John Sciacca Tag

Review: Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter (2020)

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

HUNTER AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Monster Hunter (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

From the writing team that brought us the hilarious Bridesmaids back in 2011, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo re-team to write and star in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Originally slated for theatrical release in July 2020, it was pushed back nearly a full year to July 2021, before Lionsgate decided to go with a PVOD release via digital retailers on February 12.

 

Beyond its wide availability from sources like Apple TV, Hulu, and Fandango Now, Barb and Star is also one of the first PVOD titles to be available for rental on Kaleidescape.

 

Rental titles—PVOD or otherwise—are new for Kaleidescape, and the company takes a unique approach to delivering them. Unlike streamers, which deliver films in limited, compressed quality, Kaleidescape rentals are downloaded in full quality to an owner’s system just as if the film were purchased, meaning there’s no “rental penalty” with regards to picture or sound 

quality. As with other PVOD distributors, Kaleidescape rental titles remain on a user’s system for up to 30 days, but once viewing begins, there’s a 48-hour window in which you can watch the title as many times as you like, starting, pausing, rewinding, forwarding through the film as you would any other title. After the rental period—either the 30 days or 48 hours—has expired, the title disappears from the user’s system.

 

Another interesting twist with Kaleidescape’s rentals is that if you like the film and decide you want to own it, you can apply one-half of the rental price toward buying the film within 30 days. (This option does not apply to PVOD titles like Barb and Star as they are currently only offered for rental, not for sale.)

 

Having watched some of the trailers for Barb and Star, I thought I had a pretty good idea what the movie would be 

BARB & STAR AT A GLANCE

This wacky, absurd Kristen Wiig vehicle isn’t for everyone but makes for a nice PVOD diversion at a time when new releases are thin. 

 

PICTURE
The images feature bright and vibrant tropical pastels but are sometimes marred by “Portrait mode”-type selective focus.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is mostly restrained but really comes alive during the big musical numbers.

about: Two single, mid-life-aged female friends taking a vacation where things get a little wild. Turns out I was only about half right. About three minutes into the film, it takes a radical turn I don’t think anyone would see coming. Without spoiling the film, I’ll just say that Kristen Wiig plays two completely different roles—the titular easy-breezy, go-with-the-flow Star and another far less happy-go-lucky, sun-averse Sharon Gordon Fisherman who, due to a sleight that happened years before, has a secret lair and master-villain plot to kill everyone in Vista Del Mar with submarine-launched, weaponized killer mosquitoes.

 

Barb (Mumolo) and Star work and live together, sharing everything, and have been living a boring, beige, repetitive life lacking any adventure. After the furniture store the ladies work at suddenly closes, they decide to take the advice of friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and head down to Vista Del Mar to have an adventure and get their shimmer back.

 

While there, the ladies encounter hunky Edgar Paget (Jamie Dornan) at the bar, and after the threesome shares a “Buried Treasure” specialty drink together, they end up having a wild night where the ladies develop feelings. They try to court Edgar separately and secretly, but little do they know that Edgar is involved with Fisherman’s plot and not-so-secretly in love with her.

 

Things ultimately come to a head when the girls find out they’ve been sneaking around behind each other’s backs and that only they can save the town from the deadly mosquito attack.

 

For me, the jokes were more chuckles than big laughs. Sure, there are some funny moments scattered throughout but they were just too few and not enough, and I just kept waiting for it to hit, where everything clicked and came together. And I say that as someone who loved Kristen Wiig’s characters on SNL: Aunt Linda, Female A-Hole, Dooneese, Gilly, Sue, Target Lady . . . 

 

The movie is wacky and absurdist and jokes are often played, and played, and played. (Case in point, the whole Trish bit aboard the plane that just goes on . .  .) Characters randomly burst into song and dance, there’s a talking crab, a lounge crooner who primarily sings about boobs, and hijinks and romance ensue. It’s cheesy, ridiculous, and random but you’ve got to say this for it: Barb and Star leans-in and fully commits to its gags. And the girls’ wild exuberance, joy of life and the simple things, and comic charisma are what drive the film.

 

The cast includes cameos by several funny ladies including Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, who make up a hilarious and mean “Talking Club” (my favorite part of the film, that was sadly too brief), as well as Ian Gomez

as the girls’ boss and Daman Wayans Jr. as a spy that can’t quite keep a secret.

 

Visually, there’s a lot to love with Barb and Star, especially after the action moves to Florida, where things are filled with bright and vibrant tropical pastels—hot pinks, turquoise blues, gleaming whites. The outdoor shots, scenes around the pool and by the ocean are all sun-drenched and uber-saturated, and could be a travelogue for Florida.

 

Closeups feature great detail and sharp focus, such as Tommy Bahama’s (Andy Garcia) face, whiskers, and felt hat, or the texture and detail in Fisherman’s white-on-white cape. Many shots, however, almost felt like they were filmed with “Portrait mode” engaged, where any of the actors not in primary focus or objects in the foreground are just slightly (or not so slightly) blurred. Often objects at the edges or corners of the screen were blurred, something especially noticeable when projected on my 115-inch diagonal screen. I would describe the sharpness and detail as a bit uneven.

 

Sonically, the Kaleidescape rental (and eventual purchase) includes a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack that serves the primary role of ensuring that dialogue is clearly presented and intelligible. The mix is mostly restrained but useful for 

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

creating ambience, such as the hums and echoes in Fisherman’s lair, announcements at the airport, or sounds of seagulls and waves crashing at the ocean. Sonically, the film really comes alive during the big musical numbers, such as the girls’ welcome to Vista Del Mar, a swirling rendition of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after they finish the Buried Treasure, and a heavy bass-throbbing rave-feeling version of “My Heart Will Go On.” The sound mix isn’t enough to make or break the film, but it does an admirable job of serving it well.

 

So . . . this movie . . . I’m gonna say, Barb and Star is not going to be for everyone. In fact, I think it’s going to be one of those polarizing cult classics that people either love and watch over and over (probably with friends and while intoxicated) or they don’t understand at all and will never watch again. For me, this was the perfect rental title, as I’m not sure I’ll never need to join Barb and Star again, but hanging out with the ladies was good for a few laughs.

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 Croods: A New Age

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a sequel. Once the risk of investing in a new property has found audience favor—and the accompanying box-office success—then a sequel is almost sure to come. After grossing more than $587 million, a followup to DreamWorks’ 2013 The Croods was virtually cast in stone.

 

However, this prehistoric family had a somewhat challenging journey getting back to the screen. After the first film’s success, plans for The Croods: A New Age were announced in 2013, with original directors, Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, intending on returning. But the film was cancelled in November 2016 after Universal acquired DreamWorks. The project was revived 

with a new director, Joel Crawford, in 2017 with a planned release in November of that year. But after facing multiple delays, it finally debuted theatrically in the States on November 25, 2020, followed by a PVOD release on December 18, and available to digital retailers like Kaleidescape on February 9. (A physical 4K release is expected on February 23.) Despite all of these hurdles, the movie managed to gross nearly $150 million worldwide, and gathered favorable critics and audience scores of 77% and 94%, respectively.

 

While you could certainly jump straight into New Age without watching the initial Croods—a brief opening scene does a quick job of catching you up—you’d be doing yourself a bit of a disservice and setting yourself up to miss some of the callback gags from Age. The first film introduces us to the Croods, a prehistoric family led by ultra-protective patriarch Grug (Nicholas Cage) that lives together and sleeps in a pile in a cave, spending every moment surviving some natural disaster and hunting food. Rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) sneaks 

NEW AGE AT A GLANCE

This 2020 sequel maintains the momentum of the 2013 mega-hit original, with terrific voice acting and eye-popping visuals enhancing the new adventures of the dysfunctional Stone Age family. 

 

PICTURE
Visuals are like an entire 64-color box of Crayons projected on your screen. Sharp and vibrant, the constant digital eye candy will make your display look its best.

 

SOUND     

The immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is a little restrained during the first part of the film but really kicks in for the finale, which delivers truly deep and powerful bass.

out of the cave one night to explore when she encounters a more modern human boy, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), and after a disaster destroys their cave home, the clan sets out on a quest to find a new place to live.

 

The entire Crood family returns for this sequel including wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke), and Gran (Cloris Leachman). We pick up the story with the family still together, still dodging predators, hunting food, and sleeping in a pile, but the boy-girl relationship between Guy and Eep has evolved to the point where they are talking their tomorrow together, branching off and starting their own pack. This doesn’t sit well with Grug, who feels the pack is stronger—and safer—together.

 

One day, Grug discovers a huge wall, and on the other side discovers the far more evolved and on-the-nose named Betterman family, with husband Phil (Peter Dinklage), wife Hope (Leslie Mann), and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). The Bettermans live in a fantastic treehouse with separate rooms for all, wear sandals, take showers, farm for food, use modern tools, and more. They also happen to have been friends with Guy’s parents, and feel like life would be better if the Croods left, but that Guy stayed behind “with his kind of people” to be with Dawn.

 

The middle part of the film is the humor of watching these two clashing lifestyles trying to relate to, and interacting with, one another, with Phil and Grug in an alpha-male clash, Eep finally having a friend her age with Dawn, who feels similarly trapped under her family’s strict “no going outside the wall” rule, and Guy struggling with wanting the better life with the Bettermans while still loving cavegirl Eep.

 

During the final act, the families have their inevitable reconciliation as they work together to overcome a common, banana-loving foe.

 

While the movie doesn’t really break any new ground, the story of class struggle, love, growing up, and family are all relatable, but what makes it so entertaining are the site gags and terrific voice acting. Reynolds has repeatedly proven his great comic voicing and timing (Exhibit A and B: Deadpool and Aviation Gin ads), and Stone certainly holds her own with her

exuberance. Ugga is perfect for Cage to unleash his over-the-top self, and Dinklage is also on point as Phil, reminding me a bit of his Mighty Eagle character from The Angry Birds.

 

Besides bringing some fresh content that your home theater has been craving, New Age flat-out looks fantastic in 4K HDR. Images are razor sharp, clear, and pristine. Nearly every frame bristles with vibrant colors, like the entire 64-color box of Crayons has been projected onto your screen, with colors changing dramatically in almost every scene. From the greens of foliage to the rich red-oranges of fire to the bright blues of water to glowing bioluminescence at night, colors explode with richness and vibrancy you don’t see outside of animation. Almost the entirety of the 95-minute runtime is digital eye candy, making your display look its best.

 

While New Age uses a less realistic animation style than some Pixar films like Soul or Toy Story 4, it is consistent throughout, and images never lack for texture and detail. Closeups show the care and detail in the animation, revealing individual strands of fur, scratches, fabric detail, and grain. Some banana outfits near the end show such texture you can clearly imagine what they would feel like.

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

The Kaleidescape download of the film also boasts an immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack. While the first half of the film is a bit restrained, there are still plenty of atmospherics spread around the room to put you into the jungle action. Whether wind or insect sounds, the echoes of the environment, or the musical score, the surround channels are called on to expand the soundstage. We also get a lot of far offscreen voice work and effects, with characters announcing their locations from surround channels around the room, or as someone—or something—is thrown into a far corner.. As we move into the film’s climax, we get a lot more excitement in the audio domain, especially with the subwoofer kicking in to deliver powerful low end. Also, be sure to stay through the opening part of the end credits to enjoy a Tenacious D version of “I Think I Love You.” Dialogue is also clear and easily understandable throughout.

 

The Croods: A New Age is an entertaining, family-friendly film that also happens to looks fantastic on a good display, making it an easy recommendation for your next movie night get together.

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: Greenland

Greenland (2020)

With all the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty going on in the world around us, sometimes a little Hollywood escapism to see that things could be worse—oh so much worse—than what we’re actually dealing with can be just the mindless distraction we crave for a couple of hours. But, with “From the producer of the JOHN WICK franchise” (Basil Iwanyk) emblazoned across the top of its poster art above a large picture of action-star Gerard Butler, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Greenland is just another run-and-gun action flick.

 

After seeing its intended theatrical release date repeatedly pushed, distributor STX Films finally decided to give Greenland a PVOD release on December 18, followed by streaming on the new HBO Max platform “in early 2021.” For those looking to 

see the film in the highest quality, it is available for purchase now from Kaleidescape in 4K HDR.

 

I’ll admit I’m a fan of Gerard Butler’s oeuvre. With his gravelly voice, rugged physicality, and penchant for finding himself the underdog amidst impossible situations—such as portraying King Leonidas in 300, Captain Joe Glass in Hunter Killer, or Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning in the Fallen-trilogy—you kind of know what you’re going to get. I mean, I don’t go to Taco Bell expecting a complex gastronomic experience, and I don’t expect a Butler film to be overly cerebral. Give me a decent plot, a capable supporting cast, and a clearly defined—though neigh-impossible to achieve—objective, and I’m happy to let Butler take me on a quest/mission for 90-plus-minutes.

 

And that’s essentially what you’ve got with Greenland, a film that leans as heavily on family and heart as it does action and mayhem. Cut from similar cloth as 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon, Greenland begins as we learn of a 

GREENLAND AT A GLANCE

Life on Earth once again finds itself threatened by a celestial object, but this Gerard Butler vehicle tends to emphasize family over mayhem.

 

PICTURE
Greenland looks good, with lots of sharply focused tight closeups that present the actors’ faces in crisp detail, but its $35-million budget leads to some iffy CGI work.

 

SOUND     

A totally serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with dialogue for the most part clearly heard and explosions, shockwaves, and comet strikes delivering the necessary deep bass.

massive life-destroying comet, Clarke, hurtling towards earth, with the planet having just a few days’ notice to essentially come to terms with the inevitable. (Something about the unpredictability of how the comet responds and out-gasses to alter its course when getting the near the sun explains why NASA didn’t give us more of a warning.)

 

While Impact and Armageddon focused their storytelling on how mankind responds to a massive object hurtling toward Earth by quickly assembling a space-bound effort to try and blow it up, Greenland instead embraces the inevitable that the comet is coming and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. So, what would life on earth look like in those final days and what could be done to preserve mankind and plan for the eventual rebuilding of society?

 

Structural engineer John Garrity (Butler) is out getting party supplies with his son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), when he—and he alone—receives an odd emergency broadcast message on his phone informing him that he and his family have been selected for emergency sheltering. He has no idea why he has been chosen (possibly karma for saving presidents’ lives on numerous occasions as Banning . . .), but a recording informs him they have just a few hours to get to a military air base for evacuation. Having recently reconciled with his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), John races home to explain the situation, pack up their vehicle, and head to Warner Robins Air Force base to catch a plane to an unknown destination.

 

Of course, in case a life-ending comet doesn’t provide enough tension on its own, we learn Nathan has Type 1 diabetes with a recently implanted insulin pump, and his med-pack falls out of his backpack onto the floor of the vehicle while he’s reaching for a blanket—something the family doesn’t discover until moments before boarding their aircraft. While John hustles back to the vehicle to retrieve the meds, Allison is told no one with a medical condition is allowed on the evacuation list, and they are denied boarding. With cell towers hopelessly jammed, the family is unable to communicate, and they become separated, embarking on their own journeys.

 

With the clock ticking down to a most unfortunate yet certain planetary appointment with Clarke, John is dedicated to doing everything in his power to not only locate and reunite his family, but also to somehow get them to safety, however and wherever that is. (If the title wasn’t clear enough, it’s in a bunker in Greenland designed to survive a nuclear attack.)

 

By focusing on the Garrity family, Greenland reduces the massive overwhelmingness of planet-killing scale to focus on a far more relatable scenario: One man doing what he can to save his family. And at the risk of anyone’s suspension of disbelief, I daresay director Ric Roman Waugh handles the story here in a manner far more believable than Michael Bay’s ragtag band of deep-sea oil drillers being quickly trained up and shot off into space in Armageddon. The film also shows how quickly society collapses in the face of an imminent cataclysmic event, with rioting, looting, and self-preservation becoming the order of the day.

 

While the technical details make no mention of the resolution of the cinematography or transfer, Greenland looks good, and has lots of tight closeups that are sharply focused and present the actors’ faces in crisp detail. The opening pans over buildings in Atlanta has clean, sharp edges and nice detail, while another scene lets you clearly see the pinpoint stitching in John’s shirt.

 

At $35 million, Greenland isn’t a big-budget film, and some of the effects shots—particularly one plane lifting off—look a bit iffy at times. At other moments, such as shots of the post-strike devastation, it’s almost as if they are flashed up on screen just long enough for you to see, but not long enough for you to really see. Still, the film is far more than a string of effects sequences, and doesn’t need to rely on elaborate CGI to work, and I didn’t find the occasionally underwhelming CGI enough to hinder my enjoyment.

 

There are essentially three different “color” periods to the film—the opening, which features a lot of punchy outdoor colors like brilliant green grass or bright yellow street signs; the middle, which takes place mostly at night; and the following day, which has very red-orange/golden hues as comet strikes start affecting the atmosphere. The night scenes look particularly good with HDR, with bright lights from planes, airport runways, police lights, and car taillights really popping. The wider color gamut

is also used to create deep and vibrant fire colors.

 

The Kaleidescape transfer includes a totally serviceable 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master surround track. While I generally find DTS mixes “hotter” than their Dolby counterparts, generally needing to turn the volume down by several dB to not be too overwhelming, this mix was considerably lower, and I viewed at about 6 dB louder than our typically listening level.

 

Since much of what we learn in this movie is through snatches of overheard conversations on the radio or TV, dialogue intelligibility is key, and the mix does a good job of clearly presenting the audio and not letting the other channels overwhelm it. (The only exception was at the very end where I found several radio transmissions of status reports very difficult to make out.) With the volume adjusted, dynamics are also quite good, with one startlingly loud gunshot causing both my wife and I to literally jump and flinch in our seats. There is also some deep bass when called for from explosions, shockwaves, and impacts of comet strikes.

 

While not a true immersive, object-based mix à la Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did a wonderful job translating the native 5.1-

Greenland (2020)

mix into my 7.2.6-channel speaker array, placing sounds like PA announcements, passing jets and helicopters, and streaking comet bits clearly up into the height dimension, and surrounding you with the din of angry mobs.

 

While Greenland isn’t going to make anyone’s Best-Of list—probably not even cracking the top-three of Butler’s Best Films—with a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 73% it is a surprisingly well-made and entertaining, offering a different take on a Hollywood apocalypse scenario. And with the dearth of new content available for home viewing, Greenland delivered exactly what I was expecting for a family movie night.

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. 13: 4K Changes Everything

The Cineluxe Hour logo

With the all but complete absence of new movie releases over the past year, the studios have turned their attention to beefing up older titles with 4K HDR makeovers, which has led to both some extraordinary and some subpar releases. In the first part of the podcast, Dennis Burger, Michael Gaughn, and John Sciacca talk about the impact this has had on reviewing movies and how it can be difficult to watch even Blu-ray-quality releases if there might be a UHD upgrade on the horizon.

 

At 9:55, the conversation turns to the impact of the proliferation of 75-inch and larger home displays and of streaming services now consistently offering 4K content. At 24:35, John, Mike, and Dennis talk about the differences in quality between the various streaming providers.

 

27:43 brings a discussion of the Christmas Day Soul vs. Wonder Woman 1984 matchup and of the perils of subscribing to HBO Max. At 32:39, talk pivots to whether it will be possible to have a legitimate Academy Awards presentation this year.

 

And the podcast wraps up at 36:25 with John and Dennis presenting what they’ve seen recently that’s worth watching.

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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.

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 johnsciacca.com.

Review: Let Him Go

Let Him Go (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

LET HIM GO AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Let Him Go (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)

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

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

 

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

 

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

MONSTERS AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Love and Monsters (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

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

 

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

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

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

 

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

SKY AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Soul

Soul (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

SOUL AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

RECALL AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Total Recall (1990)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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