Kaleidescape Tag

Review: Let Him Go

Let Him Go (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

LET HIM GO AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Let Him Go (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)

I used to be a huge David Lynch fan. His films were a welcome relief from the increasingly juvenile and shrill mainstream fare of the ‘80s and ‘90s without the pretentiousness and unearned seriousness of typical Oscar fodder. And they were, for the most part, fun to watch, even exhilarating.

 

But I also had my doubts. Something about his work never quite aligned the way it should. Each movie was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, seeming to deliver as you watched it but quickly dissipating after the lights came up, scattering as quickly as the dreams he has always tried to ape.

 

And there were always efforts along the way that were just plain indigestible—the mercilessly vicious Wild at Heart, the pointlessly incoherent Lost Highway, and the just plain pointless Inland Empire.

On the other hand, I’ve always liked the much derided Fire Walk with Me, for some reason, and have a soft spot for The Straight Story. Mulholland Dr. might be the one film of his people will still look at 50 years from now, thanks mainly to Naomi Watts’ performance—although they might jump ship once they realize it means having to put up with Justin Theroux for two hours.

 

What sealed all of my doubts about Lynch and morphed those doubts into a kind of disgust was the misguided and inept Twin Peaks reboot. As with most reboots, it gave hardcore fans, who are by definition uncritical, exactly what they wanted. But for anyone who appreciates unique experiences and the passé notion of quality, it was all half-baked, nasty, and relentlessly ugly.

 

The point of this potted history was to bring us to the film that really set the whole “Lynch” thing in motion, Blue Velvet. Until then, he only had a glorified student film that 

VELVET AT A GLANCE

The film that opened the floodgates of “dark” cinema and made Lynch’s career remains a compelling experience—but of what?

 

PICTURE     

Velvet looks surprisingly good in HD—even the legendary murkiness of Dorothy Vallens’ hell-in-a-handbasket apartment—which bodes well for a UHD release.

 

SOUND     

Alan Splet’s brilliant sound design seems to have a life of its own and, even though originally mixed for stereo, feels perfectly at home in surround.

became a glorified cult film, a dull portrait of a historical freak, and a completely disjointed and uninteresting sci-fi epic under his belt. Velvet not only finally established his career but also launched all of those mannered, fetishistic tropes that defined the Lynch brand—the arch little faux Dali jokes, the ambiguous images and actions and gestures and phrases and stylistic splashes that were meant to be dreamlike but ultimately meant even less than dreams, the politically motivated retrograde embrace of the 1950s, the dipping into his record collection to parasitically create unearned emotional effects, and the raw sadism we were supposed to accept because it was the unfiltered upwelling of the unconscious or something. Beyond, and because of, all that, it ultimately helped launch the most corrosive trends in the history of the movies, resulting in our current atrocity-based cinema. But I’ll get to that.

 

It’s probably been a decade since I last watched Blue Velvet so I was able to approach it with somewhat fresh eyes, and it still works. It’s still a compelling piece of filmmaking that leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something—although my sense of what that something is has changed considerably over the years.

 

It still works partly because is it has a rudimentary plot with something resembling emotional hooks. Of course, it’s a pretty lousy excuse for a story and daring somebody to retell it accurately is an all but guaranteed way to win a party bet, but it at least acts as a kind of dog fence for reining in Lynch’s various indulgences, lending something resembling form, unlike the inchoate and dull randomness of most of his other work. 

 

But what really struck me this time is just how much Dennis Hopper makes this film. He is Blue Velvet. Kyle McLachlan is a far from riveting screen presence and Laura Dern’s gangly awkwardness can make their scenes together uncomfortable to sit through. But once Hopper appears, everything clicks neatly into place and the film leaps from being a stylistic exercise to something worth watching.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Hopper always struck me as a one-note actor—when he wasn’t raging, he wasn’t anything. But he perfectly channels all of that here, convincingly making pure rage equal pure evil and making you wonder if all the treacly stuff at the beginning and end isn’t just insincere pretext. Most people would assume Lynch meant McLachlan to be his onscreen surrogate, especially after all the Agent Cooper crap in the original Twin Peaks. But I seriously have to wonder, especially in light of the rest of his career, if Lynch didn’t really feel most at-one with Hopper’s Frank Booth. McLachlan is kind of a nullifying presence but Hopper is the wellhead of all energy.

 

Fredrick Elmes’ hugely influential and at times sublime cinematography is still effective—but the film’s low budget was a little more obvious this time around and runs the risk of being even more blatant when Blue Velvet eventually makes the leap from HD to UHD. There’s what looks like dirt on the lens during the famous opening pan down from the improbably blue sky and an obvious screen-door effect from, I’m guessing, a lens filter during the early shot where Jeffrey approaches the field where he discovers the severed ear. Also, the heavy reliance on wide-angle lenses causes curvature at the edges of the frame that becomes distracting and then annoying, and ultimately dates the film.

 

Alan Splet’s equally influential sound design is still intriguing, but since it’s not always clear what it’s in the service of, it’s almost like listening to an abstract exercise in musique concrète. Blue Velvet deserves credit, though, for being one of the 

first films to make a convincing case for using surround sound for something other than the usual bludgeoning mayhem (even though it was originally released in stereo).

 

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is, let’s say, interesting, mainly a Schoenberg pastiche (you get the sense Lynch was using Verklärte Nacht for a temp track) interspersed with some not very convincing cop-drama cues. It has the saving grace of having been done with an actual orchestra, unlike the more watery synth-driven stuff Badalementi tended to lean on in Lynch’s later films.

 

There is no denying that Blue Velvet contains some brilliant filmmaking, that parts of it have a purity of execution that’s invigorating and rare. And if that was all that was relevant to judging a film, Lynch could be considered one of the great directors. But there’s something at the heart of this movie that’s just depraved, something that Lynch’s frequent flashing of his TM Get Out of Jail Free card just can’t absolve. Blue Velvet remains disturbing because it’s disturbed—there’s just no other way to slice it.

 

And that presents the biggest rub. Lynch helped make amoral depravity fashionable. It’s not like he didn’t have a lot of help, but he, with this film, pretty 

Blue Velvet (1986)

much single-handedly created its art-house wing. And he threw open the doors for every other callow entitled type who could hide their fundamental immaturity behind dazzling exercises in style. Without Lynch, there is no Fincher—or PTA or Spike Jonze or Aronofsky or any of the other aesthetically or morally half-born types we now bank our notions of serious filmmaking on.

 

Of course, that raises the question of whether these directors—or rather the machines that have their names attached to them—actually influence the culture or just reflect it. This isn’t the place to go into that. And what I feel is the correct answer is far from trendy. All I can say in closing is that the perception of Blue Velvet, and of Lynch, would be far different if this film had remained an exception, if hadn’t been a harbinger, if it hadn’t become the rule.

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: Chinatown

Chinatown (1974)

Let me get the obligatory reviewer equivocation out of the way right up front: Yes, you should watch Chinatown in 4K HDR. No, this isn’t the transfer this film deserves.

 

Chinatown is, of course, one of the great films of the ’70s and, given that it was made by a bunch of smug movie-industry types, represents something much greater than the sum of the various talents involved. Call it The Casablanca Effect—a film that rises well above the norm more due to the spirit of the age and the chance gathering of forces than any concerted effort of creative will. Hollywood is designed to ensure that truly great movies can’t get made, and it’s only been the very rare—and

now extinct—iconoclasts who’ve ever figured out how to game the system and create anything resembling art. Nobody involved in Chinatown fits the iconoclast MO.

 

The film has its rough spots. Jack Nicholson never seems entirely comfortable in the lead role and sometimes comes across like a kid playing dress-up. The opening with him and Burt Young is stilted and forced. And some of the secondary casting is questionable, draining the air from some of the scenes.

 

But this is probably Roman Polanski’s best work (although a convincing case could be made for Rosemary’s Baby) and Robert Towne never came near topping his justly famous screenplay, which successfully updates Raymond Chandler without veering into parody or fawning pastiche.

 

But pointing out individual contributors detracts from the 

CHINATOWN AT A GLANCE

One of the great films of the ’70s, and well worth watching in 4K HDR despite some glaring problems with the transfer.

 

PICTURE     

The film’s evocation of pre-World War II LA is still compelling despite crushed blacks, inconsistent skin tones, and an overall flatness.

 

SOUND     

What you would expect from mid-’70s audio—in other words, serviceable. But Jerry Goldsmith’s near miraculous score is still a wonder to behold.

more important point that Chinatown, as a kind of spontaneously generated entity with a life of its own, perfectly sums up the mid ‘70s by leaning so heavily on the 1930s. Robert Altman took a similar tack at around the same time with his far more auteuristic riff on Chandler, The Long Goodbye. Those films, considered together, reflect a culture toying with the notion that a retreat into the past might be the best response to the turmoil of the ‘60s. They—and to some degree the first two Godfather films—anticipate the emergence of retro and the Reagan era.

 

But for those without a sociological/political bent, Chinatown still makes for a ripping good yarn. Yes, it cakewalks a lot of the detective-story clichés but takes them dead serious in the service of a tale that’s seemingly about unbridled greed but proves to be about mass complicity in the exercise in cultural corruption that is LA.

 

Again, if you don’t like to dive that deep, preferring to swim near the surface instead, Chinatown is a mannered but convincing exercise in atmospherics, combining a soundstage-bound Studio Era vibe with a stylized-vérité evocation of pre-World War II

Chinatown (1974)

Southern California.

 

Given the slow film stock of the time, it’s astonishing how well Polanski and cinematographer John Alonzo capture the lingering LA sunsets and how effectively they weave them into the fabric of the film. They consistently nail the LA light at various times of day, not by striving for accuracy but by capturing the romantic tinge that was key to the various booster efforts of the time, especially the citrus industry’s legendary orange-crate art.

 

And that brings me to the reason why I said Chinatown deserves a better transfer. For such a beautiful film, it looks inexplicably dull in 4K HDR. It’s hard to say where the fault lies but this movie should not look this flat.

The biggest problem is with the black levels. You’d rightly expect more nuance in an HDR transfer but the film here looks like it’s trying to ape Gordon Willis’s shadow-driven aesthetic in The Godfather—something Paramount wanted at the time of production but that Polanski fought hard to avoid. Looking at this release with its crushed blacks, and with scenes like the ones in Mulwray’s office so dim they become murky, you’d get the sense the studio prevailed.

 

Skin tones are wildly inconsistent, with many of the scenes in the first half looking almost monochrome or, at best, like hand-tinted postcards. In an early scene where Nicholson and Faye Dunaway sit outside talking, Dunaway looks like she was dipped in bronze. Given that there are occasional scenes where skin tones look more natural—and certain closeups, like

the one of Dunaway in mourning apparel as she lunches with Nicholson, that look stunning—you have to suspect the problem isn’t with the original film. I don’t remember this having been an issue before, and although it could be inherent in the original materials, it’s hard to believe Polanski, Alonzo, or the studio would have signed off on something this all over the map for the theatrical release.

 

All of that said, I again have to emphasize that Chinatown is so engrossing that it’s possible to look beyond all the flatness, blackness, and visual inconsistencies and get caught up in the experience. While I was thrown the first time I watched this new transfer, I found myself a lot less distracted during subsequent viewings.

 

On the audio side, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is something of a miracle—not least because he conjured it up in less than two weeks after Paramount rejected Phillip Lambro’s stab at the music. Rather than go wall to wall, which is tempting in any film that leans so heavily on the Studio Era aesthetic, Goldsmith alternates between Mancini-like splashes of the lush main-title theme and very angular, astringent, mainly percussive cues that lend a distinctly ‘70s edginess and anxiety to the proceedings.

 

Chinatown is a film set almost a hundred years in the past that’s really about an

Chinatown (1974)

era now almost 50 years in the past but is rooted so firmly in the constants of human behavior that it feels surprisingly relevant and fresh. Polanski provides a mix of seriousness and perverse humor no other director could have brought to the material, with the blindly creative forces of the larger culture then raising his contributions to a level where few Hollywood efforts are ever allowed to go.

 

Allow me a moment’s more equivocation on my way out the door: Chinatown is a movie that needs to be seen, and re-seen, and while this isn’t the transfer the film deserves, this is the best it has ever looked at home.

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: Get Shorty (1995)

Get Shorty (1995)

UHD has put anybody who reviews home releases in a really odd position. Most catalog titles are still in HD, with many having Blu-ray-quality transfers. But it’s become impossible to watch any of these films without speculating on how they’d look in 4K HDR—which is something of a gamble because some older titles haven’t survived the process well, looking decidedly uneven. But then there are unquestionably stunning gems, like Vertigo, The Shining, and the other titles gathered in “4K HDR Essentials,” that have you salivating for more.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s note-perfect Hollywood satire Get Shorty is one of those films that has me shamelessly drooling. You can definitely appreciate its deft, droll visual style in its current HD incarnation, but you can also sense how much more delicious it would be with a 4K HDR buff and shine.

 

As I’ve said before, Sonnenfeld is the master of the puckish fairy tale, and here he gets to graft his bone-dry style of humor onto Elmore Leonard’s Damon Runyon-meets-Goodfellas mobster yarn, resulting in a film that plays as well 25 years on as it did on the day of its release.

 

Shorty is worth watching for its flawless casting alone. I’m not a Travolta fan, but he doesn’t miss a beat here, giving his small-time hood a boyish innocence and enthusiasm 

SHORTY AT A GLANCE

Flawless casting and some very deft & droll direction help ensure this ultimate Hollywood satire still lands 25 years on.

 

PICTURE     

The spot-on evocation of LA & the movie business is well presented in Blu-ray-quality HD—but cries out for 4K.

 

SOUND     

People say witty things and the occasional gun goes off, all to the beat of Booker T. & the M.G.’s., in a clear and suitably restrained 5.1 mix.

that never feels forced. Hackman is miles from Lex Luthor, turning in a nuanced comic performance that gets big laughs by way of a fully realized character instead of a cartoon. This has to be DeVito’s best work. And a both menacing and charming Delroy Lindo and a flat-out funny Dennis Farina play the mobsters who just can’t get a break.

 

The performances stand out all the way down the cast line. Nobody is here just to be the butt of a joke. Even the bit parts are fleshed out and compelling. Special kudos go to David Paymer for his story-within-the-story turn as the dry cleaner who fakes his death in a plane crash and flees to L.A. with 300 grand in mob money, sweating all the way.

 

Sonnenfeld doesn’t get enough credit as an actor’s director, but the scene where Travolta shows DeVito how to play a shylock is so well done it deserves to be ranked with the best. It’s almost impossible to convincingly portray an actor acting,

let alone actor/director interaction, but all involved are so perfectly in sync that you’re laughing not just at the jokes and the situation but at the sheer virtuosity of the execution.

 

What Shorty gets right, above everything else, though, is LA and the many ways the movie business overlaps with LA life. It unerringly and evocatively captures the

feel of Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Hills, and all the trendy little West Hollywood restaurants that sit practically in the middle of traffic. Maybe the film’s second-best scene—although this might just come from having suffered through this too many times myself—is DeVito going way off-menu to order an elaborate omelet for the table then taking off before it arrives, leaving the other guests to figure out what to do with it.

Shorty works as a satire because it doesn’t spring from the often hypocritical vitriol that drives almost every other similar effort, instead using the quiet accumulation of spot-on touches to make its point, making it far more akin to Raymond Chandler’sThe Little Sister than to more overwrought works like The Day of the Locust and SOB. (And don’t even mention Tarantino, who’s way too much of a raging Neanderthal to even begin to grasp anything as subtle as irony.)

 

This approach is seamlessly translated into the movie’s visual plan, where the camera moves are restrained (for a Sonnenfeld film) and the lighting is for the most part true to the locales—which I suspect was in part a deliberate strategy to heighten the impact of the film’s stylized, proscenium-warping finale. And it’s exactly because Shorty dances right up to the edge of caricature and gross exaggeration without crossing over that I think it would benefit immensely from a tasteful application of 4K HDR. Some judicious enhancement would make it that much more engaging without turning it into gratuitous eye candy. (The operative word here, of course, is “judicious.”)

 

No problems with the sound. This is a dialogue-driven film only occasionally 

Get Shorty (1995)

punctuated by bursts of action, and the lines (“E.g., i.e., f— you,” “You think we go to see your movies, Harry? I’ve seen better film on teeth.” “My favorite color—putty”) are all crisp and clear, as are the gunshots. It’s usually a little too obvious when temp tracks make their way into the final film but Sonnenfeld does such a great job of deploying Booker T. & the M.G.’s that it’s hard to make much of a stink. The cues are nicely placed in the foreground without ever being in your face.

 

It’s one thing to call Get Shorty the best film in the thinly populated mobsters-come-to-Hollywood genre, it’s another to say nobody’s ever done a better job of skewering the movie business—a windmill many have tried to tilt only to wind up on their asses. Shorty never gets ahead of itself, never tries to be bigger than it needs to be, relying on craft and wit instead of angst and sour grapes to score its points—which is why it continues to be a compact and unassuming but undeniable and undiminished gem of a film.

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: Blade

Blade (1998)

In my somewhat controversial review of Wonder Woman 1984 (controversial in that I actually enjoyed that silly and overly fantastical romp, a fact that seems to infuriate some people), I mused about whether you could really enjoy the movie if you weren’t raised on and invested in not only the tropes of the 1980s but also the storytelling style of comic books and superhero movies of that era. With the subject of today’s review—1998’s Blade—there’s nothing to speculate about. If you don’t outright love everything about the late ’90s, this standalone, pre-MCU Marvel comic adaptation probably isn’t for you.

 

In fact, if we were to retroactively create a time capsule for the late ’90s in hopes of explaining that era to future generations, I think I would pass over The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Pi, Gods and Monsters, Go, and any number of other vastly superior contemporary films in favor of Blade. To varying degrees, those films have all stood the test of time. Blade, on the other hand, is little more than an artfully arranged pile of action-movie clichés of its day: Every gun is a pistol-grip machine 

gun, every line of dialogue is an oh-so-gritty catchphrase, every character wears black leather or rave-culture clubwear, every artist on the soundtrack either has or is a DJ, and for inexplicable reasons every no-name goon is proficient in some form of Asian martial art.

 

But what can I say? It all just works. Yes, if it’s been a while since you saw the movie, it comes off more like a satirical Key & Peele sketch sans punchline than it does the sort of serious-action-movie-meets-Fatboy-Slim-music-video director Stephen Norrington thought he was making. But in a weird way, that’s part of the Blade‘s lasting appeal. It’s pure B-movie schlock on an A- budget.

 

I’m relieved that I’m not the sort of reviewer who regularly summarizes plots, as it would be difficult to do so in this case without sounding like a stroke victim. The long and short of it is this, though: The titular hero is a sword-toting half-vampire vigilante who hates him some bloodsuckers 

BLADE AT A GLANCE

The digital enhancement in this pre-MCU slice & dice vampire romp is a little too heavy-handed but it’s still a big step up from HD.

 

PICTURE     

Edge enhancement and grain scrubbing unnecessarily obscure the movie’s film-stock origins, but HDR brings a richer and more nuanced palette to the effort.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix is appropriately relentless, delivering a full-throated surround sound assault.

because they killed his momma right before he was born. Along with his mentor/quartermaster “Whistler” (played to hammy perfection by Kris Kristofferson, who chews up the scenery like a Hungry Hungry Hippo), Blade uncovers a plot to awaken the blood god “La Magra” and trigger the Vampire Apocalypse, which of course can only be stopped by an over-the-top mix of capoeira, jujutsu, kung fu, and ninjutsu. And then he goes to Russia—because of reasons.

 

If that’s not your bag, the new UHD/HDR release isn’t going to do anything to change your mind. If you are a fan of the movie, though, you’ll be happy to hear that this new transfer is a pretty significant step up from previous releases in several respects. It isn’t perfect, however.

 

Unexpectedly for a movie shot on 35mm relatively recently, the 4K resolution brings out a lot of the sharpness and detail missing from the numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Unfortunately, whoever mastered the movie this time around didn’t trust the viewer to appreciate the fact that film equals grain, and as such, a lot of the movie’s texture has been scrubbed clean by digital noise reduction that sometimes goes too far. To compensate, the transfer has been artificially sharpened by a process known as edge enhancement, which leads to ringing edges on high-contrast areas of the image. You can really see this any time there are baked-in subtitles (like in the meeting of the council of vampire elders). And I’m not sure if it’s the edge enhancement or simply the increased resolution, but for whatever reason the film’s mid-budget, low-pixel-count CGI effects also look goofier than ever before.

 

On the other hand, HDR is used to especially good effect, although if you’re looking for a demo-movie to push your video system to extremes of brightness, this one doesn’t fit the bill. Instead, it’s the wider color gamut of HDR10 that really adds something to this presentation as compared with previous releases. There’s simply a richer and more nuanced palette to work with, and there’s a purity of tone that’s missing from past transfers. In A/Bing between this new release and the most recent 

1080 transfer (again, there have been a few), I also noticed that while there are some enhancements at the lower end of the value scale, the biggest benefit for the new HDR grade is a whole lot less clipping in highlights and brighter scenes. In other words, there are simply more shades of “almost white” to work with, which makes previously washed-out shots look a lot more dimensional and resolved, even if they’re not particularly intense.

 

So, long story short: If you’re looking for a substantial upgrade over previous home video releases of Blade, this one is unquestionably it. But if you’re looking for a perfect remaster of the movie, the egregious artificial smoothing and sharpening keeps this transfer from being everything it could be.

 

As for the Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix included with the Kaleidescape download of Blade? I really only have one word to describe it: Relentless. Of course, that’s always been true of the movie’s soundtrack. In fact, the original DVD release of Blade, way back in 1998, was one of my favorite demo discs at a time when I was still assembling my first halfway decent home theater system. I learned quite quickly, though, that the little Sony satellite speakers that had served me well as surround channels in the LaserDisc era were no match for this movie’s full-throated surround-sound assault. They died an uglier death than any of Blade’s 

Blade (1998)

onscreen adversaries. And I brought that DVD along with me when auditioning replacement speakers at my local Circuit City, just to make sure they would survive the onslaught.

 

The Atmos remix doesn’t substantially tinker with that experience, other than to extend it upward. This is still a hard-hitting, techno-heavy, effects-driven sound mix that only shows its age by virtue of its ostentatiousness.

 

So, yeah, in the end, the UHD/HDR release of Blade has its virtues as well as its flaws. Hopefully by the time Warner Bros. gets around to releasing the superior sequel in 4K, they’ll have learned from the mistakes of this one and give us a straight scan of the 35mm negative, free of the unnecessary digital manipulation. But, again, if you’re a Blade fan, don’t let the occasional visual distraction turn you off of this release. It’s still an appreciable step up from the HD transfer.

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: Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977)

It’s impossible to talk about a Woody Allen movie without having to first weigh in on the ongoing efforts to vilify Allen and obliterate all traces of his career. He’s been spattered with so much bile by Hollywood types like Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who’ve blindly bought into the Me Too herd mentality that there are fewer and fewer people even willing to approach his films let alone consider them objectively.

 

I’m hoping to do an appreciation of his career where I can go into all this a little more. What I would ask for the moment is that you try to ignore that grating cacophony of squeaky wheels and appreciate the works of one of the most accomplished 

filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s for what they are.

 

Annie Hall is known as a romantic comedy—a perception that had a lot to do with it snagging a Best Picture Oscar. The problem is, it’s not really a romantic comedy—at least not for me.

 

That I’ve never found Diane Keaton to be very attractive, or a very good actress, has helped me develop a different—and I think more accurate—take on the film. Annie Hall is actually a very ambitious, incisive, and candid attempt to capture the essence of a particular culture at a particular moment in time via its embodiment in a particular personality—and that personality is not Keaton.

 

There had to be a reason why Allen suddenly shifted away from all of those gag-driven early movies that served as his film school and allowed him to build the fan base he was able to ride for the next four decades. And there has to be 

ANNIE AT A GLANCE

Pigeonholed as a romantic comedy, Annie Hall is actually an ambitious attempt to find hope in the darkness of mid-’70s New York.

 

PICTURE     

Some of master cinematographer Gordon Willis’s most subtle work, it looks flat—but not unwatchable—in HD.

 

SOUND     

This is a Woody Allen movie. There’s not a lot of music, there aren’t any surround effects. People just talk, with intelligence and wit. And you can hear them just fine.

a reason why he suddenly went from being a good-enough comedy director to a fully fledged and inspired filmmaker.

 

And I think the answer lies in this exchange from the film:

 

“The failure of the country to get behind New York City is anti-Semitism.”

 

“But, Max, the city is terribly run.”

 

“But we’re not discussing politics or economics. This is foreskin. . . . Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks at New York like we’re Left-Wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”

 

New York City had pretty much imploded in the wake of the social upheaval of the ‘60s and was in a wretched state by the mid ‘70s. Very much like the way it’s portrayed in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it had become a kind of repository for all of the country’s sins. This was probably the city’s darkest period, years before the unfettered avarice of the ‘80s turned Manhattan into a playground for billionaires and Brooklyn into a day-care center for their kids.

 

Allen’s identification with the city was so strong that this all had to have sent him reeling. Knowing that it was the prime source of his inspiration—and of his creativity in general—he needed to work out what it meant to be a popular entertainer trying to create within a metropolis that the rest of the country was treating like it had the plague.

 

That’s what Annie Hall is really about—Diane Keaton was just his Trojan Horse, a way to open some doors and to make sure the studio got its money back.

 

The movie comes very close to being a drama. Just slightly shift the emphasis of almost every one of the scenes and it becomes a sobering look at people desperately trying to define themselves at a time when there were very few reliable guideposts to lean on. Had Allen approached the film that way—although he wasn’t yet that good of a filmmaker—Annie Hall would have been wrenching instead of hilarious.

Annie Hall (1977)

Consider how Allen treats his own character—which is the same as saying, how he treats himself. This is not a very flattering portrayal—miles away from the narcissism he’s too often accused of. Alvy Singer displays a lot of bluster, and uses his jokes as his armor, but you can tell the guy is hopelessly lost—which Allen expresses through the movie’s loose, improvisational structure, trying on different styles and techniques and attitudes to see what will stick.

 

But that shouldn’t be mistaken as Allen himself flailing from behind the camera. Just consider the famous scene of him and Keaton on line at The New Yorker, where Allen humiliates the pontificator by dragging a seemingly embalmed Marshall McLuhan into the shot. It’s a nuanced and logistically complex near-3-minute single-take piece of bravura comedy filmmaking that only a self-assured and truly inspired director could have pulled off. And that’s just one example among many.

 

True, this isn’t the film Allen set out to make, and a lot of Annie Hall did come together in the editing room. But the list of genius directors who’ve confided that the real filmmaking happens in the editing is long. And they’re not wrong.

 

Allen started out with a film that was true to his intentions but was all cake and no icing, and he sweetened it just enough to make it palatable for his audience, which was expecting another Sleeper. In the end, he found himself named King of the Romantic Comedy with a couple of Oscars left at his door—an experience he likely wasn’t expecting and that probably scared the bejeezus out of him.

 

Annie Hall was Allen’s Rhapsody in Blue—a loosely structured, jazz-inflected work that announced that he had ambitions that went beyond being a successful pop performer. And, as with Gershwin, he was never able to do anything quite that fluid and 

intuitive again, instead trying on different genres defined by others with decidedly mixed results.

 

But Hall holds up. A surprising number of the jokes and gags still land, his approach to the material and the scenes remains fertile unexplored territory for other filmmakers, and the way he took the careening wreck of New York City and turned it into the most vital and romantic place on Earth still clicks. The City owes him a statue—but then some group of Yahoos would come along and demand that it be taken down.

 

Talking about seeing the film in HD is difficult. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is known for being dark and bold, but it’s very subtle, almost documentary-like here. In HD, it feels flatter than it should—not unwatchable, just flat. And then there’s the weird dilemma of having to separate the shots where he deliberately and beautifully exploited grain—like the famous shot of Annie and Alvy standing on a pier at twilight with the East River bridges arrayed behind them—from the ones that are overrun with grain because the elements for the transfer probably weren’t the best.

 

As for the sound—come on, this is a Woody Allen movie. One of Allen’s greatest

Annie Hall (1977)

strengths as a filmmaker is the ability to make his material compelling without relying on CGI, aggressive editing, explosions, or other gratuitous effects. This is moviemaking stripped down to its essence, and it can be cleansing to get caught up in a piece of cinema that doesn’t depend on its ability to mercilessly abuse you.

 

Forget that this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Forget about the Oscars. Forget about the well-heeled mob of Hollywood conformists bleating for Allen’s blood. Approach Annie Hall as an adventurous and innovative and unusually honest piece of filmmaking and you’ll get the chance to experience—or re-experience—one of the best American films of the final quarter of the last century, the movie that helped start the wave that brought New York back from the dead, for better or worse.

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: 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.

“Dr. Strangelove” and the Power of Blackness

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

I wasn’t going to review the latest release of Dr. Strangelove. After having basked in the 4K HDR editions of 2001 and The Shining, it didn’t feel right to underline that this newest upgrade isn’t all it could or should be. Reviews of older films should focus on the ones worth watching, not the ones to avoid. But, on a whim, I watched Strangelove again a few nights ago and experienced it in ways I never have before, and ultimately decided that, transfer quality be damned, it’s well worth encouraging others to go check it out.

 

Keep in mind, before we dive into this, that I’ve seen this movie countless times. I’ve studied various drafts of the screenplay and pored over every relevant comment from the cast and crew. I’ve even watched on archive print on a Moviola at the Library of Congress. But this last time around, the film, for whatever reason, revealed things that had always been hidden to me before.

 

The biggest revelation—and what will be the crux of my comments here—is that Strangelove is only superficially a comedy. At its heart, it’s a film noir—and, at the end of the day, might even represent the pinnacle of that genre.

 

For that conclusion to make sense, you have to be willing to roll with my definition of noir in “Who Killed Film Noir?”—that the crime element is just a pretext and that these movies are instead always about chumps—more specifically, male chumps—

guys who think they know the score only to find they really don’t have a clue, only to then have everyone and everything conspire against them, usually with fatal results. If you accept that definition, then noir fits Strangelove as snugly as the mad doctor’s Rotwang glove.

 

Yes, the film is heavy on noir atmospherics—dark recesses, menacing shadows, closeups that make it look like the subject is being interrogated under hot lights, etc.—but dwelling on that kind of misses the point, because Strangelove pulls just as many stylistic elements from crime dramas, war films, horror films, psychological thrillers, documentaries, and newsreels. The one genre it doesn’t look anything like is comedy, and that is central to what I’m positing here.

 

Strangelove is really comedy by other means. Its laughs—which are many and legitimate—spring almost solely from the extreme gruesomeness of the situation, from a kind of squeamishness and disbelief that ultimately reinforces the dominance of the Death Drive over the Pleasure Principle, and that people will blindly follow through on the inherent logic of their institutions and devices—all the while believing they’re exercising intelligence and will—even if it will result in their own annihilation.

 

This movie is satire first and comedy second. And it’s stunning, on reflection, what a serious film it is, that it trumps all of the more sophomoric movies that consider 

themselves satires by diving down deep into the same disturbing roots and unblinking take on humanity that motivated Swift. This is satire with some real meat, with more than a little gristle, on its bones—definitely not for the SNL crowd.

 

It’s also stunning to realize what a leap it is beyond the mess of Lolita. You can sense Kubrick trying to recover his creative integrity after the rout of his previous film, where the material, the censors, and, most importantly, the narrative tradition all got the better of him. Knowing most filmmakers far overrate the importance of story, which causes them to lean on it as a crutch, he had tried to subvert the conventions by notoriously moving Humbert’s murder of Quilty to the beginning of the film—a huge

miscalculation that only served to deflate the whole enterprise. He was way bolder with Strangelove, exposing the sheer contrivance of narrative by taking a clockwork-type suspense plot and twisting it around to serve ends no one would have thought it could ever possibly serve, and along the way exposing storytelling for what it mainly is: A manipulative mechanical device for efficiently getting you from Point A to Point Z, which in this case is the end of the world.

 

With Strangelove, Kubrick hit on the formula that would serve him well for the rest of his career of mimicking just enough genre conventions to entice and enthrall the groundlings and ensure the studio’s ROI, while having the movies actually function at levels that ultimately made hash of their seeming reasons to be. So Strangelove has just enough silly comedy and thriller elements to keep the masses in their seats but continuously moves up a creative chain, subsuming the more rudimentary elements along the way, until it ultimately arrives at noir—but noir in a way no one had ever seen it before.

 

To put it another way: Having been too conservative with Lolita, Kubrick 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHERE IN HELL IS MAJOR KONG?

Another thing that jumped out at me watching Strangelove this time around was the missile attack on the B-52, which is primarily an extremely believable documentary-style moment (especially for 1964) with nothing remotely funny about it. Of course, I’ve noticed this scene before—it’s kind of hard to ignore—but I realized this time how unique it is, since the list of comedies that can afford to go full-bore dramatic for a good chunk of the film without losing their momentum or completely throwing the audience is so short it probably doesn’t exist. One of Kubrick’s most brilliant set pieces, it convincingly places you inside the plane with the crew as they fight for their lives, so you identify with their efforts and then root for them to complete their mission—which has to create extremely conflicted emotions in all but the most cold-hearted since the crew’s ability to overcome is the thing that seals the fate of the world. The scene is also worth savoring for the way its chaotic handheld camerawork goes from documentary to abstract, turning it into a mini art film. Most movie scenes are too stage-bound or veer too close to radio—even today. This one is pure cinema.

M.G.

decided to completely trust his gut with Strangelove, and his gut told him to make a suspense thriller that was, incongruously, a comedy, but was actually, ultimately, a film noir. But that’s not the genius part. The genius part is that he made all three dovetail so seamlessly that the transitions from the cheap seats on up don’t feel so much perverse as inevitable.

 

Watch Strangelove through the lens of noir—noir stripped of most of its genre cliches in order to expose its white-hot core—and it becomes a different, much more nuanced and brilliant film. Noir wasn’t new to Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both overt takes on the genre, the latter unapologetically feeding from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. (Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another Kubrick favorite.)

 

But there’s another dimension to this that also deepens the experience of the film and that hadn’t been obvious to me until this most recent viewing, when I realized how heavily Kubrick tapped into his photo-journalistic beginnings. Fresh out of high school, he had been the youngest staff photographer ever at Look magazine, and it was his experiences there that supplied 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHY THIS ISN’T A REVIEW

I ultimately decided to not review this release of Strangelove because 4K HDR takes away as much as it brings to the experience, so while there’s no great harm in watching it that way, there’s no real benefit either.

 

One of the biggest problems is one common to many 4K upgrades of older films. Nobody has figured out how to accurately translate backdrops and matte paintings that looked convincing when run through a projector and shown on a big screen. Here, the opening painting of Burpleson Air Force Base and the later one of the Pentagon are so obvious that they pull you out of the film. Similarly, the model shots of the B-52, which were only borderline successful on film, look too clean and sterile and model-y now.

 

While someone could argue that the HDR increases the impact of the nuclear bomb blasts, I would have to counter that this isn’t an action or war film and that, since Kubrick relied on archival footage rather than effects shots, that’s not what he was after. Pumping the shots up that way is akin to adding cannon blasts to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—which I’m sure has been done, but not by anybody who deserved to live afterward. A more accurate example might be someone deciding to improve the impact of the Scherzo in the Ninth by doubling all the orchestral lines with synthesizers. I suspect that would make the work more compelling for those listeners with duller nerve endings but it would be an egregious violation of Beethoven’s original intent and a travesty of his work. Sure, anyone’s free to reinterpret Beethoven—or Bach or Stravinsky or Mahler—but don’t pretend you’re presenting the original piece. Leaning too heavily on HDR is like deciding this already virile composition needed an injection of testosterone.

 

And then there’s the kerfuffle over the aspect ratios. The best I can determine, Kubrick shot the film 1.33:1 and then matted it for 1.66:1. The original theatrical release was 1.85:1. But for the Criterion edition, he asked from some scenes to be shown full frame and some to be matted to 1.66, apparently in an effort to create a better viewing experience on pre-HD TVs. Yes, the ratios for home displays have since changed, and his similar tack with the release of The Shining was a disaster, but the point is that with Strangelove it worked, and I don’t get why this current release goes with a consistent 1.66.

 

But, again, this isn’t a review. It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t want to do one.

M.G.

the subject matter for his early documentary shorts and for Killer’s Kiss, which look like photo essays come to life.

 

He returns to those formative experiences and that style in Strangelove, with much of the film resembling his magazine work, most obviously in the faux documentary attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, but far more subtly and strikingly in the War Room. He went there mainly to underline that no matter how surreal, irrational, and immature a lot of the behavior and actions are in the film, they have very real consequences.

 

(But there are more layers to it than that, because Kubrick hired the controversial tabloid photographer Weegee—whose body of work essentially transformed sordid reality into noir—as his on-set photographer. That led to Peter Sellers, fascinated by Weegee’s edgy hardboiled patois, using his voice as the inspiration for Strangelove.

 

(And to complete my digression, It should be mentioned that Kubrick got to know fashion-turned-art photographer Diane Arbus well during his Look years, and later referenced her work explicitly in The Shining—which raises the point that his films are far more autobiographical and personal than the cliché take on him as cold, detached, clinical would allow.)

 

Rather than give a complete recitation of all the ways noir permeates and defines the film, I’ll just highlight a couple of key moments and you can work backward from there. Right before Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper sleepwalks off to the bathroom to commit suicide, Kubrick just holds on an uncomfortably close shot of his face, rimmed so tightly with shadows that it already resembles a death mask. As Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake sits next to Ripper, prattling on about the recall code, Kubrick just stays on the general. And although there are no obvious changes in Ripper’s expression, you 

can tell he’s realizing the full enormity of what he’s done right before disappearing completely into madness. But this is done with amazing restraint, with Kubrick resisting the temptation to go to the kind of crazy stare he would later cultivate with Jack in The Shining and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. You just sense the descent happening—almost imperceptibly, but undeniably. It might be the ultimate film noir moment.

 

That shot could have been Hayden as Johnny Clay in The Killing or as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle—it wouldn’t have looked out of place cut into either of those films. And Kubrick uses that commonality to create a through-line that traverses all 

of noir, pointing inevitably to Strangelove as its culmination.

 

Comedies usually rely on master shots instead of closeups, but Kubrick comes in similarly close on Strangelove to emphasize how much he’s caught up in, and boxed in by, his own calculations and obsessions, his own form of culturally sanctioned insanity. You’re placed just inches from a madman, and it’s as frightening as it is funny.

 

The most outrageous noir before Strangelove was Robert Aldrich’s beyond cheeky Kiss Me Deadly, which took the hugely popular Mike 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

Dix Handley

Hammer character and exposed him for the clueless goon he was. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Strangelove seems to riff on Deadly, seems to devour and digest and regurgitate it, taking the cocksure bumbling of an L.A. detective and projecting it onto the whole world, making chumps of us all.

 

Watching Strangelove today is hardly just an exercise in either nostalgia or film appreciation, something only tangentially relevant to our present. The basics of human nature haven’t changed since 1964—if anything, the blind, primal aspects have only become emboldened as the machines have taken over and we’ve become free to play. It’s not like the methods of the West have changed all that much either—except that they’ve been so successfully exported that a YouTube video from Adelaide looks identical to a YouTube video from Bhopal looks identical to one from Des Moines. And it’s not like the world doesn’t continue to bristle with nuclear arms. And it’s not like it’s become impossible for a madman to ascend to the highest levels of power.

 

Noir is who we are when we have the guts to face ourselves squarely in the mirror. And it says a lot that it’s been more than five decades since the last time any one’s bothered to take a good look.

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: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

RECALL AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Total Recall (1990)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Elf

Elf (2003)

You’re going to need to bear with me here because I will get around to recommending that you watch Elf. But I first need to point out that it’s just not a very good movie.

 

The story is contrived and soulless, the casting—with one very obvious exception—is tone deaf, it’s badly shot, and the practical effects are so unconvincing that they would have been better off going with early-‘00s CGI instead.

 

Every character except Will Ferrell’s is one-dimensional and pretty much interchangeable. Any irascible middle-aged actor could have played the James Caan role, Mary Steenburgen is just there to be stereotypically empathetic, the kid that plays their son is just unpleasant, and a very anemic and kind of homely (before she went full Kabuki and became an “It” girl) 

Zooey Deschanel is just there to admire Ferrell—Nicoletta Braschi’s thankless job vis-à-vis Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, although not quite that bad.

 

Everything about this film feels half-baked, like a Tim Burton movie. The ending is a completely botched deus ex machina, with every kind of contrivance thrown at the audience, all but forgetting about Buddy, ladling on a ton of fake drama because the filmmakers hadn’t been able to generate any real drama before then—the kind of thing that happens when the so-called creatives only have other movies to draw on for tactical support because they don’t have any bearings in real life.

 

It might seem misguided to beat up on a 17-year-old film, but I’m trying to make a point about why we watch Elf, and should watch Elf.

ELF AT A GLANCE

Elf isn’t so much a fully fledged movie as it is a 90-minute one-man show—but Will Ferrell’s performance is so brilliant that it’s worth making some time for over the holidays.

 

PICTURE     

Aside from some creepy crawlers whenever there’s a blown-out white patch, the movie looks surprisingly good in HD on Kaleidescape.

 

SOUND     

An unexceptional mix—but at least it never gets in the way of Ferrell’s schtick.

This movie has become a tradition because it’s great holiday wallpaper, meant to be played in the background during Yuletide celebrations, but liberally sprinkled with “O wait!” moments that momentarily draw your attention back to the screen—like “O wait! This is the scene where he eats the Pop Tarts with the spaghetti,” and “O wait! Here’s that thing where he gets attacked by the midget.” In other words, A Christmas Story, except made with some intelligence and a modicum of taste.

 

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Elf anticipated and helped create the current age of maximum repetition and redundancy where the last thing we want from a movie or a series is to be shown anything challenging or new. It’s meant to be big, warm, and fuzzy like a well-worn security blanket, something utterly predictable and familiar you can wrap yourself in so you don’t have to feel anything, except coddled.

 

What would seem to be the movie’s greatest vice is actually its saving virtue. Elf is ultimately nothing but a Will Ferrell vehicle—he doesn’t just carry the film, he is the film. And that’s not a bad thing but a great thing—a cause for celebration—because 

he’s able to pull it off, and in spades, turning an otherwise by-the-book studio hack job into a virtuoso one-man show.

 

Ferrell has Peter Sellers’ ability to make cartoonish, completely impossible, characters feel more real than than the more realistic characters around him. And his investment in Buddy is so complete that he’s able to rise above the incredibly tepid and inept script (which apparently everybody but the gaffers worked on) and energize enough scenes to make it worth tolerating all the many areas where the movie sags.

 

I know that’s a really back-handed recommendation, but it’s a very sincere one. It’s definitely worth anyone’s time to watch Elf and just hone in on and savor and sit in amazement of what Ferrell is able to bring forth. He makes Buddy so completely embody Christmas that Santa, the elves, the North Pole, and all the other traditional trappings seem not just threadbare but unnecessary.

 

Elf looks surprisingly good viewed in HD on Kaleidescape. I can’t see any point in rushing this movie into a 4K HDR upgrade—it would likely just make it look even more poorly executed than it already does. The only real flaw in HD is the crawling corpuscles that appear whenever there’s a bright white patch, like the 

Elf (2003)

blownout sunlight seen through the doors at Gimbels or the lighting under the kitchen cabinets in Caan’s apartment.

 

The soundtrack is nothing special, just serviceable, but you can hear all the lines so I’ve got to give it credit for that. The extras? (of which there are many). Let’s not go there.

 

Nothing I’ve said here is going to make even the slightest dent in Elf’s reputation as a latter-day Christmas classic. But hopefully I can jog the perception of it just enough that it seems less like an obligation, like fruitcake, sweaters, and socks, and more like a genuine source of holiday cheer.

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.