John Sciacca Tag

Review: King Richard

King Richard (2021)

I’m a sucker for movies “based on a true story.” Usually these capture super-human achievements (like First Man or Midwayor unlikely events (like Ford v. Ferrari or The Social Network) or give us a glimpse into events we only knew a little about and want to learn more (like Richard Jewell or Just Mercy).

 

Of course, the downside of these kinds of films is that Hollywood likes to tell a good story above all else, and these movies often become the definitive truth for the public, even when that truth has been manipulated, compressed, or let’s say “enhanced” for the sake of the story. For example, as I dug into the real stories behind movies like Bohemian Rhapsody or 

American Sniper, I learned that—as attorney Lionel Hutz famously said on The Simpson’s—“There’s the truth and ‘the truth’,” and just because it happens up on screen doesn’t mean it necessarily happened that way.

 

All of which is to say, I’m not sure exactly how accurate Warner Bros. new film King Richard is when it comes to telling the “true” story about the origins of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams growing up, or the antics of their father Richard, but I will say it was an entertaining feel-good film with great performances all around that really gives you a sense of the obstacles these girls/women overcame and just how much raw talent they had. I also walked away thinking that if their father was even half the character as portrayed by Will Smith, then these girls’ talent was truly off-the-charts for any of the people to actually take a chance on them and be forced to put up with him.

 

The film focuses on a fairly narrow slice of the girls’ lives, covering just a few years from when they start their serious training up until Venus (Saniyya Sidney) turns pro and 

KING RICHARD AT A GLANCE

Will Smith’s performance and actors who actually seem to know how to play tennis keep things interesting & believable in this story of the early years Venus and Serena Williams. 

 

PICTURE

The Dolby Vision grade is fairly restrained but is used to create natural-looking images with lots of depth and shadow detail throughout.

 

SOUND 

Since the movie relies on dialogue to move the story forward, there’s not a lot going on in the Dolby Atmos mix, but it definitely keeps the voices in the center channel, where they are always clear and intelligible.

competes in her first tournament in 1994 at age 14. Similar to Rocky, for a movie based on two of the greatest female tennis players of all time, there actually isn’t a lot of tennis. We get some scenes with them practicing, trying out for coaches, training, and some moments from Venus’s junior tournaments, but it’s really not until the big final matches when Venus turns pro that we see a lot of court action. The movie concentrates more on Richard’s all-focused drive on getting them to the top and making them the best, and showing us the hardships they had to overcome–Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus shared a room and even a bed with three other half-sisters in a small house in Compton, California. 

 

I also don’t know if Sidney or Singleton have any actual tennis talent, but both sure look convincing on screen, which is what matters here. I was a golf professional in my previous career, and it is always a huge distraction in most golf films when it’s clear the actor couldn’t break 100 to save his life. Here, the girls’ mechanics are definitely believable, with strong, aggressive ground strokes and serves that look like the real deal. Even more impressive, Sidney is left-handed, but actually learned to play right for the film—though I do think they are physically smaller than the actual Williams sisters, who were imposing even at a young age. 

 

Having read the Tiger Woods biography by Jeff Benedict, I saw quite a few parallels between the two stories. In both cases, you had less-privileged kids pushed to greatness by the drive and willpower of fathers who recognized their potential and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In this case, Richard had come up with his “plan” even before the girls were born, and he was laser-focused on sticking to it, and making them the best, regardless of obstacles or setbacks. 

 

We get a sense that young Venus and Serena enjoyed playing and practicing, but was that because it was just living up to the plan constantly being drilled into them, they were trying to please overbearing Richard, they recognized tennis as their way to a better life, or they actually loved playing? Another common thread between King Richard and Tiger’s story was that of dropping supporters/coaches once they had reached the end of their usefulness, with people used just as stepping-stones to get to the next level.

 

While the film is struggling at the box office, having brought in a worldwide gross of just $8.4 million to date against its $50 million budget, it’s available day & date on HBO Max in 4K HDR with Dolby Vision from a 4K digital intermediate and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. 

 

The opening images are a bit soft and have a desaturated color palette that feels like we are stepping back in time, but with the clarity and cleanness that is the signature of digital over film. Closeups certainly deliver loads of detail, and when we come in tight on Smith’s face you can see all the fine lines, pores, and individual hairs in his beard, or see the texture in fabrics like tennis shirts and sweaters. You also get nice sharp, tight lines, such as when shooting through chain-link fences surrounding tennis courts or the brick-and-mortar at country club buildings. Some longer shots, such as the pans of crowds at the Bank of the West tournament, also deliver sharp focus and detail. 

 

The Dolby Vision grade is fairly restrained but is used to create natural-looking images with lots of depth and shadow detail throughout, with some added highlights when called for. Some of the best-looking images are the outdoor, sunlit scenes on the courts, where the lens just soaks up all the natural light, and where we get some gleaming white tennis shirts and shorts. We also get some night scenes with neon lights, sirens, tennis court lights, and headlights that pop against the black. 

 

With the vast majority of the movie being dialogue that moves the story forward, don’t expect too much from this Dolby Atmos mix, but it definitely keeps the voices in the center channel, where they are always clear and intelligible. The surrounds and height speakers are used to expand the music and score—this might be the first and only time you can hear Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” in Atmos—and we also get some nice atmospheric audio when appropriate, like the sounds of street traffic or the sounds of birds, bugs, and insects. Occasionally, we get some overhead channel activity from rain storms or the echo of PA announcements. We also get a nice, authoritative pop! when Venus is whacking the ball.

 

King Richard is an entertaining, well-made, and well-acted film, and with Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience scores of 91 and 98% respectively, it would not be a surprise to see Will Smith up for his third Best Actor nomination. Other than a few uses of the n-word, it is definitely family friendly, and kept my 15-year-old—who has no interest in tennis—engaged. Streaming now on HBO Max, it is certainly worth giving a 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: Red Notice

Red Notice (2021)

While Netflix has dumped Hollywood-level boatloads of cash into previous productions à la Martin Scorsese’s mega The Irishman ($159 million), and Michael Bay’s Underground ($150 million), Red Notice boasts the streaming giant’s biggest budget to date, along with its highest level of A-list talent, in the form of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. With an estimated budget of $200 million, and a limited theatrical release to be eligible for awards consideration, any thoughts Netflix isn’t treating its original tentpole productions with the same focus as traditional Hollywood studios is totally out the window, further eroding any arguments against streaming services as legitimate forms of entertainment.

Of course, we’ve learned time and again that big budgets and casts don’t guarantee a good movie, so the obvious questions are, “Does Red Notice work? And is it worth your time?”

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 35%, you might say, “No,” but when you counter that with the 91% audience score, it’s probably apparent Red Notice is designed to entertain viewers less than cater to critics.

 

While it doesn’t break any new ground, and relies heavily on elements from heist movies like the Ocean’s films starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the Mission: Impossible franchise, and Indiana Jones—at one point, Reynolds even whistles the Indy theme—the chemistry between Reynolds and Johnson and their anti-buddy frenemy relationship makes for an entertaining two hours. Watching Reynolds needle Johnson for almost the entire film was great, and

RED NOTICE AT A GLANCE

Netflix spent $200 million to come up with this action-driven heist film that critics hate but viewers seem to love. 

 

PICTURE

The transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate with Dolby Vision HDR grading, resulting in images that are sharp, clean, and highly detailed throughout.

 

SOUND 

The Dolby Atmos track definitely enhances the fun with a pretty dynamic mix with surprisingly deep bass performance.

you have to wonder if the genesis of this bond was formed during Reynold’s cameo in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. We watched Red Notice right after Shang Chi and everyone in our group preferred Red.

 

We’re informed during the opening credits that a Red Notice is, “The highest level of arrest warrant issued by The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), reserved for the world’s most wanted criminals.”

 

We’re then told that 2,000 years ago, Marcus Antonius gave Cleopatra three bejeweled eggs. While the whereabouts of one egg is known, the second is rumored to be in the possession of a notorious arms dealer and the third remains lost. An Egyptian billionaire wants to give all three of the eggs to his daughter, Cleopatra (Brenna Marie Narayan), as a wedding present, and he has offered a massive reward to whoever can deliver. This attracts the attention of international art thief Nolan Booth (Reynolds), but also puts FBI profiler Special Agent John Hartley (Johnson) and Interpol agent Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) on high alert when one of the eggs is put on display at a museum in Rome. 

 

After thinking he has made off with the first egg, Booth is apprehended by Hartley and Das at his home in Bali, but the egg is then stolen by Booth’s main competitor for title of “World’s Best Thief,” The Bishop (Gadot). The Bishop also plants disinformation that makes it appear Hartley was in on the heist, which leads to he and Booth winding up in the same Russian prison cell, forcing them to work together.

 

Throw in a bad guy named Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos), who looks eerily like a cross between Paul Rudd and Dos Equis’ “World’s Most Interesting Man,” a bull fight, elaborate escapes and thefts, chases, and Nazis, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what Red Notice is about. 

 

What the film lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in fun, packing in almost non-stop action with plenty of big scenes and a ton of locations—Rome, Bali, Russia, London, Valencia, Argentina, Cairo, Sardinia, Paris—that keep the visuals fresh and interesting. There are also plenty of plot twists along the way to keep you entertained. 

 

And humor. Reynolds brings his signature snark to almost every scene, similar to the PG-13 patter he brought to Free Guy. In fact, I daresay the only reason I can think of to not see this is if you aren’t a fan of Reynolds’ humor. Also, since all three of the leads have experience playing superheroes—Black Adam for Johnson, Wonder Woman for Gadot, and both Green Lantern and Deadpool for Reynolds—they know their way around action and choreographing exciting fight scenes. 

 

Netflix has been a real advocate for 4K HDR in its productions, so it’s no surprise that Red Notice was shot in a combination of 6K and 8K resolution, and that the transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate with Dolby Vision HDR grading, resulting in images that are sharp, clean, and highly detailed throughout.

 

A scene in the opening shows a line drawing of Cleopatra, and its lines are crisp, sharp, and defined. Closeups reveal tons of detail in the actors’ faces, making it easy to see the creases, crags, and lines in Johnson’s head and face versus Reynolds’ whiskers and stubble and the smooth near-perfection of Gadot’s skin. You can also really appreciate the texture in surfaces like the stone and brick walls outside the museum in Rome or the pebbled surface of the doors and sides of an armored car, or the detail and sharpness of individual leaves in a jungle forest. Even lengthy shots like one of London in golden early morning light have lots of sharpness. 

 

There is also a ton of pop courtesy of the DolbyVision HDR grading. Right from the very beginning, I noticed how saturated the color red is in the titles. There are also beautiful, bright highlights off golden objects such as one of the eggs, or from bright sunlight streaming in through windows, or interiors lit by warm lighting that almost give the images a glow. Other scenes, like one showing video screens inside a security station, really pop with bright highlights. Black levels were deep and solid and clean throughout as well. The only bit of streaming nastiness I noticed was a moment when characters were dunked underwater, and there was a bit of posterization in the murky lighting.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track definitely enhanced the fun with a pretty dynamic mix. We get nice atmospheric effects like voices echoing off the hard museum walls, the flat sound inside an old bunker, the swirls of winds and snow, the background yells, commotion, and buzzers in a prison, or the huge crowd roars and cheers during the bullfight. 

 

The mix also really expands when called on via active height channels used effectively to add another sonic layer when appropriate. We get the almost requisite Atmos helicopter flyover that clearly races overhead, or the sounds of water bubbling up all around, and moments like The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” blaring from all channels prior to the start of a big chase. 

 

There is plenty of action here, and I was surprised by the depth of the bass performance. Besides the report of gunfire, you can really feel the weight of heavy doors as they slam shut or the concussion of grenades as they go off.

 

Thanks to its generous budget, the visual effects and production values are first-rate, and the leads play their roles exactly as you would expect. Honestly, this feels like a big-budget Hollywood production that would have been successful at the box office. For Netflix subscribers, I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t add it to your list.

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.

News: Trinnov & Kaleidescape Team Up to Offer Compelling Demo Content

News: Trinnov & Kaleidescape Team Up to Offer Compelling Demo Content

Everybody loves a deal. Thats why we see insane promotions every year surrounding Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Amazons Prime Day. Of course, most of these deals are designed around commodity items with pricing designed to drive impulse buys; rarely do we see any real premium or luxury goods offered in the mix. 

 

Of course, the ultimate deal is when something you were already considering buying is suddenly improved by either a sale or other special promotion. In this case we have two industry leading companies—Kaleidescape and Trinnov—joining for a bundle promotion. With Kaleidescape delivering the largest selection of 4K HDR video content along with true lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtracks and Trinnov providing industry-leading audio processing, including the full 24.1.10 implementation of Dolby Atmos (along with DTS:X and Auro 3D), components from each company are already frequently paired in many best-of-class systems.

 

The promotion is straightforward: Buy a system consisting of a Kaleidescape Terra server and Strato player and any Trinnov Altitude audio processor, and your server will arrive already loaded with a film and music collection, curated by Trinnov, valued at nearly $1,000. Trinnov’s managing directors, Jon Herron and Chuck Back, selected the titles in the collection, choosing from a broad variety of action, adventure, concerts, and animation to deliver dynamic content in a luxury home system while also ensuring it appealed to a wide range of viewers.

 

Kaleidescape offers users the unique ability to bookmark favorite scenes or iconic moments from movies or concerts and create scripts” that string these together into a compelling Wow!” demo. Trinnov took advantage of this feature to craft four different scripts that give users instant access to a sizzle reel of demo-worthy content to highlight the performance of their systems, providing guests with a quick taste of the magic. Two scripts are designed to show off action scenes, another highlights music content and performances, and the fourth is family-friendly animated fare.

 

These scenes were picked the same way I have built [tradeshow] playlists over the years, though they are a bit longer since the tradeshow time pressure is not a factor,” Herron said.  When choosing demo material, Herron says he looks for the typical things including deep/impactful bass, high spatial resolution, and good detail, and that he includes great music where applicable.

 

I also look for two additional things,” Herron added. Each clip should tell a short, self-contained story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the order of the clips should generally start small and finish big, both sonically and emotionally. Some of the clips really take advantage of [Atmos] object-oriented audio mixing like Godzilla vs. Kong and Gravity, while others are just great scenes and soundtracks. The idea was to make it easy for someone to show off their cool, new system to their friends.”

 

The Kaleidescape/Trinnov promotion is scheduled to run through December 31, 2022.

—John Sciacca

TITLES INCLUDED IN THE PROMOTION

3:10 to Yuma

A Star Is Born

Across the Universe

Adele: Live at Royal Albert Hall

Alita: Battle Angel

Angel Has Fallen

Aquaman

Baby Driver

Black Widow

Bohemian Rhapsody

Brave

Captain Marvel

Enders Game

Eric Clapton: Slowhand at 70

F9: The Fast Saga

Ford v Ferrari

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla vs. Kong

Gravity

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard

In the Heights

John Wick 3

Midway

Minions

Muse: Live at Olympic Stadium

Ratatouille

Ready Player One

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Soul

Super 8

The Greatest Showman

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Incredibles

The Man from UNCLE

Unbroken

Up

WALL-E

Wonder Woman

Trinnov Experience Trailer

Trinnov Music Machine One Music Video

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: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

November 12th was the second annual Disney+ Day, a time when Disney unleashes a torrent of new content to subscribers to help promote the streaming service. This year, beyond new titles, Disney also added IMAX Enhanced content to many existing Marvel titles. 

 

As per Disney’s site:

 

IMAX Enhanced content on Disney+ features an expanded aspect ratio of 1.90:1. This differs from most films where the picture appears wide but does not take up the full height of your screen.

 

IMAX’s expanded aspect ratio allows you to see up to 26% more of the original image and experience the full scale and scope of the picture from the comfort of your home or on the go. Some movies only have select sequences filmed in IMAX’s expanded aspect ratio.

 

For owners of 16:9 displays—direct-view sets or projection screens—which is a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this means more of the screen is filled with picture instead of black bars (leaving roughly an inch of black above and below the image on my 65-inch 

Sony). Smartly, Disney also includes the film in its original 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, which will be the preferred method for viewers with widescreen front-projection systems.

 

One of the biggest Disney Day releases was the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This film is somewhat notable as Disney/Marvel’s first return to a post-pandemic exclusive cinematic release, without being simultaneously offered as a Disney+ Premier Access option. In addition to being available for streaming on Disney+, it is also offered via digital retailers like Kaleidescape. For the best experience, specifically with the enhanced, lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio track, I downloaded and watched the Kaleidescape version.

 

I imagine there are two types of people who saw or are considering seeing Shang-Chi: Those who were avid comic readers familiar with the history of the character and then the other 99% of the population that just wanted to see how 

SHANG-CHI AT A GLANCE

The latest MCU entry is fun to watch, looks great, the fight scenes are dynamic and visually interesting, and the actors do a fine job, but it ultimately doesn’t feel much like a Marvel movie. 

 

PICTURE

The film is visually vibrant and engaging, and the HDR grade gives the images plenty of shadow detail and a lifelike quality, with plenty of pop and highlights when needed.

 

SOUND 

While it does have some immersive elements, this a fairly front-centric Dolby Atmos mix, without the kind of height-channel activity you’d expect from a big action movie.

this was going to fit into the fourth phase of the MCU—initially kicked off by the Disney+ series WandaVision and followed-up with Black Widowand wanted to see another big spectacle superhero film.

 

I was firmly in the second camp and went into this knowing absolutely nothing about Shang-Chi. I was at least interested in the casting of Simu Liu in the lead, as my wife and I are big fans of the Netflix series Kim’s Convenience, where he plays Jung. (Seems that Liu can’t break free from his ties to the auto industry, as he works at a rental car agency in Kim’s and works as a valet here in Shang-Chi . . .)

 

After the massive success of Black Panther, you can certainly argue that Disney is trying to be more inclusive with its films, breaking away from the traditional white male superhero. This is the first Marvel film to feature an Asian director (Destin Daniel Cretton) and a predominantly Asian cast, and following on the live-action Mulan remake, and then the animated Raya and the Last Dragon, Shang-Chi completes the outreach cycle. 

 

Having said that, it didn’t feel like it is pandering or trying to shove culturally-appropriate images or messages down your throat, at least not to this outsider. The film feels organic in the way it presents things, whether it is the family having breakfast, talking about the Asian culture’s emphasis on education or respect for family, or if the action is taking place in San Francisco—which has a large Asian population—or Macau. 

 

The film also does what it can to tie into the larger MCU, even though it really takes place outside any of the action we’re familiar with, and doesn’t feel too connected to the larger universe. The “blip”—where Thanos wiped out half the population in a finger snap before Iron Man brought everyone back—is referenced, Dr. Strange’s companion/assistant Wong (Benedict Wong) has a small role, and we see the return of Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), who was last seen as the faux baddie Mandarin in Iron Man 3, who also references his time in prison (covered in the Marvel short All Hail the King). 

 

And, of course, we have the now obligatory Marvel mid- and end-credits scenes that really try to flesh out the franchise, as well as set up additional installments in the MCU. 

 

As an outsider to the story, the film’s opening few minutes are a bit of an information dump, attempting to bring you up to speed on the legend, history, and power of the Ten Rings and how they grant the wearer the strength of a god and endless life. After centuries of living, toppling governments, and changing the course of history, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) learns of Ta Lo, a hidden village with mythical creatures and ancient magic. While trying to gain access to Ta Lo through a magical forest, he falls in love with one of the city’s guardians, Ying Li (Fala Chen). They ultimately have a child, Shang-Chi (Liu), who has changed his name to Shaun and is now living in San Francisco where he works as a hotel valet with his friend Katy (Awkwafina).

 

One day while riding a city bus, Shaun is attacked by an unusual gang, and despite putting up a heroic fight, the jade pendant given to him by his mother is ripped from his neck. He believes his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is also in danger, so he heads to Macau with Katy to find and protect her.

 

Throughout this, we learn of Shang-Chi’s background, his training, the fate of his mother, and his and Xialing’s relationship with their father. Ultimately Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy are all reunited with Wenwu, who is still searching for Ta Lo, but feels he has finally learned the secret to discovering the hidden city’s location.

 

There is a lot of hand-to-hand martial arts-style fighting, but the varied locations and participants help to keep it interesting and from seeming too repetitive. The choreography is also hyper-fast, kinetic, and pretty inventive. While there is some Wuxia-style fighting, it doesn’t lean too heavily on this or ever feel Crouching Tiger-esque, though it certainly leans heavily into its mythical-creatures bent at the end. 

 

I’m an Awkwafina fan, but her wise-cracking sidekick role here, where she’s used to bring some comedic relief to almost all of her scenes, ran a little thin. In some ways she felt a bit like her Sisu water dragon character brought-to-life in human form from Raya. 

 

Shot in Arri at 4.5K, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate and it certainly looks clean, clear, sharp, and detailed throughout. There are some shots showing Wenwu and his Ten Rings army and the Tan Lo army wearing different uniforms, and the fine detail and texture in their armor is evident. Closeups also show loads of detail in other fabrics and garments throughout, as well as extreme facial detail, letting you see the difference in skin texture and smoothness. While the most detail is in the tight shots, longer shots can hold their own as well. Notice the tight line structure in the tile, stone, and thatch building roofs, or the clarity of leaves in bamboo forest. 

 

The HDR grade gives the images plenty of shadow detail and a lifelike quality, but with plenty of pop and highlights when needed. Car headlights at night are appropriately bright as they pierce dark roadways, or the electric glow surrounding the rings and other weapons, or some fiery, golden lanterns set out to float. Notice early on the white-on-white detail in an outfit worn by Wenwu. Even though it is made up of very similar shades of the same color, we still get plenty of detail, texture, and pop instead of it just being a white smush. 

 

We also get plenty of color pop, whether it is the bright, vibrant greens in the forest, the hot reds of the valet vest uniforms, or the gorgeous, varied colors of neon lights in nighttime Macau. There are also several scenes lit with beautiful warm golden

lighting. Throughout, the film really just looks great, and is visually vibrant and engaging.

 

One of the real benefits of watching on Kaleidescape is the lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack compared with the lossy version supplied to streaming providers. Disney has been slagged for many of its recent home soundtracks, and I found it a little lacking at first, especially on the low-end dynamics. However, bumping the volume by 5 dB over my typical listening level returned a lot of the impact, particularly with the bass, which developed some tactile moments with the increased levels.

 

There are certainly some immersive elements but I found this to be a fairly front-centric mix, especially compared to a lot of modern titles. We do get some atmospheric moments like the sounds of swirling winds and leaves, or noises inside clubs or traffic sounds. The sound mix kicks into higher gear during the many combat scenes, such as a spear-weapon that Xialing throws Scorpion-from-Mortal Kombat-style that whistles through the air and chunks into the side walls, Wenwu battling men around the room, the shouts and melee during training and combat, or a bus careening all over the room.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

I didn’t notice nearly as much height-activity as expected from such a big action film. Music definitely utilizes the height speakers for a big, expansive, room-filling mix, and there are other moments, like soul-eaters flying overhead, or a booming voice beyond an armored wall, or the creaking and groaning of bamboo moving in the forest, but this certainly wasn’t as dynamic as Black Widow. 

 

I’ll be honest; I thought Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was just OK. It was fun to watch, looked great, the fight scenes were dynamic and visually interesting, and the actors—particularly Leung who brings some real depth to the villain character—did a fine job, but the story itself just felt a little thin. And, ultimately, it just didn’t feel like a Marvel movie to me. But with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 92% and audience score of 98%—the highest combined score of any film in the MCU—it seems like I’m in the minority here, and perhaps my opinion will change on future viewings. 

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: No Time to Die

No Time to Die (2021)

In a way, the mere fact that we can finally actually watch No Time to Die feels a bit like a victory in and of itself. And, perhaps, even points to a sign of the return of post-COVID cinematic normalcy. 

 

This 25th film in the James Bond franchise began development in 2016 and was originally scheduled for a November 2019 release but had to be postponed to February and then April 2020 after the original director, Danny Boyle, left over script disputes. Then prior to its planned release, a global pandemic worthy of any Bond super-villain occurred, and the film was pushed to November 2020—the first major film to be postponed due to COVID. It then continued being delayed as it was apparent the global cinema market was not poised for reopening. In fact, the repeated delays of No Time to Die’s release 

was one of the reasons the world’s second-largest cinema chain, Cineworld, cited for closing its doors indefinitely.

 

However, as with any villain’s plans for global domination, Bond ultimately prevailed, and the film was released in the UK on September 30, 2021, followed by its release here in the States on October 8. And then just 31-days later—on November 9—it is now available as a premium video-on-demand rental from all digital retailers, including Kaleidescape.

 

As I mentioned in my reviews of Goldfinger, The Living Daylights, and Casino Royale (2006), I’m a big James Bond fan. I’ve not only seen all the films, I’ve read all the books—and I mean all of them, and that includes the original Ian Fleming novels, the John Gardner followups, then the Raymond Benson series, and now into the Sebastian Faulks era.

NO TIME AT A GLANCE

Daniel Craig’s COVID-delayed final Bond outing adds up to a beautifully shot $250-million two-hour-and-43-minute action epic. 

 

PICTURE

Sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate that reveals layers of sharpness and detail, No Time looks gorgeous throughout.

 

SOUND 

The 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master soundtrack on the Kaleidescape release delivers the goods, with the kind of big, loud, and dynamic mix Bond is known for.

One thing Bond does—or at least has tried to do—is to evolve and adapt with the times so he can stay current and relevant to modern viewers. Locations change, women change, villains change, plans for world domination change. But through it all Bond is still always essentially Bond.

 

And that includes even when the man playing Bond changes. With the physical demands required of the role, there are only a certain number of years our favorite Double-0 can be played believably by the same face. And just as there was uproar when Sean Connery was replaced by George Lazenby, then Roger Moore, then Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig here in his final Bond performance—which began 15 years ago with his role in Casino Royale—there will always be controversy over who will be the next Bond.

 

So I understand the franchise will have to change. And, oh boy, does No Time to Die serve up a heaping portion of it.

 

As mentioned, the film’s original director was replaced early in the process, and the choice of going with Cary J. Fukunaga seems as interesting one, as he was best known for directing TV series like Maniac and True Detective along with films with significantly smaller budgets like Beasts of No Nation and Sin Nombre. (Another fun trivia fact—Funkunaga helped pen the screenplay for It.) Nothing to doubt his abilities but on the surface he just seems an interesting choice to helm a pivotal final installment in the Craig era with an estimated $250 million budget.

 

Whereas all previous films in the Bond franchise were essentially one-offs that stood on their own—with some occasional winks and nods to refer to others that had come before them—one of the big changes in the Craig era was to create a series

of films that are connected with a strong continuity running throughout. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quantum of Solace, Craig’s second Bond film, which begins just moments after Casino Royale’s conclusion.

 

To prepare for No Time to Die, my wife and I went back and watched the two films that preceded it, Skyfall and Spectre, which was certainly helpful, especially since it has been six years since Spectre was released, and the events in No Time certainly come right on the heels of the previous film.

 

Bond films are known for their massive opening sequences, and right from the start it’s clear that No Time will be . . . different. In fact, Bond isn’t even in the opening several minutes, which are instead a flashback to Madeleine’s (Lea Seydoux) childhood, an event she mentioned in Spectre and that establishes her relationship with this film’s villian, Safin (Rami Malek).

 

As much as No Time feels different, it also feels very much the same, and they are careful to include all the classic beats—the “Bond, James Bond” intro, the shaken-not-stirred vodka martini, the big car chase, the Q-Branch gadgets, the world hopping, and a certain old friend from the CIA. There are also some nice nods to the franchise’s history, and in a way, the film has a sense of farewell.

 

One clever touch is a rotating tour of the Aston Martins Bond has driven throughout his history. And if you ever 

wanted to see what that glorious DB5 from Goldfinger can do when it is fully unleashed, you are in for a treat! There is also a nice moment where the M’s from the past—both Dame Judi Dench and Bernard Lee—are given a subtle nod. The framing of one scene feels very reminiscent of the iconic looking-down-a-rifle-barrel from the films’ famous opening sequences. And those familiar with Fleming’s work might notice some strong parallels between the “Garden of Death” featured in the novel You Only Live Twice and the poison garden here.

 

There is also a line spoken early in the film that really jumped out at me. While Bond and Madeleine are driving, she tells him to speed up and he says, “We have all the time in the world.” You might recall this as the Louis Armstrong title song—and a line Bond himself says twice—in the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

 

Also, I was initially really disappointed by Billie Eilish’s opening “No Time To Die” song when I heard it on its release many months before the film’s debut. I felt it was far too slow and somber to be a Bond opener; but in the context of where the song is placed in the opening, I was surprised to find myself enjoying it and that in the moment of the film, it actually works.

 

I’m not going to go too deep trying to summarize the plot here. Frankly, you’ll want to see No Time to Die or you won’t, so I doubt my 1,000-yard view will change your mind. Also, I certainly don’t want to spoil any of the fun or surprises. With a franchise-long run time of 2 hours and 43 minutes, it certainly feels epic, and even though it’s packed with a near steady stream of action, it often feels like it has all the time in the world to unfold.

 

The movie opens with Bond retired from active service and finally able to take some time away to go on holiday with Madeleine. Of course, the world needs James Bond, and events from his past come up to draw him back in, to try and track 

down a scientist behind a new super weapon that could be used to kill off large sections of the population.

 

The film was shot on a host of formats, including some scenes filmed in IMAX. Unfortunately, we don’t get any of the expanded IMAX scenes in this digital presentation—perhaps on an eventual IMAX Enhanced physical disc release. But what we do get is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate that looks gorgeous throughout. I mentioned we had watched Spectre just the night before, and that was on Blu-ray. The image quality in 4K HDR here absolutely trounces that, revealing layers of sharpness and detail throughout.

 

Bond films have always had a massive scope and scale, and we can see and appreciate that here. Fukunaga frequently pulls back—way back—to reveal these gorgeous wide, panoramic vistas that really show the expanse of the location, whether in Italy, Cuba, or the UK. The movie is beautifully framed and shot and looks fantastic up on a big home theater screen.

 

Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether it’s the contrast of Madeleine’s smooth skin versus Bond’s weathered, creased, and lined face, or the fine lines and detail in his Glen Plaid suits, or the micro-dots in a tie, or the texture and ribs in the cloth

No Time to Die (2021)

of Madeleine’s shirt. Modern digital productions have a cleanness to the image that just feels like everything between you and the camera lens has been removed, and that is evident here.

 

There are lots of moments to highlight the HDR grading, whether they are white-hot fluorescent lights, neon signs, the gleaming white of outdoor snow scenes, shafts of light penetrating dark interiors, or the eye-reactive moments of exploding fireballs, or the soft, glowing warm light as characters talk in candlelight. I never felt things were pushed too far, but we certainly enjoy a full range of deep, inky blacks and vibrant whites. 

 

While some digital retailers—iTunes, Vudu, etc.—received a lossy Dolby Digital+ Atmos audio mix, MGM has continued its maddening habit of only supplying Kaleidescape with a 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master mix. I’m not going to lie and say this isn’t a tad disappointing but it certainly isn’t a deal breaker, and you’ll be happy to read that this soundtrack delivers the goods, with a classic big, loud, and dynamic mix Bond is known for.

 

[We learned at press time that Kaleidescape had received the Atmos mix from MGM and that it would be available in the movie download by the time this review went live.  —ed.]

 

Things like gunshots have a ton of dynamics, with loud, sharp reports, and solid weight and slam to their impact. Explosions will give your subwoofers plenty of chance to flex, delivering tactile bass you can feel in your chest. 

 

And even though the Kaleidescape 5.1 audio is not a true immersive mix, modern upmixers (such as DTS:Neural X processing on my Marantz) do an admirable job of placing sounds all around and overhead. Whether it’s the sounds of ice cracking that spread out from the center and front of the room into every corner, or the loud clang of bells ringing throughout the room, or the sounds of a water platform creaking, groaning, and breaking apart, or a moment when a gun man is clearly standing directly behind you repeatedly blasting away, the mix places you right in the action. Even subtle moments such as Bond standing out in an open forest have lots of ambience and spaciousness to expand your listening environment. 

 

There were a couple of moments where the upmixing might have made dialogue a bit trickier to understand. In one scene, Bond and Paloma (Ana de Armas) are communicating via in-ear mics, and another where there are announcements over a PA system, and voices are placed up into the height channels. The effect was actually quite good—and you got a real sense of them moving around and overhead and traveling into different speakers—but it did make the dialogue a bit harder to understand. This is certainly an instance where the truly discrete Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix could offer a bit of refinement.

 

The film’s ending is a bit polarizing, with some saying “perfect” and “best ever,” and others claiming it ruined the franchise. For me, I felt a bit like I did at the end of The Rise of SkywalkerI enjoyed the ride, but it came with a heavy dose of bittersweet to know that it was over . . . at least for now. 

 

As the end credits declare, “James Bond will return.” How and in what fashion remains to be seen, but I am certainly excited to see what Bond’s next chapter looks like. 

 

For now, No Time to Die is a fantastic experience at home, visually and sonically, and with its lengthy run-time, you’re able to pause if need be for a bathroom or snack break to ensure you don’t miss a moment of action. 

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: Finch

Finch (2021)

It’s old news that the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc on Hollywood release schedules, but as things appear to be returning to some semblance of normal—the Bond No Time to Die and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune remake have both shown signs of life returning to the box office—I can’t think of another high-profile actor who had as many films disrupted during that period as Tom Hanks.

 

First, he had his World War II film Greyhound, about a Navy commander leading a convoy through dangerous waters hunted by the German submarine wolf pack, optioned out of theaters for an exclusive release on Apple TV+. Then his western News of the World, about a traveling entertainer who ends up taking on the responsibility of returning a young girl to her family, was released theatrically for just two weeks prior to moving to PVOD. And now, after numerous delays—and a change of title from

its intended BIOS—his latest film, Finch, has once again been purchased by Apple TV+ as an exclusive to that service, with a November 5 release.

 

Finch is the fourth pairing of Hanks and executive producer Robert Zemeckis, dating back to Forest Gump and including Cast Away and Polar Express (along with an upcoming live-action Pinocchio remake for Disney), and shows just how fluid and competitive the distribution landscape is with major players like Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and Apple ready to snap up titles to help shore up their exclusive offerings.

 

As I mentioned in my News of the World review, Hanks’ track record of choosing excellent roles in major films has placed him on the short list of movies I’m interested in watching just because he’s attached. And being able to watch it for free in the comfort of my home on my 7.1.6 system made it a no-brainer.

FINCH AT A GLANCE

This one-man-traversing-a-post-apocalyptic-landscape Tom Hanks vehicle is oddly similar to George Clooney’s Midnight Sky

 

PICTURE

The images in the Apple TV+ stream, encoded in Dolby Vision, have tons of pop.

 

SOUND 

The Dolby Digital+ Atmos mix is quite entertaining, subtly establishing the acoustic space of a room one minute then transforming your space into a swirling, immersive cacophony of sound from every speaker the next.

It’s easy to draw a lot of comparisons between Finch and other films. There are definitely the heavy robot-becoming-self-aware elements of iRobot and Chappie, as well as some parts—and even a bot—that felt very Wall-E. Hanks holding his own on screen and surviving essentially alone, basically carrying the entirety of the two-hour runtime feels a bit like his own Cast Away. And the apocalyptic road trip gives off vibes of George Clooney’s role in the Netflix original The Midnight Sky. (Of course, Finch completely flips the environment, with Sky’s danger coming from freezing arctic conditions and Finch’s coming from scorching hot temps due to a mostly non-existent ozone layer.)

 

It’s a real turnoff when I feel a movie is dumbing itself down to force explanations on me. Sure, some exposition is OK, and often necessary, but I don’t like it when filmmakers virtually grab me by the hand and feel the need to connect all the dots. Finch certainly doesn’t waste any time on backstory, and what we learn about the population-decimating event is through notes on maps, books scattered around Finch Weinberg’s (Hanks) lab/shelter, and some bits of conversation with his custom-built helper-bot, Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones). During one bit of dialogue, Jeff asks, “Where is everybody?” to which Finch replies, “That’s a long story.” 

 

What we manage to glean is that some 15 years ago, a massive solar flare essentially fried the ozone layer and turned it into Swiss cheese, and then an EMP came and wiped out the rest, turning most of the earth into a largely uninhabitable wasteland with scorching UV radiation, blistering temps, and frequent extreme and violent weather events. 

 

Through luck and happenstance, robotics engineer Finch was protected in his underground lab in St. Louis when the flare hit and now he lives with a dog, Goodyear, he rescued. He survives by scavenging for food and supplies while wearing a protective suit with the help of a robot he built. 

 

We learn pretty early on that Finch is sick, and he builds a humanoid robot—Jeff—that can take care of Goodyear when he’s gone. Due to a massive approaching storm, Finch packs up a heavily modified RV and leaves for San Francisco before he can fully transfer all the programming data to Jeff, so Jeff is a bit childlike while he attempts to fit in with the group, while learning and figuring out what he is supposed to do. 

 

Other than a brief flashback, Finch is the only human character shown on screen—the end cast credits are likely among the sparsest in history—and a lot of Finch is essentially a travelogue with man, dog, and robot. The film throws in some drama in the form of some massive storms, as well as one chase from unseen people who may or may not be hostile, but it is really a movie held mostly together by Hanks’ charisma and Jeff’s developing personality. (Fortunately, his voice and diction changes as he “matures,” as his Borat-like cadence ad intonation is a little distracting at first.)

 

There isn’t a lot of information about the technical specs of how Finch was shot or the home transfer, but it certainly has all the razor-sharp detail and ultra-clean look of a true 4K transfer. Edges are always crisp and defined, there’s no noise or grain, and this “modern” digital look certainly benefits the film’s future, post-apocalyptic vibe.

 

Closeups are always the most revealing with a good transfer, and we get tons of detail to appreciate here, whether it is the dirt-smeared lines and pores on Hanks’ face and hands, or the fine pebbled texture visible in a Panama Jack hat he wears, or the little bumps and imperfections in Jeff’s painted head. There are also lots of little things, like being able to see the fine, individual cables in some twisted-pair Category-rated wiring Finch connects to Jeff, or the crispness of lines and edges defining objects. 

 

Of course, your quality will vary with streaming performance, and I noticed on a second viewing that if I had any bandwidth drops that resulted in resolution changes, the fine grid/mesh detail in the center of Jeff’s face would turn to mush and lose its sharp, defined edges. Also, in one scene when Finch went out to repair a piece of machinery, there was a bit of banding in the murky silver/grey/black sky. 

 

The Apple TV+ stream is encoded in Dolby Vision, and images had tons of pop on my Sony OLED display. There are lots of bright fluorescent lights in the otherwise darkened interior of Finch’s lab, along with searing-bright outdoor scenes, and piercing lances of sunlight that stream into darkly lit interiors. Another scene, during a firelight chat with the green/blue/purple colors of the Northern lights, has some wonderful low-light shadow detail along with lots of bright highlights. 

 

I’m usually not impressed with the audio from streaming titles, but the Dolby Digital+ Atmos mix here is quite entertaining. It can subtly establish the acoustic space of a room one minute and then transform your space into a swirling, immersive cacophony of sound from every speaker the next.  

 

For the subtle, pay attention to the little sounds that make up the lab where Finch lives. You’ll start to notice a low-frequency hum from motors running, then little clicks of sounds happening in the space, along with the buzzes of machinery. While in a market, we hear Hanks’ voice echoing off walls to help define the space, or we get the gentle rustle of wind blowing around while Finch, Jeff, and Goodyear sit around outside. It all helps to just put you into the space and shows how a good mix can subtly enhance the experience.

 

For viewers looking to show off their audio system, Finch offers plenty of demo-worthy moments. Literally before the film’s opening images hit the screen, the room is filled with the roaring sounds of wind rustling all around as well as the heavy engine of Finch’s vehicle. There are a couple of big storm scenes, which fill your room with swirling winds and debris whipping, crashing, and hitting all around, or the clanging of metal. Another scene has a car passing overhead, with the speakers clearly placing the action above you.

 

The soundtrack also has a surprising amount of deep bass for a streaming track, with some downright tactile bass you’ll feel deep in your chest. (Take note of the subsonic note when Hanks gets the shelter door open early in the film.)

 

While Finch doesn’t tread a lot of new ground and can be a bit slow to develop, it is still an entertaining, mostly family-friendly, journey with a lot of heart primarily carried on the back of Hanks’ charm. For Apple TV+ subscribers, Finch provides some fresh content that makes for a fun, great-sounding night at the movies.  

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.

Taking Atmos to the Max

Taking Atmos to the Max

This home theater from MoreCinema in the Netherlands features a 48-channel Dolby Atmos surround system driven by a Trinnov Altitude processor

One of the biggest evolutions to hit both commercial and home movie watching is Dolby Atmos. It’s a term and technology you should certainly be aware of and have on your radar as it would be difficult to consider a modern luxury entertainment system truly complete without embracing and supporting Atmos. Because it was introduced back in 2012 (with Pixars Brave), its tough to refer to it as new” any longer, but it’s still new-ish and is one of those buzzword terms that’s starting to gain a lot of traction on mainstream and enthusiast sites.

 

Weve certainly talked extensively about Atmos here at Cineluxe. Besides mentioning it along with the sound performance in nearly every movie review, we also have a few nice starter posts, including Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos” “Gaming is

Way Better with Atmos” and Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies.

 

Audio formats like Dolby Atmos add another layer and dimension to the content, drawing you more fully into moment of what you’re watching or listening to. An Atmos audio track listened to on a luxury system can transform your room into a wide open, wind-swept field; a creaking and eerie house; the vastness of space; or can place you on a race track with the roar of engines streaking past you—all of which immerses you in the moment and heightens the experience. This is especially true when you’re talking about the experience in a larger movie room with multiple seats, to make sure that the audio signal passes seamlessly around the room.

 

In a nutshell, Atmos completely reinvented the way audio mixes were created at the studio level. In the past, surround sound mixes—like Dolby Digital or DTS—were all channel based, meaning sounds were mixed for a specific number of channels, typically seven plus a subwoofer, called 7.1. Even though a commercial cinema might have the entire side and rear walls lined with speakers, there were essentially just four channels (left and right surround, left and right rear) designed to provide fill across a large seating area.

 

With Atmos, Dolby transitioned away from channel-based to object-based mixes, supporting up to 128 sound objects in the mix at any moment. Information embedded in each object tells the Atmos renderer about the object (such as how much weight or presence it should have) along with where to move it around the room. And where the channel-based mixes were limited to 7.1, full theatrical mixes can include up to 64 discrete locations plus the subwoofer.

 

One of the aspects of Atmos that people are most familiar with is the new height element. Whereas in the past sounds were limited to just being placed around the listener, these height speakers positioned overhead can literally place sounds above listeners, and can include up to 18 speakers in a commercial cinema.

 

With Atmos, a surround mix can be truly immersive, placing sounds virtually anywhere in a 360° space all around and overhead, letting you distinctly pinpoint precisely where a sound is originating from. Helicopters can hover and move all about overhead, voices can emanate from any specific location, and a rain storm can sound like a deluge, all of which heightens the emotional experience.

 

One of Atmos’ brilliant features is its ability to scale and 

translate the full suite of 128 audio objects and 64 speakers in the theatrical mix to the audio mix you hear at home. But just because all the information is carried over from the theatrical mix doesnt mean all Atmos systems are the same. In fact, far from it. And this is another area where a luxury system can greatly distance itself in the experience, and where a premium system distinguishes itself especially in larger rooms.

 

When reading about Atmos, youll likely see figures like 5.1.2 or 7.1.4, which refer to the speaker layout and configuration. The first number refers to the number of listener-level speakers—those speakers at ear level, such as the front left, center, and right—the second is the subwoofer channel, which carries low-frequency information like explosions; and the third is the

Taking Atmos to the Max

An Atmos system with five speakers at
ear level and four positioned overhead

A system with 24 speakers at
ear level and 10 overhead

number of height speakers used to place sounds up overhead. While those more modest configurations can certainly provide an exciting and immersive experience in a small to mid-sized room, they are a far cry from the 64 speakers in the full theatrical implementation.

 

A truly luxury home theater system driven by a processor from the likes of Trinnov, JBL Synthesis, Steinway Lyngdorf, or Storm Audio can support a full home Atmos implementation of up to 35 speakers in a 24.1.10 array, allowing you to get as close as possible to the theatrical experience and what the filmmakers intended.

 

While having 34 speakers plus subwoofers might seem extreme, as the room gets larger with multiple seating positions it’s the surest way of guaranteeing that every seat is the best seat in the house, with the smoothest transition of sound from one speaker to the next, and that you and your guests have an unforgettable experience every time. 

 

What does this mean for a luxury install? Do that many additional speakers make that much of a difference? What is required to pull off this kind of system and get the most from it? And how can your theater designer keep the room from looking like an equipment bazaar with that many speakers in the room?

 

In future posts, well have industry experts discuss and explore these topics so you can understand exactly what is involved in this aspect of designing and implementing a truly state-of-the-art home cinema space. 

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: Scream

Scream (1996)

The teen-slasher genre had been stagnating in the ‘90s, with many sub-par titles and recycled sequels being fed into the direct-to-video churn. Then along came Wes Craven, he of Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, to totally upend and breathe new life into the genre with Scream, which went on to spawn three sequels. 

 

It’s hard to believe Scream is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, but the good news is that Paramount has given the film a new 4K HDR transfer, making this a perfect time to revisit a horror classic. (I think the last time I watched it was back in 1997 on LaserDisc!) Beyond a physical 4k Blu-ray release, the film is also available in full quality via a 61.4 GB download from Kaleidescape, which is how I watched.

As I’ve written here before, the horror genre has evolved recently into something that typically doesn’t appeal to me. Where in the past, movies went for actual scares by building suspense and tension with what they didn’t show as much as what they did (remember the nightmare conclusion of Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill where you think you see the killer’s shoes under the curtains . . ?), modern filmmakers typically take scary to mean gross and shocking, or with a heavy-handed dose of the occult and spiritism.

 

No thanks.

 

While Scream certainly has its share of gore—enough that a few scenes needed to be trimmed to get an MPAA R-rating—it never feels like the focus of the story.

SCREAM AT A GLANCE

Wes Craven’s slasher-genre reboot gets the 25th-anniversary 4K HDR treatment. 

 

PICTURE

Don’t expect a lot of eye-popping HDR but the grade definitely benefits the natural look of the film, with nice deep blacks and shadow detail.

 

SOUND 

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix is certainly adequate to tell the story, and the most important element—the dialogue—is always presented nice and clear in the center channel..

Right from the get-go, Scream let you know this was going to be a different horror-movie experience, and in the opening 12-minutes, Scream unsettled the audience by killing off its biggest star, Drew Barrymore. This was a shock to filmgoers as Barrymore had been featured prominently in all of the commercials and posters for the film, with everyone assuming she was going to be the heroine. Of course, Craven just aped what Alfred Hitchcock famously did with Janet Leigh in Psycho, but it had been years since audiences had seen that trick, and it worked just as well for Craven as it had 36 years prior, and set the tone for the film.

 

The script was also unique in just how self-aware the characters were. They not only love horror movies, especially Randy (Jamie Kennedy), who works in a video store, the cast frequently name-checks other horror films, and literally talks about how good Craven’s Nightmare is—especially compared with the sequels—and mash-up the name “Wes Carpenter” (Wes Craven and John Carpenter). Randy also lays out—and then the film plays with–the classic slasher-film “rules” and clichés about who survives: Never have sex, don’t drink or do drugs, never say, “I’ll be right back,” “Hello?” or “Who’s there?” And as the ultimate wink-nod to horror fans, Craven himself has a cameo as a striped-sweater-wearing school janitor who happens to be named Fred.

 

At one point, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) mocks horror movies and its heroines saying, “They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” Of course, literally moments later, she finds herself running up stairs away from the killer instead of going out the front door. 

 

Randy also informs the other characters they just need to follow Prom Night’s very simple formula: “EVERYBODY’S A SUSPECT!” Red herrings and misdirection abound throughout, and after the shock of Barrymore’s death in the opening minutes, viewers knew anyone could be killed. All of which told moviegoers they were in for a new and different ride, and the traditional rules of the genre were out the window.

 

After two high schoolers are brutally murdered, the town of Woodsboro, California is once again on high alert almost exactly a year after Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) mother was raped and killed. This new killer is coming for Sidney, and he taunts his victims on the phone before killing them, asking them questions, such as “What is your favorite scary movie?” Beyond Sidney’s best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan), and her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), fame-hungry news-woman Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is back in town to cover the new events, along with Tatum’s older brother Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), who is tasked with keeping everyone safe.

 

It was actually interesting to re-watch Scream knowing the outcome, much like people will go back through The Sixth Sense to see if M. Night Shyamalan made any continuity mistakes. Here, when you know what—and who—to look for, there are some subtle clues that tell you who the killer is that give the film another layer of enjoyment on a rewatch.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this transfer is from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the clarity and detail show. Of course, as with many film-to-4K transfers, there are some occasional moments of softness or uneven focus, but these are likely in the original, and the movie still has that organic film look unlike modern digital productions. What I really appreciate with a well-done film transfer is just how clean images look. When done well—as Scream was—it looks like layers have been removed between you and the lens, making it so much easier to appreciate the image quality. Also, the improved clarity, sharpness, and detail are mostly realized in closeups instead of longer shots. 

 

Fortunately, much of Scream—particularly the opening with Barrymore—is filmed fairly tight and up-close, letting you really see the texture and detail in the actors’ facesthe smooth skin and fine whiskers of the actors, Sidney’s freckles, the detail in Barrymore’s sweater and fine strands of her hair.  

 

Don’t expect a lot of eye-popping HDR here, but the grade definitely benefits the natural look of the film, with nice deep blacks and shadow detail. Also, much of the second half is shot at night, and things like bright car headlights, police lights,

fluorescent lighting, lightning strikes, and bright white T-shirts get some added pop. Subtle things like the glints of highlights from droplets of sweat or tears on actors’ cheeks also have more pop. I also noticed the subtle sparkle and flecks of silver in the killer’s black outfit. Nothing really pushes the bounds of HDR’s wider color gamut, but we get some really nice and vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds in a sunset, along with the rich blue of Sidney’s denim, and of course the intense reds of blood.

 

Both the 4K Blu-ray and the Kaleidescape download feature a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix. While I always love when they go back and revive the audio mix to go with the picture, this is certainly adequate to tell the story, and the most important element—the dialogue—is always presented nice and clear in the center channel. Sounds like ringing phones, ticking clocks, and creaking floors can happen way off screen, expanding the width of your listening area. Using my processor’s DTS: Neural X upmixer, there was also some nice ambience extracted from the mix. Frequently small sounds like clock and wind chimes, echoes, wind whistling through an HVAC register, or PA announcements fill the room and immerse you in what is happening on screen. Parts of the score are also “lifted” up to the ceiling speakers to add a nice height layer to the mix.

 

Scream’s mix is not super dynamic, but it can deliver some strong, even tactile, 

Scream (1996)

bass when called for, such as during a big lightning storm in the opening. And while there isn’t a lot of gunfire, the few instances are recorded loud and sharp and are definitely standout moments.

 

While some of the dialogue between the “teenagers” (Campbell and McGowen were 23, and Ulrich and Matthew Lillard were both 26) is a little cringey, most of Scream holds up surprisingly well and it is still a lot of fun to watch. The timing is also a bit serendipitous as rewatching this new transfer of the 1996 original will help set the mood for the Scream 2022 reboot coming in January, which brings back the big surviving three—Sidney, Gale Weathers, and Deputy Dewey—from the original film.

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: 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: 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.