care about excellence in their home viewing and listening experience. But we offer that at a price point that is reasonably affordable, even for systems that aren’t huge and aren’t intended for a dedicated theater room.


If all you’re going to do is end up with a cheap TV and no additional speakers, you may not want a Kaleidescape, but if you really care about what you’re watching, you probably do want one. So there are systems for streamers, and then there are systems for Kaleidescape.


There are basically two kinds of people: Those who have Kaleidescape and those who don’t but want it.

The problem is there are actually three categories. The third is the people who don’t know about it yet.


That’s true.

And we want to get it down to those first two categories—those who have it and love it, and this who don’t have it and want it. If we can do that, we’ll be in great shape.

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