Kaleidescape Tag

Review: It (2017)

It (2017)

Had I known going in just how drastically Andy Muschietti restructured Stephen King’s It when adapting the 1,138-page novel into two movies, I probably never would have given it a chance. In case you’re not familiar with the book, it follows the adventures and tribulations of seven friends known collectively as “The Loser’s Club,” cutting back and forth between their adolescent and adult encounters with a shapeshifting, homicidal cosmic horror who takes the form of a clown known as Pennywise.

 

The intercutting between the characters as adults and adolescents is crucial to the plot (not to mention the emotional impact) of the novel, so if you had told me ahead of time that Muschietti shuffled the story like a deck of cards, then laid out the 

events in chronological order, with the first movie focusing on the story of the Loser’s Club as kids and the second serving as a sequel focusing on their adult experiences, I would have explained to you (probably with as much condescension as I could humanly muster) that such an approach would miss the point of the book entirely.

 

And although that may be the case, what Muschietti has done is turn this story into two distinct stories, each with its own themes, and each of which—much to my pleasant surprise—works as its own self-contained experience, with a proper beginning, middle, and ending.

 

The other big change Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman made to the source material was an update to the timeline. Rather than starting in 1957, as does the book, It moves the Loser’s Club’s youth to 1989, and also adds a couple of years to their ages. The former change not only allows the cinematic sequel to take place in the present day, but also allows Muschietti to rely on cultural references that

IT AT A GLANCE

This hugely creepy, hugely successful Stephen King adaptation makes for amazing demo material, even though the 4K transfer comes from a 2K source.

 

PICTURE     

The Kaleidescape download does a great job with the movie’s rich and gorgeous palette, retaining all the definition and detail, with HDR bringing extra depth to the shadows in this super-dark film.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is aggressive as hell, with britches-leg-flapping bass, but dialogue sometimes gets lost in all the audio mayhem.

will likely be a bit more familiar to modern audiences. The latter change keeps the film from veering too far into exploitative territory and also makes the story somewhat more believable.

 

Muschietti and Dauberman also removed some of the cosmic/spiritual aspects of the story that strain credulity to its breaking point, and what we’re left with is a movie that, in many ways, sort of feels like a scary, R-rated riff on The Goonies. There are also shades of Stranger Things here and there (and not merely because Finn Wolfhard, that series’ star, plays a key role in the film).

 

Despite the comparisons, It manages to carve out its own identity. A lot of the credit for that goes to Bill Skarsgård, whose performance as Pennywise is unforgettable. Rather than borrow anything from Tim Curry, who played the role first in ABC’s

two-part miniseries adaptation from 1990, Skarsgård makes the character his own, bringing a wholly alien physicality to the performance that makes one thing abundantly clear from the giddy-up: This isn’t your garden-variety sewer-dwelling murder-clown we’re dealing with here.

 

The look of the film also contributes to the sort of distinctive and effective personality lacking in so many of today’s horror movies. Shot on ArriRaw in a combination of 2.8K

and 3.4K, It has a rich and gorgeous palette that makes even its most pedestrian scenes visually engaging. What’s more, you’d never know from looking at the imagery’s crisp edges, luscious textures, and fine detail that it was finished in a 2K digital intermediate. This movie is further proof that this sort of thing just doesn’t matter as much as some people would have you believe. The important thing is that Kaleidescape’s download is above reproach in terms of definition and detail. HDR is also put to good use, not only in delivering the movie’s rich colors but also in allowing a good bit of extra depth in the shadows. Make no mistake about it—It is an incredibly dark film—one that should be viewed in a completely light-controlled room. But even with the lights out, the Blu-ray release made portions so inscrutably dark that it was difficult to tell what was going on at all. The 4K HDR transfer rectifies that at least enough to make even the darkest scenes discernible.

Long story short, it may come from a 2K DI, but the 4K HDR release of It—at least as presented by Kaleidescape—is amazing video demo material, and comes darn close to being a reference-quality transfer.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos is also everything you would expect the soundtrack for a movie like this to be. Directional sound effects are aggressive as hell, the bass is absolutely britches-leg-flapping, and the overall creepy ambiance of the movie is handled fantastically by the soundtrack. My only real beef here is that voices occasionally get lost in the mix. Don’t blame your center speaker if you find some of the dialogue a bit unintelligible; instead blame the sound engineers. That said, this problem isn’t nearly so bad here as it has been in the past few Chris Nolan films.

 

As for the movie itself, my only real beef is that it feels a little short. An odd statement to make about a 135-minute horror flick, I know, but It is so packed with characters, most of whom have their own compelling individual storylines distinct from the group dynamic, that it just whizzes by. A few extra minutes’ worth of runtime would have allowed Muschietti to flesh out a couple of characters that seem underserved here. Stanley Uris, for example—played wonderfully by the

It (2017)

young Wyatt Oleff—serves such a minor role in the overall story that he could have just as easily been written out of the screenplay and it hardly would have been the biggest departure from the novel. The relationship between Eddie Kaspbrak and his mother is also a bit undeveloped, leaving the resolution of their storyline feeling somewhat unsatisfying.

 

Those quibbles aside, It is a surprisingly good horror movie that thankfully relies more on scares than gross-outs to keep you glued to the screen and huddled under your blanket. Don’t go into it expecting a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s book (although, given how poorly that one has aged, that’s probably a good thing), but do go in expecting a very satisfying reinterpretation of parts of the novel—one that absolutely works on its own terms, whether you have any intention of watching the sequel or not.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Of the stable of movie reviewers here at Cineluxe, I am probably the least qualified to review Stanley Kubrick’s epic historical drama, Spartacus. I certainly don’t possess the encyclopedic film knowledge or ability to dissect filming styles like Mike Gaughn, nor have the ability to draw wide parallels and comparisons like Dennis Burger. But what I can bring to this review is a fresh set of eyes and perspective, unsullied by previous experience and unburdened by any real knowledge of the film, as this was my first viewing. What I can hopefully answer is the straightforward question, “Is it worth my time/money to watch Spartacus?”

 

Doing even the slightest bit of digging into the film reveals it was not the smoothest production. After failing to get the title role in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas was looking for a major project for his production company, Bryna Productions, and he optioned 

Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. Fast was initially hired to adapt his work into a screenplay, but was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood blacklist at the time, writing screenplays under pseudonyms. Trumbo apparently turned the script around in two weeks and Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given on-screen credit for the film and publicly announced Trumbo as the writer, effectively ending the blacklist.

 

The original director, Anthony Mann, was fired by Douglas after the first week of filming, and a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick (who had worked with Douglas on Paths of Glory just three years earlier) was brought in. However, this is the only film where Kubrick was not given complete creative control, and it included a significantly higher budget—$12 million (equivalent to $105 million today)—and far larger cast than anything he’d previously worked on. Disagreements persisted throughout the production, based on Kubrick’s shooting style, pacing, the screenplay, and choice of location.

SPARTACUS AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic looks suitably spectacular after receiving the 4K HDR treatment, with an able assist from the Dolby Atmos mix.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K resolution gives images great sharpness and depth throughout, with the HDR subtly accentuating highlights while bringing out rich colors, like the Legion’s crimson uniforms.

 

SOUND     

The conservative Atmos mix stays mainly in the front channels, which give the epic score plenty of room to breathe, but occasionally spreads into the surrounds for things like thunderstorms.

Despite all that, the film was a massive box-office success, receiving seven Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design.

 

With a run time of three hours and 17 minutes, watching Spartacus is a fairly significant time investment. While the film’s 1960 opening ran 202 minutes, the film received a pretty major trim—41 minutes—for a re-release in 1967. It received an extensive restoration in 1992, backed by Steven Spielberg, and while the cut footage—including the “infamous” bath scene between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis)—was restored, the prints from the premiere were apparently lost, and there are two short scenes that no longer exist.

 

For its 55th Anniversary, the film was given another major restoration that included creating a new true-4K digital intermediate. A title card at the film’s conclusion notes, “2015 Digital Restoration 6K scan from original large format Technirama Film Elements 4K color correction and digital restoration, 7.1 channel audio by NBCUniversal Studio Post.” The 4K Blu-ray includes a DTS:X soundtrack, while the Kaleidescape version reviewed here features Dolby Atmos.

 

Born into slavery, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is saved from death when purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who runs a school that trains gladiators to fight and die “for ladies and gentleman of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill.” While in training, Spartacus meets and falls in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons). After Varinia is sold, Spartacus leads a revolt and overthrows the soldiers at Batiatus’ camp. This revolt grows into an idea to rise up to free all the slaves of Italy, to create an army of gladiators that could fight their way to freedom to leave Italy forever to return to their homelands.

 

After the slave army conducts a variety of raids on Roman garrisons where they gather treasure and more freed slaves, the Roman Senate enacts a plan to send Legions to crush Spartacus’ army.

 

Spartacus is classic old-school, epic Hollywood filmmaking. It opens with a four-minute musical overture, followed by another near-four-minutes of credits, and even includes a mid-film intermission with a two-minute Entr’acte. With its run time, there is plenty of time to develop characters’ stories, appreciate Spartacus’ rise to power and march across Italy, and delve into the political intrigue happening in Rome, though the pacing does feel a bit slow at times.

 

What drives Spartacus is the strong performances of the leads. Likely motivated to show William Wyler he picked the wrong guy for Ben Hur, Douglas delivers a powerful portrayal, doing much of his acting with his eyes, saying more with a stare, a glare, a squint, or a furrowed brow than he does with his mouth. Olivier’s Crassus is a strong foil to Douglas, but the star of

Spartacus (1960)

the show for me was Ustinov, who seems to revel in his role as successful citizen turned sycophant to the Empire, tossing in off-handed comments and jokes that bring a bit of levity to the story, an example of which: “A gladiator is like a stallion that must pampered. Oiled, bathed, shaved, massaged, taught to use your heads.”

 

Spartacus’ influence on Gladiator is clear, though that later film relies far more on gladiatorial-battle set pieces and the CGI spectacle of recreating the Roman Colosseum. What Spartacus lacks in modern computer trickery, it makes up for in sheer 

numbers, augmenting its cast with eight thousand Spanish soldiers to double as Romans for the climatic battle, and doing much of its shooting on location (including California’s Hearst Castle—and anyone who has ever been on the tour will recognize the swimming pool at what is supposed to be Crassus’ estate), which looks fantastic captured in the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format.

 

The quality of this transfer is apparent before the film even starts, as the title credits are razor-sharp, clean, and clear.

 

The opening shots reveal a natural bit of film grain in the blue skies, but images have incredible depth and sharpness, letting you see for miles into the distance. Resolution is impressive throughout, with individual pebbles and stones visible in the rocky ground, or the frayed edges on the ragged sleeves of the slaves’ tunics, the detail of the embroidery, or the scuffs and wear in leather. The detail lets you clearly know what the fabric of each actor’s costume would feel like, and reveals the quality differences between classes. The resolution also reveals incredible facial detail in closeups, clearly showing every pore, wrinkle, and line in Douglas’ leathery, sunburnt face.

 

One of the downsides to suddenly revealing everything in a film—especially one that is now 60 years old—is that some of the filming techniques and shortcuts of the day are apparent. For example, there is an interior scene where it is obvious the brick and mortar of the walls is just set-dressing façade. It’s also clear when they are shooting on an interior set rather than on location. And that the groups of Roman soldiers in some long-focus shots are not actually groups of soldiers.

 

Also curious is the filming decision to nearly always greatly soften the image when showing Varinia. The sharpness of every other scene makes this especially apparent. I can only imagine this was a creative decision of the day, as Simmons was beautiful and had no apparent skin imperfections. (Though her acting was fine, her casting made me think they really wanted Elizabeth Taylor but instead used the closest substitute they could.)

While the grand battle scene is certainly impressive, I was surprised there weren’t more lengthy shots revealing the entirety of the fighting force. However, there are plenty of scenes that show off an innumerable amount of people either marching, preparing for battle, or starting to charge.

 

Also impressive is the training that occurs at Batiatus’ gladiator camp. It’s clear the actors are doing their own stunts, some of which required a fair bit of dexterity and stamina, and it appears that some people are actually being injured. For example, at the 54-minute mark, Spartacus fights Marcellus (Charles McGraw), and the higher resolution and color reveal that McGraw is actually bleeding from a wound, and you see Douglas actually smashing his face into the cooking pot.

 

This new transfer greatly benefits from the HDR grading, with interior scenes having deep shadow detail, and inky, clean blacks. We also enjoy added highlights from sunlight glinting off sweating skin or in burning firelight. Having never seen the film prior, I can’t say for certain but it appears that they took a pretty conservative pass with the HDR, and definitely remained true to the film’s original look. The wider color gamut brings out the richness of the crimson of the 

Spartacus (1960)

Roman soldiers and Senators, the gleam of shining gold, the red-orange as villages burn at night, and just a more natural quality to skin tones.

 

Sonically, it felt like about 90% of the audio came from the front three left, center, and right speakers. If the surrounds were ever employed, it was sparingly, and certainly not in a manner that ever caused distraction or undue attention. The sweeping score is big and dynamic, with its soundstage given a chance to open up across the width of the front speakers with a bit of the strings mixed up into the front height channels for added dimension. The only other time I was aware of any height-channel activity was during a thunderstorm were a bit of the storm is mixed overhead. They also use the subwoofer to bring weight to the musical score, and to punctuate some of the battle scenes or marching. Dialogue is kept to the center channel, and it is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

Spartacus remains a spectacle and triumph of its time, and it is the kind of massive Hollywood film of epic scale we don’t often see any longer. Further, the care and effort that went into this restoration are simply stunning to behold, letting you appreciate details audiences 60 years ago likely missed. Getting back to my opening question, “Is it worth your time/money to watch?” Absolutely.

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 Birds

The Birds (1963)

Without The Birds, there would be no Jaws—and, arguably, no Spielberg, since he lifted so many of his filmic mannerisms from this brutal and detached end-of-the-world tale. The really ironic thing is, while this is far from Hitchcock’s best film, it’s still better than Jaws. I realize that conclusion is heresy to the popularity = quality crowd, but it underlines the vast difference between what an adult with adolescent tendencies and a perpetual adolescent with no interest in growing up can do.

 

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, Hitchcock, in that film, managed to intuit the entire course of the movies from that point on. But, for whatever reason, he wasn’t able to assimilate and exploit what he had achieved there and spent the rest of his career sputtering, trying to remain relevant while leaning on his past glories from the Studio Era. But, increasingly consumed by bitterness, he just couldn’t make any of those old conventions hold.

The Birds was his next film after Psycho, and seems meant to function as a kind of companion piece, but because he had lost so much confidence in himself and in the very nature of the movies, his attempt to make a shocker with studio polish resulted in a very uneven affair. This is especially obvious on the technical level, where the heavy reliance on process shots and matte paintings means things rarely sync up visually for large swathes of the film. That’s not to fault Robert Burks’ cinematography, which is beautiful and effective when it just gets to record things without having to allow for any trickery. And it’s not really to fault the dependence on Albert Whitlock’s matte work, which almost succeeds in giving the film a warped pastoral quality, like the action is playing out on a vast theater stage. But it’s kind of sad to see Hitchcock’s reach constantly exceed his grasp and sense his slipping ability to maintain a proper sense of proportion.

 

The things in the film that go well go very well and more 

THE BIRDS AT A GLANCE

Hitchcock’s 1963 avian shocker leans a little too heavily on process shots for its own good but still delivers in the end.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer hews pretty closely to the original film, which is a blessing during the well-realized sequences but tends to underline the bits that come up short.

 

SOUND     

The original mono mix, which was pretty atmospheric to begin with, is nicely enhanced by the stereo here, but makes you wonder what the film would be like in surround.

than justify the time spent watching it. Since it really doesn’t have any stars, just the semi-talented Robert Taylor and Tippi Hedren as the leads, Jessica Tandy gets to steal the show with her rock-solid performance as a deeply needy yet domineering mother. The scene where she discovers Dan Fawcett’s body still plays—and is one of the things Spielberg lifted pretty much straight for Jaws. And he didn’t just pilfer The Birds for that reveal of a mangled corpse. The subsequent low-angle shot where Tandy staggers out of the house to stand gape-mouthed next to the farm hand would also become a Spielberg staple.

 

As would the low-angle track-back late in the film where Tandy, then Hedren, then Taylor are shown, with the ceiling looming low above them, as they listen for signs the bird attack has subsided. Not only would Spielberg get an absurd amount of mileage out of this, ’80s filmmakers leaned on it so heavily they eventually broke it.

 

What really doesn’t work at all is the famous attack on the school children—which I would have to shift into the “infamous” column, and not just for its technical blunders. The animation at the beginning of the crows welling up from behind the school house is crudely done and all out of scale. And the pacing of the rear-projection shots creates the weird sense of everyone running in place. A cineaste would argue Hitchcock was trying to evoke a nightmare sense of frantic effort with no progress. He wasn’t—he just couldn’t pull it off.

 

The equally famous attack on the town almost works, creating a borderline apocalyptic feel larger than what’s being shown on the screen. But it’s marred by that hokey series of shots of Hedren reacting to the stream of flaming gasoline and especially by all the heavily processed rear-projection stuff while she’s trapped in the phone booth. 

 

But it wasn’t ultimately the technical miscalculations and gaffes that undermined Hitchcock—they were just the symptoms, not the disease. There’s something really disturbing, but not in any entertaining way, about how he obviously relishes showing children being attacked and witnessing atrocities. Even more foul is how he sets up the doll-like Hedren just to have her brutally taken down—especially during the elaborate bird-rape in the attic at the end. It’s as if his faith in cinema to protect him from the outside world had been shattered and he felt he had to lash out at the audience in his fear and rage.

 

All of that said, Hitchcock deserves tremendous credit for doing a horror/thriller film without a score. Yes, the absence of music tends to lay bare a lot the movie’s flaws, but it also makes many of the scenes—like the discovery of Fawcett’s body,

the later discovery of Annie Hayworth’s body, and the final attack on the Brenner home—far more effective. There’s no John Williams here to Mickey Mouse everything by dragging you through the film by the nose, clobbering you with cues, telling you what to think and feel. You’re thrown into each of the scenes without any ersatz late-Romantic bluster to act as a buffer, which is not just bracing but kind of liberating.

 

The 4K HDR transfer is for the most part faithful—which means it gets the best-photographed moments—which includes most of the interiors—absolutely right, but also tends to emphasize all that frequent mismatching between shots. Probably the worst shot of the film is the very first one, done on location in San Francisco, which looks like it was grabbed surreptitiously on a 16mm camera. (It wasn’t—it just looks that way.) Get beyond that, and you’ll be able to experience some patches of Burks’ best work.

 

The one shot I can fault the transfer for—although its problems lie in the original image—is the very last one in the film, an elaborate high-contrast matte shot that borders on monochrome. The HDR crushes the blacks and punches up the whites so much it becomes not just too blatantly artificial but visually chaotic.

The Birds (1964)

If ever a film cried out for a surround mix, this one would seem to be it. So much of it hinges on things happening from just out of frame and on characters being engulfed that it’s a natural for the 5.1 or Atmos treatment. And yet the original soundtrack is so well designed that the DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix here is surprisingly effective. The staccato bird cries followed by the sudden, muted crescendo of fluttering wings that signals the beginning of the final attack is so chilling it’s hard to say whether a surround reworking would be an improvement. But I’d be curious to know.

 

I’m not going to resort to one of those “You can tell I had problems with this film but it still makes for a great night at the movies” conclusions. But I will say this: With very few exceptions, time spent with a Hitchcock film is time well spent. Even if you just watch The Birds to pick up on all the Jaws/Spielberg parallels, you’ll have, in a way, improved your life. The Birds is a suitably disturbing thriller; it’s just not quite the film Hitchcock set out to make.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The 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.

Review: Midsommar

Midsommar (2019)

One relatively recent trend in cinema that warms my dark heart is the reemergence of horror as a legitimate genre of cinema. This isn’t to say, of course, that I don’t get a kick out of schlocky B-movie suspense, but for most of my adult life, horror movies have been little more than that, leaving legitimate attempts at making serious films in the genre—like Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick’s The Shining—in the distant past. So to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary embraced in recent years as legitimate art is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction.

 

Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, 2019’s Midsommar, keeps the horror-as-art train rolling, not simply due to its gorgeous cinematography, deep reliance on symbolism, or its 148-minute run time, but rather by virtue of the fact that it actually has something to say. While Peele used horror for the purposes of societal allegory in Get Out and Aster himself used the 

genre to explore familial angst in Hereditary, Midsommar broadens its reach to explore both cultural issues and deeply personal struggles. And it’s the constant tug of war between the individual on the one hand and the expectations of the herd on the other that give the film so much of its tension.

 

That’s simply one element of what makes the film work, though. In telling the tale of a group of anthropology students (and the girlfriend of one of them, herself a psychology student) as they travel to Sweden to study and document the cultural traditions of an isolated Scandinavian commune, Aster uses personal relationships the way Kubrick used architecture in The Shining. In other words, if you’re paying attention, there’s an internal consistency to it all that’s nonetheless contradictory, which results in a foreboding sense of unease.

MIDSOMMAR AT A GLANCE

This horror-as-art film faithfully maintains its deceptively filmic look in Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect 4K HDR transfer.

 

PICTURE     

The transfer is true to the movie’s intentionally muted color palette, delivering it with exceptional detail.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is unusually aggressive, leaning hard on the surround channels to deliberately disorienting effect.

That in itself wouldn’t be worthy of praise, but it’s the way in which Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski convey the ties that bind (and the wedges that divide) the characters that makes the film so fascinating. In one early scene, for example, the film uses mirrors brilliantly to convey a sense of othering. The characters viewed directly by the camera? They are the “Us.” Those that can only be seen in reflection? They fall (or move) into “Them” territory. And what’s particularly fascinating here is that the film’s “Us” and “Them” are right opposite of the audience’s “Us” and “Them,” which further builds tension.

 

What I appreciate most about Midsommar is that such compositional sleight of hand is almost always employed with such subtlety that it never comes across as a gimmick. Only one scene crosses the line into artsy-for-arty’s-sake territory, and it’s an establishing shot, demarking the transition from one culture into the other, so it’s easily forgiven.

 

That scene, by the way, is far from the only one that could be construed as cinema-for-cinema’s sake. So much of Midsommar is pure audiovisual experience—style as substance, if you will—intended to invoke feeling rather than trigger thought. I think perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that it strikes such a perfect balance in alternating between storytelling and tone poetry that it’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime never becomes a slog.

 

That’s aided by the fact that the film never resorts to jump-scares or twists to keep you hanging on. It telegraphs exactly the direction in which it’s heading and then takes its time getting there, which only adds to the suspense and tension.

 

The one big surprise—at least for me—is that Midsommar wasn’t shot on film, but rather captured in a combination of 8K and 5K, and finished in a 4K digital intermediate. Despite this, it boasts a very film-like aesthetic, although the palette is intentionally muted. And Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR presentation is wonderfully true to Midsommar‘s intended look, delivering it with exceptional detail. Far more importantly, the Kaleidescape download doesn’t muck up the background textures the way streaming providers do. Perhaps it’s a result of the resolution at which the movie was shot, but Apple TV’s stream in particular suffers from occasionally messy and noisy textures that serve as a bit of a distraction, whereas the Kaleidescape download maintains its composure from beginning to end, even when the film is at its densest, visually speaking.

 

The high dynamic range frankly does little to change the look of the film overall, largely due to the aforementioned muted palette. When HDR does make itself known, it’s generally in the shadows, especially during those scenes in which a darkened interior is viewed from a sunlit exterior. HDR allows the viewer to see into those shadows without brightening the

image as a whole.

 

Kaleidescape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also true to the film’s theatrical audio mix. You may have seen Midsommar presented in Dolby Atmos on certain streaming platforms, but these Atmos tracks were created using Nugen Audio’s Halo upmixer software, based on the original 5.1. Given my druthers, I’ll take the original mix, thank you very much. It’s an unusually aggressive one, of the sort I normally don’t love, but in this case it absolutely works.

 

The soundtrack leans on the surround channels hard, often panning dialogue into them so fully that if your rear speakers aren’t up to the quality of the rest of your sound system, you’ll likely hear a shift in the quality of the sound. Even if your system is well-designed from front to back, it’s still a disorienting and frankly distracting effect. But that’s the point. The mix rarely goes whole-hog on the surrounds when there’s something crucial happening onscreen. And when it does, it’s because the film wants to you feel disoriented at that moment.

 

The only thing missing from Kaleidescape’s download is Aster’s original 171-minute cut of Midsommar, which A24, the film’s distributor, made him trim down for wide theatrical release. Given that the cuts were made simply to cram more 

Midsommar (2019)

butts into seats, and not due to content, it’s strange to me that A24 is so precious with the original edit. In the US, the only ways to see it are via Apple TV (it’s included as an iTunes Extra with the purchase of the film) and by way of an incredibly limited 4K Blu-ray release that’s already fetching six times its original asking price on the secondary market.

 

What I wouldn’t give to view that cut of the film in the quality of Kaleidescape’s presentation. Despite its nearly three-hour length, the director’s cut is even better paced and frankly feels like a shorter film. But the improvements over the theatrical cut aren’t so substantial that I would choose Apple TV’s compromised stream over Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect download.

 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: 300

300 (2006)

Hollywood loves a great underdog story, even when the underdog ultimately fails, showing those standing defiantly and refusing to bow in the face of what is certain defeat. There is probably no greater historical battle of a small force resisting an overwhelming force than the Greek Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

 

Most of what we know about this battle—which is still studied today for military strategy and tactics, and is especially beloved by Special Forces operators—is from the Greek historian Herodotus. And while 300 is certainly a fictionalized, heavily 

fantasized retelling of this battle, it gets a surprising amount of the history of both the battle and Spartan culture right.

 

The Spartans were trained warriors nearly from birth. When a child was born, he was examined for any defect that would make him unfit to be a warrior, and if any was found, he was put to death. At age seven, all male Spartan citizens were pulled from their families to undergo a rigorous training and education program known as agoge. Sparta was a warrior society. The occupation of all Spartan men was soldier, and they devoted their lives to military service and improving their fighting skills to serve the state, with the motto that “Spartans never retreat; Spartans never surrender!”

 

Persian Emperor Xerxes amassed a significant army and navy (estimated by Herodotus to be over 1 million men, but thought to be between 120,000 and 300,000 by modern 

300 AT A GLANCE

This glories-of-battle graphic novel come to gory life gets the 4K HDR treatment with a new Atmos mix to fill your home with the din of combat.

 

PICTURE     

The extremely stylized images have tons of detail but can also be a little soft, thanks to the heavy reliance on blue screen.

 

SOUND     

The mix enhances the sense of wall-to-wall carnage, aided by the atmospheric use of the height channels.

accounts) in order to invade Greece. In response, Spartan King Leonidas took a small group of 300 Spartan soldiers and met up with a Greek force to block Xerxes’ invasion at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (also known as “The Hot Gates”) where the mountain terrain narrows to a funnel, effectively neutralizing the advantage of Xerxes’ far larger army, and working perfectly for the Spartans’ phalanx fighting strategy.

 

The battle lasted just three days, but through superior tactics, training, and skilled use of the terrain, the Spartans managed to inflict massive casualties on the Persian army. The film presents this series of battles in almost videogame-like stages, with increasingly difficult—and more fantastical—levels of soldiers leading each wave. Ultimately, the Spartans were betrayed by a citizen who informed Xerxes of a path around Thermopylae that allowed his army to flank and defeat the Spartans.

 

300 relies so heavily on Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel of the same name that it likely served as a ready-made storyboard for writer and director Zack Snyder. Many of the panels and much of the dialogue are lifted straight from Miller’s novel, and this new 4K HDR transfer delivers the inky blacks and bright crimsons of Miller’s work. In lieu of any expository text bubbles, we get occasional dialogue from Dilios (David Wenham), the sole surviving member of the 300 Spartans, who serves as narrator. It also features a lot of stylized and graphic violence, with many dead bodies, and severed limbs and heads, along with enough blood splattering and spraying that you’ll likely want to mop your theater when it’s all over.

 

King Leonidas is the perfect role for Gerard Butler, as he is able to bark-growl most of his dialogue and put his physicality—and physique—to use in the many battles. We also get to see Lena Headey playing another queen—Leonidas’ wife Gorgo, who wants to save the Spartans by sending an army north, and who is willing to make some Cersei Lannister-like moves to get her way.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, 300 is now offered in 4K HDR from a transfer taken from a 2K digital intermediate. The movie has also been given a new TrueHD Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

Wanting to have the look of Miller’s novel, images throughout are heavily colorized and enhanced. Many scenes are tinged in golden hues, sepia-toned, or colored in steely blues, whereas others are almost completely desaturated to just blacks and greys. Some scenes—especially those that are brightly lit—have not only a lot of film grain but also what looks like digital noise or possible overexposure. This was far more noticeable viewing on a 115-inch screen via my JVC 4K projector than on a 65-inch Sony LED, to the point that it was a bit distracting at times. (Even still, I’d trade a bit of more noticeable grain for the far more cinematic presentation of 115 inches!)

 

Images have tons of edge sharpness, and there is plenty of facial detail in closeups, revealing all the stubble, dirt, lines, and creases of the Spartans—or the unnatural smoothness of Xerxes (an unrecognizable Rodrigo Santoro), and the texture of

fabrics or the battle-wear on weapons, helmets and armor. But much of the movie was filmed against blue screen with the look heavily engineered in post-production—razor-sharp clarity is not what 300 strives for.

 

What really makes this new transfer shine is the HDR grading, which gives ultra-contrast to nearly every frame. Blacks are inky-black and clean, and whites are pushed to their brightest limits, with specular highlights of sun sparking off shields or streaming into rooms glinting brightly. Many scenes are filmed in extreme lighting conditions, either lit by moon- or torchlight, and have massive contrast. The wider color gamut also provides greater punch for the crimson of the Spartan cloaks and the gold-pushed images.

 

The new Atmos mix also gives 300 more room to fight around your listening room, and offers a lot of demo-worthy moments. Beyond the big fight scenes, there are plenty of hard-panned effects throughout, along with loads of atmospherics to place you in the scene. For example, as Leonidas goes to meet the Persian emissary, he pushes open and walks through some heavy doors that creak and then crash into walls behind you.

 

The height speakers are also used extensively to not only elevate the musical 

300 (2006)

score, but provide appropriate sounds like swirling winds, crackling fires, or falling rocks. During combat, the room comes alive with the din of battle: Cries and screams are heard from all around, along with the sounds of shields clanging, swords striking, spears thrusting, and blood spurting. The Persian army’s promise to fire so many arrows it would blot out the sun is a great demo, as it has arrows whistling all around and thunking into protective shields overhead.

 

Bass is also appropriately deep and weighty when called for, such as the Persian army marching, or their large creatures charging, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.

 

300 is a heavily-stylized telling of an incredible historical last-stand battle, and for those not squeamish about some brutal combat, it makes for an entertaining night at the movies, especially with the new Atmos soundtrack and ultra-contrasty HDR transfer. Forget your old Blu-ray, this is Sparta!

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 Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The critics hated The Shining. Some of the more prominent, and dubious, ones put it on their “Worst of the Year” lists. Some pointed to the first Friday the 13th installment, released around the same time, as the future of horror and dismissed Kubrick’s effort as quaint and out of touch. Stephen King famously damned the film—then went on with his own adaptation to prove that he knows nothing about filmmaking.

 

The Shining has, of course, since become a classic. But films are usually deemed “classic” more for their ability to pander to mass taste than for any inherent worth. The more important question is: Is it Kubrick’s best film?

I’m not completely sure about that, but I would tend to argue yes. In The Shining, his technique is in perfect sync with his ambitions, his execution fully, inventively, and surprisingly realizes his themes, and he dives deep enough into the much-abused but still fecund roots of the culture and returns with enough gold to craft something that might still survive when almost every other movie has been forgotten. The Shining is so well done it makes even the best of Kubrick’s previous efforts seem a little callow.

 

There’s no point in hashing out its merits as a traditional horror movie. While he does deploy some conventional elements, Kubrick primarily pursues horror through other, more effective, means—by using the very nature of film technique to keep the audience uneasy and to pull them into the action against their will.

 

The most obvious instances are well known by now, the two most famous being seeing the hyper-realistic manifestation of the old woman rising out of the bathtub at the same time 

SHINING AT A GLANCE

This 1980 horror classic is arguably Kubrick’s greatest film, presented here in an inarguably stunning transfer that’s one of the best 4K HDR efforts to date.

 

PICTURE     

Absolutely faithful to the original film, filling the frame with so much sharp detail and so accurately evoking the cold winter light that you feel like you’re trapped in The Overlook with the Torrances.

 

SOUND     

The appropriately subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix enhances the various sonic signatures within the hotel and convincingly creates the sense of an enveloping winter storm.

her cackling horror-movie double is already chasing Jack Nicholson from the room, and Nicholson asking Shelly Duvall “Which room was it?” only to have the film cut to a cold open of a Miami newscast. (Kubrick intentionally placed that cut at a reel change so the audience would think the projectionist had screwed up.)

 

Things like that and the infamous title cards make you wonder “Is this supposed to be joke?” while baffling you why it should be, eventually inducing a skittish sense of “I can’t trust anybody here.” Taking a puppet-master’s delight in messing with the audience, Kubrick’s cunning runs the gamut from puckish to perverse, dancing right up to the edge of sadistic.

 

More relevant for our purposes is his astonishingly successful effort to transport the viewer into the film. It’s a cliché to say that The Overlook is a character in The Shining, but going there kind of misses the point. Kubrick took the strategies Roman Polanski used in Rosemary’s Baby to give The Black Bramford a palpable presence and seriously upped the ante by grafting them onto the medieval Art of Memory to achieve not just the sense of being lost in the film but trapped inside a labyrinthine hotel with a madman.

 

But anyone who’s only seen The Shining at less than 4K resolution—even on a cinematic home theater screen—has never had this experience—which means they’ve never really seen this film. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that this 4K HDR release is the first time anyone has had the chance to experience The Shining at home with the impact Kubrick intended.

 

That impact hinges on a number of things, but primarily on accurately reproducing the naturalness of the artificially created outdoor light, matching the resolution of the original film print so all of the detail—especially in the landscape shots—is faithfully reproduced, and having enough resolution so the movie can be experienced from the proper viewing distance, without distractions.

 

That last point is the most key: Sit at the right distance, and you begin to experience The Overlook the way the characters do. You accurately feel the scale of both the large and smaller spaces and can mentally navigate the corridors the same way they do—even when they’re not around. After a while, you begin to have this sensation independently of the action on the screen. You feel haunted, in real-time—which is what makes the film uncanny and horrific in a way no other movie has been able to achieve.

 

None of that would be possible at home without this transfer, which is the most beautifully done, and faithful, 4K HDR translation I’ve seen of any movie. Nothing is overemphasized; all of it is in the service of the film.

The Shining (1980)

And you can feel the full impact from the very first shot, where the faint ripples on the surface of the lake create the sense the small island is rushing toward you, and where the detail deep in the landscape makes the shot seem almost 3D—an effect maintained throughout the opening sequence, where the images have so much detail in the distance that they border on vertiginous. With HDR, the landscapes seem not just grand but crisp and cold and almost nasty.

 

This carries over to the interiors, where the ability to perceive even the smallest details reinforces the reality of The Overlook, adding to that sense of being trapped within it. I was especially awed by the wide shots of the gold ballroom, where you can clearly see the variations in the metallic surfaces and on the parquet walls way in the back of the room, and where all the lighting sources and reflections are properly balanced without being blown out. The movie hasn’t looked this good since the pristine prints from its initial release.

 

The quality of the transfer is just as important in the many striking closeups, with their natural skin tones and often uncomfortable intimacy. Letting yourself get lost in those shots helps reinforce the sense of being a complicit member of the highly dysfunctional Torrance family.

 

I really can’t fault the transfer for anything—except two somewhat inadvertent things. The HDR is so revealing that it gives away how Kubrick was able to achieve the seemingly impossible overhead shot of Wendy and Danny walking through the middle of an improbably elaborate version of the hedge maze. And Kubrick relied on the random variations of film grain and the motion of the film through the projector gate to sell the shot of Jack sitting frozen in the snow. Seen as it is here, with no film or grain movement, it’s all too obviously a photo still.

 

I don’t mean to shortchange the film’s soundtrack, but the images are so beguiling that you have to force yourself to really focus on what’s going on there. First off, the music score is to be savored. Without question the most effective use of existing cues in any film ever, Kubrick so carefully wedded and molded its elements that most viewers probably assume it’s an original score.

 

As for chest-thumping explosions, window-rattling gunfire, and the other aesthetically dubious bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary surround mix, there’s none of that here. Kubrick was too much a master of his craft to resort to gratuitous jolts. Intent on keeping you inside the action, he wouldn’t have wanted viewers thinking about the potential seismic damage to their homes.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as deft as the visual transfer, enhancing the atmospheric sense of inevitability without drawing attention to itself or doing anything that would make you wince. The best stuff is the most subtle—the contrasting sonic signatures of the hotel’s rooms, lobby, ballroom, and other spaces, and the first hints, and then rising presence, of the winter storm. It’s like a perverse twist on New Age pablum, using the sounds of nature to lull you into a nightmare.

 

I feel obligated to mention the extras while kind of dreading it. To save the best for first, there’s “Making The Shining,” a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian that Kubrick suppressed during his lifetime but couldn’t keep from popping up on

YouTube and elsewhere from time to time. Because of his daughter’s unrivaled access and her skill, even at 17, as a filmmaker, it’s really the only portrait we have of Kubrick as a director. It’s also surprisingly revealing about Nicholson, Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, and the whole dynamic on the set. If you’re even casually interested in Kubrick or The Shining, it’s a must-see.

 

“Wendy Carlos, Composer,” available only on the DVD version, is mildly interesting for both the casually curious and for students of Carlos’ work. The audio commentary, also only available on the DVD download, is a very mixed bag. Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has a decent number of insightful remarks about his work on The Shining, but Kubrick biographer John Baxter is nothing but a train wreck. You’d think a biographer would be strong on details, but he gets so much wrong you get the sense he’s just making it all up as he goes along. And his Felix the Cat recounting of the action while we’re watching it play out on the screen is so dumb and pointless that it becomes funny after a while. It’s like he’s narrating the film for a group of incredibly gullible blind people.

 

“View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining” and “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick,” by the same team that perpetrated Full Metal Jacket’s “Between Good and Evil,” manage to neutralize the impact of any interesting comments by 

The Shining (1980)

various actors, directors, studio executives, and authors through their appallingly inept editing of footage from the film. Like the Full Metal Jacket travesty, they’re a textbook example of what happens when you give people with no discernible taste or talent free rein to butcher brilliant material.

 

But don’t let any of that cause you to hesitate to download this film. This release of The Shining will quickly become the jewel of any serious film collection. But it’s not there to be revered but watched. This film’s impact hasn’t diminished a jot since the day of its release. And this 4K HDR version takes us all the way back to that first day without compromise. It’s kind of like the movie just keeps repeating itself in an infinite loop without ever aging. Right . . ?

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The 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.

Review: Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket

It’s obvious in retrospect that, sometime around 1962, Stanley Kubrick sold his soul to the devil. In Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, he was able to tap into a level of filmmaking no mortal had been able to access before, and none have come even close to since. His work during that period made every other movie, no matter how seemingly well-done, feel cliché, compromised, and inept.

 

Then, in the early ‘80s, his deal with the Dark Prince began to go sour. By the early ‘90s, they had clearly parted ways, and with Eyes Wide Shut, Satan exacted his revenge.

With Full Metal Jacket (1987), you can clearly sense the Master failing—but keep in mind that’s compared to the best of his own work. He was still way ahead of what any other mainstream director was doing.

 

During the Strangelove-to-Shining period, you might not have always been able to fathom some of his creative choices but, even when they were inexplicable, they felt like they were somehow a part of the whole. With Full Metal Jacket, you have entire passages that, both upon viewing and reflection, feel inert, like they’re keeping the movie from being what it wants to be.

 

Just to be clear: Jacket is a great film—it’s just not quite one of the greatest Kubrick films. The boot-camp sequence, from the second R. Lee Ermey appears on the screen though Vincent D’Onofrio’s self-inflicted head wound, is, if 

JACKET AT A GLANCE

Vincent D’Onofrio’s and R. Lee Ermey’s breakout performances continue to provide the fuel for Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny anticipation of the age of urban warfare.

 

PICTURE     

An astonishing 4K HDR transfer that might be just a touch too pretty, given the film’s gritty documentary aesthetic.

 

SOUND     

Jacket has an unusually subtle mix for a war film, and this version presents it clearly and crisply without overhyping the gunfire and explosions.

not flawless, undeniably compelling and even exhilarating. But the movie then sputters throughout the second act, trying out various stuff just to see what will stick, before recovering its stride for the conclusion in Hue.

 

It’s easy to re-edit Jacket in your head, removing the dead spots, and seeing it as a much tighter 90-minute affair that wouldn’t have been any less sardonic or bleak or exhausting, but wouldn’t have so many things that would make you cringe. (“Paint it Black”? Really?!)

 

I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t watch it—in fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to put it above anything you currently have on your Watch list. It’s worth it just to savor Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman and D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Pyle, two of the most iconic film performances ever. Kubrick is often shortchanged as an actor’s director, but you just need to consider that D’Onofrio had never acted in a film before and Ermey had never had a major role to appreciate just how masterful he was.

 

It’s also worth watching for its (and I’m about to say a dirty word here) ambiguity. At a time when you’d be hard pressed to name a film that doesn’t ultimately reinforce accepted beliefs, no matter how convoluted it might be in getting there, it can be bracing to watch something that pushes back so hard against the status quo.

 

Consider Pvt. Pyle’s blanket party. Kubrick has been using Matthew Modine, with his Wonder Bread blandness, as the traditional point of audience identification, but he’s been increasingly making Pyle’s plight the focus of the action. And, for all his abuse, Ermey has been serving as comic relief and the volcanic source of the film’s energy. By the time of the assault on Pyle, Kubrick has put the audience in an untenable position where Pyle’s suffering, the recruits’ contempt for him, and the Corps’ impersonal need for steely discipline all have equal weight. If you can watch that scene and not feel that wrenching tension, and not be thrown by it, you should probably just stick with Wes Anderson.

 

The other main reason Jacket is worth revisiting is for its intimacy—a term that’s hardly ever used in connection with war films, but it defines Jacket and sets it apart from almost every other entry in the genre. There are no epic battle scenes, never the sense of massed forces colliding, and none of the fetishistic portrayal of war machinery that’s defined the genre (and practically every other genre) since militarization, weaponization, and armoring became de facto cultural norms. You are in close quarters with every character here for the duration, and since this isn’t a particularly warm and fuzzy, or even articulate, bunch, it can be an incredibly uncomfortable feeling.

Full Metal Jacket

Finally, Jacket is worth watching just to appreciate that something like this could never be made today. It features an unvarnished, unromanticized, and unblinking portrayal of racial and sexual attitudes no contemporary filmmaker, too busy anticipating the outraged squeals of various pressure groups, would ever have the balls to attempt. If Jacket was in heavier rotation on cable, it would probably get slapped with the kind of silly, titillating, reality-denying warning labels that now precede any film that doesn’t toe any number of faddish political lines.

 

And, O yeah, one more thing—Kubrick had the stupefying ability to make his films look like they were created from somewhere beyond their era. Jacket was made in the mid ‘80s, but it has none of the excessive grain, contrast, saturation, or softness of most films from that time. The 4K HDR transfer faithfully reproduces what he wrought—which isn’t always easy, especially in the final third, most of which was shot during the Magic Hour and is filled with smoke and flames.

 

I do have two nits, though. The HDR tends to overemphasize the gold rims of Joker’s glasses and the silver dog-tag chains, especially during the boot-camp sequence, which can briefly pull you out of those shots. And I have to wonder if, given what Kubrick was going for here, the film doesn’t look just a little too pretty. Watching the Blu-ray version to check out the audio commentary, I couldn’t help pondering if that flatter, more documentary look wasn’t closer to what he was after. But that’s not really a criticism—more a matter of taste. And I don’t think I would ever opt for the Blu-ray over the 4K HDR, especially for the finale in Hue.

 

The sound mix is so subtle—especially for a war film—that it’s hard to appreciate just how good it is. There are no elaborate surround effects, mainly because Kubrick tends to keep the action squarely in front of you. Where it really pays off is with

the steady, almost subliminal, succession of explosions heard at a distance once you’re in Hue. Often little more than muffled thumps, they’re meant, like the breathing in 2001 and the heartbeat in The Shining, to represent the pulse of the film.

 

All of that is presented cleanly and effectively. My only criticism is with the distortion in some of the dialogue tracks. I suspect this stems from the original tracks recorded on location, but it’s hard to believe Kubrick ever signed off on the results.

 

The extras can be summed up in two words: Don’t bother. The promotional film “Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil” has some interesting comments from Kubrick’s collaborators, but you have to fight your way through a lot of annoying, and often silly, manipulation of footage from the film and strictly amateur motion graphics.

 

The commentary is a slice-and-dice affair involving D’Onofrio, Ermey, Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), and critic Jay Cocks, with everyone in isolation and no one getting a chance to speak at length. And it just gets painful once Ermey drifts away and D’Onofio goes off to the sidelines and you’re stuck with the obsequious 

Full Metal Jacket

Cocks for most of the duration. If you really want to know more about the film, read Modine’s Full Metal Jacket Diary or check out the extremely uneven Netflix documentary Filmworker.

 

It was once a big deal to try to figure out who had created “the” Vietnam film. Given how big a trauma that war was, I can kind of see why that used to be important. Ironically, no one has ever made a truly great Vietnam film. Full Metal Jacket isn’t really about Vietnam but about America’s obsession with war, and its whole second half feels much more relevant to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent exercises in empire than it ever did to the jungles of Southeast Asia. It’s worth a good, long look for anyone who can handle a little truth.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire

In the pantheon of directors who truly understand/understood how to use music in films, there are a few obvious names that immediately spring to mind: John Hughes, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and, of course, Cameron Crowe.

 

Crowe famously started his career as a journalist for Rolling Stone, and his love for music is evident in his films, which frequently feature iconic musical moments, such as John Cusack’s boombox serenade in Say Anything, the band singing 

“Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and arguably helping launch Seattle’s grunge scene with Singles.

 

Another element that runs deep through Crowe’s films is heart, loyalty, and discovering what is truly important, which is the central theme of Jerry Maguire.

 

I took my wife to see Maguire when it came out theatrically in 1996, and we loved it. In fact, it was actually the first DVD I purchased. (Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, “It is the best-selling non-Disney VHS tape of all time, with over 3 million copies sold on the first day and another 1 million on the second day.”)

 

Sports agent Jerry Maguire (Cruise) grows a conscience at 2 a.m. while on a junket after meeting with a client suffering yet another concussion who only cares about getting back on the ice to meet his playing bonus. Maguire’s epiphany leads him to write a 25-page mission statement about the state of the industry and taking on fewer clients to develop

MAGUIRE AT A GLANCE

Cameron Crowe’s Tom Cruise-fueled sports-laced romcom dramedy still holds up in this 4K HDR release, famous catch phrases and all.

 

PICTURE     

Not exactly demo-worthy, with HDR sometimes making faces look overexposed and the transfer emphasizing the softness of some scenes, but overall looking great for a 25-year-old film.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is surprisingly effective for such a dialogue-heavy movie, adding ambience that pulls you further into the film and mixing the songs big and full across the front channels.

more personal relationships, which he has printed with a Salinger-esque cover and puts in the In box of every member of his firm. This call for fewer clients/less money gets him sacked from his job, but after an impassioned plea, he convinces office assistant Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) to come join him in his new startup, where they’ll make a difference.

 

Maguire loses all of his clients—and income—save one athlete: Arizona Cardinals star receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Unfortunately, Tidwell’s me-first, get-what’s-mine attitude off the field wins him no friends, the big contract he wants, or the Kwan he desperately craves.

 

After Maguire loses star prospect Cushman (Jerry O’Connell) as a client the night before the NFL draft, the impending doom of his career leads to an argument between Maguire and his fiancée Avery (Kelly Preston), which, of course, opens the door for a relationship with Dorothy and her overly-cute son, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki).

 

It’s pretty easy to sum up Jerry Maguire by saying that a great story with great actors makes a great film, and the film holds up terrifically well, still giving all the laughs and feels at all the right moments. Not only did it grab Academy Award nominations for Picture, Actor (Tom Cruise), Original Screenplay, and Editing, it also earned a Supporting Actor win for Cuba Gooding Jr. And its still-quotable lines such as, “Show me the money!” “You had me at ‘hello’,” “You complete me,” and “Help me, help you!” still ring true, as well as Bruce Springsteen’s perfectly chosen “Secret Garden.” (I also had no idea that The Simpsons legend James L. Brooks has a producing credit for Maguire.)

 

A 4K scan was made of the original 35mm negative for the film’s 20th anniversary, which was used for the Blu-ray re-release back in 2017, and a 4K Blu-ray taken from the new 4K digital intermediate was released as part of the Columbia Classics Collection: Vol. 1 (along with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and A League of Their Own) in June. For those wanting to enjoy Maguire in its full 4K HDR glory without having to purchase the box set, it is available for download from Kaleidescape as an individual film.

 

The image retains the look of film, with grain visible throughout but not objectionable. I did notice a few scenes where the bumped-brightness from HDR made some faces look a bit over-exposed and grainy, but these were not often. There are also a few scenes—notably in the hotel lobby post mission-statement delivery—that looked incredibly soft, or “that looks like a VHS tape” according to my wife. These defocused moments are more noticeable because the rest of the film has so much sharpness and detail.

 

Closeups feature tons of facial detail or patterns and texture in fabric such as the loops in the knit sweater Dorothy wears on the plane or a tight check pattern in a suit Maguire wears. The film doesn’t feature an excessive color palette, but the cardinal-

red of the Cardinals’ jerseys look deeply saturated and realistic, and skin tones and the grass in the football scenes look natural.

 

While not used aggressively, HDR does add some pop to the white shirts Maguire seems to always wear, and we get some nice specular highlights from sun glinting off car windshields or sunlight streaming in through windows. The film has nice and inky black levels when called for, with no hints of noise or banding, making the night scenes really pop. While Jerry Maguire won’t be in your “must-demo video” playlist, images look terrific for a nearly 25-year-old title, and this is certainly the definitive version of the film to own and enjoy.

 

Another bonus is a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. For a primarily dialogue-driven film, I wasn’t expecting much from this mix, but it pleasantly surprised me. Mixers used the additional channels to add appropriate ambience to scenes, greatly expanding the soundstage and placing you in the environment. Interiors like the hotel lobby, airport baggage claim, restaurant, and Jerry’s office all come alive with the sounds of background chatter and scene-appropriate sounds. You will especially notice how the pandemonium in Jerry’s office—with sounds of phones ringing, keyboards clattering, and voices chattering—erupts after he concludes his “I’m leaving” speech. We also get some nice use of the height 

Jerry Maguire

channels from the voices that haunt Jerry prior to his mission-statement epiphany or in airport PA announcements.

 

Every important line of dialogue is clear and anchored to the center, but the Atmos mix gives room for the soundtrack to breathe, and songs are mixed big and full across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Both the 4K Blu-ray and Kaleidescape download include a host of special features, including commentary tracks, some small featurettes, and a host of deleted scenes, many of which feature pretty abysmal picture quality, but are fun to see what was trimmed from the final cut.

 

Jerry Maguire is a great, genre-spanning film with elements of comedy, drama, romance, and sports that offers a bit of something for everyone. If you haven’t given it a watch for a few years, this new transfer provides the perfect opportunity to revisit a real gem.   

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: Rear Window

Rear Window

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, more has been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker—and more has probably been written about Rear Window (1954) than any other film. It and Vertigo (1958) are often considered his most accomplished efforts—a conclusion I would vigorously dispute, but not here. Rear Window has gotten the most attention because, between the two, it’s the squeakier wheel.

 

It’s undeniable that this hubristic exercise in artifice, or stagecraft as cinema, would have completely unravelled in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. And it remains impressive how much Hitchcock is able to make the pure contrivance of his elaborate 

set a big part of what makes the film so engaging. You almost don’t care that it’s the somewhat clunky epitome of mid-’50s Broadway stage design. There’s something about its sheer physicality that makes everything that’s presented on it feel convincing.

 

Because Hitchcock was relentlessly ambitious, his reach constantly exceeded his grasp, so Rear Window has more than its share of shots that don’t quite work, storyboard concepts that had to be triaged in post, characters that could have used a little more development. Thelma Ritter’s part is ridiculously overwritten, and you can feel her pausing for laughs that forever faded it into the void more than five decades ago. Grace Kelly is just a little too Grace Kelly, with a patrician accent that can’t help but grate on modern ears.

 

The film works mainly because of the ingenious way Hitchcock makes the set, with its vignettes, convincing as projections of Jimmy Stewart’s various states of mind, 

REAR WINDOW AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation gives Hitchcock’s quintessential exercise in pure cinema an immediacy and sense of engagement it’s lacked in every previous home-video incarnation.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is applied subtly, for the most part, but gives the finale an impact the film has likely lacked since its first run in theaters.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix respects Hitchcock’s innovative original mix, with its uncanny evocation of space.

making the film from early on feel dreamlike. And it works because of Stewart’s performance. He, pre-World War II, was a good, even great, actor—his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is jawdropping, even today. But he was also kind of lightweight, sometimes clownish. After the war, there’s an undeniable sense of experience behind his eyes that he was able to employ deftly in his best roles—like in the Anthony Mann westerns, in Vertigo, and here.

 

Not that his performance is flawless. As always with Hitchcock, there are weak moments in the script and in the direction that cause Stewart, adrift, to lapse into his patented Stewartisms. But in the hands of a more traditional Hollywood pretty boy type, L. B. Jefferies snooping out of the back of his apartment could have seemed just comic, or even warped. Stewart creates a perfect tension between making it all seem justified and also the dangerous preoccupations of a troubled soul.

Rear Window

The 4K HDR presentation is a must-have for anybody who even thinks they care about movies—not because it smooths over the flaws but because it presents everything honestly, the good and the bad. Seeing Rear Window in any other format inevitably puts you at a distance from the film, which inevitably places you at too great of a distance from what’s going on in the apartments across the way. You need to see it at this resolution to get pulled back into the film, so it stops feeling quaint and again becomes relevant and compelling.

 

The flaws are pretty egregious. Hitchcock, of course, endlessly obsessed over how to present Kelly, but there’s a shot at 29:51, during a sequence meant to scream “beguiling beauty,” where she looks like a walking corpse. Even more jarring is a closeup at 1:50:29 of the hapless Wendell Corey that looks like it was originally part of a wider shot that was ruthlessly enlarged on an optical printer.

 

For whatever reason, cinematographer Robert Burks didn’t do as good a job here as he would on Vertigo, but for everything that takes you out of the film, there’s plenty to keep you engaged. Probably no other movie has better conveyed the feel of New York at sunset, or especially at three in the morning. And, while the HDR makes its presence felt just here and there, it is 

an absolute revelation during the climax. Anyone who knows Rear Window will know exactly where I’m going with this, but Raymond Burr being blinded by Stewart’s flashbulbs fell solidly into the “suspension of disbelief” camp until now. Presented in HDR, those white flashes become searing, making you feel Burr’s disorientation and sense of absolute loss. Rear Window is worth seeing in this form just for that moment alone.

 

The audio is “only” DTS-HD Master Audio stereo. I used quotes because the thought of somebody mucking around with Hitchcock’s innovative and masterful sound mix to take

it into the land of Atmos is both terrifying and nauseating. In the right hands, it could definitely enhance the experience—but who’s got the right hands? And I think there’s a good chance an enhanced sense of spaciousness could actually end up emphasizing the one-dimensionality of a lot of the stagecraft.

 

The mix here does a great job of allowing you to savor what Hitchcock originally wrought, where he used mainly volume, timing, and reverb to convey the sense of voices and other sounds heard in various spaces and from various distances away. 

The soundtrack, as is, is so strong it could almost stand on its own as a radio play.

 

But allow me just a brief swipe at Franz Waxman’s score, which is the weakest link in the film. It’s not that I don’t like Waxman—his work on Sunset Boulevard represents the pinnacle of the film-scoring art—but he’s just not in sync with this film at all. The opening theme—if you can call it that—is a hackneyed pastiche of Gershwin clichés—42nd Street meets The Naked City. But what makes it really fall flat is the sense of complete disconnection from the evocative use of source cues that makes up the rest of the soundtrack. I know Hitchcock was aiming for a kind of overture as the curtains literally went up, but he missed the mark.

 

And then there’s that song. Another of Hitchcock’s offerings placed on the altar of Grace Kelly, it was a great idea in concept—show a composer struggling to write a song to parallel Jimmy Stewart’s conflicted feelings about Kelly and then have it all come together as an example of songwriting perfection. Problem is, the song sounds fully worked out—and not very good—from the start. Had it been great, it could have elevated the whole film—and not made the salvation of Miss Lonelyhearts look like the worst kind of Victorian contrivance. But “Lisa” is a real stinker.

Rear Window

I’m not a big fan of Top 10 or Top 100 or whatever lists—they’re almost all laughable when they’re not outright dangerous. So let’s just say that Rear Window, for too many reasons to ignore, is an essential. Not only does it stand on its own as entertainment for all but the most jaded contemporary viewers (and let’s not go there), but its reverberations can still be strongly felt in present-day film. In 4K HDR, it becomes not just another movie, but the very definition of cinema.

Michael Gaughn

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

Inception

Inception

After the mental calisthenics of watching and trying to unpack Tenet, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to another of my favorite Christopher Nolan time-bending films, Inception. This was especially the case after my 13-year-old daughter—whose introduction to Nolan was Tenet—asked if all of his films were “that confusing and hard to understand,” and after I saw that a 4K HDR transfer was available for download from Kaleidescape.

 

Scoring an impressive 87% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score and 91% audience score, Inception made over $825 million at the box office, and was a critical success as well, winning four Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, with additional nominations for Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, and Best Picture.

The core plot of Inception is actually fairly simple—getting someone to do something you want them to by planting a simple idea in their subconscious that they believe is their own. But it is the path of getting there that is so complex and visually stunning to watch, as Nolan creates dream worlds within worlds within worlds, with time expanding exponentially the further down you go. What takes seconds in “real life” might equate to hours or even decades multiple dream-levels deep.

 

Similar to lucid dreaming—a dream where the person is aware they are dreaming and can then exert control over the dream universe—Inception allows for group dreaming where an architect designs and builds the dream world, which is then populated by others who can control the dream, with the actual dreamer filling out the world with the characters of his subconscious mind. (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand; if you haven’t, trust me that it actually makes a lot of sense.)

INCEPTION AT A GLANCE

In the wake of his mindbending Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s dream-world thriller Inception gets the 4K HDR treatment, with a slew of bonus features to help you figure out what it all means.

 

PICTURE     

Tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame, with plenty of opportunities for HDR to make things pop from the film’s muted palette.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix features plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to place you in the action, and massive low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits.

Besides the striking visuals and stunt sequences, another element that really elevates Inception is the fantastic cast, with practically every role handled by A-list talent. This includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine. DiCaprio does an especially good job here, as do Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe.

 

The film revolves around Cobb (DiCaprio), an expert “extractor” who is able to steal valuable information from someone’s subconscious while they are dreaming, being hired by Saito (Watanabe) to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Murphy)—the newly appointed CEO of a multi-billion-dollar energy concern—in order to plant the idea in his head to break up his company to avoid a future monopoly. In return, Saito promises he can arrange for Cobb—who has been on the run for years after having been wrongfully accused of killing his wife Mal (Cotillard)—to be able to come home to see his children.

 

Cobb’s subconscious is haunted by memories of Mal—with whom he spent a decade in the abyss of their shared subconscious and where she ultimately lost track of reality—and any dreamworlds he now creates are quickly corrupted and 

overrun by her. He hires one of his father’s (Caine) top students, Ariadne (Page), whom he teaches how to design and construct elaborate labyrinthian dream worlds that will give his team more time to move about before they are discovered and attacked by the dreamer’s subconscious. (Again, this all makes sense when you see the film.)

 

The dream worlds are often filled with fascinating Escher-like architecture—entire city blocks that twist upwards at 90 degrees to fold back onto the world, rooms filled with never-ending staircases, topsy-turvy gravity, and cities disintegrating as the dreamworld collapses.

 

You’ll likely find yourself asking, “How did they do that?” 

and fortunately there is a slew of featurettes included with the download that provide answers to many of your questions. It is especially impressive when you see that many of these are actually in-camera practical effects as opposed to CGI trickery. Especially interesting is a short animated graphic-novel-esque prequel film, The Cobol Job, which gives some interesting backstory on how Cobb ends up encountering Saito in Inception.

 

While I don’t think of Inception as an action film, it actually has a surprising amount of action, with the dreamworlds filled with car chases and numerous shootouts. One of the final dream levels—a heavily fortified hospital on top of a snow-covered mountain—always reminds me of a level of a Bond-like video game, using snipers, stealth, and force to overcome a large force on skis and in tracked vehicles to infiltrate a massive complex and achieve the objective.

 

Originally shot on 35mm and 65mm film, there is no information on the resolution of the digital intermediate used here, but there is tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame. Closeups reveal loads of facial detail, and you can especially appreciate the detail, design, and fabric texture in the actors’ clothing. For example, in the opening moments, we see Cobb lying in the surf, and there is sharp line texture and detail in the fabric of his jacket. Later, in the snow-mountain scene, you can appreciate the slightly pebbled texture on the leather accents of Cobb’s teams’ uniforms, or a delicate white-on-white pattern on one of Saito’s shirts. Long shots of Paris and Mombasa are also sharp and full of detail, as are the busy city streets of the Paris dream world, where every building edge is sharp and defined. There are the occasional shots in soft focus, but this appears to be more a limit of the original material.

 

While the film has a generally muted greyish, overcast, or steely-blue color palette, there are still plenty of opportunities for the HDR grading to improve the viewing experience. One big difference I noticed over the Blu-ray transfer was the enhanced pop of the white shirts worn by many of the actors, and the brightness of the overhead lighting in rooms. The early scene in Saito’s castle especially benefits from this, with the lighting looking far more realistic and bathing the room in a rich, warm, golden glow. Interior scenes also benefit from rich shadow detail while still delivering bright highlights either from light streaming in through windows or internal lighting, and the added contrast also benefits the snowy scenes, providing more detail and depth to the white-covered landscape.

 

Nolan famously eschews next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos, and we are once again “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix here. Even so, it is pretty dynamic, with plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to

place you in the action. From street sounds at a Paris café, to a freight train whizzing past in the side surrounds, to the creaking and groaning of an elevator shaft and cabling, to dynamic gun fire and bullet strikes discreetly placed around the room, to the distinct sounds of objects exploding in air, Inception’s sound mix is active and entertaining.

 

The film also features some truly massive and immense low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits. From the opening scene, the sounds of waves crashing at the beach pound your room with bass. Even more aggressive are the deep—and lengthy—bass signals when a dreamworld is collapsing, or the crashing of an avalanche.

 

Another thing Nolan is becoming infamous for is difficult-to-understand dialogue. This was a real complaint of mine from his two most recent films—Tenet and Dunkirk—where dialogue was completely unintelligible for many key sequences, often drowned out by effects and music mixed significantly louder (and characters mumbling behind masks in the case of Tenet). While most of Inception isn’t plagued with this, there are still a few moments where dialogue is buried beneath other sounds.

 

Nolan re-teams with frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer for the score here, and it 

Inception

is often an aggressive, dynamic, stress-filled mix that comes at you from all corners of the room. The film’s finale is heightened by the score, which is like a constant assault on the senses and will get your heart pumping. One of the songs, “Mombasa,” reminded me of the frenetic electronica and bass assault of a Blue Man Group track.

 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Inception remains incredibly entertaining, and as visually exciting and entertaining as any modern film. With a new 4K HDR transfer, the film looks better than ever, making it the perfect time to revisit this modern classic.

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.