Author:admin

Review: Rear Window

Rear Window

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, more has been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker—and more has probably been written about Rear Window (1954) than any other film. It and Vertigo (1958) are often considered his most accomplished efforts—a conclusion I would vigorously dispute, but not here. Rear Window has gotten the most attention because, between the two, it’s the squeakier wheel.

 

It’s undeniable that this hubristic exercise in artifice, or stagecraft as cinema, would have completely unravelled in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. And it remains impressive how much Hitchcock is able to make the pure contrivance of his elaborate 

set a big part of what makes the film so engaging. You almost don’t care that it’s the somewhat clunky epitome of mid-’50s Broadway stage design. There’s something about its sheer physicality that makes everything that’s presented on it feel convincing.

 

Because Hitchcock was relentlessly ambitious, his reach constantly exceeded his grasp, so Rear Window has more than its share of shots that don’t quite work, storyboard concepts that had to be triaged in post, characters that could have used a little more development. Thelma Ritter’s part is ridiculously overwritten, and you can feel her pausing for laughs that forever faded it into the void more than five decades ago. Grace Kelly is just a little too Grace Kelly, with a patrician accent that can’t help but grate on modern ears.

 

The film works mainly because of the ingenious way Hitchcock makes the set, with its vignettes, convincing as projections of Jimmy Stewart’s various states of mind, 

REAR WINDOW AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation gives Hitchcock’s quintessential exercise in pure cinema an immediacy and sense of engagement it’s lacked in every previous home-video incarnation.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is applied subtly, for the most part, but gives the finale an impact the film has likely lacked since its first run in theaters.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix respects Hitchcock’s innovative original mix, with its uncanny evocation of space.

making the film from early on feel dreamlike. And it works because of Stewart’s performance. He, pre-World War II, was a good, even great, actor—his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is jawdropping, even today. But he was also kind of lightweight, sometimes clownish. After the war, there’s an undeniable sense of experience behind his eyes that he was able to employ deftly in his best roles—like in the Anthony Mann westerns, in Vertigo, and here.

 

Not that his performance is flawless. As always with Hitchcock, there are weak moments in the script and in the direction that cause Stewart, adrift, to lapse into his patented Stewartisms. But in the hands of a more traditional Hollywood pretty boy type, L. B. Jefferies snooping out of the back of his apartment could have seemed just comic, or even warped. Stewart creates a perfect tension between making it all seem justified and also the dangerous preoccupations of a troubled soul.

Rear Window

The 4K HDR presentation is a must-have for anybody who even thinks they care about movies—not because it smooths over the flaws but because it presents everything honestly, the good and the bad. Seeing Rear Window in any other format inevitably puts you at a distance from the film, which inevitably places you at too great of a distance from what’s going on in the apartments across the way. You need to see it at this resolution to get pulled back into the film, so it stops feeling quaint and again becomes relevant and compelling.

 

The flaws are pretty egregious. Hitchcock, of course, endlessly obsessed over how to present Kelly, but there’s a shot at 29:51, during a sequence meant to scream “beguiling beauty,” where she looks like a walking corpse. Even more jarring is a closeup at 1:50:29 of the hapless Wendell Corey that looks like it was originally part of a wider shot that was ruthlessly enlarged on an optical printer.

 

For whatever reason, cinematographer Robert Burks didn’t do as good a job here as he would on Vertigo, but for everything that takes you out of the film, there’s plenty to keep you engaged. Probably no other movie has better conveyed the feel of New York at sunset, or especially at three in the morning. And, while the HDR makes its presence felt just here and there, it is 

an absolute revelation during the climax. Anyone who knows Rear Window will know exactly where I’m going with this, but Raymond Burr being blinded by Stewart’s flashbulbs fell solidly into the “suspension of disbelief” camp until now. Presented in HDR, those white flashes become searing, making you feel Burr’s disorientation and sense of absolute loss. Rear Window is worth seeing in this form just for that moment alone.

 

The audio is “only” DTS-HD Master Audio stereo. I used quotes because the thought of somebody mucking around with Hitchcock’s innovative and masterful sound mix to take

it into the land of Atmos is both terrifying and nauseating. In the right hands, it could definitely enhance the experience—but who’s got the right hands? And I think there’s a good chance an enhanced sense of spaciousness could actually end up emphasizing the one-dimensionality of a lot of the stagecraft.

 

The mix here does a great job of allowing you to savor what Hitchcock originally wrought, where he used mainly volume, timing, and reverb to convey the sense of voices and other sounds heard in various spaces and from various distances away. 

The soundtrack, as is, is so strong it could almost stand on its own as a radio play.

 

But allow me just a brief swipe at Franz Waxman’s score, which is the weakest link in the film. It’s not that I don’t like Waxman—his work on Sunset Boulevard represents the pinnacle of the film-scoring art—but he’s just not in sync with this film at all. The opening theme—if you can call it that—is a hackneyed pastiche of Gershwin clichés—42nd Street meets The Naked City. But what makes it really fall flat is the sense of complete disconnection from the evocative use of source cues that makes up the rest of the soundtrack. I know Hitchcock was aiming for a kind of overture as the curtains literally went up, but he missed the mark.

 

And then there’s that song. Another of Hitchcock’s offerings placed on the altar of Grace Kelly, it was a great idea in concept—show a composer struggling to write a song to parallel Jimmy Stewart’s conflicted feelings about Kelly and then have it all come together as an example of songwriting perfection. Problem is, the song sounds fully worked out—and not very good—from the start. Had it been great, it could have elevated the whole film—and not made the salvation of Miss Lonelyhearts look like the worst kind of Victorian contrivance. But “Lisa” is a real stinker.

Rear Window

I’m not a big fan of Top 10 or Top 100 or whatever lists—they’re almost all laughable when they’re not outright dangerous. So let’s just say that Rear Window, for too many reasons to ignore, is an essential. Not only does it stand on its own as entertainment for all but the most jaded contemporary viewers (and let’s not go there), but its reverberations can still be strongly felt in present-day film. In 4K HDR, it becomes not just another movie, but the very definition of cinema.

Michael Gaughn

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

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Steve Haas

Steve Haas is a member of the very small group of people who know how to put the ultimate acoustic polish on a luxury entertainment space. As he discussed in “Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms,” there are all kinds of ways to make a high-end room sound good, even great. But it takes special training, experience, and acuity to know how to wring the last drop of performance out of an acoustically complicated space.

 

While Steve has built a reputation from his work on challenging, high-profile public venues like New York’s Statue of Liberty Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, he is equally well known for his work on private rooms—especially home theaters, and especially his work with Theo Kalomirakis (which both he and Theo discussed in “Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space”).

 

We recently had a chance to talk to Steve about what work has been like during the pandemic, when people are spending more time using their entertainment spaces and are actively making plans to upgrade but are reluctant to have people who aren’t members of their immediate family in their homes. We also talked about the need for good acoustics in rooms other than entertainment spaces (which he has also discussed in “Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics”).

 

This video also touches on one of his favorite subjects—private concerts in people’s homes, which have almost come to a complete stop because of the virus. Steve had so much to say about this, and the large potential market for virtual private performances, that we’re going to make his comments the subject of a followup video.

RELATED POSTS

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Review: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. Frustrating because it has a really important message to convey, but sometimes undermines that message with cutesy animation and heavy-handed musical accompaniment. Frustrating because it wants to be equal parts documentary and drama, but fails in the latter respect. Frustrating because I wanted to write it off entirely, but ended up being won over despite my better judgment. But most of all, frustrating because it relies on some of the same tactics it decries.

 

As you could probably ascertain from its title, The Social Dilemma is about the dual-edged sword of social media and the impact it’s having on society. What makes the documentary aspect of the film work as well as it does is the reliance on 

Silicon Valley experts like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, who helped create the very tools that they’re now warning us about.

 

Harris—co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” according to The Atlantic—dominates the film with a series of cogent explanations about how the algorithms that drive everything from Google searches to Facebook interactions work. On the upside, he’s given a lot more room to breathe here than in his famous TED Talk on the subject, allowing him to connect some dots I’ve never seen connected before, at least not in the way they’re connected here.

 

But for every illuminating observation from Harris, The Social Dilemma feels compelled to spoon-feed the viewer a disjointed dramatic narrative that feels like the mutant child of an ABC Afterschool Special and one of those awful Chick Tracts that used to litter the gutters of New Orleans.

SOCIAL DILEMMA AT A GLANCE

This often penetrating look at the ill effects of social media is effective when it sticks to interviews but goes astray with inappropriate music, animation, and dramatic vignettes.

 

PICTURE     

This image displayed none of the artifact problems you would have expected from a UHD image being streamed without HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 mix has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score but doesn’t overwhelm the all-important dialogue.

It’s in these dramatizations that The Social Dilemma commits its greatest sin: Assuming the stupidity of the viewer. The story here is about a family whose two youngest children are being harmed by social media—one child whose entire sense of self-worth is based on “Likes” in response to photos she posts, the other who ends up sliding down the slippery slope of fake news and becoming radicalized.

 

Handled well, I suppose it could have worked. But in attempting to explain how the algorithms that encourage engagement trap users in a dopamine-driven feedback loop, the filmmakers decided to anthropomorphize these algorithms and give

them dialogue, à la a twisted techie version of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This takes what is genuinely a malignant phenomenon and turns it into a seemingly malicious one, which undermines a lot of the film’s messaging. It also directly contradicts the views of the experts, who do a much better job of explaining the nuances of these wholly impersonal 

algorithms and the way they manipulate users to generate revenue, engagement, and growth. But nuance doesn’t suffice these days, I suppose, so we end up with these wholly unnecessary abstract dramatizations that do little more than confuse the uninitiated and drag down the film.

 

By the time its closing credits rolled, though, The Social Dilemma won me back with a well-developed conclusion that cuts straight to the heart of the divisiveness, anxiety, depression, suicide, social upheaval, and general discord sowed by social media—as well as some of the upsides of this technology. I wish some of this balance had been sprinkled more evenly through the rest of the film, because we can’t have an honest conversation about the impact of social media without covering the good as well as the bad (although, full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this respect since Facebook was responsible for my reunion with my daughter).

 

If the entire 94-minute running time of The Social Dilemma had lived up to the quality of the last 10 minutes or so, it would be much easier to recommend. But I’m left with a dilemma of my own here, because I think the message of the film is so important that you should view it despite its flaws. Just go in armed with the knowledge that director Jeff Orlowski employs some of the same psychological sleight-of-hand the film warns us about.

 

As for the presentation of the film itself, Netflix delivers The Social Dilemma in Ultra HD without HDR10 or Dolby Vision high dynamic range. As soon as I noticed this, I deliberately kept an eye out for the sort of visual artifacts inherent in high-efficiency streaming without HDR: Banding, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail, etc. Surprisingly, I couldn’t see them, which makes me think Netflix may be employing a higher-than-usual bitrate for the film, but I’m just speculating. Whatever the explanation, it points to the fact that streaming services are constantly evolving in terms of quality of presentation. Even just a couple years ago, Netflix would have had to stick this SDR film in an HDR container to deliver a stream this artifact-free.

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score that could have easily gotten out of hand with the wrong sound mixer. Thankfully, it’s a mostly front-channel affair, and dialogue clarity

is topnotch. It should sound fine whether you’re watching on a full-fledged home cinema system or a simple soundbar.

 

In the end, as I said, I’m of two minds here: I want you to watch The Social Dilemma, but I also want you to know what you’re getting into here. It’s a significantly flawed film, but it’s also an important one. If the hypnotic animation 

and ham-fisted dramatizations are too much for you to stomach, though, I highly recommend watching Tristan Harris’ TED Talk instead. It doesn’t connect the dots nearly as effectively as does The Social Dilemma, and it isn’t nearly as well-produced, but it also isn’t burdened by all the saccharine fluff that mires this docu-drama.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Inception

Inception

After the mental calisthenics of watching and trying to unpack Tenet, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to another of my favorite Christopher Nolan time-bending films, Inception. This was especially the case after my 13-year-old daughter—whose introduction to Nolan was Tenet—asked if all of his films were “that confusing and hard to understand,” and after I saw that a 4K HDR transfer was available for download from Kaleidescape.

 

Scoring an impressive 87% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score and 91% audience score, Inception made over $825 million at the box office, and was a critical success as well, winning four Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, with additional nominations for Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, and Best Picture.

The core plot of Inception is actually fairly simple—getting someone to do something you want them to by planting a simple idea in their subconscious that they believe is their own. But it is the path of getting there that is so complex and visually stunning to watch, as Nolan creates dream worlds within worlds within worlds, with time expanding exponentially the further down you go. What takes seconds in “real life” might equate to hours or even decades multiple dream-levels deep.

 

Similar to lucid dreaming—a dream where the person is aware they are dreaming and can then exert control over the dream universe—Inception allows for group dreaming where an architect designs and builds the dream world, which is then populated by others who can control the dream, with the actual dreamer filling out the world with the characters of his subconscious mind. (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand; if you haven’t, trust me that it actually makes a lot of sense.)

INCEPTION AT A GLANCE

In the wake of his mindbending Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s dream-world thriller Inception gets the 4K HDR treatment, with a slew of bonus features to help you figure out what it all means.

 

PICTURE     

Tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame, with plenty of opportunities for HDR to make things pop from the film’s muted palette.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix features plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to place you in the action, and massive low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits.

Besides the striking visuals and stunt sequences, another element that really elevates Inception is the fantastic cast, with practically every role handled by A-list talent. This includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine. DiCaprio does an especially good job here, as do Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe.

 

The film revolves around Cobb (DiCaprio), an expert “extractor” who is able to steal valuable information from someone’s subconscious while they are dreaming, being hired by Saito (Watanabe) to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Murphy)—the newly appointed CEO of a multi-billion-dollar energy concern—in order to plant the idea in his head to break up his company to avoid a future monopoly. In return, Saito promises he can arrange for Cobb—who has been on the run for years after having been wrongfully accused of killing his wife Mal (Cotillard)—to be able to come home to see his children.

 

Cobb’s subconscious is haunted by memories of Mal—with whom he spent a decade in the abyss of their shared subconscious and where she ultimately lost track of reality—and any dreamworlds he now creates are quickly corrupted and 

overrun by her. He hires one of his father’s (Caine) top students, Ariadne (Page), whom he teaches how to design and construct elaborate labyrinthian dream worlds that will give his team more time to move about before they are discovered and attacked by the dreamer’s subconscious. (Again, this all makes sense when you see the film.)

 

The dream worlds are often filled with fascinating Escher-like architecture—entire city blocks that twist upwards at 90 degrees to fold back onto the world, rooms filled with never-ending staircases, topsy-turvy gravity, and cities disintegrating as the dreamworld collapses.

 

You’ll likely find yourself asking, “How did they do that?” 

and fortunately there is a slew of featurettes included with the download that provide answers to many of your questions. It is especially impressive when you see that many of these are actually in-camera practical effects as opposed to CGI trickery. Especially interesting is a short animated graphic-novel-esque prequel film, The Cobol Job, which gives some interesting backstory on how Cobb ends up encountering Saito in Inception.

 

While I don’t think of Inception as an action film, it actually has a surprising amount of action, with the dreamworlds filled with car chases and numerous shootouts. One of the final dream levels—a heavily fortified hospital on top of a snow-covered mountain—always reminds me of a level of a Bond-like video game, using snipers, stealth, and force to overcome a large force on skis and in tracked vehicles to infiltrate a massive complex and achieve the objective.

 

Originally shot on 35mm and 65mm film, there is no information on the resolution of the digital intermediate used here, but there is tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame. Closeups reveal loads of facial detail, and you can especially appreciate the detail, design, and fabric texture in the actors’ clothing. For example, in the opening moments, we see Cobb lying in the surf, and there is sharp line texture and detail in the fabric of his jacket. Later, in the snow-mountain scene, you can appreciate the slightly pebbled texture on the leather accents of Cobb’s teams’ uniforms, or a delicate white-on-white pattern on one of Saito’s shirts. Long shots of Paris and Mombasa are also sharp and full of detail, as are the busy city streets of the Paris dream world, where every building edge is sharp and defined. There are the occasional shots in soft focus, but this appears to be more a limit of the original material.

 

While the film has a generally muted greyish, overcast, or steely-blue color palette, there are still plenty of opportunities for the HDR grading to improve the viewing experience. One big difference I noticed over the Blu-ray transfer was the enhanced pop of the white shirts worn by many of the actors, and the brightness of the overhead lighting in rooms. The early scene in Saito’s castle especially benefits from this, with the lighting looking far more realistic and bathing the room in a rich, warm, golden glow. Interior scenes also benefit from rich shadow detail while still delivering bright highlights either from light streaming in through windows or internal lighting, and the added contrast also benefits the snowy scenes, providing more detail and depth to the white-covered landscape.

 

Nolan famously eschews next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos, and we are once again “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix here. Even so, it is pretty dynamic, with plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to

place you in the action. From street sounds at a Paris café, to a freight train whizzing past in the side surrounds, to the creaking and groaning of an elevator shaft and cabling, to dynamic gun fire and bullet strikes discreetly placed around the room, to the distinct sounds of objects exploding in air, Inception’s sound mix is active and entertaining.

 

The film also features some truly massive and immense low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits. From the opening scene, the sounds of waves crashing at the beach pound your room with bass. Even more aggressive are the deep—and lengthy—bass signals when a dreamworld is collapsing, or the crashing of an avalanche.

 

Another thing Nolan is becoming infamous for is difficult-to-understand dialogue. This was a real complaint of mine from his two most recent films—Tenet and Dunkirk—where dialogue was completely unintelligible for many key sequences, often drowned out by effects and music mixed significantly louder (and characters mumbling behind masks in the case of Tenet). While most of Inception isn’t plagued with this, there are still a few moments where dialogue is buried beneath other sounds.

 

Nolan re-teams with frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer for the score here, and it 

Inception

is often an aggressive, dynamic, stress-filled mix that comes at you from all corners of the room. The film’s finale is heightened by the score, which is like a constant assault on the senses and will get your heart pumping. One of the songs, “Mombasa,” reminded me of the frenetic electronica and bass assault of a Blue Man Group track.

 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Inception remains incredibly entertaining, and as visually exciting and entertaining as any modern film. With a new 4K HDR transfer, the film looks better than ever, making it the perfect time to revisit this modern classic.

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.

The Beatles on Film: “A Hard Day’s Night” & “Help!”

The Beatles on Film

If an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings is a little too heavy and big of a commitment for your comfort viewing, you might want to opt for something a little lighter but no less substantial. Consider, for example, the groundbreaking first films by the Fab Four (aka the Beatles)!

 

At this point, well into the 21st century, it is often hard to fathom the Beatles’ impact on so many facets of popular culture across not only music but art, fashion, and even filmmaking. On the surface, their films can be enjoyed simply for their boundless and often madcap sense of joy and adventure. Yet there was a great deal of thought and care that allowed 

director Richard Lester to capture and convey this energy on the silver screen.

 

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

 

The preferred version of this film is currently only on a deluxe edition Blu-ray Disc package put out by Criterion. Not only does this present a restored version of the film based on a stellar 4K transfer, but there is a wealth of bonus materials that are essential viewing for appreciating the movie and its impact on the filmmaking. (You can also stream Hard Day’s Night on most of the major services, as well as on the Criterion Channel.)

A fanciful, playful adaptation of actual occurrences in the daily life of the Beatles coping with the first wave of “Beatlemania,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is a black & white documentary-like snapshot of that moment in time. You’re immersed in the Beatles’ lives, finding yourself in the thick of Liverpool and London as you witness these four “mop top” musicians’ daily struggle to exist. Victims of their own fame, just getting to a performance without being mobbed by fans was a major undertaking!

 

A Hard Day’s Night is akin to Francois Truffaut’s influential Day for Night (1973), which was at its core a movie about making movies. A Hard Day’s Night shows the Beatles being Beatles, four talented musicians performing their original music on television, in concert, and in the studio. At the time, being able to see that was still a new and exciting phenomenon.

 

Part of what makes this movie both a believable documentary-styled film and an enjoyable cinematic entertainment experience is its clever script design, which is crafted around the Beatles’ unique and fast-evolving “Fab Four” mythology. A Hard Day’s Night blurred the lines between traditional moviemaking and the free-form spontaneity of improvisation, allowing Lester to capture on film the essence of the Beatles’ individual personas and special magic as a group. Scriptwriter Alun Owen spent time with the band, following them around, familiarizing himself with their mannerisms as well as their daily trials and tribulations in the face of rapidly escalating Beatlemania.

 

Accordingly, this, coupled with Lester’s unique directing style provided the necessary basic story structure while allowing space for happy accidents and in-the-moment magic to make its way into the final cut. This helps lend a buoyant quality to the film, making it feel timeless nearly 60 years on. 

 

A Hard Day’s Night showcases the Beatles’ whimsical English humor, which would show up throughout their careers, especially on film. Influences like The Goon Show, the comedy troupe that gave the world Peter Sellers (who became a friend of the band and even later co-starred with Ringo Starr in The Magic Christian), trickled down into A Hard Day’s Night and subsequent films like Help! and Magical Mystery Tour.

 

The movie boasts numerous innovations that influenced future filmmakers. For example, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor armed his team with handheld cameras so the Beatles wouldn’t feel inhibited on set. Combined with Lester’s prior TV-production experience, the result amounted to the development of a new filmmaking style, the repercussions from which are still being felt today. And it all started with these four lads from Liverpool!

 

The Criterion edition looks terrific in 1080p (working off the 4K restoration), displaying a remarkable level of detail. The solid but appropriately simple DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix created by producer Giles Martin definitely improves the viewing experience, especially compared to the old mono version.

 

In the book that comes with this edition, you can read in detail about the sources for creating the restored footage used in creating the Blu-ray Disc. It also goes into extensive detail about the audio restoration, including how the original master dialogue and effects tracks were located, while paying attention to significant details unique to the film that had an impact on the soundtrack. This is yet another reason to buy this director-approved Blu-ray.

 

The Criterion package delivers a bounty of bonuses, including the 1994 documentary You Can’t Do That: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night.” From 2002 is a documentary called Things They Said Today, which features Lester and Gilbert Taylor as well as the Beatles’ music producer George Martin.

 

Lester’s Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960) is an essential bonus starring Peter Sellers and anticipating some of the ideas and visual concepts Lester used to great effect in A Hard Day’s Night (and which ultimately influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Picturewise is a fascinating piece about Lester’s early work, and Anatomy of a Style is a more recent feature that explores his directing methods.

The Beatles on Film
HELP!

 

The best version of Help! I’ve seen to date was released in 2013 on Blu-ray. Lovingly restored (in 2007) and with some terrific bonus materials, its a fun film to add to your collection that looks and sounds great. Watch it in 5.1 surround sound for the most fulfilling experience. (You can also stream it on iTunes.)

 

For the followup to A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles and Richard Lester knew they had to do something different so the second film wouldn’t seem like a formulaic retread. For starters, Help! was shot in color vs. A Hard Day’s Night’s black & white.

 

Most significantly, the film revolves around a genuine plot line as opposed to the quasi-documentary feel of A Hard Day’s Night— they didn’t try to make A Hard Day’s Night IIInstead, the Beatles were placed squarely in the then-popular spy-thriller genre. Very much a light parody of the 1960s Bond films, this connection continued for Paul McCartney, who would later compose the theme song for Live and Let Die.

 

Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, which stayed based in England, Help! takes the Beatles to sensational locations, including sunny beaches in The Bahamas and snow-capped mountainsides in Austria. But beyond the fun-mod look and feel of the film and some of the breathtaking location imagery, which might seem on the surface like just escapist fluff, Help! would end up having a big impact on the movies—and on TV.

 

For example, Lester refined the approach to the Beatles’ musical numbers that he had begun to develop in A Hard Days Night, where he had crafted standalone performance vignettes in unusual locations, be it a train or an aerial shot of the Beatles running around wildly in a field. In Help! he essentially invented the modern “music video,” with its combination of performance footage, story narrative, fast-cut editing, and innovative camera angles. MTV even named him the Father of Music Videos, according to Lester himself in an interview you can enjoy in the bonus materials on the Help! Blu-ray. 

 

The Blu-ray’s sound quality is excellent, mixed into a mostly forwardly-leaning, gently immersive, and remarkably dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. I prefer watching the film this way as it just feels fuller without being distracting.

 

The overall look of Help! is fantastic, and many kudos go out to the team responsible for its restoration. Do be sure to watch the documentary on the restoration. It’s quite impressive because it shows the process of how the film negative was prepared for digital transfer, and then explains how all the subsequent digital cleanup work was done frame by frame by hand in the computer by a tag team of experts. This was a labor of love for these film professionals, who also happened to be Beatles fans. They wanted to make sure they did the film justice, and it shows.

 

Help! looks fantastic in all its 1080p glory and I only wonder how it might look with an updated super-high-resolution restoration—maybe we’ll get to see that on the film’s 60th anniversary in 2025.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Review: Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

This was supposed to be a review of Rear Window. But I had such a strong reaction to watching Psycho in 4K that Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic quickly pushed its way to the front of the reviewing queue.

 

More has probably been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker, most of it boxing him in so tightly that he’s ended up as badly embalmed as Norman Bates’s mother. So I’m going to try to avoid retreading any of that ground here. My comments will be mainly about why you should care about Psycho in 2020—and why you should care about it in 4K.

 

First off, there’s Anthony Perkins. Sure, people have praised his performance before, but I didn’t realize exactly how groundbreaking it was, and how much it still reverberates today, until this most recent viewing. Hitchcock was notorious for

putting blinders on his performers, so while there are some exceptional breakout performances in his films (I’m thinking of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train in particular), they’re rare, and tend to happen not because the actor was given extraordinary latitude but because he figured out how to roll within Hitchcock’s often stifling restrictions.

 

Perkins turns that straitjacket into a virtue, offering the most direct, nuanced, and startling performance in any Hitchcock film. (His bursting in on Vera Miles at the end always seems so comical because he has kept Norman on a such a believably tight leash until then.) There are many things in Psycho that are unique for a Hitchcock film (I’ll get to that in a minute), but this is the most unusual. As soon as Perkins says his first lines to Janet Leigh, Psycho pivots from a traditional studio-era production into the cinematic unknown.

 

And then there’s the enduring influence of his performance, which has become the standard for any actor attempting to explore the extreme edges of dissociation. It’s hard to 

PSYCHO AT A GLANCE

This 4K version of Hitchcock’s lurid horror classic helps show how much the director used this film to reinvent himself and also helps showcase Anthony Perkins’ groundbreaking performance.

 

PICTURE     

Being able to watch Psycho at the equivalent of 35mm resolution is a huge leap over earlier home video incarnations, restoring some of the impact the film had for audiences at the time of its release.

 

SOUND     

While the stereo and 5.1 mixes are only adequate, they both do an excellent job of presenting Bernard Herrmann’s justly famous score.

watch his Norman Bates and not see De Niro’s Travis Bickle—or even Rupert Pupkin. To watch Perkins in this film is to watch him actively and radically reinvent film acting—all while under his director’s unblinking gaze.

 

But Hitchcock ventured into all kinds of new territory in Psycho, and it’s fascinating to see him trying to reinvent himself as he grapples with the collapse of the studio system and the realization of how tightly he was bound to it. The tragic thing about Psycho was that he found it impossible to build on the new ground he carved out here, instead retreating to what he already knew, which is why all of his later films feel half-baked and out of touch.

A lot has been made about Hitchcock using a TV crew to shoot this film, but that kind of misses the point. Psycho, on the moviemaking level, is mainly about Hitchcock grappling with his increasing bitterness, cynicism, disorientation, and misogyny in a world where he could feel his influence as a filmmaker and a personality waning, and figuring out what the hell to make of his unmistakable attraction to La Nouvelle Vague, a movement that worshipped his work but that couldn’t have been further removed from his Hollywood-machine style of filmmaking.

 

Any balanced consideration of Hitchcock’s misogyny in the 

age of the New Puritanism is guaranteed to fall on deaf ears—but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. His take on women was far more deft and complex than he’s usually given credit for (consider, for instance, that the two most assertive and courageous characters in Rear Window are Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly, and how Eva Marie Saint makes Cary Grant look like a dope in North by Northwest). Yes, the sense of personal aggression in his handling of the Marion Crane character is troubling, but the film hinges on being able to see her through Norman’s eyes from the second he first encounters her in the rain at the Bates Motel.

 

That’s one of the more New Wave elements in this very New Wave-y film, that not only is Marion not very likable—nobody in this film is, which is what forces you to gravitate toward Norman and feel some uncomfortably complex emotions about him as it all plays out.

 

As for the shock factor—it’s there, but not in the broad strokes that enticed and repelled audiences at the time. Probably the two most disturbing images now are Janet Leigh staring out at the audience with her face flattened against the bathroom floor and Perkins mounting Martin Balsam, butcher knife aloft, while Balsam lies on his back squealing like a stuck pig.

Psycho (1960)

What’s more disturbing are the droller, more perverse touches, like forcing the audience to suffer John Gavin through the whole second half of the film, and the justly infamous penultimate scene where the smug psychiatrist explains all. But it’s worth enduring that to get to the brilliant Godardian shot of Norman in confinement, leading to him giving the camera what would become the patented Kubrick crazy stare, with that almost subliminal superimposition of Mother’s rotting face.

 

What 4K brings to all this is distressing—as in, you can see all the little nicks and scuff marks and tears and stains that evoke the shabby decay of the Bates Motel. It’s hard to emphasize how much this heightens the experience of the film. Given Hitchcock’s horror of any kind of filth, the idea of a place—and a mind—that rundown was probably truly terrifying for him, and it takes all the clarity of UHD resolution to faithfully convey that.

 

Strangely, capturing the full impact of 35mm film makes the subtle verbal duel between Perkins and Balsam that begins in the motel office and continues out on the walkway far more intense than it felt in earlier home video incarnations. This is another scene where Hitchcock went well outside his comfort zone, not only in the way he allowed the actors to fence, but in the way he turned it into a duel of acting styles that had until then been foreign to his work. This scene had always felt kind of flat seen anywhere other than in a movie theater, until now.

 

But 4K both giveth and taketh away. This transfer does its best with some occasionally bad film elements, the worst instance probably being a POV shot through Marion’s windshield at the 24:11 mark where the resolution and image enhancement create a giant swarm of digital gnats that make it feel like you’re watching the opening to Men in Black.

 

Also, without getting pulled into any sweeping generalizations, it needs to be pointed out that while the HDR version bests the UHD version, the differences are so subtle they’ll probably only register with hyper-critical viewers. Spot-checking scenes with

a lot of gradation, like Marion and Norman in the lobby parlor (Chapter 8) or Norman burying evidence in the swamp (Chapter 12), showed only the slightest difference between versions.

 

But it’s hard to emphasize how much 4K does to revive Psycho and make it feel vital, instead of like some vaguely appreciated but permanently filed-away relic. And experiencing it in either UHD or HDR brings a new respect for its mostly restrained black & white cinematography. Color would have been too distracting, visually drowning out the impact of the film’s brutally pared-down main elements. And we can only shudder at the thought of 4K colorization.

 

As for the sound, you’re probably best off experiencing Psycho with the DTS HD Master Audio stereo track. The Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t make the film more engaging, just different. That’s not to say that someone someday couldn’t do a compelling Dolby Atmos remix, but they would have to be an absolute virtuoso to make their efforts dovetail with Hitchcock’s aesthetic.

 

And let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score, which is well served by both mixes. I had never really appreciated until I heard it here just how much Herrmann relied on the primal 

Psycho (1960)

physicality of the bows scraping across the strings and the rough resonance of the string instruments’ body cavities—the cellos and basses in particular. Sure, that impression had always been there, on the verge of recognition, but this time that naked musical aggression seemed far more crucial to the impact of the score than the notes themselves.

 

Anybody who cares about movies beyond junk-food event flicks needs to make the pilgrimage to Hitchcock at some point in their lives, and there are far worse places to start than Psycho (like, say, Family Plot). Whether it gets under your skin on your first viewing is a matter of blind luck, but it will stick with you. If you haven’t seen it in a while, your best chance beyond the local revival house (do they even have those anymore?) will be these UHD and HDR releases. And if you’re a rabid fan of the film, you should have already hit the download button by now.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a prime candidate for a 4K/HDR remaster. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the film itself, of course. In fact, I would rank it as the second-best “goth” film of all time (right after Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, of course). It’s just never been a film that made for decent home theater demo material. The DVD release looked like a skit performed for public-access TV, and the Blu-ray—while a huge improvement—was still a blown-out, garish, overly saturated mess of a thing that could be categorized as “watchable” at best.

 

That kind of thing sticks with you. For the past 32 years, the home video presentation of Beetlejuice has left a lasting impression in the mind of viewers of how this quirky and adorably dark film is supposed to look. My only hope here is that 

enough people give the UHD/HDR release enough attention to undo some of the damage done by previous home video efforts.

 

To be frank, you don’t really notice the advantages of the new HDR color grade at first. And I suspect that’s because the opening credits sequence—with its sweeping overhead view of the village of Winter River, CT, which morphs into a model thereof—seems to have been taken from a print, not the original film negative. So while you immediately get a sense of the enhanced resolution of this new restoration, the color palette is still a little limited and the overall quality of the image is ever-so-slightly dupe-y.

 

As soon as the last title fades away, though, we quite obviously move to a scan of the original negative, and from here on out the image takes on all the qualities of beautifully restored (or perhaps lovingly preserved) 35mm film.

 

Maybe the most startling thing about this new presentation is how nuanced the colors are. Gone are the ridiculously 

BEETLEJUICE AT A GLANCE

This 4K transfer of Tim Burton’s surprisingly affirmative romp through goth darkness shows what a boon HDR can be for ’80s films—when it’s done right.

 

PICTURE     

This 4K HDR version avoids the garishness of, and restores a lot of the detail missing from, earlier home video incarnations.

 

SOUND     

The tastefully done Dolby Atmos mix results in audio that sounds better than the original soundtrack sounded on the mixing stage, enhancing the clarity of the dialogue and giving Danny Elfman’s score plenty of room to breathe.

ruddy skin tones and the Hulk-Smash green of the foliage (both outdoors and in the scale model of Winter River that dominates the plot of the film). Yes, as the lovely Geena Davis and a surprisingly sufferable Alec Baldwin make their trek into the idyllic little town toward the beginning of the film, the image is still peppered with vibrant primary hues—the sign on the hardware store, the covered bridge where Davis and Baldwin’s characters lose their lives—but because of the wider color gamut of HDR10, the saturation of the overall image doesn’t have to be cranked to 11 to allow for such vivid chromaticity when and where it’s appropriate.

 

The second thing you notice is that there’s just so much detail in the image that has been lost in previous home video transfers, and not wholly as a function of resolution. Take the short scene in which the pushy real-estate agent played by Annie McEnroe surprises Baldwin’s character at the window in a desperate push to talk him out of his home. Even on Blu-ray, the scenery behind her is a white-hot blur, devoid of depth or detail. And that makes sense, given the 8-bit limitations of HD video. The choice had to be made whether to overexpose the world outside that window or underexpose the interior and risk

losing Baldwin in the shadows.

 

In this new 10-bit transfer, both interior and exterior are perfectly exposed. Baldwin exists in the shadows, yes, but doesn’t get lost in them, while the depth and detail of the foliage behind McEnroe still shines through.

 

That’s one scene out of dozens I could point to in 

extolling the virtues of this new UHD/HDR restoration and its ability to breathe life into this tale of the dead. Other details that come to mind are the imperfections of Winona Ryder’s teenaged complexion and the fine filigree lace of Davis’s bridal gown, both of which are resolved beautifully. The film grain is also perfectly organic throughout—not too noisy, not too overbearing, but never artificially smoothed over.

 

But perhaps my favorite thing about this new transfer is the way it handles the scenes in the bureaucratic Neitherworld, which have always been the worst-looking aspect of the film’s home video releases. Here, the HDR gets to flex its muscles with no concern for lifelike skin tones or believable greenery. Simply put, these sequences now glow and iridize like a fluorescent

blacklight poster, which is how they’ve always looked in my memory of seeing the film far too many times to count on the big screen in the spring of ’88.

 

The sound on the other hand? I think it’s safe to say Beetlejuice didn’t sound as good on the mixing stage as it does here. Aside from a few cute and subtle exceptions, the new Dolby Atmos remix doesn’t get too carried away with repositioning sound elements or making the film sound like a modern blockbuster, mind you. And thank goodness it doesn’t include any re-recorded sound effects, as does the travesty of a remix included with the new 4K/HDR remaster of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The mix mostly serves to simply give more space to Danny Elfman’s delicious score and the wonderfully uplifting Harry Belafonte soundtrack. But it’s also apparent that there’s also been some equalization done to the audio. There’s an enhanced richness and fidelity I don’t recall ever hearing before, and dialogue clarity is among the best of any home video release. Like, ever.

 

There’s nothing much by way of extras here, aside from three episodes of the Beetlejuice Saturday-morning cartoon that ran from 1989 to 1991. These haven’t been restored and are horribly compressed, so they likely aren’t worth your time. The Kaleidescape download, unlike the recent UHD Blu-ray release, also includes an isolated music track—that is to say, a version of the film devoid of dialogue or 

Beetlejuice

sound effects. But it’s unfortunately married to the pan & scan standard-definition transfer of the film, so its value is debatable at best.

 

But don’t let the lack of supplemental goodies bum you out. Beetlejuice is one of the worthiest UHD/HDR remasters I’ve seen to date (almost on par with The Wizard of Oz), and the film itself is such a joyous (and ironic) celebration of life that it stands on its own.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

I Rented an Entire Theater to See “Tenet”

I Rented an Entire Theater to See "Tenet"

I’ve been following the start-stop, herky-jerky release plans for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet from the get-go. Ordained as the film that was going to re-open commercial cinemas and save them from the ravages of COVID-19, Nolan and Warner Brothers were hellbent on giving Tenet a theatrical release—PVOD streaming be damned!—even when US theaters weren’t fully ready to reopen. So the film took the unusual approach of opening internationally prior to its official run here in the States

starting on September 3.

 

As a fan of Nolan’s creative time-twisting work (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), I was eager to see if Tenet lived up to the hype, and seeing it in a commercial cinema was the natural consummation of my relationship with this film. Unfortunately, my wife just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sitting in a movie theater for nearly three hours with a bunch of strangers, regardless of how much the theaters were touting new enhanced cleaning procedures.

 

The solution? Rent out the entire theater for my own private Tenet watch party!

 

Besides solving my dilemma of wanting to watch Tenet in the theater, the proposition of having the whole theater to myself for a tentpole film on opening weekend seemed like a baller-move just too big to pass up.

 

In actuality, it wasn’t that expensive. To entice people back to the cinema, Cinemark is offering special Private Watch Party pricing ranging from $99 to $175 based on location and movie selection. Renting out a theater to watch Tenet only cost me $163.24, including all taxes and fees. For that, you get the place to yourself and can have as many as 20 guests in your party. Seating starts 15 minutes prior to the show, and you even get special pricing on concessions. (A large popcorn is “only” $5, large fountain drinks are $3.50, and candy is $2.50.)

 

As you can imagine, after months in lockdown, getting 20 

friends together to see a movie in a commercial theater and have some sense of normality back in their lives took about as long as copying and pasting, “Hey, I rented out a movie theater to watch Tenet. You want to come see it?” into a text.

 

Once our party was all together, I showed the theater staff a QR code on my phone and they let us in. Our auditorium had about 45 loungers in it, and we were free to sit wherever we wanted.

 

Our showing started promptly at 5:15, beginning with trailers for Dune, Wonder Woman 1984, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Following that was a brief ad extolling the virtues of seeing big movies on big screens—a bit reminiscent of the 

ads on Blu-ray discs telling you how great Blu-ray discs are (I mean, I was in the theater to see this ad, so it felt a bit like preaching to the choir)—followed by a brief spot extolling all the enhanced measures Cinemark was taking to ensure that its theaters are clean, safe, and comfortable.

 

The messaging certainly suggested that Cinemark is doing what it can to make the moviegoing experience as safe as possible, but we weren’t there to see if they actually cleaned our auditorium before our seating and didn’t stick around to see whether they fully disinfected it after it was over. There were sanitizing stations around, and all employees—and moviegoers—are required to wear masks. They also really tout the new “3-point air-quality standard” with advanced circulation, filters, and ionization. But beyond the theater not having any odor—or ever
feeling stuffy—I really just have to take them at their word on this as well.

 

Honestly, besides literally having the auditorium to ourselves, the entire building felt empty. I don’t think we saw more than a half-dozen people who weren’t in our group. Another part of the safe opening is staggered showtimes, creating larger windows between people exiting and entering.

 

So, if you’re hesitant about being around crowds, that might not even be an issue right now. Another part of nearly every theater’s safe reopening includes limited seating in auditoriums, such as automatically blocking off the seats next to your

I Rented an Entire Theater to See "Tenet"

party. (Rows ahead and behind in our theaters are already separated by more than six feet, but I understand these are blocked as well when necessary.) And, of course, if you don’t want to be around others, the Private Watch Party is the perfect solution.

 

Then, trailers and messaging out of the way, it was time for Tenet!

I’m going to keep this totally spoiler-free for two reasons. One, Tenet is an experience you should be able to have unspoiled, and, two, the film is so complex and twisty and mentally fatiguing and confounding, I’m not actually sure I understood it well enough to spoil it! Just as no one could be told what The Matrix was, no one can easily explain and summarize exactly what Tenet is.

 

Apparently, Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. If Nolan’s desire was to get people to see his movie in a commercial cinema—preferably on an IMAX screen—he could truly be the savior of the commercial cinema, as it will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.

 

True to its palindromic title, Tenet plays with time, moving backwards and forwards, sometimes at the same time. I often found myself watching the action unfolding not totally sure what was happening but marveling at the time some of these scenes must have taken in editing and post-production to get just right.

 

After the film, our group stood in the lobby and parking lot for some time with lots of, “Why did this happen?” and “What was going on here?” and “What do you think this meant?” I don’t visit Reddit, but I can only imagine that Tenet is blowing up the boards there with deep fan-based discussion of what the film is all about.

 

It’s as if Tenet saw how deep and layered Inception was—with people still debating whether the top is spinning or not—and said, “Hey, Inception. You think you had a complex plot? Hold my beer.”

 

If you have that one friend who is always confused by film plots, asking what is happening, do not take them—their head will explode.

 

Ideally, Tenet would come with a detailed Wiki and walkthrough prepared by Nolan, to guide you through the layered world with tips on what to look for, key dialogue to pay attention to, and objects (or colors) in the background to be aware of. Having only seen it once, I can only speculate on what things would be noticed and understood on the second or third viewing.

 

Tenet is a cool, slick, fast-paced film that travels the globe to exotic locations. It features car chases, elaborate heists, massive gun battles, and huge set pieces. I’m not sure it is a fun film to watch, but it is definitely an interesting and deeply cerebral film. Nolan doesn’t dumb it down, spell things out for the masses, or try to offer any overly helpful exposition.

 

One thing that definitely didn’t help with understanding the film is the sound mix. Music and effects are often playing quite loud, even when characters are talking. Compounding that is the fact that characters are often wearing masks, making the dialogue exasperatingly difficult to understand. Removing the ability to understand lines of dialogue at key moments takes an already complex plot and puts it up on Legendary mode. I’m hoping they do some remixing for the home release, but if nothing else, you might get more out of Tenet by being able to watch it with subtitles turned on. 

 

Featuring a strong cast that includes John David Washington (Denzel’s son), Robert Pattinson (whose performance made me believe he can pull off Batman), Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Himesh Patel, and a wonderful (but short) scene with Michael Caine, performances are solid throughout.

 

Now that it’s finally here and showing in commercial cinemas, I’m not sure Tenet fully lives up to all the hype and expectation that had been heaped upon it, or that we’ll ever fully understand all of its intricacies, subtleties, and meanings, but it is the first summer blockbuster to come to theaters, and if you have the means to safely see it, it certainly makes for an interesting two-and-a-half hours for sure. And remember, what’s happened’s happened.

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.

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)

If any movie has had a more complex and rambling release timeline than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it would be Disney’s latest live-action remake, Mulan. After its initial Hollywood premiere on March 9, the film was slated for a wide theatrical release on March 27. But those plans were scrubbed after commercial cinemas around the world were forced to close because of the coronavirus. For months, Disney stood firm that Mulan would debut theatrically, and the release date continued to move back a week at a time in lockstep with Tenet, with many looking to these two tentpole films as the official relaunch of commercial cinema.

 

After months of “will it/won’t it?” release-date shuffling, Warner decided to seek an international release of Tenet before opening here in the States. Disney, however, made the radical decision to forego a commercial release of Mulan in the U.S.

entirely, instead trying a new strategy with its Disney+ streaming service, offering Mulan to all subscribers for a one-time $29.99 fee for “Premier Access.”

 

Shortly before Mulan’s September 4 release to Disney+, Disney clarified that the Premier Access offer would only be available until November 2, 2020. “Once you have Premier Access to Mulan, you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available. Your access to Mulan will continue as long as you are an active Disney+ subscriber. Mulan will be available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4, 2020 for no additional cost.”

 

So, with a major title costing an estimated $200 million to produce, and initially expected to bring in close to a billion worldwide, Disney is not only gambling heavily on Premium Access, but also seemingly stacking the deck against itself by telling subscribers that if they jut hold off a few months, they can get it for free.

MULAN AT A GLANCE

Another in Disney’s series of live-action remakes of animated titles, this straight-to-Disney+ effort sheds the musical numbers and most of the humor to tell the tale of Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to become a soldier.

 

PICTURE     

Streamed in 4K, the film looks gorgeous—especially when seen on a flagship video display—taking full advantage of HDR’s wider color gamut.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is disappointing, but its restraint might be due in part to being streamed over AppleTV.

My family was planning on seeing Mulan in the theater, so I gladly ponied up the $29.99. (Still cheaper than buying three tickets, and with the added benefit of watching in my own home theater as many times as I want!) Disney sent subscribers an email with instructions for unlocking Premier Access, and a link took me to a page where I could enter payment details. Once submitted, a gold Premier Access banner appears by Mulan along with, “You have Premier Access to this movie.”

 

Unlike previous Disney live-action remakesBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin—Mulan doesn’t strictly adhere to the original animated material, and where the 1998 animated film was G-rated with a lot of musical numbers, this remake is a decidedly more adult PG-13 film. Also, there’s no singing or any musical numbers. There are some definite nods to the big 

musical numbers “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection,” with those instrumental themes clearly playing, and some of the lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are used as lines of dialogue.

 

Also gone are the bickering ancestors and Mushu, the protector ancestral dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, which is replaced by a CGI Phoenix, the family’s ancestral guardian, that appears when Mulan needs strength or guidance. Also, for historical accuracy, the Huns have been replaced by the Rouran army.

 

The film opens with Mulan as a young girl performing fighting moves with a staff in an open field, and we are told “Chi is the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” But only a son can wield chi, and a daughter that doesn’t hide her chi risks shame, dishonor, and exile. We’re also informed “chi is for warriors, not daughters.”

 

Chi plays a prominent role in the film, and feels a lot like another mystical power from the Disney-owned universe, The Force. In fact, we’re told, “Chi obeys the universe and all living things; we are all born with it but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” I was actually waiting to hear that chi surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together. In another strong echo of the Star Wars universe, another powerful chi-wielder tells Mulan to join them and they will take their place together. Sound familiar? Of course, instead of a lightsaber, Mulan wields her father’s sword.

Otherwise, the film hits all the major beats and plot points from the original, removing much of the humor and telling a serious tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the Emperor’s army to take her old and injured father’s place after an edict that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army.

 

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) apparently auditioned over 1,000 actresses before selecting Yifei Lui to play Mulan, and Lui does a great job as both delicate Hua Mulan and soldier Hua Jun, handling most of her own stunts. Also on hand are two Chinese film legends, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jet Li as the Emperor, as well as Jason Scott Lee playing Rouran leader, Bori Khan.

 

There is plenty of fighting throughout, and even though Mulan has a PG-13 rating, the killing is completely bloodless and gore-free. There were only a few scenes that were too intense for my 4 year old. Soldiers hit by arrows slump over, and we see empty helmets to represent the hundreds of slaughtered, or just see bodies lying still. While much of the fighting is grounded in real-world physics, there is the occasional use of the “Wuxia” flying/leaping/gravity-defying fighting style popularized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially after Mulan fully embraces—and unleashes—the true potential of her chi.

 

Besides the musical nods, there is a nice cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated title, and Christina Aguilera—who sang “Reflection” as her debut single over the animated end-credits—returns with a new end-credits song, “Loyal Brave True.”

 

Mulan runs just shy of two hours and is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which benefits the wide vistas and grand scale of many shots, especially the wide-open countryside.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5 and 5.1K resolution, Mulan is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the film looks gorgeous, especially when viewed on a high-end Dolby Vision-capable display. The resolution makes it easy to appreciate the detail of the costuming, seeing the work of the armor, the stitching, threads, and fabric of the uniforms, or the detail of the sets and backgrounds. Closeups reveal pore-level detail and razor-sharp focus of the actors’ faces, and in one scene you can clearly see single beads of water dripping down a few strands of Mulan’s hair. Long shots also have tons of detail, letting you appreciate the vast scenic spaces, buildings, and gathered armies, with nice, sharp edges.

 

Mulan also benefits from HDR’s wider color gamut, with the colors of the outfits warn by occupants in Mulan’s village being vibrant and saturated. Reds are especially deep, as are the gleaming golds of the Emperor’s throne room. You also get beautifully lit faces in some interiors where characters talk by lantern light, their faces bathed in a rich warm glow with deep natural shadows, or the bright gleaming sunlit skies in exteriors, or the burning of fires and torches.

 

In total, Mulan looks fantastic, and should definitely be appreciated on a flagship video display.

 

Sonically, however, I found the Dolby Atmos mix to be really reserved and frankly a bit disappointing. Of course, this could be less an issue with the mix itself and more to do with AppleTV’s audio output, something I found disappointing when watching Taylor Swift’s Reunion concert on Netflix, or perhaps the difference between the lossy Dolby Digital+ used by streaming services and the TrueHD audio found on physical 4K discs and offered by Kaleidescape.

 

There were many cases when the height channels could have been used more aggressively to good effect, such as arrows raining overhead, swords slashing, birds flying overhead, people leaping, rain falling, etc. There were a couple of scenes where the height speakers are put to good use, such as Mulan hearing the voices of her ancestors or people are speaking off-camera from overhead.

 

While the surround channels are used for the sounds of swishing arrows, fighting, and atmospheric sounds like wind and echoes and to expand the musical score, I found the mix to be mainly focused across the front three speakers. In a way, it almost feels like Disney knew this was going to be primarily viewed at home, and so the mix choices were optimized for TV speakers and basic soundbar setups.

 

While not possessing a bass-heavy mix, your subwoofer definitely comes into play in key moments, such as the galloping horse army, a cascading avalanche, and the crashing of massive boulders launched by the Rouran army’s trebuchet.

 

Ultimately, how much you enjoy this retelling of Mulan might depend on how much you loved the original animated title. While it is the same story, it is told in a completely different manner, and if you are expecting another live-action rehash, you may be disappointed. Taken on its own merit, however, Mulan is a well-told, updated, and compelling story that features a solid cast, with massive scale, along with some terrific cinematography that all make for a great 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.

The Goonies

The Goonies

I wish I could say something—anything—meaningful about The Goonies without referencing the numerous works it has inspired over the past 35 years. Truth be told, though, this 1985 Richard Donner classic, penned by Chris Columbus from a story idea by Steven Spielberg, is more a cultural touchstone than it is a work of cinema in its own right. The ripples it has left on the surface of the pop culture pond have by this point overshadowed the pebble itself.

 

Stranger Things, for example—for all its references to the films of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter and Stephen King—could easily be seen as an episodic riff on The Goonies with a gaggle of other pop-culture references piled on for good measure. 

To this day, 35 years after its debut, you can feel the echoes of The Goonies in everything from Ready Player One to Deadpool 2. Heck, even the last Star Wars movie made a ham-fisted and nonsensical homage to this beloved ’80s romp. (Although, to be fair, of the many cinematic sins committed by Episode IX, insulting the intelligence of Goonies fans while also clumsily attempting to tug at their heartstrings is far from the most egregious.)

 

I guess the point is, The Goonies wouldn’t still hold such sway over filmmakers and viewers alike if it didn’t have something going for it. But I’m just too close to it to evaluate the film objectively. I notice its flaws—the clumsiness of the climax, the laughable special effects in places, the ridiculousness of its very premise—and I see them as charming virtues.

 

My wife, on the other hand, had never seen the film before I downloaded the UHD/HDR remaster on Kaleidescape. What can I say? She was a military brat who spent her formative years in Europe. She missed out on much of American popular culture between the release of The 

GOONIES AT A GLANCE

This might not be the best 4K HDR makeover of an ’80s film ever, but it’s worth the upgrade to have a great-looking and -sounding version of this hugely influential kid-adventure classic.

 

PICTURE     

The cinematography is a little too flat and soft to consistently take full advantage of UHD’s increased resolution and expanded color gamut, but there are some breathtaking shots in this transfer and HDR helps with things like lanterns & lightning.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a big step up from earlier releases, with enhanced atmospheric effects and a bit more bottom end to support the action.

Empire Strikes Back and Tim Burton’s Batman. And catching her up on all of the ’80s nostalgia-fuel she missed is always a hit-or-miss proposition. She thought E.T. was “OK.” She didn’t think The Thing was scary at all. I hesitate to sit her down in front of The Last Starfighter or Flight of the Navigator for fear of her inevitable reaction. Divorce attorneys are expensive, y’all.

 

But much to my relief, she ate The Goonies up flaws and all, giggling at all the funny bits, clapping at the little victories, jumping at all the cheap scares, and cooing every time Sean Astin did something adorable (which is quite frequently). And I think its sway over her had a lot to do with the aspects of the film that just don’t age as the years go by: The excellent cast, the believable performances, and ultimately the heart of its very simple narrative. The Goonies is, when you get right down to it, a straightforward adventure tale—equal parts treasure hunt, dungeon crawl, and crime thriller. And that straightforward story gives it enough momentum to overcome things like the silliness of a few of its gags or the groan-worthiness of things like obviously rubber bats being flung on strings at the actors’ faces.

 

Of course, you don’t really need me to tell you any of the above. You likely either know what you think about The Goonies or you’re beyond caring. The question you really want answered is: Should you upgrade to UHD/HDR if you already own the film?

 

The simple answer: Yes, this one is worth the upgrade.

 

The not-so simple answer: I wouldn’t put this on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters. Hell, I wouldn’t even put it on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters of ’80s flicks. The cinematography is a little too flat and a bit too soft to consistently take full advantage of the increased resolution or expanded color gamut. That said, there are shots here and there that are simply breathtaking in this new transfer, and the high dynamic range does enhance things like flashing lightning and the glare of lanterns. What’s more, the middle passage of the movie—which takes place entirely underground—does benefit from a little more range at the lower end of the value scale. I only caught one or two scenes with uneven black levels. Aside from those, the gloomy-looking second act looks better than it ever has before.

 

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also an appreciable step up, with enhanced atmospheric effects (especially during the thunderstorm near the beginning) and a bit more bottom end to support the action. As has been the case since the film’s debut, though, dialogue clarity is the weak spot in the sound mix, and there’s likely nothing that can be done about that,

since much of the dialogue was improvised and the actors talk all over each other near-constantly. Had Donner attempted to spackle over the roughly recorded dialogue with ADR back in the day, the results would have likely been a lip-sync disaster on par with the American kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.

 

So don’t go into this expecting a film that sounds like it was recorded yesterday, but do expect a minor upgrade in sound quality over the 10-year-old Blu-ray release.

 

That Blu-ray, by the way, is the source of all the bonus features included with this new 4K release, which is to say there’s not much here, and you can probably skip most of it. The seven-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are cute and shed some light on the reference to an excised octopus attack mentioned in the final moments of the film. But practically everything here was best left on the cutting-room floor.

 

The only bonus goody that’s absolutely must-see is “Hidden Treasures: Video Commentaries from the Cast.” As the name implies, this is a commentary with the Goonies (along with Donner), recorded (if memory serves) for the DVD release of the film in 2001. What sets this one apart from most commentary tracks is that the

The Goonies

participants were filmed sitting together at a table watching the film projected in front of them, and we get to see much of their interaction by way of picture-in-picture popups.

 

Do I think The Goonies deserved a new retrospective documentary for its 35th anniversary? I absolutely do. As I said from the giddy-up, the movie still has far more influence on modern popular culture than most of its contemporaries, and a fresh look at its lasting relevance would have been nice. Maybe we can hold out hope for some new bonus features on its 40th or 50th anniversary.

 

But if you’re just here for the movie itself, I seriously doubt any future releases will look (or sound) better than The Goonies does here.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.