Reviews

Review: Dune (2021)

Dune (2021)

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Denis Villeneuve’s Dune works as a partial adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel. With something in the neighborhood of 20 million copies sold, the book is inarguably one of the best selling of its genre. But divide those sales figures by the world population and chances are good most people who view the film will have never cracked the cover of this gargantuan doorstop of a tome. (But if you’re one of those devotees who’s curious about whether this adaptation does justice to the novel, meet me over in the “True to the Source?” sidebar and we’ll geek out for a bit.) A much more relevant question is whether Dune works as cinema on its own terms. 

 

And thankfully, that ends up being the much easier question to answer. Yes. A thousand times, yes. As if he hadn’t proven it already with films like Arrival, Prisoners, and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve demonstrates with Dune that he understands 

cinema as an art form in a way few modern directors do.

 

As with most of his work, Villeneuve straddles two worlds with Dune, keeping one foot firmly planted in the traditions of the past and one foot precariously placed in an uncharted future. By that I mean that despite looking very much like a 21st-century film, it doesn’t feel like one. There’s something quite old-fashioned about it, or perhaps “timeless” is the word I’m looking for. The allusions to Lawrence of Arabia are blatant—and fitting, given how much that film influenced Frank Herbert in the writing of Dune. But Villeneuve manages to draw inspiration without aping. He evokes the spirit, scope, and energy of David Lean’s classic without being beholden to its style. The style is entirely Villeneuve’s.

 

Well, cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, The Mandalorian) also deserves a lot of credit for the style. While I said that Dune looks like a 21st-century film, that’s not quite accurate. It simply looks like a film that couldn’t have been captured before the modern era of filmmaking.

DUNE AT A GLANCE

This adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic succeeds spectacularly where earlier attempts have failed.

 

PICTURE

The HBO Max presentation is the very definition of reference-quality, with images free of anything that could be construed as artifacts of the high-efficiency encoding.

 

SOUND 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is so dynamic you can only pity the unfortunate souls who attempt to experience it through a soundbar or basic home theater speaker setup.

Ultimately, it looks unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and that may have something to do with the unusual postproduction process. The movie was shot on a mix of IMAX film and ArriRaw digital (the latter at 4.5K resolution), but before the footage was finished in a 4K DI, all of the digital imagery was printed to film stock then scanned back into the computer.

 

That gives the imagery a unique character, to say the least. It doesn’t look entirely analog, but neither does it look wholly digital. It’s the best of both methods—which, again, reinforces the notion of Dune as the perfect marriage of tried-and-true 

TRUTO THSOURCE?

 

As a work of cinema, Dune is narratively engaging, nearly perfectly structured, and wholly satisfying. But what about its effectiveness as an adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable novel? Well, it’s not perfect in that respect but it’s infinitely better than I could ever hoped for. Denis Villeneuve—unlike David Lynch and John Harrison (who directed the 2000 mini-series)—has boiled the narrative down to its essence rather than haphazardly and erratically chopping the story into bit-sized pieces. He was able to distill that essence because he understands that essence. 

 

Dune works as a novel because of its complexity. In writing it, Herbert explored the many ways in which ecology influences and drives every aspect of the human experience, from the personal to the familial to the societal, political, and religions institutions that shape our lives. It’s also a novel that takes place largely between the ears of its characters, something no film could successfully replicate (although, bless his heart, David Lynch tried and failed spectacularly to do so). 

 

With his film adaptation of the first two-thirds or thereabouts of the novel, Villeneuve had no choice but to tidy up some of the book’s tangled narrative threads, and he made the wise choice to focus on the personal and familial above all else. The Dune geek in me laments the de-emphasis on the ecological and environmental. But the cinephile in me can’t imagine how he could have possibly explored that aspect of the novel entirely without turning his film into a never-ending barrage of exposition dumps. 

 

Then again, there’s a lot about this adaptation I never could have imagined before seeing it. There are aspects of the novel I never expected to see translated to the screen, much less this effectively or artfully. 

 

And the fact that Villeneuve managed to capture so much of the book’s essential fiber without creating a big pile of confusion for the uninitiated is a bit of a miracle. After the credits rolled, my wife—who has never read the novel, and before now had no interest in doing so—turned to me and said, “I expected to be lost, but I never was. There’s so much more I want to know, so many questions I want answered. But in the moment, watching the film, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Well, except for the fact that I feel like there’s a reason why Duke Leto never married Lady Jessica and I wish the film had explored that.”

 

And in that respect, she’s absolutely correct. Armed with my deep knowledge of the book, I also feel like there are a couple other things the film could have conveyed better, such as the ritualistic obsession with moisture inherent to the culture of the Fremen—the nomadic natives of the planet Arrakis, aka “Dune.” But when I quizzed my wife about it, her response was, “No, I definitely picked up on that.” So, perhaps I’m wrong. 

 

At any rate, now that I’ve experienced the first part of Villeneuve’s intended two-part adaptation, I still have no clue how he’s going to successfully translate the rest of the book to the screen. The rest of the story takes a turn for the weird, to put it lightly. But even if Dune: Part Two ends up being a major flop (assuming it even gets made, although that seems quite likely), that won’t diminish my appreciation of this first part.

D.B.

past and untested, experimental future.

 

That captivating aesthetic, combined with the sheer scale of the film and its reliance on capturing as much as possible in camera (to the point that, in promotional interviews, actor Timothée Chalamet claims to recall only seeing a green screen twice during production) adds up to a film that demands to be seen at scale, on the best screen you can reasonably access. In my case, that meant watching HBO Max’s stream in my own home cinema system since the nearest commercial cinema that can legitimately claim to deliver a better audiovisual experience is a three-hour drive away in Alpharetta, GA.

 

Thankfully, shockingly, the HBO Max presentation is the very definition of reference quality. I started my stream the minute the film was available, which struck me as a foolhardy choice the instant I hit Play, given how many millions of other people must have been sitting with their fingers on their remotes, waiting for it to be unlocked. But I never experienced any glitches due to server overload, and I never spotted anything in the image that could be construed as an artifact of the high-efficiency encoding of the film.

 

Far from it. I would go so far as to say that I’ve never experienced imagery this captivating, engaging, or dynamic in my media room. Part of that is due to the sumptuous detail, the gorgeous textures, the unparalleled set design, costumes, etc. But a lot of it has to be chalked up to the fact that Dune represents the most effective application of high dynamic range grading I’ve seen to date.

 

HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation pushed my display to extremes I didn’t know it was capable of, extremes I can’t imagine being bested by anything other than perhaps a perfectly calibrated IMAX Laser setup. And I have my doubts about even that. Simply put, if displays had rights, Dune would be a violation of the Geneva Convention.

 

But none of its visual extremes—scenes bathed in near-infinite shadows followed quickly by such dazzling brightness that your pupils will constrict to pinpoints—feels gratuitous. All are absolutely in service of the story and the environments in which it unfolds.

 

Equally compelling is the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is likewise so dynamic that I pity the unfortunate souls who attempt to experience it through a soundbar or basic home theater speaker setup. If you’re an Atmos junkie who keeps a mental running tally of how frequently your surround and overhead speakers—and subwoofers—are pushed to their limits, you’re going to be in absolute aural heaven here.

 

As I’ve stated many times within the pages of Cineluxe, I’m not one of those people. I find most Atmos sound mixes masochistic and overbearing, not to mention distracting. But for Dune, this approach simply works. That may be because the imagery is so captivating that no amount of offscreen audio could pull my attention away from the screen, but I also think it’s due to thoughtful mixing and a deep understanding of the relationship between picture and sound. Whatever the reason, it all simply works, and there’s not much else to say about the sound.

 

Well, there is one more thing, although I do run the risk of angering some readers here, especially fans of composer Hans Zimmer. I’ve rarely if ever understood the appeal of most of Zimmer’s work. I often find his compositions fatiguing, uninteresting, and so utterly and needlessly aggressive that I need to wipe the testosterone residue from my speakers after watching a film he’s scored. And make no mistake here: His score for Dune is bombastic at times, what with its heavy reliance on percussion and synths.

 

But this is unquestionably his best score since 1994’s The Lion King, and it succeeds for most of the same reasons. Zimmer understood the assignment here, and his music works in conjunction with the visuals and the narrative in such a way that they’re inseparable. I’ve had the score on repeat throughout the writing of this review, simply because I cannot shake it. It haunts me. Its leitmotifs—both melodic and percussive —resonate with me in a way that few 

Zimmer scores ever have. And most tellingly, as I’m listening to it, I can close my eyes and see the accompanying moments from the film—and this is a film I’ve only seen once, mind you. That’s the mark of a great score.

 

Put it all together, and I have next to nothing critical to say about Dune as a work of cinema in and of itself. There are a few edits in the first act that feel a bit choppy. By that I mean that, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the story, you’ll sense that much of what was excised from the assembly cut to get the film down to a tight 2 hours and 38 minutes was removed from the first third.

 

There’s also the fact that, while the bulk of the performances are truly world-class, Dave Bautista feels out of place here. I’m a fan of Bautista’s, but his portrayal of Rabban Harkonnen—the nephew of the baron who previously ruled the desert planet that gives Dune its name—feels one-note and over-the-top, at least when compared with the nuanced performances turned in by literally everyone else. Other than those quibbles, Dune is a monumental work of art in its own right.

 

It should be obvious to anyone watching the film that it isn’t a self-contained statement. As Chani (Zendaya) cheekily teases just before the credits roll, “This is only the beginning.” But Dune nonetheless manages to feel like a complete story, with an ending that is both emotionally and thematically satisfying while also pointing toward a much bigger and tantalizing future. 

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: The Forgotten Battle

The Forgotten Battle (2020)

The Forgotten Battle made me realize why I don’t like war pictures, for the most part, largely by proving itself the exception to rules I haven’t really put much conscious thought into until now. And I could spend pages detailing why this moving little Dutch film works for me, when so many Hollywood WWII flicks fail to resonate, but most of that pontification would boil down to two essential observations: The film takes its time in telling its story and it never strains the bounds of credulity. 

 

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who hasn’t occupied the director’s chair since 2011’s unfortunate prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Forgotten Battle is, as its name implies, the story of the Battle of the Scheldt, a military operation 

that has largely been ignored in the pop-culture retelling of World War II.

 

The film tells the story in an unconventional manner, breaking its narrative fabric into three distinct threads that interweave loosely for nearly two hours before intertwining more tightly right near the end. One thread follows a young woman named Teuntje, who unintentionally becomes involved with the Dutch Resistance. Another follows Marinus, a young Dutchman serving in the Wehrmacht who grows increasingly leery of the Nazis he serves. The third follows RAF glider pilot Will Sinclair, whose crew becomes stranded in Zeeland after their glider is shot down. 

 

Constructing the narrative in this way was risky. Tie things up in too neat a bow and you run the risk of telling a tale that’s far too convenient to be believably connected to real 

FORGOTTEN BATTLAT A GLANCE

Three eventually intertwined narrative threads make up this well balanced portrayal of the World War II Battle of the Scheldt.

 

PICTURE

Netflix’ UHD presentation is stunning from beginning to end, with no noticeable flaws to be seen in the encoding.

 

SOUND 

A very well-mixed audio experience, naturalistic in its approach and mostly effortless in its delivery.

events. Fail to tie them up sufficiently, though, and you end up with a jumbled mess that’s hard to follow, no matter how believable it may be.


Credit goes to screenwriter Paula van der Oest and her co-writers for crafting a story that threads the needle beautifully, never feeling too convenient nor too disjointed. And I’m no mind-reader but I get the sense they pulled it off because they knew exactly what they wanted their film to be about—what they wanted it to mean—and had a clear vision for how each of these threads would support their intended themes. 

 

Kudos also to editor Marc Bechtold for knowing exactly when to intercut between these narrative stems. And to Heijningen for pulling the best performances out of everyone involved, as well as for crafting a film that has all the polish and apparent production values of a big-budget Hollywood spectacle despite a meager shooting budget of just €14 million (roughly $16 million). 

 

Mind you, I don’t mean to imply that The Forgotten Battle looks exactly like a Hollywood production—merely that it looks every bit as good as one. And Netflix’ UHD presentation of the film is stunning from beginning to end. Note there that I said “UHD” but not “HDR.” It worried me a bit to see the lack of high dynamic range grading, especially given that the streaming provider still struggles at times when attempting to deliver 8-bit video at any resolution. But if there are flaws to be seen in the company’s encoding, I didn’t spot them.

 

That may be in part due to the fact that The Forgotten Battle is very gray, with muted contrasts and desaturated colors. So there are fewer opportunities for banding in hue or value. Still, the fact that Netflix delivers the film with no noticeable artifacts is impressive, and speaks to the continual advancements in streaming quality we’ve seen in recent years. 

 

As for the audio, though, Netflix has created some unnecessary confusion with the way it labels the film’s various soundtrack options. The original soundtrack is listed as “Dutch,” which is misleading. It’s actually a tri-lingual mix of Dutch, English, and German. 

 

The soundtrack labeled “English” merely dubs over the Dutch, leaving the German intact. But in doing so, the dub—which is competently performed at best—also destroys some of the natural ambiance of the original 5.1 mix, making voices recorded in situ (or mixed to give the impression that they were) sound flat and dry and disconnected from the onscreen environments.

 

Long story short? Stick with the original soundtrack. Overall, it’s a very well-mixed audio experience, naturalistic in its approach and mostly effortless in its delivery. My only beef is that some of the dialogue gets a little buried at times, especially in the chaos of battle. There isn’t a ton of action in the film, though, so that’s a minor and brief quibble. 

 

Put it all together—the untidy narrative, the solemn aesthetic of the film, and the messy realities of history at the heart of the story—and The Forgotten Battle could have easily been a mess. It also could have just as easily veered too far in the direction of nihilism on the one hand or heroic bravado on the other. Thankfully it avoids both traps. It is, in the end, one of the most grounded and human WWII pictures I’ve seen in years. 

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: The Card Counter

The Card Counter (2021)

Somewhere within the labyrinthine twists and turns of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, you can find the makings of a good film—perhaps even a great film, I don’t know. The only real question is whether or not it’s worth the effort to go digging for them. Mind you, not all the seeds of greatness here require that much tilling to unearth. The first and most obvious thing that makes the film worth watching is Oscar Isaac’s world-class performance as William Tell, a low-stakes gambler who plays cards to occupy his time and mind after his release from Leavenworth, where he served an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for his involvement in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

Once again, Isaac demonstrates why he’s one of today’s most sought-after actors, delivering a performance that makes you forget every other character he’s ever played in his career. There’s so much going on beneath the surface of his performance, so many little tics and expressions and changes in posture that combine to create a character with the sort of complexity and nuance we rarely see on the big screen these days.

 

The film is beautifully composed and presented. Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, The Card Counter has not gone through the sort of film-look processing most digital films receive, and the result is a level of purity and clarity that’s very welcomed. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan also has a good eye, framing each shot to accentuate the storytelling without ever resorting to any manner of flashy tricks.

CARD COUNTER AT A GLANCE

Oscar Issac shines but everything else feels off in this inept Paul Schrader effort about an ex-con card shark.

 

PICTURE

The UHD presentation looks fantastic, rich in detail, crispness, and true-to-life colors that sell the illusion of reality woven by the film.

 

SOUND 

The sound mix is dialogue-heavy, although there’s a good amount of subtle but effective employment of the surround channels to build and reinforce the onscreen environments.

So, it’s unsurprising that Kaleidescape’s Premium VOD presentation looks utterly fantastic. Presented in UHD resolution with HDR10 high dynamic range grading, the download is rich in detail, crispness, and true-to-life colors that sell the illusion of reality woven by the film. It’s the sort of audiovisual experience you can simply get lost in, and although there’s very little by way of action, the high dynamic range allows the image to pop when called for—especially in showing the obnoxious slot machines that litter the floors of the casinos where the story takes place. I might have liked a bit more shadow depth in darker scenes, and there is a bit of banding in the climactic moments, but other than those minor nits, it’s simply a fantastic home cinema experience from beginning to end. 

 

The visual experience is supported by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix that works perfectly for the tone and thrust of the film. Fittingly, given the talky nature of The Card Counter, the sound mix is dialogue-heavy, although there’s a good amount of subtle but effective employment of the surround channels to build and reinforce the onscreen environments.

Much like the cinematography, the sound mix rarely draws attention to itself, but if you disengage from the narrative and keep your ears open, you’ll notice the care and creativity that went into crafting the audio experience.

 

And that’s pretty much the end of everything good I have to say about The Card Counter. As engaging as it is to the senses, and as good as Oscar Isaac is, everything else about it is an unfocused and undisciplined trash heap of unrealized potential. It’s a house of cards built on the foundation of some really compelling and thought-provoking ideas, many of which will linger in my mind long after I’ve forgotten the film itself. And I don’t expect that to take too long.

 

The biggest problem is that Schrader loads the mantle of the film’s first act so full of Chekhov’s guns that the whole thing nearly collapses under the weight, but almost none of them go off, and the two that do end up misfiring. A better director could probably get away with flagrantly violating so many of the fundamental rules of storytelling, but Schrader—despite his talents as a screenwriter—is not a good enough director to pull it off.

 

Furthermore, as good as Isaac’s performance may be—and it’s truly one of the best I’ve seen this year—everyone else around him delivers their dialogue with 

The Card Counter (2021)

all the verisimilitude of a theater kid auditioning for a reboot of Saved by the Bell. Somewhere around the end of the first act, I decided to grab a piece of scrap paper sitting beside my home theater recliner and make a little hashmark every time an actor delivered a line with the emphasis on the wrong word or syllable—an obvious indication of no real thought given to the meaning of the words coming out of their mouths. I filled that little scrap of paper somewhere around the end of the second act and gave up.

 

So, yeah, The Card Counter is, to say the least, more than a bit of a mess. And that’s a shame, because it has some interesting things to say about the cost of war, the persistent relevance of the Milgram experiment, and the inequities baked into our criminal justice system. The problem is, it doesn’t say any of those things very well. 

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: Old

Old (2021)

Oh, M. Night Shyamalan . . . Where do I start?

 

Over the past 22 years, Shyamalan has become a pretty polarizing filmmaker, and at this point in his career, it feels like many have settled into a “love him” or “hate him” category. And I think even a percentage of those in the “hate him” group like to keep tabs on his latest projects just so they can hate-watch them and then tell the world a big, fat, “See! I told you so!”

 

It’s important to remember that before the duds, Shyamalan’s career started off like a rocket with tense and well-crafted films between 1999 and 2002, like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. The guy was on a roll, writing, producing, and directing one hit after another. But then, like a ballplayer headed into a real slump, he started getting singles instead of 

home runs, and then, well, he started just striking out. 

 

But then something truly unexpected happened in 2016. He delivered Split, an out-of-nowhere sequel-of-sorts to Unbreakable, which he then followed up with a true sequel/conclusion with Glass. These felt like a real return to form and both had the critical and box-office success of the Shyamalan of old.

 

Did this mean he was back?

 

For me, those two films at least bought Shyamalan enough cred to put him back on my radar, and when I saw the ad for Old during Super Bowl LV, it certainly piqued my interest. Old was released theatrically in the States on July 23, and made available to digital retailers like Kaleidescape on October 5, with a physical media release scheduled for October 19.

OLD AT A GLANCE

M. Night Shyamalan almost pulls off this tale of strange goings-on at a secluded resort.

 

PICTURE

There is a lot of beautiful cinematography, with closeups offering tons of sharp, vivid detail, where you can literally make out single grains of sand.

 

SOUND 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix is a highlight, with Shyamalan really leaning into the possibilities of immersing the listener in sound and utilizing all of the speakers.

The film is based on the 2010 French-language graphic novel Sandcastle, which I had never heard of. Of course, Shyamalan added his own tweaks to the source material, and with Sandcastle only being 112-pages—and those all filled with illustrated panels—he had some fleshing out to do to get a complete story. 

 

Old reminded me a bit of Season Four of The Twilight Zone, where Rod Serling and team broke away from their tried-and-true formula of taut, 30-minute episodes and went to stories that ran an hour long. The result was some things felt padded and stretched a bit thin, and they learned—when they returned to the 30-minute form for Season Five—that an idea that worked for 30 minutes didn’t necessarily work better when stretched out to 60. (The reverse is true for long material that filmmakers try to excise down to a theatrical run time, as evidenced by so many of Stephen King’s failed adaptations . . .) 

 

While the film certainly has an interesting premise, which is how Shyamalan manages to hook you, at 108 minutes, it feels a bit long and like it is treading water in the middle, with some of the beats repeating themselves, and like something that would have worked better in a shorter form. 

 

A family goes on a vacation at a luxury tropical resort and we discover pretty quickly that Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are headed towards a divorce. The holiday is kind of a last family hurrah before they break the news to the kids, Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton). While at the resort, the manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) approaches them and says he likes the family, and wants to send them to a beautiful and secluded part of the resort he doesn’t just share with everyone. The family piles into a van along with married couple Dr. Charles (Rufus Sewell) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter, Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and Charles’ mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), and are driven to a secluded area by a resort employee played by Shyamalan himself in one of his many not-so-cameo roles. When they arrive, Shyamalan loads them up with baskets of food and drinks, and the group walks down a path and through a cave to emerge out onto a beautiful beach. 

 

At the beach, they see another person sitting alone whom Maddox recognizes as famous rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who seems to be nursing an almost constant nosebleed. While swimming, the naked body of a dead woman washes into Trent, and when it is revealed this woman came to the beach with Mid-Sized Sedan, it sets the group into a bit of paranoia. With no cell signal, they try and go back through the cave and find they can’t (anyone trying is hit with a massive headache that knocks them unconscious), and then everyone starts aging at a rapidly accelerated rate to the tune of about one year every 30 minutes. 

 

With the rapid aging, any negative traits like vanity, paranoia, racial tension quickly come out, and infirmities like blindness, deafness, schizophrenia, and tumors can develop in literally moments. The kids grow in what feels like the blink of an eye, with new actors taking on the roles in nearly every scene. (For example, four different actors play Trent.)

 

Why is this happening? Is there any way to stop it? What is the deal with the name Mid-Sized Sedan? (Not germane to the movie, but, I mean, come on?! Is that a commentary on something?) And why does it appear that someone is observing them from far away? Like most of Shyamalan’s films, Old is pretty slow to develop and get going, but part of the allure of his movies is seeing where the winding path leads you and what interesting things will happen along the way to see how things play out. 

 

One issue I had is that a lot of the characters really just aren’t that likable. It’s hard to be vested in what happens to people you don’t care about. Plus, they often act in ways that just seem completely obtuse to what is happening, almost acting in an odd, robotic manner that makes them unrelatable. (And, no, they aren’t all robots—that isn’t the twist.) And while they are aging rapidly, there seems to be no lingering emotion, thought, or feeling to things that have happened. “Well, so-and-so is dead. Guess we just move on . . .” Further, some of the dialogue is just bad. There were a couple of parts where I literally groaned. Guy is an insurance actuary and he wastes no opportunity to remind of us of that and to cite some actuarial-table percentage of the likelihood of something happening. 

 

Also, calling this a “horror” movie seems a stretch. If you’re a fan of that genre, I think you’ll be in for a real disappointment. I mean, it’s as much a horror movie as an episode of The Twilight Zone or a Shyamalan film like, say, The Village. Yes, there are a couple of violent moments, multiple people die, and there are some intense images, but horror? I don’t think so. More like supernatural, but not in an occult-ish way. 

 

Filmed in 35mm and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, Old has a lot of beautiful cinematography that is great to look at, especially up on a big screen, with plenty of wonderful vistas of the beach and ocean against the rocky cliffs and lush jungle backdrop. I never noticed any grain issues, certainly nothing that was distracting, and found images to be clean and sharp throughout, though not having that tack-sharp look of a movie shot digitally.

 

Closeups have tons of sharp, vivid detail, where you can literally make out single grains of sand or see the fibers in characters’ garments. The detail also makes it easier to appreciate the aging the characters go through as they develop wrinkles and the like. Longer shots—specifically when they are looking back up at the mysterious person watching on the hill—are noticeably softer and devoid of detail, with the trees just lacking the sharpness, almost like they are slightly out of focus.

 

With most of the film taking place on the beach during the day, the HDR grading certainly helps with the look, giving brilliant highlights and nice shadow detail. You can really appreciate the texture of the rocks and cave walls, and when the sun goes down, there are some nice highlights and added contrast from a fire the characters sit by.

The Dolby Atmos sound mix was actually a highlight for me, as Shyamalan really leans into the possibilities of immersing the listener in sound and utilizing all of the speakers. Jungle sounds frequently fill the room, with birds and wind creating a nice canopy of sound overhead and all around. You also get nice audio moments like the sounds of the hotel’s lobby Muzak pumping out of the ceiling speakers like you are walking through the hotel, or the sounds of water dripping down from overhead in the cave complex, or the noise of crashing waves and surf all around.

 

One thing the sound mix really plays with is the location of voices. Most films anchor about 90% (or more) to the center speaker, but here we have dialogue that literally swirls 360 degrees around the room, as a character is turning and listening to people talking. This is almost a video-game-like effect, but it really puts you in the moment. It will also lay bare if your speakers have any timbre-matching issues, as you’ll really notice a change in the tone and quality of the dialogue.

 

Bass is mostly restrained—dialogue is a big driver of the movie—but it can be deep when called for, such as when characters enter the cave of when there are powerful waves crashing.

Old (2021)

My wife and I did have a bit of a problem understanding some of the dialogue. Some of it is a bit forward-sounding, some of the characters have a bit of an accent, and occasionally it can be masked by some of the other sounds going on.

 

While Old isn’t the best of Shyamalan’s catalog, it certainly isn’t the worst, and it kept me involved enough to see how it was going to wrap. And, I didn’t see the particular “twist” coming, but it certainly wasn’t on parity with the big “I see dead people!” moment of The Sixth Sense. It was more like, “Yeah, OK, I guess that makes sense.” Also, I felt like he tried to over-explain and over-resolve the ending, and it would have been better had he, ummm (keeping this spoiler-free . . .) stopped about five minutes before he did and let it be more open-ended. Old makes a perfect candidate for a premium rental, as it is something you’ll likely be entertained enough to sit through but probably won’t feel the need to return to for a second watch.

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: Muppets Haunted Mansion

Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)

The Germans, in all their linguistic inventiveness, need to coin a new word for the unique mix of eagerness and hesitation Jim Henson fans feel when a new Muppets project is announced. The simple fact is that the Disney era of the franchise has been a roller coaster, reaching heights of delightful silliness like 2011’s The Muppets and plunging to depths of pointlessness like 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, when all is said and done, Muppets Haunted Mansion is far from the worst we’ve seen from the franchise this century. But it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work about the hour-long Halloween special. For one thing, it all feels a bit formulaic in its structure and narrative. You could argue that’s a consequence of the premise, and you’d have a pretty good point. But I still miss the days when the Muppets were so utterly off the rails that you felt uncomfortable watching a new movie or TV show with kids, at least the first time around, for fear Animal or Floyd might drop an F-bomb. Not that they ever would, but the Muppets at their best once gave you the impression they might. And Muppets Haunted Mansion feels far too safe and by-the-numbers to even hint at such a potential.

 

There’s also the fact that some of the voice acting is just atrocious. This is the first major Muppets production since Steve Whitmire, longtime performer of Kermit the Frog, was 

HAUNTED MANSION AT A GLANCE

Not the best Muppet effort ever, it’s not the worst, either, and will likely find an audience as one of the few family-friendly Halloween specials around.

 

PICTURE

The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is so flawless that it’s, at times, startling.

 

SOUND 

The audio lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could benefit from a bit more activity in the surrounds.

fired and replaced by Matt Vogel (and yes, yes, I know about Muppets Now, but I’ve never been able to suffer through enough of it for it to leave a lasting impression). And no disrespect to Mr. Vogel—he does a perfectly fine Floyd and a darned good Sweetums—but he’s not and never will be Kermit. He just doesn’t get the character.

 

A problem more specific to this special is that the music is, for the most part, just awful. There are a handful of original songs, and every time I could sense another one coming, my body tensed up in anticipation of the awfulness. There are two exceptions, though. The special opens and closes with a cover of King Harvest’s version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s simply fantastic and there’s really nothing else to say about it. It rocks. 

 

There’s also a really fun duet between Pepe the King Prawn and Taraji P. Henson, who stars as Constance Hatchaway (aka the Black Widow Bride from the theme-park ride that inspired this crossover). Not only is the song well written and well performed, it also hints at the naughtiness of the Muppets at their best. 

 

But the best thing about the number is that it’s just a prime example of Pepe being Pepe. Seriously, every second that fuzzy little king prawn is on screen is pure comedy gold. It probably helps, of course, that longtime Pepe performer Bill Barretta wrote the story for Muppets Haunted Mansion, and I could take issue with the fact that he gave all the best bits to his own 

character, but who cares, really? If you’re a Pepe fan, this one is a must-watch, even if it is a bit uneven, even if the music mostly sucks, even if Kermit has been replaced by a half-assed imposter.

 

Another great thing about Muppets Haunted Mansion is that production values are through the roof. Seriously, the special boasts a level of cinematography and special effects you’d expect from a proper feature film. The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is also so utterly flawless that I was, at 

times, startled by it. The opening sequence features a particularly difficult-to-encode shot of Pepe and Gonzo driving to the titular haunted mansion in the midst of the sort of pea-soup fog that HEVC would have nightmares about if video codecs had subconsciousness. And while that shot is the most extreme example, there are a lot of sequences that must have required a few passes through whatever video encoder Disney+ relies on.

 

Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, Haunted Mansion sports some pretty dark cinematography, and the Dolby Vision grading gives the imagery a lot of depth in the shadows while also leaving some dynamic range for the specular highlights of spectral apparitions. 

 

Production- and presentation-wise, the only complaints I have are related to the audio, which lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could have benefited from a bit more activity in the surrounds or, at the very least, a bit more consistency in the surround mixing. Dialogue is always presented cleanly and clearly, and the music—whatever you want to say about its compositional quality—is always delivered with good fidelity. But whoever did the final mix seemingly couldn’t decide between a full-on cinematic surround experience or a front-heavy TV-special vibe, and switched between those two extremes from scene to scene with apparently no rhyme or reason. 

 

For all the nits picked above, though, Muppets Haunted Mansion ends up being a pretty good time, mostly due to the antics of Pepe combined with the gorgeousness of the imagery. If you have kids, I’m also pretty sure they’ll love the whole thing. And that, ultimately, is the thing I like best about this special. Fun Halloween specials that can be enjoyed by the whole family are few and far between, and it’s nice to see another one added to the mix, even if it’s not quite as good as it could have been.

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: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

It’s traditional to save comments about video quality until the two-thirds or three-quarter point of a review, but I have to cut right to the chase: This is a stunningly gorgeous transfer of a deliberately ugly film—the best I’ve seen Kubrick’s picaresque stroll through depravity look since I watched an archival print on a Moviola.

 

From its opening image on, Kubrick meant Clockwork Orange to be the anti-2001. After doing a big-budget Cinerama epic full of elaborate sets and effects for MGM, he decided to go lean and mean with his first project for Warner Bros., opting for a 

minimal crew and existing locations, except for one simple small set. And he completely rethought his approach to cinematography, using Orange as a kind of laboratory to experiment with, and essentially reinvent, the whole aesthetic of commercial film.

 

Kubrick had been trying to recreate the look of practical lighting since his first efforts in the early ‘50s, and various directors—most notably Godard—had made great strides with that approach throughout the ’60s; but with Orange, Kubrick finally nailed it, coming up with a way of presenting and perceiving “natural” lighting that not only defined all of his films from then on but has been the go-to look of Hollywood filmmaking ever since—for better and, often, worse.

 

Clockwork Orange is deceptive—so much so that, even though I know it well, it misled me when I watched it in HD a few months ago on Netflix, where it looked like hell. All of

CLOCKWORK ORANGAT A GLANCE

The future turned out to be even bleaker than Kubrick imagined it—but societal decay has never looked more appealing than in this gorgeous 4K HDR transfer.

 

PICTURE

The transfer restores the essential puckishness that’s missing from all previous home releases, making the grim imagery not only palatable but exhilarating.

 

SOUND 

Everything sounds fine—but even the stereo mix is a distortion of what Kubrick originally intended.

that dimness and grime just made the subject matter that much more unpleasant, and I regretted I’d taken the time to check it out.

 

Seeing it in 4K HDR took me back to my early experiences with, and excitement for, the film. And that changed perception all hinged on seeing the cinematography done absolutely right. Kubrick was indisputably aiming for grunge—a goal he achieved 

in spades. But he did it with a subtle, and puckish, elegance and elan that makes the images not dispiriting but thrilling. Watch this film in anything other than 4K HDR and you’ll miss the twist the whole experience pivots on.

 

A couple of examples among an abundance: In earlier releases, the lettering could look painted onto the milk-bar walls; here, the letters stand out in distinct relief, enhancing the tactile sense of the environment. There are closeups and medium shots throughout that are literally breathtaking, but the closeup of Malcolm McDowell as he dresses down his gang in the lobby of his sub-human apartment building is jawdropping in its clarity and immediacy. Yes, there are some soft frames here and there, but they existed in the original film.

 

See this movie as just about the subject matter and you can be in for a miserable time. Just as important is getting on the wavelength of the astonishing creative energy Kubrick poured into the project. You can actually both sense and see him throwing out the remaining rules of the studio system and discovering filmmaking anew, and clearly enjoying every second of it. Orange is not his best film but it’s probably his most inventive, and seeing that unbridled virtuosity on display can make it a very heady ride.

 

Sure it’s dated as hell—any time you riff on the future, you’re going to date your film. But Kubrick showed he was aware of that by not really imagining a future, like he did in 2001, but by imagining an even more grotesque present—which is why Orange’s future has aged better than 2001’s. No point in presenting a lot of examples to back up my point—just look at the old women in the film walking around in purple wigs and then the old women in the present doing the same, and I’ll rest my case.

 

Probably the most ironic thing abut Clockwork Orange seen today is how wrong Kubrick got its crux, violence. For someone so deeply cynical, he assumed that people in the future would still maintain some kind of essential repugnance toward violent acts. In other words, he saw 

some residual, positive value in a shared sense of decency. He couldn’t have been more blind to that vast act of social re-education and desensitization called the ‘80s, which replaced the deeper and more skeptical cynicism of the ‘60s with a far more facile “everything sucks” version that would just roll violence into the overarching oppressive apathy and see it deliberately deployed as yet another cultural wedge. This would all eventually mutate into the even more facile, and

juvenile, current fascination with “dark.” Kubrick was often accused of presenting his characters as dehumanized—even he didn’t see how quickly we’d get to that point, let alone how enthusiastically we’d embrace it.

 

Orange can no longer shock—the pornographic, in all its forms, has since become commonplace, accepted, and encouraged—but it can still entertain. Malcolm McDowell doesn’t have complete control over his performance but his sometimes reckless careening leads to some giddy highs. And Patrick Magee’s turn as the “writer of subversive literature” who becomes grotesquely unhinged from watching McDowell’s rape of his wife is masterful—the kind of thing Sellers pulled off over and over in Strangelove but done here with a kind of dada collage feel that’s astonishing to watch.

 

And it’s a thrill just to savor Kubrick’s mise en scene—how he found unsettling ways to convey essential moments of the film without once stumbling into the arbitrary wackiness and poor-man’s surrealism that marred—and sank—so many late ‘60s/early ‘70s movies. In none of his films was he ever more of a punk than he is here, and it’s a cause for celebration because it shows how deeply expressive and subversive commercial film can be—and has rarely been since.

 

As for the extras—sorry, but I’d prefer to refrain from any comment, since they’re 

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

by the same inept team of ne’er-do-wells that’s plagued the other Kubrick releases, and the best word for their efforts—if I may call them such—is inexcusable. Criminally so.

 

From Strangelove in 1964 to The Shining in 1980, Kubrick produced a sui generis string of genius films, all clearly cut from the same cloth but all, in very fundamental ways, radically different. And along the way, he completely changed how movies are conceptualized, made, and perceived. No one has ever equalled that accomplishment, and I think I can safely say no one ever will. The whole history of the movies pivoted on Clockwork Orange. But forget all that—just cue it up in 4K and savor it as the dangerous act of pure film it very much is.    

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station

The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station (2021)

I’m honestly just not sure what to make of The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station, a new documentary/retrospective in theaters now, and also available on most major digital platforms for rent or purchase. And I’m struggling with it because, despite the fact that there’s more good about the film than bad, the whole is undeniably less than the sum of its parts.

 

Part of what makes The Wonderful so frustrating is that it simply has no idea what it wants to be about, aside from the obvious: The two-decade-plus history of the International Space Station. Is it a focus on the geopolitics behind this 

multinational endeavor? A celebration of the people involved? An exploration of the science done on the ISS? An investigation of the mechanics of this technological marvel?

 

The answer to all of those questions is, well, yes. And that’s unfortunate, because the 129-minute film, in its attempt to cover all that ground, merely scratches numerous surfaces, but fails to fully satisfy in any respect. It skips entirely over the construction of the ISS, pays mere lip service to what it’s like to live on the station for months at a time, and offers only the most tantalizing glimpse of the work done upon it. 

 

And that would be fine if the film had more compelling stories to tell about the humans involved, but more often than not what we’re presented with is effectively the same story told over and over again about a child who dreamt of going to the stars, got rejected again and again, and was eventually selected as an astronaut. Seriously, if you 

THE WONDERFUL AT A GLANCE

Not sure what it wants to be, this documentary on the International Space Station disappoints, but partially redeems itself through some too-brief never-before-seen footage.

 

PICTURE

Kaleidescape’s transfer does a fantastic job, ensuring that the stock imagery is always the weakest link in the video chain.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does great with the soundtrack, which proves to be one of the most compelling things about the film.

removed all reiterations of that exact story and the accompanying shots of people standing in cornfields or plains looking up at the stars, The Wonderful would be half the length, and probably a better film for it.

 

There are exceptions, of course. Scott Kelly, an absolute legend of the modern era of spaceflight, lights up the screen when he’s on it, and his anecdotes about not only his life but also his year spent on the ISS are entertaining, engaging, and hilarious. But this brings up another problem with the film: Kelly’s interviews are chopped up and dumped onscreen in two big chunks with absolutely no rhyme or reason, as are the segments featuring Cady Coleman and her family. It’s as if the filmmakers took elements shot for the film, shuffled them like a deck of cards, and let that dictate the structure of the finished product. 

 

Had these segments been grouped chronologically or thematically, they could have better contributed to a larger story about what it’s like to be an astronaut assigned to the ISS. Given the overall lack of focus and thhaphazard editing of the film, though, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the footage that was assembled for The Wonderful would have worked 

better as a YouTube playlist of five- or ten-minute video vignettes.

 

The other big sin is the utter dearth of footage from the actual ISS. There are a handful of stunning shots here and there (some of them duplicated, for some odd reason), but it honestly feels like most of the actual space footage in the film is contained in the trailer. That’s a major bummer.

 

So, why the ambivalence? Well, for all its faults, for all its 

lack of direction and momentum and narrative structure, The Wonderful does contain some footage I’ve never seen elsewhere. And as I said, the segments focusing on Scott Kelly and Cady Coleman are worth their weight in unobtanium. So you can’t write off the whole affair. It’s just a shame that the existing footage contained within the film wasn’t handed off to a more skilled editor under the supervision of a filmmaker who actually had a vision for what kind of film he wanted to make.

 

If all of that doesn’t turn you off, you have oodles of choices for how to consume The Wonderful, assuming you don’t want to venture out to your local cineplex. All of the major rent/purchase digital platforms have the film. I opted for Kaleidescape in this

case, though, and I feel like that was the right call. Despite the fact that most online providers can handle 4K/HDR imagery perfectly fine, HD is still a bit hit-or-miss, and The Wonderful is only available in 1080p—fitting, given how much of the imagery was sourced from video feeds and footage shot for TV. (Why the finished film was framed at 2.39:1, I’ll never know, but whatever. I guess it does give the documentary a bit more cinematic street cred.)

 

There’s been a good effort to clean up and scale up most of the footage, but we’re still talking about occasionally noisy and glitchy video that isn’t the easiest to compress. Kaleidescape’s higher-bandwidth AVC encode does a fantastic job with all of this, ensuring that the stock imagery is always the weakest link in the video chain. Newer interview footage is also presented cleanly and smoothly, with none of the banding in the backgrounds that I imagine might creep into lower-bandwidth AVC encodes.

 

Kaleidescape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also does a fantastic job with the soundtrack, which proves to be one of the most compelling things about The Wonderful. Whoever was in charge of selecting the songs deserves props here because the music always accentuates the mood and tone of the imagery without being egregiously manipulative. Moreover, the surround-sound mixing for the

The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station (2021)

music is amongst the best I’ve experienced in any film in ages. There’s a wonderfully holographic quality to the mix that really underscores the importance of a proper home cinema sound setup. Rather than merely surrounding you with music, the mix drops you into the middle of the songs, placing audio elements out in the room rather than merely around it. Front/back imaging, which is almost never a thing in surround music mixing, is employed here to give the songs both scale and immediacy. Aside from the interviews with Scott Kelly, it’s truly my favorite thing about the film.

 

That’s not quite enough to save The Wonderful from its own excesses and its unfortunate lack of direction. But, again, I don’t think you should let any of that scare you off. As I said, more of it works than doesn’t. It’s just frustrating that a documentary with such potential to be great ended up being merely pretty good. 

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: Free Guy

Free Guy (2021)

Of all the post-pandemic film openings, the one that had me the most excited to date was Free Guy. (I’d be lying if I said that The Matrix Resurrections wasn’t firmly at the top of that list!) Taking place in a fantasy video-game world where Ryan Reynolds can really lean into his Ryan-Reynolds-ness in a more family-friendly PG-13 way (think Deadpool-ish snark and humor with way less F-words), this looked like a perfect summertime film. 

 

But even though I had been tracking Reynolds and his usual hilarious self-aware online and social advertising for the film, including this brilliant bit on his YouTube channel titled “Deadpool and Korg React,” Free Guy wasn’t quite enough to draw

me back to my local cineplex. The film took the recently all-too-familiar torturous route to the big screen, initially planned for release on July 3, 2020, then moving to December, then May 2021, then finally settling on—and sticking with—an August 13 release. Fortunately, the film had a fast-track to the home market, becoming available to digital retailers like Kaleidescape just 45 days after its theatrical release.

 

Interestingly, this is one of the first 20th Century Fox films to be released following the company’s acquisition by Disney. The movie currently isn’t available on Disney+—though interestingly, there is a link to it if you search on Google, but it takes you to an error page—so if you want to watch it now, Kaleidescape offers the highest quality version available in full 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

Free Guy is one of those movies that has two different 

FREGUY AT A GLANCE

A family-friendly, but still snarky, Ryan Reynolds romps through this late-summer virtual worlds hit.

 

PICTURE

Some shots—specifically backgrounds where much of the CGI is happening—can have occasional softness but without any grain or noise.

 

SOUND     

You’d expect a movie with such a fabricated fantasy environment to have an active and engaging Dolby Atmos mix, and it delivers.

levels of appeal. For the hardcore gamer, there are tons of inside nods, winks, and cameos that will resonate as true and familiar, but having an understanding of gaming and open worlds isn’t necessary to enjoying the film and having a good time.

 

It also feels like a bit of a mash-up of other movies. This isn’t meant as a negative, just that as much as it is new, it also feels familiar, and you can tell it borrows ideas and style from movies like The Lego Movie, Ready Player One, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and Live Die Repeat and video games like Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, but interspersed with Reynolds’ snarky humor and one liners such as compared with ice cream “coffee tastes like liquid suffering.” There are also some fun cameos—many you might not recognize until the credits—and a couple of really fun refs to the MCU. 

 

The film opens in Free City, an open-world game environment where sunglasses-people are heroes, or at least are human players acting like gods doing whatever they want, which is typically wreaking all manner of havoc on the city and any NPCs (non-playable characters) they encounter wandering around going through their programmed routines. 

 

One of these NPCs is Guy (Reynolds), a bank teller that wakes up every morning, says hello to his goldfish, gets the same scalding cup of medium coffee, cream, two sugars, and then heads in to work to be robbed over and over along with his best friend, a Kevin Hart-esque security guard named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery).

 

One day while headed home, Guy encounters Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a player whose real name is Millie. Hearing her humming a song awakens something in Guy, and the next time he is robbed, instead of just lying down and taking it, Guy decides to grab the sunglasses from his robber. When he puts them on, his eyes are opened to the “real” world around him, and he sees things the way human gamers do. This gives him the power to be Free and the ability to break his routine and do whatever he wants, which is trying to track down Molotov Girl. During his exploits of trying to level up, he becomes a worldwide sensation known as “Blue Shirt Guy” due to his ever-present “skin” choice of light blue shirts and khaki pants. 

 

While this is all happening in the Free City game world, Millie is involved in a lawsuit with Soonami Games in the real world. She contends that head developer Antwan (Taika Waititi) stole the source code running the game that was developed by her and her partner Walter (Joe Keery) for another project known as “Free Life,” which would give NPCs far greater AI and the ability to grow and act like real people, and that the evidence lies hidden somewhere inside the game. 

 

The race is on for Millie to find the proof she needs before Antwan shuts down the Free City servers and switches over to his new game, Free City 2, which will erase all proof of Millie’s stolen IP, as well as wipe out Guy’s world and all of his friends. 

 

Shot in a variety of resolutions—2.8, 3.4, and 6.5K—this transfer is taken from 6.5K source material and finished at a 2K digital intermediate, not unusual for films with this much CGI work—and there is a ton of CGI in this film, with virtually every image you see within the Free City world somehow digitally manipulated, altered, or enhanced.

 

Throughout the film, images are beautifully clean, clear and noise-free. Some shots within Free City—specifically backgrounds where much of the CGI is happening—can have some occasional softness, almost appearing film-like in their presentation but without any grain or noise. Closeups really shine with detail, letting you appreciate every line, whisker, and pore in actors’ faces. One scene has a closeup of Buddy’s security badge, and you can see every bump, line, and detail of its texture. Other shots—such as near the end where a crowd of NPCs gathers together—just had incredible depth and full-field razor-sharp focus.

 

There is also a nice play between the visuals in the idyllic perfection of Free City and life in the real world. Free City is bright and vibrant—especially once Guy puts on his glasses—and really lets the wider color gamut strut its stuff with things like 

bright neon signs and lights, or the gleaming reds, yellows, oranges (and even pinks) of the near constant stable of exotic cars racing around the streets, whereas the real world is darker and more sterile feeling.

 

Visually, Free Guy is a real treat to look at, with lots of varied environments inside the game—such as Molotov Girl’s base or Revenjamin Buttons’ (Channing Tatum) lair or the multi-player hang-out lounge—which all have totally unique looks to them keeping things visually interesting.

 

With such a fabricated fantasy environment as Free City, you’d expect an active and engaging Dolby Atmos mix, and it delivers. From the very opening, you get the sounds of things swooshing past and overhead, with tons of the ambient street sounds—sirens, traffic, gun fire—that fill Free City. This is a place where tanks roll through the streets, helicopters swoop overhead to blow stuff up, and trains suddenly barrel across the street right in front of you, and the Atmos audio puts you right in the middle of it.

 

There is frequent activity up in the height channels, and lots of demo-worthy material here to show off your system. During one scene, a game developer engages God mode, and pillars and beams and stairs appear and construct

Free Guy (2021)

from all around and fall in from the ceiling, or there are the sounds of characters walking around overhead, and a scene reminiscent of the dream world collapsing in Inception where buildings are crushing in and collapsing all around.

 

Deep, authoritative bass is frequent, whether from the numerous gun shots—with pistol and shotgun blast concussions you feel in your chest—explosions, crashes, or the randomly appearing freight train. 

 

Free Guy is a movie that definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is just a load of fun to sit back and enjoy. Unless you belong to that sub-section that just hates Ryan Reynolds—and, come on, get over Green Lantern already!—then this makes a great night at the movies, with a bunch of hidden little Easter eggs that look great up on a large home-cinema screen and reward repeat viewing. 

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: Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)

Escape rooms, where you are “trapped” in a space—usually with a group of friends—and must try to escape by solving a variety of puzzles and challenges before time runs out, have grown immensely popular in the past few years. And, of course, when something captures the public’s interest, you can count on Hollywood being there to make a movie about it. A search of “Escape Room” at IMDB.com reveals that there have been three movies made with the title Escape Room since 2017, 

and that doesn’t include others like Escape Room: Quest of Fear, No Escape Room, or The Escape Room.

 

Films in this genre—characters trapped and forced to solve puzzles or die—can often devolve into gore fests or torture porn, as the filmmakers provide increasingly more gruesome ways to off their characters. The stories often become less interested in having the characters solve intricate puzzles and far more concerned with them making Sophie’s Choice-like decisions and then slowly feeding someone into a woodchipper or the like as the camera greedily looks on at the effects team’s handiwork. (Think the Saw franchise.) With their PG-13 ratings, the gore in these Escape films is kept to a teen-friendly level, and these two movies remind me more of the movie Cube from 1997, where the focus is more on the puzzling and who is pulling the strings behind the scenes, albeit with a far larger budget and slicker production values.

ESCAPROOM AT A GLANCE

A good pick for a sleepover movie night, it leans on problem solving and exciting escapes while steering clear of torture porn and going light on the gore.

 

PICTURE

HDR helps the many low-light shots pop, with loads of deep shadow detail and bright highlights.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack is pretty dynamic and immersive, especially if your processor’s upmixer is engaged.

To be clear, this review is for the film Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, which is a sequel to the 2019 Escape Room, and features Taylor Russell and Logan Miller reprising their roles of Zoey and Ben, respectively. (Before you wrack your mind trying to think why Russell looks so familiar like I did, I’ll save you the grief—she played Judy Robinson in Netflix’s Lost in Space remake.)

 

While it is almost always helpful to watch the first film in a series—and Escape Room (2019) is entertaining in its own right—it isn’t too much an effort to get up to speed, and the film’s opening does a fair job of providing a bit of catch-up backstory as Zoey is in therapy recounting her past experience.

 

Taking place shortly after the events in the first film, Zoey and Ben—sole survivors of the first movie’s game—head to New York to track down a clue about Minos, the shadowy organization behind the rooms. While looking around the remains of Minos’ vacant headquarters, a homeless-looking person grabs Zoey’s necklace and runs away. The pair give chase, leading them into a subway station and onto a train, where they find themselves locked in a car with four other passengers.

 

The group soon discovers they are all survivors of previous Minos games, and that this must be a new game—a tournament of champions—they must work together to survive, and the first challenge—escaping the now electrified subway car—is already underway. Solving each challenge leads the survivors into the next “room,” where a completely different set of puzzles and obstacles awaits, all with a ticking clock forcing them to work together or die.

 

With a runtime of just 88 minutes, the film moves with a brisk pace, so it isn’t difficult to keep your attention. The puzzles are also quite intricate and varied, and the countdown clock to solving every challenge keeps things constantly moving forward with almost no lulls in the action. (In reality, I doubt anyone could solve these challenges in the amount of time given . . .)

 

Also, not every room ends in a fatality, which helps to keep things interesting or at least helps to maintain some tension about what will happen and who will (or won’t) die. The drawback of the short runtime is that the jump to the ending from the final room seems a bit rushed.

 

Released theatrically on July 16 after numerous delays (it was originally slated for an April 2020 release), the movie became available to digital retailers including Kaleidescape on September 21, where it is offered in a 4K HDR download.

 

While I couldn’t find any mention of the resolution used for this transfer, I found images to be clean, noise-free, and consistently sharp and detailed. Objects have crisp, razor-defined edges, such as the fine mortar lines between the brick and concrete in buildings, and closeups reveal single strands of hair as well as other fine details such as a fine wire mesh in an elevator cage.

 

Many scenes are shot in low-light environments, and the HDR grading really helps these to pop, with loads of deep shadow detail and bright highlights. One of the challenges features electricity, with the hot, pulsing blue-white blasts of electrical

charges having a ton of pop, as well as other bright fluorescent and other lighting. We also get some really punchy colors, whether from bright neon lighting in an outdoor city challenge, the vibrant yellow and orange seats aboard a subway car, or vivid red-orange flames during an inferno.

 

While the film had a theatrical Dolby Atmos mix, here we are limited to a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack (though, perhaps we’ll see an update at some point, as Sony Pictures frequently makes the Atmos soundtrack available). Even still, this is a pretty dynamic and immersive soundtrack, especially if your processor’s upmixer (Neural:X in my case) is engaged.

 

There are frequent scenes where all of the speakers are engaged to immerse you in the action, whether it is the sounds of a room crushing down on you with the ceiling crumbling overhead, or the clacking and metallic squeals of a subway train as it careens and slams down the track. The recurring sound elements of PA announcements instructing the players or the ticking clock are also perfectly positioned ominously up overhead, as is a deadly pouring rainstorm, and fire that burns up to the ceiling.

 

Dialogue is mostly understandable, but there are cases where it can be a bit 

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)

tough to make out in the cacophony. We also get to enjoy solid and deep bass when called for—which is frequently—including some nice tactile low end that you’ll feel in your seat.

 

With the young cast, fast pace, and clever, just-scary-enough challenges, both Escape Room films will appeal to a teen audience and would make for a fantastic lineup for a sleepover movie night, with enough clever story elements and quality picture and sound that will appeal to any adults allowed to stick around. 

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: Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions (2021)

I honestly can’t decide if Star Wars: Visions represents a huge risk for Lucasfilm and Disney+ or a sure bet. So let’s just agree that it’s off the beaten track but following a path that seems obvious in retrospect, and leave it at that. The new anthology series comprises nine disconnected shorts built on a single premise: Give the Star Wars mythos to nine different anime directors spread across seven anime studios and let their imaginations run wild, with no imposed ties to the existing Star Wars timeline or canon. 

Given that the shorts range from 14 to 23 minutes long, with the average length coming in at right around 17 minutes, it’s understandable that none of the concepts are fully developed, and there’s not a lot by way of story in some of them. But that sort of misses the point. I think the intent here was to riff on the themes and iconic visuals for the Galaxy Far, Far Away from a different perspective, and in that respect, it’s a stunning success. Every one of the films in this collection is a wonder to behold, in terms of color, design, detail, and motion (the latter despite the fact that a lot of it seems to be animated on threes or fours).

 

Does that mean you’ll like it? Well, of course not. Even as a self-described Star Wars scholar, there were episode of Visions I simply hated. And there were a couple (“Lop and Ochō” and “Tatooine Rhapsody”) that had potential but turned me off with their hyperbolic, über-kinetic cutesiness

VISIONS AT A GLANCE

Five of these nine anime riffs on the Star Wars universe satisfy—one is so good it deserves to be a feature-length film. 

 

PICTURE

The Dolby Vision presentation looks a bit different from short to short but is always impressive, with gorgeous contrasts, sumptuous color, and oodles of detail.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtracks vary a little in intensity and expansiveness but always deliver the goods on dialogue intelligibility and musical fidelity. 

and sensory overload. But there are five shorts in particular that deserve your attention, even if you’re not a fan of Japanese animation in all its diverse and disparate forms, nor a dedicated consumer of every ancillary Star Wars program to roll out on Disney+.

 

“The Duel,” directed by Takanobu Mizuno and animated by Kamikaze Douga—the studio behind JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure—is such a perfect but unusual blending of Kurosawa, Leone, and Lucas that it feels essentially Star Wars despite breaking so

many rules of the universe.

 

“The Village Bride,” directed by Hitoshi Haga and animated by Kinema Citrus (Tokyo Magnitude 8.0) is a hauntingly beautiful little fable that resonates despite its predictability.

 

“The Elder,” directed by Masahiko Otsuka and animated by Studio Trigger (Little Witch Academia) is delightfully creepy and, in its English dub, features a great performance by David Harbor of Stranger Things and Black Widow fame.

“Akakiri,” directed by Eunyoung Choi and animated by Science SARU (probably best known in America for their work on the trippy Adventure Time episode “Food Chain”), is an absolute audiovisual masterpiece and a deliciously ambiguous morality tale at that. 

 

But the best of the bunch is “The Ninth Jedi,” directed by Kenji Kamiyama and animated by the legendary studio Production I.G, best known for Ghost in the Shell. Of all the shorts, this one really felt like it should have been developed into a feature-length film, even if most of its substance comes from its style. 

 

Check out those five shorts first if you’re unsure about whether you want to dip your toes into this weird experiment. If I may, though, I’d like to recommend watching each of them twice: Once in the original Japanese and once in the dub of your choice. As for the latter, I can only speak to the quality of the English dubs but they’re incredibly well done throughout, with great voice acting and none of the awkward fumbling that normally comes from trying to match vocals to lip movements animated for a different language. 

 

Furthermore, turning off the subtitles gives you the opportunity to soak in the Dolby Vision presentation of the animation, which looks a bit different from short to short, but always impresses with gorgeous contrasts, sumptuous color, and oodles of detail. (I did notice a brief moment of aliasing in one shot of one short, but I think that was a consequence of production, not the online delivery.) 

 

In either the original Japanese or in dubbed English, the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtracks vary a bit in intensity and expansiveness but always deliver the goods on dialogue intelligibility and musical fidelity. By far the best of the bunch in terms of sound is “Akakiri,” which benefits from a decidedly Eastern percussion soundtrack almost entirely devoid of musical notes, but which nonetheless feels right at home in the Star Wars universe, or at least this version of it. 

 

It’s also worth noting that Visions is accompanied by a pretty healthy collection of bonus features—5- to 8-minute documentaries for each short that give some background on the filmmakers, their love of Star Wars, and their unique approaches to each episode. 

 

All in all, Star Wars: Visions isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of blue milk but it’s nonetheless exciting to see Lucasfilm exploring, taking risks, and expanding the scope of what Star Wars can look like. It may not have been entirely successful for me, given that I really only enjoyed five of the nine shorts, but still—I want to see more of this sort of thing going forward.

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.