Ten Great Movies for Demonstrating Home Theater Surround Sound Systems—Part 2

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Ten Great Movies for Demonstrating Home Theater Surround Sound Systems—Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog, we took a look at five films that are great for demonstrating home theater surround systems: Apocalypto, Aviator, House of Flying Daggers, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here are five more we’ve found to be crowd pleasers and disks that you can also use in assessing surround sound speaker system performance.

6. The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow’s academy award-winning film The Hurt Locker is a brilliantly executed piece of work and on many different levels.

Recommended Chapters (untitled in this film): Chapters 3, 4, 8, and 9.

Highlights:

• In Chapters 3 – 4, the sound designer uses small, well-focused sonic details to convey shifting points of view, while using occasional abrupt loud sounds almost like sonic “seasonings” to add emphasis. Listen, for example, to sounds of breathing and the lightly distorted, electromechanical sound of Sergeant James’ voice as heard from inside his bomb disposal suit, which conveys a strange mixture of tension and inner calm. Note, too, the hard, sharp explosive sounds first of the smoke grenade going off, and later of a series of rounds being fired from Sergeant James’ 9mm Beretta. These act as markers that show the situation is, in truth, balanced on a knife’s edge line between life and death—a line that the members of James’ EOD bomb disposal unit must walk every day.

As the scene unfolds, James works to disarm what at first appears to be a single IED (Improvised Explosive Device), but which soon turns out to be a far more complicated threat involving multiple buried explosive devices. Listen to the quiet, sharp intake of breath as James realizes how complicated the bomb really is. Then, note the masterful race against the clock that ensues as we hear James hastening to disarm not one but six linked explosive shells, his hands and cutting tool moving swiftly yet oh-so-carefully, while at the same time we hear the footsteps of a terrorist clambering down the stairs of an adjoining building in hopes of detonating at least some of the devices before James can finish disarming them.

• In Chapters 8 – 9, we follow Sergeant James, Sergeant Sanborn, and Specialist Eldridge on a terrifying and deadly emotional “roller coaster” ride as they encounter—in the open Iraqi desert—what at first appears to be a group of heavily armed insurgents (high tension), then discover the group is actually a British unit (momentary humor and relief), only to be attacked by a real, though at first unseen, group of insurgent forces (even higher tension). We trace the wrenching emotional shift and turns by listening, primarily, to the edges in the soldiers’ voices, which become razor sharp as tensions mount, relax into momentary warmth and humor as the first apparent threat passes, and then are ratcheted almost beyond the breaking point as an even worse threat manifests itself Again, both small and large-scale sonic details are used liberally to add comment that reveals the true emotional tenor of the events as they unfold.

Three great examples would be the deceptively quiet but deadly “Thwack!” of an Iraqi sniper’s bullet striking down one of the British soldier as the attack begins, or the frenetic chaos of gunfire and explosions that ensue, revealing, in compelling surround sound, the fact that the allies at first have no idea where their attackers are located.

But perhaps the most telling sequence of all unfolds as Sanborn and his Iraqi counterpart engage in a sniper’s duel at a range of roughly 850 meters. After a back-and-forth exchange of shots, Sanborn fires what will prove to be the decisive round. When this happens, time seems to slow down as the sound director forces our attention to the strangely musical, tinkling, chime-like sound of Sanborn’s spent shell casing bouncing—in slow motion--off of some rocks, even as the bullet speeds downrange toward its target. We know, even before we see the outcome onscreen, that the terrorist will be struck down, as the almost surreal clinking of the shell casing continues and the musical score becomes progressively more ominous. It is almost as if the director is saying, “on the turn of such small, innocuous sounds at these, one man perishes while another one lives to fight another day.” It’s a hugely powerful scene.

7. Open Range. A wonderful Kevin Costner-directed Western starring Robert Duvall, Abraham Benrubi, Michael Gambon, Annette Bening and Costner himself. As in many classic films in this genre there are several interlocking themes: rugged individualist open range cattlemen vs. greedy ranchers and the corrupt marshal who enforces their will, violence, and even an unexpected lover story. The execution of these themes is very solid, as is the film’s at times spectacular soundtrack.

Recommended Chapters: “Opening Credits/A Rainy Campsite”, “Showdown At The Saloon”, “The Gunfight Begins”, and “The Town Helps Out”.

Highlights:

• Fans of soundtrack realism will be wowed during the opening chapter of Open Range, where we see and hear the advent of a thunderstorm and the ensuing downpour. Near the beginning of the storm, you’ll hear a thunderclap that is so realistic in pitch and dynamics that—if your subwoofer and system are up to the task—it will surely strike real fear in the hearts of most listeners (if you aren’t at least a little startled when the thunderclap arrives, then you need a better sound system). No less impressive, though, is the all-enveloping sound of the rain that follows. The sound, during the storm, should seem immersive in more ways than one (i.e., you should feel, as the characters certainly do, that there’s some possibility that runoff may soon soak through your clothes and swamp the very ground you’re sitting upon).

•  “Showdown At the Saloon” Is an important scene in that it prepares the foundation for a relationship between the townspeople and the free-grazers (cattlemen who allow their herds to feed on the open range), Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). Again, the scene is set in the middle of a downpour, sound for which is highly realistic, so that we see the protagonists struggling to cross the towns half-flooded Main Street in order to seek shelter in the saloon. But what should be a place of respite and comfort is not, since the barkeeper—who works for the cruel rancher Baxter—refuses to serve the “free-grazers “ and pointedly compares them to “varmints.” Not one to take such baseless insults lightly, Waite promptly discharges both barrels of a shotgun into the mirror behind the bar, bringing all conversation in the saloon to an abrupt halt. “We’ll have our drinks now,” says Waite, who means business. Spearman, sensing that the silence needs to be broken, makes a comment about the weather, saying that if the rain doesn’t let up soon “there’ll be trout fishing right on Main Street.” The light touch of humor does the job, visibly and audibly breaking the icy stillness in the room, and restoring the sense and sound of convivial warmth in a palpable way.

•  “The Gunfight Begins” and “The Town Helps Out” are matching halves of an epic, classic, good-guys-versus-bad-guys shootout—the sort that forms the cornerstone of many great Westerns, this one included. Before, during, and after the fight, note how the sound designer intersperses brief moments of relative quiet with the swirling, freewheeling uproar of the gun battles, themselves. One such moment occurs just before the fight starts, as Charlie and Boss, speaking just above whisper levels, tell each other their real names for the very first time, as Charlie puts it, “just in case.” Similarly, the designer lets us hear brief moments of the wind sweeping over the prairie, which helps to underscore just how alone and outnumbered Boss and Charlie are in the face of Baxter’s much larger force. The gun battles sound, as you would expect, appropriately explosive and cacophonous, though there are a few glitches that realism buffs might find objectionable (at one point, for example, Charlie fires ten shots in rapid succession from a “six-shooter,” etc.). Even so, the battle is one my all-time favorites that will get audience members’ hearts racing.

8. The Rundown. An action/adventure comedy film starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, and Christopher Walken. In a nutshell, Beck (Dwayne Johnson) is working off a debt by acting as a muscular collections agent for a mobster, sometimes collecting money and at other times collecting the debtors themselves. Beck is tasked with retrieving the mobster’s son Travis (Seann William Scott) from an obscure Brazilian mining town that is ruled by the iron-fisted landowner Hatcher (Christopher Walken). Whether the film is to your tastes or not, there’s no denying that certain sections of its soundtrack are downright spectacular.

Recommended Chapters: “Option C”, and “Behind the Moving Curtain”

Highlights:

• In “Option C”, Beck meets Mariana (Rosario Dawson), who informs him that in Brazil “Brazil Nuts” are called simply “nuts,” then tracks down Travis, and finally engages is a full-on bar room brawl with Hatcher’s hired thugs. Notice the realism of small details—billiard balls clicking against one another on an off screen pool table, snippets of conversation and Brazilian music, the clink of glassware, etc. Then, note the expansive, over-the-top dynamics of the fight scene, where—after Beck has performed heroically—Hatcher drily and sardonically says just one word: “Wow.”

•  “Behind the Moving Curtain” features one of the best-recorded surround soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time. Travis, Mariana, and Beck team up to search for a priceless ancient artifact that is a medium sized figurine of a cat that is cast in solid gold and is called simply the “Gato.” One of the main historical clues is that the Gato has been hidden “Behind the Moving Curtain,” which Travis correctly deduces is a waterfall. To push their search forward, the team swims beneath the waterfall to surface in an underground chamber that leads to a chamber whose roof is comprised of giant boulders suspended on frail looking wooden beams. At the back of the chamber, and blocked from access by the beams, is the Gato.

Travis determines that the chamber is a deadly puzzle designed to thwart would-be thieves. The only way to get to the Gato is to remove some of the support beams, but to do so in a way that does not bring the roof down. As Travis studies the floor, he realizes that carved stone tiles hold the key to the puzzle; only those beams resting on tiles marked in the shape of a cat can be safely removed (and then only temporarily). As Travis works his way toward the back of the chamber, we can hear a breeze blowing through the cave, the creaking and cracking of the centuries-old timbers, and the terrifying sound of Travis accidentally dislodging a beam or two that ought not to have been moved (so that Beck is forced to grasp the beams and—by brute force—to help keep the roof from collapsing). Eventually, Travis seizes the Gato and the team escapes in the nick of time, just before the roof caves in.

The scene in the chamber is terrifically enveloping and realistic, so that when beams in the back of the room creak and pop, it’s not uncommon to see movie watchers flinch involuntarily and crane their necks to look in the direction of breaking beams that, of course, aren’t really there. This, folks, is surround sound vividness at its best.

9. Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this Guy Ritchie-directed action/adventure/mystery drama.

Recommended Chapters (untitled in this film): Chapters 4, 12, 13, 20 and 21.

Highlights:

• More than many actors who have portrayed the famous Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. captures both the cerebral and decidedly raffish aspects of Holmes, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Chapter 4. The Chapter begins with Holmes doing battle in, of all things, a bare-fisted prizefight where he is pitted against a much larger combatant. For a time, things don’t look good for Holmes, as he finds himself knocked to the ground by a massive blow, when is temporarily distracted by seeing the handkerchief of his ex-lover Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Quickly regrouping, Holmes strategizes a complicated counterattack with almost surgical precision, and then executes in. Note how the sound designer supplies sonic cues that seem to slow down time as Holmes thinks through his attack plan, and then reverses course to supply further cues that real-time has been restored as Holmes dispatches his opponent in what seems like the blink of an eye.

• Chapter 12 and 13 show Holmes and Watson as quintessential men of action, with a soundtrack segment that mines a fine showcase piece. In Chapter 12, Holmes and Watson are scouting a laboratory for clues to help solve the mystery of Lord Blackwood’s mysterious “resurrection” when arsonists and a giant French muscleman named Dredger arrive on the scene intent on burning down the lab, destroying all evidence, and eliminating all witnesses. The soundtrack for the ensuing fight scene is rich in swirling details, including—especially—the strange electrical wand with which, quite by accident at first, Holmes bests the giant Dredger.

The sequence, and the soundtrack, kick into high gear, however, when Holmes chases Dredger into a dry dock where a ship is being worked on, hoping to get answers to his questions. In an abrupt reversal of fortune, Holmes the pursuer becomes the prey as Dredger wrenches the electric wand from his grasp and then chases him down the length of the ship toward the Thames. Dredger is so strong that he is able to chase Holmes with a giant maul too heavy for a normal man (i.e., Holmes) to lift, bashing down beams that support the giant ship as he goes. Listen to clanking of heavy iron chains and the deep, ominous groaning of the ship’s hull as it slips from its supports and slides stern-first into the river, dragging an immense capstan along behind it (which comes perilously close to crushing Holmes and Watson as it crashes past them). For fans of compelling surround effects, loud action sounds, and explosive dynamics, Chapter 13 is a real crowd pleaser.

• If Chapters 12 and 13 are spectacular showcase pieces (and they are), then Chapters 20 and 21 show a somewhat more poignant and artful way of handling violent action—though one that is certainly no less explosive. In Chapter 20, Holmes and Watson explore yet another laboratory, this one located in a warehouse/meat packing plant, as they pursue the phantom-like Lord Blackwood, when—with a resonant and weirdly all-enveloping voice—Blackwood suddenly reveals himself, announcing his intent to “end the world as you know it.” Holmes and Watson fire pistols at Blackwood, missing him, and are about to give chase when some of the meat-cutting machinery fires up and Irene Adler appears, chained to a conveyor mechanism and headed straight for a giant band saw meant to cut hog carcasses in half. Note how the sound designer uses the eerie whine of the saw blade to convey a sense of impending doom. In a near run escape, Holmes and Watson figure out a way to free Adler when she finds herself, predictably, just fractions of an inch from the keening blade.

• In Chapter 21, Watson resumes his pursuit of Blackwood, catching the briefest glimpse of him before accidentally trigger a trip-wire that sets off a huge explosion. Observe, once again, the way the sound designer supplies cues that time has slowed down, so that we hear—in painfully slow motion—the whine of the trip-wire retracting, leaving Watson only enough time to shout a brief warning to Holmes before the blast launches him into the air. The explosion, which is mostly rendered is slow motion, is a thing of terrible beauty, as we hear the subdued sounds of the blast and of vestigial surround effects as debris flies through the air above and behind us, while a hauntingly beautiful violin solo, full of pathos, conveys the tragedy of the events unfolding onscreen.

10. The Strangers. A 2008 drama/horror film, purportedly inspired by actual events, that shows Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) as victims of a random late night prank that slowly, mysteriously, and inexorably turns into a horrific and deadly home-invasion.

Recommended Chapters: “Back Again”, and “In The House”.

Highlights:

• McKay and Hoyt have come home late from a friend’s wedding reception to spend the weekend in a remote family cottage. Hoyt (perhaps inspired by the wedding they have just attended) proposes to McKay, who gently but decisively turns him down. In the midst of this, what appear to be pranksters led by a young woman begin banging on the front door in the middle of the night, demanding to know, “Is Tamara there?” Eventually, McKay and Hoyt persuade the visitors that no one named Tamara is present and that they should go away (or so McKay and Hoyt think). Hoyt, plainly upset at having his offer refused, decides to go into town “for cigarettes,” leaving McKay behind (after all, according to the well-established rules of horror films, the attractive girl must always be left alone in the house when evil comes calling). What ensues is an extended sequence whose soundtrack is—in its own subtle and in a sense understated way—one of the creepiest, scariest, and most unnerving that I’ve ever heard.

• After Hoyt leaves, McKay putters around, tending to a fire in the fireplace, and tries to relax from the stress of having turned down a proposal from a dear friend who is not, apparently, “the one.” At that moment, the sound designer uses subtly expanded dynamics to let us hear yet more pounding at the front door (the effect is realistic, yet also somewhat overblown for dramatic effect). Once again, a young woman’s voice asks “Is Tamara home?” When Tyler objects that the person has "been here already” and that Tamara is not present, the slightly unhinged voice from the other side of the door asks, “Are you sure?”

• To magnify the sheer oddity of the late night return visit, the sound designer introduces the deep, dark, foreboding sound of a large gong or giant temple bell that rings with ominous authority, making the whole scene feel progressively more off-kilter. After the visitor is, seemingly, sent away, things slowly start to unravel within the house. First, the sound of the fire in the fireplace takes on an odd tone, as it becomes apparent that the chimney is blocked and that the room is slowly filling with smoke, setting off a smoke detector, which McKay struggles to disarm. Next, McKay tries to call Hoyt using her cell phone, only to find that its battery dead and that the phone must be plugged into a charger. Then, McKay uses a land line to call Hoyt to ask that he come home quickly, but during the call the line suddenly goes dead. Throughout the scene, more banging at the door occurs, much louder this time. McKay also hears eerie, unexplainable noises from outside the house, though when looking out through a window she cannot determine what has caused them.

• Finally, after trying to calm her nerves, McKay turns back toward the center of the room, only to realize that the smoke detector has been moved from the spot where it had fallen on the floor, and that the cell phone has been taken from the charger and has disappeared. Small but significant sonic details add up layer by eerie layer, as McKay--now beside herself with anxiety--realized that not only are intruders playing with her emotions from without, but that at least one of them is in the house with her. All the while, the film score becomes darker and more ominous, and the banging sounds at the door become harsher and more insistent, ratcheting tension levels higher and higher. In short, if you're the sort of viewer/listener who finds a good scare thrilling, then the soundtrack the The Strangers should certainly do the trick. (Hint: This is not the sort of movie that the squeamish will want to watch in a fully darkened room.)

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