Last week, Home Theater editor Shane Buettner, UAV editor Scott Wilkinson, and I visited the Hollywood facilities of The Best Practices Laboratory. BPL is an independent technology laboratory located at the historic Raleigh Studios. Established under a different name in 1915 (it became Raleigh in 1980), Raleigh today is primarily dedicated to the production of independent films, commercials, and TV shows. (When we were there they were filming The Closer, Private Practice, and Castle.)
With all the fuss about the great images on HDTVs, particularly from Blu-ray, it’s easy to forget that sound is half the experience—maybe even more. Blu-ray offers more than just great video. By making use of its generous data-storage capacity and new ways to encode audio, it offers an audio experience that’s a significant step beyond the digital movie sound formats we’ve lived with. In fact, it’s arguably equivalent to the sound the engineers and filmmakers heard during the mastering session.
Flint Lockwood has been obsessed with science and inventing since grade school. He lives on an isolated island that has long since lost its vitality when the sardine trade, its major industry, went under. But Flint has a plan that could change all that, with the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, or, as Flint puts it, FLD SM DFR (flid sim difur) for short. It turns water into food.
The invention accidentally rockets into the stratosphere, where it remains fixed over the island, soaking up the plentiful water from passing clouds. Soon hamburgers begin to fall from the sky, complete with all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun. And that’s just the beginning. At first it’s manna—or at least Big Macs—from heaven, but things quickly spiral out of hand. The town’s ambitious mayor starts living large in more ways than one and turns the town into an all-you-can-eat cruise ship buffet.
Earth is threatened. Galaxar, a four-eyed, tentacled, interstellar bad guy, is headed our way in search of his lost Quantonium, which it seems is even more valuable than Unobtainium. To make things worse, the Quantonium has landed on earth, struck a bride-to-be named Susan, and turned her into the proverbial 50-foot woman, much to the horror of her groom and wedding guests. She is thrown into an Area 51–like prison, where other monsters have been squirreled away from the public for decades. Out of options, the U.S. president recruits the monsters as Earth’s best hope for survival.
If all of this seems to be straight out of the usual Bruckheimer-Bay-Emmerich mold, it isn’t. Instead, it’s one of the funniest computer-animated films of recent years. Galaxar is a hoot. “People of Earth, I mean you no harm,” he proclaims. “But you’ll all be either dead or enslaved in 24 hours. Don’t be angry; it’s just business.” Susan discovers that she can do better than her egotistical fiancé, and the other monsters prove to be both endearing and fascinating.
Coraline Jones is a lonely little girl. She has just moved into a creepy old house, has no real friends, and her parents are so preoccupied with their work on a gardening catalog that they have no time for her. But she soon discovers a small, papered-over doorway in the living room. It leads to another universe—similar to her own but different in important ways. Her “other” parents in that universe are devoted to satisfying her every whim. Her only new friend there doesn’t talk much (actually, not at all), the neighbors who share the old, subdivided house are fascinating rather than merely eccentric, and everything is colorful and fun.
All is not what it seems. Coraline is, at its core, a bloodless horror story. Much like the recent computer-animated film 9 (the first post-apocalyptic sock-puppet movie, and another dynamite audio/video transfer), it gets under your skin in ways that animated fare rarely does and could seriously frighten young children. It also uses stop-motion animation as refined by stop-motion expert Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, James and the Giant Peach).
As the third installment of the Ice Age franchise, you’d expect the latest adventures of our odd herd of prehistoric mammal friends—Sid the sloth, Manny and Ellie the wooly mammoths, Diego the saber-toothed tiger, Crash and Eddie the possums, and (off on his own as usual) everyone’s favorite latter-day Coyote, Scrat, the squirrel-rat. Scrat’s role has grown with each entry in the series, and here he gets a love (or rather love-hate) interest in Scrattle, a challenge to his acorn obsession.
The main attraction, and what makes this film the best of the three Ice Age movies, is clear from the title. It’s hard to make a bad movie featuring dinosaurs (although the recent remake of Land of the Lost took its best shot). Dinosaurs disappeared long before wooly mammoths walked the glaciers, but as they appear here in a sort of lost-world environment, we can forgive this bit of creative license.
Projectors are great. Projectors are fun. Projectors give you a big, immersive, theatrical experience, which is what we all want from our home theater systems. Even a great flatscreen HDTV is just a television compared with the drama that a front-projection image provides.
Price: $2,600 At A Glance: Precise color gamut in THX mode • Near reference black level • Sparkling 3D—and 2D—performance
Walking the 3D Talk
You might think that reviewing—and reading about—one flat panel after another would get boring, if not downright numbing. And it would, if the technology were static. Fee-fie-ho-hum, a new flat panel joins the scrum.
Price: $4,400 At A Glance: Clean, open, natural detail • Enveloping soundstage • Outstanding fit and finish
Bringing Home the Silver
One benefit that comes from the development of flagship products like Monitor Audio’s Platinum PL300-based speaker system (HT, October 2009) is that the technology often filters down into less expensive models in the manufacturer’s line. Of course, it won’t surprise you to hear that the ribbon tweeters, sculpted cabinets, and leather trim found in that $25,000-plus Platinum set haven’t made it into the $4,400 Silver RX8 system under review here. But refinement, elegance, and most importantly, high value and superb performance are still very much part of the package.
At a press event last week in Beverly Hills, California, Sony announced three new receivers and a Blu-ray player in the company's premium ES (Elevated Standard) line. Also new this year is a revised policy for ES sales. Unlike Sony's standard models, the ES series will be marketed exclusively through specialty retail outlets. These will include the Magnolia division of Best Buy and independent sellers. Sony feels that only such stores are fully qualified to properly demonstrate these products to consumers, allowing buyers to appreciate and take full advantage of the features they offer. Such limited distribution will also allow Sony to better enforce its minimum advertised pricing structure. The ES products will no longer be available online, nor will they be sold in Sony Style stores.