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Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level

After the emotional trauma Dennis Burger experienced from his review of Uncut Gems, we thought that it might be a nice palate cleanser to look at some lighter fare for the next review. Fortunately, Jumanji: The Next Level arrived on an early digital release at the Kaleidescape Store two weeks ahead of its physical media release on March 17.

 

For those interested in waiting for the disc release, Sony has confirmed it will be IMAX Enhanced, meaning it will contain an enhanced DTS-X IMAX soundtrack as well as feature a picture remastered using IMAX’s propriety post-production and Digital Media Restoration (DMR) techniques. (For more on IMAX Enhanced, you can read this post I wrote for another site.) While Kaleidescape is rumored to be in talks with IMAX about being an Enhanced partner —and would be the perfect and logical outlet for this premium content—the Kaleidescape version doesn’t include this feature.

 

It’s really no surprise that 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle received the sequel greenlight. As star Jack Black, returning to portray game character Professor Shelly Oberon, quips in one of the special features, “After the first film made $900 million, I wasn’t really surprised when they called us back to do another.”

 

For those unfamiliar with Jumanji, these latest films are a reboot of the 1995 original, which starred Robin Williams. Jumanji is a game (of the board variety in the original, and modernized as a video game here) where players are magically and literally sucked into the game, forced to play as one of several avatars with different skill sets, and have to work together to solve problems and survive in order to complete a quest before they can exit the game back to the real world. Each character has three lives, allowing them to die repeatedly in a variety of usually humorous ways.

 

Along with Black, the rest of the Jungle quintet returns to reprise their roles, including Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Kevin Hart as Mouse Finbar, Nick Jonas as Seaplane McDonough, and Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. Jake Kasdan returns as director. Joining the crew is new character, thief extraordinaire Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. We also get a new villain in the form of Jurgen the Brutal, played by Game of Thrones’ The Hound, Rory McCann.

 

Level picks up about three years after the events of Jungle with our four real-world cast members Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) having moved on with their lives. Everyone except for Spencer is thriving, and when they plan a reunion, depressed Spencer decides he’d be happiest returning to Jumanji, picking up life again as hero Bravestone. Worried about their friend, the others decide to re-enter the game to help him survive, thus kicking off our adventure.

 

Instead of rehashing the first film with a different adventure, the writers really mix things up when the game glitches, causing the avatars to be inhabited by different players. This gives the adventurers completely different personalities and allows the actors to really have fun with their roles. This time around fearless leader Bravestone is inhabited by Spencer’s uncle, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and zoologist Finbar is controlled by Eddie’s ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover). And football star Fridge is forced to play as the physically limited archaeologist Oberon, whose list of “weaknesses” now include Endurance, Heat, Sun, and Sand. We also have a new game feature that allows characters to switch avatars at certain points, once again mixing up the acting styles.

 

On top of the new adventure—to end a massive drought impacting Jumanji by recovering a magical necklace known as the Falcon Jewel, stolen by Jurgen —this new “casting” makes the film feel fresh, and provides lots of opportunities for hilarity. Kevin Hart does a fantastic job adopting Glover’s slow, measured speaking style; a huge contrast to his typically frantic manner. “Did I just kill Eddie . . . by talking too slow . . . like he always said I would?” Johnson also leans into the role of being inhabited by curmudgeonly old DeVito, thrust into an entirely foreign situation, and Black brings the laughs acting like Fridge, a black athlete furious that he’s forced to return to Jumanji in an even worse character this time around. “I’ve been training four hours a day for six months. How is this guy a character in an adventure game?!

 

At just over two hours, Level has enough time to develop a quest that feels of videogame epic length, with enough time to travel to a variety of new environments, such as a Lawrence of Arabia-esque desert, a Moroccan-type village, and a snow-topped castle. But it never felt too long or like it was wearing out its gags, keeping me interested throughout.

 

Sony Pictures consistently delivers terrific home video releases, and Level continues that high standard. Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, images consistently look terrific, with closeups that bristle with detail and razor-sharp focus. Black wears a tweed vest that has a fine plaid print with each check clearly visible. You can also see the cracks and texture in the backgrounds and costumes, and count individual strands of hair on actors’ heads.

Blacks are deep, clean, and noise-free, and there are many nighttime and indoor scenes that benefit from the film’s use of HDR. The night scenes in the Moroccan village of the Oasis look especially good, with brilliant neon lights along the streets, as well as warm interiors lit by candles and lamps, giving the film a natural and organic look. Interiors of the castle Fortress feature dark rooms lit by shafts of bright light or sun rays streaming through windows, and the snowy mountainside looks appropriately bright without crushing any detail.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active, looking for nearly every opportunity to immerse you in sound. Beyond the big action scenes, there are lots of little environmental sounds like wind blowing, birds chirping, and insects buzzing. One of the film’s recurring sonic elements is the sound of deceased players re-entering the game, with a chime that sounds overhead and has them dropping back into the game from the ceiling. Bass is also solid and weighty, either from explosions or Bravestone’s superhuman punches or the jungle drums that resonate from all around to indicate danger.

 

As is typical of Dolby Atmos soundtracks, dialogue is centered and easily intelligible throughout.

Jumanji: The Next Level

While watching Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoying and understanding Next Level, it is certainly suggested as it is an entertaining film in its own right. Beyond a bit of swearing and some non-bloody videogame violence, Jumanji: Next Level makes a great family night at the movies, offering a plot that will keep everyone engaged and entertained, while looking and sounding great in a luxury home environment.

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 Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3–1960 to 2019

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

In Part 1, I offered my definition of a movie musical and in Part 2 presented my choices for the best musicals from the height of the Hollywood Studio Era (1939 to 1959). Here, I will talk about my favorites from 1960 on—a period that includes the decline of the studio system, when movies in general, and musicals in particular, were going through tremendous change.

The 1960s

West Side Story (1961)

Dazzling on every level. The music is well beyond musical comedy into the realm of semi-classical. The photography, editing, and sound are perfection. It set the bar very high for all future Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. On a large screen, Natalie Wood’s performance is particularly fine and subtly beautiful. And of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography is unsurpassed on film.

 

The Music Man (1962)

This may be the most faithful and successful transfer of a Broadway musical to the screen. It’s so close to the stage version in every way, it makes you feel like you are watching a stage show—front and center! Yet it never feels static and has a distinct cinematic feel all its own. And It’s so fun and spinetingling right to the last frame. Robert Preston is superb as the phony Professor Harold Hill.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It might seem strange to see this Elvis vehicle on the same list as West Side Story, but great talent is great talent, and Elvis Presley together with the one star who matched his charisma— Ann-Margret—is quite an atomic blast. Over the years, the film seems less trendy (or silly) than it used to. It’s all done with great fun and excellent production values, and the energy of the film and its eclectic score make it a wonderfully campy and a very enjoyable 85 minutes.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Director Richard Lester completely threw out all musical movie conventions to totally re-invent the form. It’s a perfect vehicle for The Beatles and spoke to a whole new generation. The free-for-all style of the film laid the ground for many rock and edgy film musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s including Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both helmed by Lester), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and of course the whole MTV network.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Mary Poppins (1964)

Don’t forget this is an original film musical! Yet Mary Poppins is written (songs by the Sherman Brothers) with the sophistication of a Broadway show. It’s as if Walt Disney said to the boys, “I want my own My Fair Lady!” And in many ways, it is! Especially since it also stars Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Fair Lady. But the magnificent addition to its Broadway musical-like structure is all the fantasy photography. Technology might be even better today, but without great writing and good plot structure, musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and Cats, just don’t come anywhere near the high bar of “Walt Disney’s masterpiece” Mary Poppins.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the most elegant yet entertaining movies ever made. Absolutely perfectly done on every level. And made all the more powerful by the masterful 1956 stage musical on which it was  based. Warner Bros. knew they had a good one and they were determined to do it right. And director George Cukor did just that. Rex Harrison is magnificent, of course, but Audrey Hepburn adds that sparkling drop of cinematic magic to make this a true film, and not just an excellent stage-to-screen transfer.

 

The Sound of Music (1965)

If Singin’ in the Rain isn’t the greatest film musical of all time, then this is. Sound of Music is certainly the world’s favorite film musical, and deservedly so. Based on a true story, it has a humanness to it that makes the softer elements of the story moving. It’s directed with great restraint and taste by Robert Wise, and Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria is perhaps the best-loved female screen-musical performance ever. Sorry Judy, Liza, Emma, Rene, and Barbra . . .

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)

Michel Legrand’s unique jazz and romantic score is the principle reason this incredibly original film works. The jazz riffs are easily acceptable as a substitute for dialogue. It never slows the story or feels static. The wistful romantic music embraces the heartbreaking story. The color cinematography

is breathtaking. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are perfectly cast as the young lovers. It’s all brilliantly written and directed by Jacques Demy. This film is a worldwide treasure.

 

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s first song in the film is “I’m the Greatest Star,” and by all accounts that she is! In this William Wyler film, she has never been better. The film looks, sounds, and plays perfectly to showcase Streisand’s enormous talents. Under Wyler’s direction, Funny Girl was realistic and dark enough to ride the cultural revolutionary wave of the late 1960s. At that time, audiences took this dramatic Fanny Brice bio-pic very seriously. And since Wyler and Streisand did such a good job, you can take Funny Girl as seriously today as you could in 1968.

 

Oliver! (1968)

At the exact time as Funny Girl was released, the stage hit Oliver! arrived on screens. And it easily won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. This may come as a surprise to some because there still is a lot of prejudice against a film whose title sounds like a kiddie flick. But they should remember this is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the film was directed by the great Sir Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) and photographed by the great Oswald Morris. This musical of Oliver Twist, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, has all the elements and dark characters of the novel and yet so much more. It’s witty, even outright funny at times, and yet it can turn scary and disturbing on a dime. The big musical numbers are spectacular and soaring (Academy Award-winning choreography by Onna White) yet they fit right into the storyline so you never feel like the action stops. It’s amazing on how many levels this film works.

The 1970s

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the 1967 Broadway smash is superb but hardly an adaptation at all. It’s very altered from the stage version and hardly feels like it was ever on the stage. Ergo, this film runs like an original film musical. This very adult and realistic version hit the mark in the 1970s when films looked more realistic than ever. It did include most of the songs from the Kander and Ebb Broadway score, but several important new songs by the same writers were added. Liza Minelli’s star performance sends the film into the stratosphere of entertainment perfection. Viewing this film today, it looks like it was made last week! Bravo, Bob!

 

Fiddler on the Roof (1973)

This is a very realistic film version of the 1964 stage smash hit. Rather than cast comedian Zero Mostel as Tevye, the lead, or some of the other famous actors who played supporting roles on Broadway (Bette Midler, Julia Migenes Johnson, and Christopher Walken), director Norman Jewison chose to cast all unknowns so that the characters appear very real. The Israeli actor Topol heads the movie, and it’s a loving but dramatic telling of the Sholom Aleichem stories. Fine musical adaptation by John Williams of the Bock and Harnick score elevates the movie yet matches the earthy Oswald Morris cinematography. It’s a great story about family, tradition, and persecution, and a moving experience in any decade.

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

In a way, this film follows the Richard Lester style of freewheeling camera work used in Hard Day’s Night, yet Rocky Horror Picture Show is as unique and wonderful as it can be. Based on the moderately successful West End and Broadway stage favorite, it works so much better as a film where it can be cinematically outrageous. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf are all hysterically excellent and play the “horror-comedy” tone just right. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous cult film of all time, and stayed in release longer than any other musical film!

The 1980s

Victor/Victoria (1982)

This film has grown to enormous stature today! Blake Edwards’ intelligently adapted screenplay explores the fine line between masculine and feminine posturing. Julie Andrews and indeed all the performances seem three-dimensional, yet incredibly entertaining. The gorgeous Henry Mancini (music)/ Leslie Bricusse (lyrics)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

score has just enough songs to qualify it as a musical, but they always support the characters and story. The production is also visually classy with a beautiful Art Deco look. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe it didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The 2000s

Chicago (2002)

This film was a terrific surprise in its day, when it seemed musical films were a thing of the past. But it’s so well done and entertaining, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its success may have a lot to do with the excellence of the original stage show by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, which is still running on Broadway today!

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Dreamgirls (2006)

This is a very ambitious and thoroughly successful film adaptation of the legendary Broadway show. Not since Cabaret 30 years earlier had a film been transferred with such freshness and cinematic energy. Dreamgirls feels like an original for the screen. Each member of the cast is superb, especially Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award, and Eddie Murphy in a stellar supporting performance. On top of all this, the music and singing are superb.

 

La La Land (2016)

Just when we thought it couldn’t be done ever again, along came this original film musical. It has an all-new song score with pulsating and exciting music by Justin Hurwitz. It’s all very stylishly directed by Damien Chazelle and attractively performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s also a great tribute to movie musicals of the past like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon yet it feels modern and fresh and youthful.

and let’s not forget . . .

Well, that’s 37 of the best. But for those who enjoy neat and nice round numbers, as do I, here are three more “best” movie musicals that co-incidentally all have the same name.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
A Star is Born (1954)

This is Judy Garland’s ultimate showcase. Judy shows off all her triple-threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to the “nth” degree. Unfortunately, she has so much talent and so much to give, it took three full hours to fit it all in. Ergo, the film has suffered from destructive editing over the years. In 1983, an effort to restore the original version required inserting black-and-white stills. Today, the creaky technology from 1983 destroys the pace and believability of the story. It’s time for a proper restoration. But what is always superb about this version is that it’s a realistic portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s, thanks to screenwriter Moss Hart and director George Cukor, both of whom knew how it really was.

 

A Star is Born (1976)

This is Barbra Streisand’s ultimate showcase. Barbra shows off all her triple talents (acting, singing, writing) to the “nth” degree. It’s a solid retelling of the story, this time set in the world of rock. Kris Krisofferson is also quite good in his bathtub scenes. Nowadays, this is a terrific time capsule of the 1970s but it’s also “Evergreen.”

 

A Star is Born (2018)

This is Lady Ga Ga’s ultimate showcase (so far). Lady Ga Ga shows off all her triple threat talents (acting, singing, song writing) to the “nth” degree. But Bradley Cooper also wants his share of showoff time, and as producing-director, he makes sure he gets it. Set in the modern-day pop world once again, the love story pays off, being the core of another very good film musical.

 

To round things out, in Part 4, I’ll take you on a tour of some classic “antique”—but still hugely enjoyable—movie musicals from the 1920s and ’30s.

Gerard Alessandrini

RELATED POSTS

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2–1939 to 1959

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

Compiling a list of 40 top film musicals was quite difficult because there are so many sub genres. My personal favorites tend to be the movies where the story is more three-dimensional. Many musical movies are fun but often silly. I prefer the ones that have a strong story line and are perhaps even dramatic. Think of Fiddler on the Roof or Dreamgirls. The Rodgers and 

Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe musicals always have mostly three-dimensional characters and true-to-life situations at hand. Of course, these types of musicals originated on Broadway, where the play is the thing. My other favorite type of musical is the kind created and written expressly for the screen and is therefore much more cinematic. Think of Mary Poppins and La La Land.

 

Also, in selecting my favorites, I always defer to talent, especially when it’s singing or dancing that you can’t see anywhere else. When an audience paid money to see Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, or Ann Miller, it was worth it because nobody else in the world could do what they did.

 

My list of favorites may seem to have a lot obvious choices, but when you are discussing the greatest of all time you’re bound to come up with the well-known, well appreciated, and well loved!

 

I haven’t included any animated film musicals because there are so many beloved Disney films and they are very varied as to how “musical” they are. Some have a complete score, some have just a song or two. The discussion of what the best animated film musicals are should be on an entirely different list. I love them but I consider them a different genre than live-action movie musicals.

 

Here is my list of 40 of the best film musicals of all time, in chronological order. Because there are so many of them, 

and so much to say about them, the list is divided into two installments: From 1939 to 1959 here and, in Part 3, from 1960 to the present.

For those interested in digging a little deeper and discovering something new but classic to watch, I will be following my “best of” list with a selection of terrific but antique musicals from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I start my list with this obvious classic because technically and dramatically it’s perhaps the first truly excellent example of an integrated musical with a strong story line. The decades of success for generation after generation prove how perfect this film is. It’s also a technological masterpiece for its time, and edited within an inch of its life. (Although kudos to Arthur Freed for convincing his MGM bosses not to cut “Over the Rainbow.”)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939-1959

The 1940s

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

The last great black-and-white musical. James Cagney’s performance and George M. Cohan’s rousing songs make this the most exhilarating movie musical ever. Cagney rightfully won a Best Actor Academy Award for his spirited performance.

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

This period masterpiece just gets better and better with time. Color, music, and performance (thank you, Judy) make this film timeless. It’s Vincente Minnelli’s first masterpiece musical and another triumph for Judy Garland, solidifying her place as one of the most talented and biggest stars in Hollywood.

 

The Pirate (1948)

Not wildly successful in its day, nonetheless, today Vincente Minnelli’s petite pirate-movie masterpiece looks mind blowingly weird and wonderful. Judy and Gene look like they are having the time of their lives, and they certainly tear up the screen in this one! Wow!

 

Easter Parade (1948)

What a great assemblage of once-in-a-century talent: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Irving Berlin. Once again proof of Judy Garland’s magical movie-star powers. Fred has never looked more at ease than in this film—and that’s saying a lot!

The 1950s

An American in Paris (1951)

It’s the MGM Musical factory in full force! Gene Kelly, George Gershwin, and Vincente Minnelli, with oodles of money to spend. An American in Paris is even a better star vehicle for Gene Kelly than his Singin’ in the Rain. And the more realistic love story propels the high-art ballet finale into the emotionally heartwarming.

 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

What can you say? It’s the best movie musical ever—plain and simple! And don’t forget it’s also one of the funniest movies ever made, thanks to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s flamboyant screenplay and a genius comic performance by Jean Hagen.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

This one holds up better than its leading ladies’ undergarment foundation! It certainly has stood the test of time for fun and wit. Not only Marilyn Monroe but every cast member—most notably Jane Russell, who nearly steals the picture—is superb. And who would have thought the great adventure director Howard Hawks knew as much about movie musicals as Vincente Minnelli?

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

A very special Minnelli, Comden, and Green backstage classic. This film is visually stunning and superbly elegant. The songs are sophisticated and the dances are the crown jewels of movie musicals. The film is also high comedy, and is often 

“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon

dry and ironic. It’s 1950s ultra-stylish MGM and it’s musical-comedy caviar—not to everyone’s taste but still the best.

 

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

This freewheeling adaptation of the perennial Broadway smash has the freshness and vigor of an original MGM musical. George Sidney could not have done a better job transferring the all-time great Cole Porter score to the screen, Add Ann Miller and Bob Fosse, and the joie de vivre leaps off the screen—literally! It’s in 3D!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Stanley Donen’s second solo sojourn into directing, and it is an all-time joyous romp. So fresh and robust, your heart will leap and your jaw will drop at the lusty choreography. Howard Keel and Jane Powell are at their best.

 

White Christmas (1954)

It’s no question this film was designed to be pure entertainment, and with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen on hand, it’s musical comedy perfection any time of the year. It’s all splendidly directed by Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz. Who would have thought the great dramatic director Curtiz knew as much about movie musicals as Howard Hawks— sorry, I meant Vincente Minelli!

 

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

This is a truly excellent dramatic musical. The songs are all performed in realistic situations so the dark story can be faithfully told. It’s the true story of Ruth Etting, a 1920s and ‘30s singing star, and her gangster boyfriend who pushes her to the top until their relationship explodes. Doris Day and James Cagney couldn’t have dreamed of having better or more appropriate roles to play, and they go above and beyond expectations. It’s an expensive and stylish Joe Pasternak* musical and still very powerful today. (* Up to this point, Pasternak ran one of the three musical movie units at MGM, producing more saccharine and operetta-like films for the likes of Mario Lanza, Katheryn Grayson, and Jane Powell. Love Me or Leave Me was quite a change of pace for him!)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959
Oklahoma! (1955)

Repeated viewings of this Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic will reveal it might just be one of the best movie musicals ever made. Technically perfect in every way, the cast and the singing are exactly right. Fred Zinnemann’s (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) masterful direction leads the superb cast. Who would have thought Gloria Grahame (as Ado Annie) was a genius comedienne? Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are arguably the best natural singers ever cast in a musical film. Their voices extended so effortlessly from their speaking voices, they were perfect for book musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s. (Carousel was their next lovely film musical.)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

This widescreen film version of Oklahoma! looks magnificent on a big TV screen, but it still can’t compare to seeing it on a big screen in a theatre, as it was designed to be enjoyed in 30 frames per second Todd-AO 70mm with nine-track stereo! What is especially powerful on the big screen, and what you can’t really experience at home, is the magnificent Agnes DeMille choreography.

 

The King and I (1956)

Simply one of the most beautiful and dramatically powerful films ever made. At the center are the fascinating performances of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Again, the story, music, and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein propel the film to a different and higher level above most 1950s film musicals.

High Society (1956)

Over the years, I have become more enamored with this somewhat static but very entertaining musicalization of The Philadelphia Story. And a fine musical it is, with classy songs by the perfect man to do it—Cole Porter. With eight new songs directly for the screen, Cole solidified his position as the unofficial in-house song writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This film is much better on the big VistaVision screen, where you can see the subtlety of Grace Kelly’s wicked “stuck-up heiress” performance. But any film that also stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong is an instant classic.

 

Funny Face (1957)

It’s the ultimate mid-century high-fashion celebration. Today it can be enjoyed for being the stylish time capsule it is. Perhaps it’s even Audrey Hepburn’s best movie. It’s certainly her best light-hearted movie. And that’s saying a lot. The combination of her gamine perfection and Fred Astaire’s and Kay Thompson’s “Pizzazz!” are “S’Wonderful!”

 

South Pacific (1958)

With an unforgettable song score by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics and book), this expansive film version was destined to be a box-office blockbuster. It was the third highest-grossing film of the 1950s (after The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days). It also remained enormously popular on subsequent re-releases, and on TV and then video. This is due to the fine and still timely racial story, sensitively told by director and co-book writer Joshua Logan.

Maybe the best example of the vigorous use of color filters in South Pacific

But this movie is also infamous for the color filters cinematographer Leon Shamroy employed—perhaps too vigorously. However, I recently attended a Fathom Events presentation where I got to see the film on a big, wide screen. The clarity and the perfect balances of the color in that showing made the filters much more tolerable and dramatically interesting. Along with the gorgeous musical adaptation (by Alfred Newman) in multi stereophonic sound, South Pacific seemed better than ever. 

Gigi (1958)

This original screen musical written by Lerner and Loewe is one of my personal favorites. First of all, Loewe’s score is some of the best film music written in the 20th Century. When the main title music starts playing the gorgeous melody of “Gigi,” I think it had the Academy Award for Best Picture all wrapped up then and 

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

there. Add to that a realistic French cast, actual Parisian locations, and a rather adult feminist story. Collette’s Gigi is the hero here, and she is smarter, cleverer, and saner than all the men and adults in 1900 Paris. The result is a very thought-provoking yet visually gorgeous film. Released in May 1958, it’s a prime example of how sophisticated film musicals had become within a few short years.

 

Black Orpheus (1959)

A daring and beautiful Technicolor musical retelling of the Greek myth, Orpheus in the Underworld, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1959. It pulsates with tension and exciting Brazilian rhythms. The music score is by the great Antônio Carlos Jobim and includes several songs that became quite popular here in the U.S. with English lyrics. Remember “A Day In the Life of a Fool?” (PS—the new Broadway hit musical Hades Town is based on the same story.)

 

 

In Part 3, I will be offering up my choices for the best movie musicals from 1960 to the present.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Checking Out Disney’s New Star Wars Land

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

Since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, fans of all ages have imagined themselves being part of the action in some way. Whether it was piloting an X-wing fighter, wielding a lightsaber, or just hanging out with the scum and villainy in a space cantina, Star Wars created a galaxy fans wished they could inhabit. And while there have been a host of video games to help bridge this gap, there hasn’t really been a living, breathing world fans could truly immerse themselves in.

 

When Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, there was a lot of speculation over how they might incorporate Star Wars into the Disney theme parks. While the parks already had a Star Wars attraction in the form of the Star Tours

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

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simulator ride, this offered the chance for something even bigger; and in 2015, Disney announced it would open Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando.

 

This entirely new land is set in the Black Spire Outpost on the fictional planet of Batuu. It encompasses 14 acres

at both parks and features shops, dining, and attractions, delivering an experience of the Star Wars universe unlike anything fans have ever experienced before.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Galaxy’s Edge in Orlando this past week, and thought I’d share my thoughts on the new land, and specifically the Rise of the Resistance attraction, which is perhaps the most complex ride system ever created, thrusting fans right into the middle of a scene from a Star Wars film.

 

Galaxy’s Edge is part of the Disney Hollywood Studios section of Disney World, but is cleverly set off from it so you are never pulled out of the feeling that you’re in a different world. You enter through a cavernous tunnel area that transports you from 

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

the main section of the park. Once inside, tall mountain spires, fabricated canyons, and well-placed trees cleverly conceal other areas of the park so you are never reminded you’re in Hollywood Studios.

 

There is a variety of appropriate artifacts all around the land, including a full-scale TIE Echelon sitting on a stage where Kylo Ren occasionally appears. You’ll also find a full-sized Wampa and other Easter eggs and artifacts while browsing inside stores. The Galaxy’s Edge cast members also wear costumes appropriate to their jobs; whether it’s ride attendants in Resistance garb, First Order soldiers, or store clerks, everyone looks the part. Stormtroopers patrol 

the area looking for Resistance members, regularly stopping and “harassing” guests. (They walked by my youngest daughter, pointed at her and said, “We have our eyes on you!”)

 

One of the land’s most iconic features is a full-scale Millennium Falcon that sits outside the Smuggler’s Run attraction. You can walk right up to and almost all around the Falcon and see the careful attention to detail in every aspect of the ship. The

Smuggler’s ride queue lets you feel like you’re walking inside the actual Falcon, including being able to sit at the Dejarik holographic chess board where Chewie and R2 played.

 

The actual ride takes place inside the cockpit, where guests can be either pilots, gunners, or engineers on a mission to recover Coaxium shipments to help Resistance fighters. Advanced 4K video at 120 frames per second in a variety of video panels 

combined with motion and interactive controls provides a convincing illusion that you’re actually aboard the famed Corellian freighter; and the ride’s length and outcome is determined by how well the crew does their jobs.

 

Galaxy’s Edge takes on a completely different look at night, as the Disney Imagineers use a variety of concealed lights to light up the mountains, canyons, and attractions.

 

The land’s biggest attraction is the brand-new Rise of the Resistance, an 18-minute ride containing 65 Audio-Animatronic figures and requiring the largest concrete pour in the history of Disney Parks and more than five million lines of code to

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

control aspects of the ride. This is a multi-part experience that uses an amazing combination of video projection and screens, visual effects, synchronized lighting, animatronics, trackless vehicle, and amazing size and scale to place you aboard a First Order Star Destroyer in a way fans never thought possible.

 

You enter the ride near a large turret/cannon, and then the queue is hidden from First Order eyes as you wind around inside a mountain. There are loads of cool set dressing throughout the queue, including 

discarded tools, cages of weapons and uniforms, and ventilation pipes. (NOTE: Ride spoilers follow. If you’re planning to visit Galaxy’s Edge and don’t want to have the ride experience spoiled, stop here . . .)

In the first section of the attraction, you see BB-8 and a hologram transmission from Rey telling you that the Resistance is moving to another base and it is imperative we don’t reveal its location to the First Order. From here, you transition to a transporter to head off to the new base.

 

On the way to the transport, you pass a replica of Poe’s X-Wing fighter, set back in a cavern that can only be seen from the Rise ride.

 

On the transport you stand just feet away from Lieutenant Bek, a Mon Calamari animatronic pilot that talks and moves convincingly. The front of the ship is a cockpit filled with video screens showing your space flight, and if you look out the back of the transport, you can watch your ship taking off from Black Spire Outpost, including leaving the Falcon behind. The transport soon comes under attack, rumbling and quaking appropriately as it’s hit by TIE fighters and then ultimately grabbed by a First Order Star Destroyer’s tractor beam, which pulls in and captures the ship.

When the transport door opens, you’re greeted by First Order officers who command the group to get out of the transport (our first group was lingering for a bit, causing one of the officers to shout, “I said ‘get out!’”) and lead you into the largest-scale scene from any attraction: Dozens of stormtroopers standing at attention on the deck of a Star Destroyer with a huge screen staring out into space.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

It is massive set dressing, and both times I went through the ride this moment literally brought a hush over the riders as they stared gob smacked at the sheer size and scope of this scene. Everything about the area is designed to make you feel like you are literally stepping right on onto the set of a Star Wars film, and it succeeds in every way. This holding area is packed with detail, but unfortunately you aren’t given as long to linger here as you’d hope . . . and the ride part hasn’t even actually

begun yet!

 

You then walk down detailed hallways and corridors of the Destroyer, harassed by First Order guards speaking in clipped accents who play their parts wonderfully. One guard singled out a guest wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m with the Resistance” saying, “Why are you wearing that shirt? Do you think it is going to help you? Do you think that shirt will save you from the blasters of these highly trained stormtroopers?!” You can tell they are enjoying their rolls and are leaning into creating a fantastic experience.

 

From here, you are led into a holding cell where you’re going to be 

interrogated, with General Hux and Kylo coming out to threaten you. But the Resistance comes to your rescue, cutting a large hole through a steel door that glows a convincing red, and you are quickly moved into a trackless vehicle helmed by an R5 droid to make your escape.

 

The car races around the inside of the Destroyer, where you come under fire from a variety of stormtroopers, their blasters leaving sparks and scorch marks on different parts of the ride. At one point, your vehicle drives into a huge room where you’re confronted with two full-sized AT-AT walkers, again placing you in the immense scale of the attraction, with a lift taking you right up to face the walkers.

The vehicle drives on, taking you through various parts of the ship, including another massive room where you have to slide past three giant turbo lasers blasting at X-Wing fighters that are visible attacking outside of massive video-screen windows. The lighting, sound, and visual effects all do a fantastic job of creating an incredibly believable scene.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

You soon find yourself aboard the bridge of the ship, where full-sized animatronics of Kylo and Hux are watching the battle unfold out of the windows. Kylo spots you, and your vehicle drives away, but he then attacks, jumping towards you with his fiery red saber piercing the ceiling overhead and cutting out a large hole in an incredible effect.

 

With Galaxy’s Edge, the Disney Imagineers have raised the bar on what an immersive experience can be. The entire Rise of the Resistance ride is an overwhelming feast for the senses, delivering an experience unlike any other Star Wars medium to date. The ride has so much going on at any second, I dare say you could go through it ten times back-to-back and still not see every detail. I can’t recommend it enough.

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.

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

I can’t remember the last time any film left me feeling so conflicted as Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems. Conflicted because, on the one hand, it’s as distinctive an artistic expression as I’ve seen on film in who knows how long—meticulously scripted, inventively shot, masterfully edited, with performances that are award-worthy down to the level of the most minor secondary roles.

 

On the other hand, I can’t remember any film in recent memory that filled me with such anxiety as this one did, from the opening scene straight through to the closing credits. The film stars Adam Sandler, who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as Howard Ratner, a jewelry store proprietor and compulsive gambler who’s always one side-hustle away from either striking it rich or getting fitted for cement shoes. His fortunes seem to change when he comes into possession of a rare black opal that quickly becomes the obsession of basketball player Kevin Garnett (played equally effectively by basketball player 

Kevin Garnett). Rather than selling the stone to Garnett for a ridiculous sum of money, Ratner decides to scam him by way of an auction, and, well . . . so it goes for the rest of the film.

 

In some ways, I suppose you could call Uncut Gems a morality play, but the morality espoused seems to be pure nihilism. There isn’t a sympathetic character in the film. No 

one to root for. No opportunity for a satisfying resolution that isn’t morally bankrupt. And I’m not saying that makes it a bad film; I’m merely saying it was one that I couldn’t enjoy.

 

Which is a shame, because the Safdies draw inspiration from some of my guilty pleasures, especially the late-80s/early-90s output of Michael Mann, whose style they manage to evoke without aping, both visually and aurally. Shot on the same Kodak Vision3 500T 35mm film stock that gave Marriage Story its distinctively cinematic look, Uncut Gems is the perfect marriage of photochemical chaos and cutting-edge digital precision. It’s all unapologetically crushed blacks and cranked primary hues, and in one scene in particular—at a glitzy nightclub performance by The Weeknd—the 4K HDR presentation (sourced from a 4K digital intermediate) uses its enhanced dynamic range to effectively recreate the blacklight illumination and the DayGlo neon colors that result.

 

Even the soundtrack is a captivating mix of retro and bleeding edge, thanks in part to a score by Daniel Lopatin that breaks all the rules of both composition and mixing. The music at times evokes the Michael Mann aesthetic, with 80s-tastic droning synths and a pulse-pounding tempo that pushes the visuals forward. At other times, it veers into Blade Runner territory,

and at other times still ventures into what can only be described as artistic porn-music territory.

 

The one consistent aspect of the soundtrack—and indeed the sound mix as a whole—is that supervising sound editor Warren Shaw acts as if he’s the first person to ever work in surround sound, much less Dolby Atmos. The mix exhibits a level of aggression I would normally find irritating and distracting, but here it simply works. Dialogue is forced into the left or right channels at times when it would traditionally be locked into the center. Score music often uses the surrounds as the primary channels instead of the fronts. If it weren’t all so skillfully mixed, it would come across as pure chaos, and to be frank I find myself loving it all in spite of myself.

 

In the end, though, I have to put Uncut Gems into that growing pile of films that I appreciate but just can’t enjoy. For all the visual and auditory allusions to Michael Mann, the film ends up playing as more of a horror movie in which the lumbering antagonist isn’t a machete-wielding psychopath, but rather karma itself. It could have just as easily been titled A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Person Has a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.

 

And here’s the thing: I’m not quite sure if the Safdies have created a window

Uncut Gems

or a mirror. Am I supposed to feel any sympathy or empathy for Sandler’s awful character? If so, Uncut Gems fails in that respect, because I can’t. Am I supposed to root for his comeuppance? I hope not, because that feels just as gross.

 

And yet, for all the anxiety, for all the conflicted feelings, for all the desire to bleach my eyeballs after the credits rolled, I have to admit I was absolutely captivated by the sheer talent on the screen and behind the scenes here. And I don’t really like the way that realization makes me feel about myself.   

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.

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

If the recent movie version of Cats proved one thing, it’s that it’s very difficult to create a musical for the screen that audiences can take seriously. The media of film is essentially at its best when it is realistic. Even a science-fiction or fantasy film is most successful when it helps us suspend disbelief and convinces its viewers that it’s all really happening before their eyes.

 

A movie musical has a doubly difficult problem because characters must sing and dance. How do you tell the story effectively and seriously and yet watch actors burst into song? When this works, through the artistry of the creative team, it can be amazingly uplifting and even masterfully dramatic. In the case of master musical film directors such as Vincente Minelli or

Robert Wise it can even be seamless. But if it’s even slightly off, the result will be ridiculous and insufferable. For this reason, the film of the long-running show Cats became a world-famous joke.

 

If you look at the best and most successful film musicals, technology has more than quite a bit to do with the success of the musicalization. For example, do you ever think for one second that Julie Andrews isn’t singing on location in The Sound of Music? The skill of the sound and editing department make it look and sound like it’s really happening then and there in Salzburg. Of course, The Sound of Music was all pre-recorded and looped in, as was most every other film musical ever made. (A famous exception is Rex Harrison’s songs in My Fair Lady, which were all filmed live—even that is a technologically fantastic feat.)

 

Many contemporary musicals are not as artfully sound-mixed as the film classics of the 1950s and 60s. Often too much reverb is added, and intercutting destroys the believability. This is probably a sloppy leftover from the MTV music video generation. The best musical films from the MGM musical era have actually only three editorial cuts per song. Yet films like Singin’ In the Rain never feel static in any way. Careful pre-production planning and smooth camera work serve the movement of the performing actor, and if the actor and the song are superb (as they always were at MGM), we are swept away with movement and momentum.

 

The technical fine art of the musical movie reached its zenith in the 1960s. Because many of these films were shot in 70mm, the screens were bigger and the pictures clearer and the sound more stereophonic than ever.

 

With all the money film musicals cost in the 1960s, all 

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
It’s a fine line from the ridiculous . . . 
The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
. . . to the sublime 

technicians had to do their job to perfection. The 1961 film version of West Side Story set the bar. Interestingly enough, it was co-directed by Robert Wise who was, at one point, Hollywood’s best film editor (Citizen Kane). He was determined and skilled enough to make sure it was all in the realm of dramatic realism (or one might say heightened realism) and exciting to watch.

 

Marni Nixon, the great singer and voice-double expert, told me that the most difficult work she ever did in film was the post-dubbing of Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story. Huge and ultra-clear closeups of Natalie made it nearly impossible to match her lips to the semi-classical Leonard Bernstein music. Of course, the precise technological aspects of West Side Story paid off handsomely at the box office and at the Academy Awards.

 

Other film musicals from the 1960s like Camelot and Oliver! got it precisely and beautifully right, too. The industry men at the time knew the value of precision, and those films were sprinkled with multiple Oscars as well. Of course, the financial demise of the movie musical in the second half of the 20th century also meant a loss of technological skill. There have been only a handful of successful movie musicals since 1968. The few that have done it right, like Chicago and La La Land, are well-loved for pulling it off.

 

Editing, pre-recording, and sound mixing are so important to musicals that there are many film musicals that might have been included among the very best, had they been assembled with more care. When I was researching a book I recently wrote on the making of one of Hollywood’s finest original film musicals, Gigi, it became clear to me that a film’s excellence was all about the final cut.

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

Gigi is a musical expressly written for the screen and therefore without a pre-assembled Broadway musical structure to guide the creators. Early previews showed that the movie wasn’t hitting the bullseye in terms of the audience’s response. MGM, 

Arthur Freed (producer), Vincente Minnelli (director), Fredrick Loewe (composer), and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) had a lot at stake financially and artistically. After all, Gigi was Lerner and Loewe’s followup to their enormous stage hit My Fair Lady. They all desperately wanted to get it exactly right. They fine-tuned the editing and sound, trimming over 20 minutes, and shot retakes with better camera angles and more closeups. They even re-filmed a whole song, simply to adjust the tempo. The result was technological perfection for 1958.

 

Comparing Gigi to other film musicals, I began to realize that movies like Kismet, Carousel, Gypsy, Dr. Dolittle, and Star! suffer from poor or troublesome assemblage. Each of them had an excellent cast and thrilling musical moments, but in-between there is dead weight, poor editing choices, or poor soundstage sets. And, as in the case of South Pacific, misguided color cinematography.

 

The best film musicals, no matter what style or which decade, have state-of-the-art technology of the time. It’s their technologically superior aspects that make them work as live-action film musicals. Of course that cost extra money from the movie studios, and for many of these special properties, the studios were willing to put up the cash.

 

It’s difficult to come up with a list of “Best Movie Musicals” since the genre subdivides into “Original Musicals Created for the Screen,” “Broadway Stage Hits Adapted for the 

Screen,” and “Fantasy Film Musicals for Family Audiences.” I didn’t include animated film musicals because of the number of beloved ones that exist. And how do you compare Coco to Cabaret? You don’t, so I won’t.

 

In Part 2 and Part 3, I’ll go decade by decade to show the progress and decline of the live-action movie musical, and present you with my picks for the very best.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

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?

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Charlie's Angels (2019)

I was born in 1970, so that made me just a bit too young to be the target demographic for Aaron Spelling’s original Charlie’s Angels TV series, which ran from 1976-1981. (As a young boy, I was far more interested in the exploits of Lee Majors as USAF Colonel Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.) So, I didn’t come into this latest Angels movie with any real baggage of the original TV show, or any real expectations short of hoping it would be an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours in my home theater.

 

And I think that is the right level of expectation to set going into the film.

 

Unlike the 2000 and 2003 Angels films directed by McG, which relied heavily on star power in the form of Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz as the titular Angels, this movie tapped two far less known actresses to make up two-thirds of the Angel trio, with Elena Houghlin (Jasmine from Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake) as Elena Houghlin and TV actress Ella Balinska as Jane Kano. To bring some name recognition to the cast, we have Kristen Stewart as third Angel, Sabina Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film, as Rebekah Bosley.

 

The film also managed to grab Sir Patrick Stewart as John Bosley and Djimon Hounsou as Edgar Bosley. (The movie explains that “Bosley” is more akin to a rank in the Townsend Agency akin to Lieutenant, rather than an actual name. So, I learned that.)

 

Almost from the first frame, this movie establishes its agenda and might as well throw up on the screen in huge neon pink letters, “WOMEN GOOD! MEN BAD!” When in doubt, assume that any male character is going to be bad, and that any female character will be a martial arts and weapon-master badass.

 

The film opens with Sabina on a penthouse date in Rio De Janeiro, with the very first lines of dialogue being her telling her date, “I think women can do anything,” with the man condescendingly replying, “Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.”

 

Imagine the writers room erupting with an indignant, “Oh, no! He didn’t just say that!” and you’ve got a sense of this film’s message.

 

We learn scarcely little enough about Sabina (her name is Italian, but she’s not; she grew up rich and troubled, or did she?), Jane (former MI6 operative), or Rebekah (first Angel promoted to Bosley) to really know anything or care about them. All we really need to know is that they know how to fight, shoot, infiltrate, and get the upper-hand on any man they run across, all while looking beautiful, with perfect hair and clothing.

 

Originally this was intended as a reboot of the franchise, but instead it was decided it would be a continuation of the original TV series and McG-directed films. There is a brief scene near the beginning when John is retiring that we get a walk-down-memory-lane montage that briefly shows us the original Angels cast as well as Liu, Barrymore, and Diaz in an attempt to tie everything together. This is also where we learn that the Townsend Agency is worldwide, with branches—and Angels and Bosleys—arrayed around the globe to protect us from the shadows. Or something.

 

The film’s plot revolves around Calisto, the latest development of tech entrepreneur Alexander Brock’s (Sam Claflin) company that can bring cheap, limitless power to the planet. However, Calisto engineer and programmer Elena has discovered an exploit that can weaponize Calisto, turning it into an untraceable localized human-killing EMP device. After she brings this to the attention of her boss, Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon) and is rebuffed, she decides to tell an outsider, bringing in the Angels. The rest of the film is a global chase trying to recover all of the Calisto devices and keep them from being sold to a mysterious buyer.

 

The film’s soundtrack is driven by some major pop stars, including Ariana Grande (who co-produced the film’s soundtrack), Normani, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey and the movie doesn’t miss any opportunities to cue up these tracks. In fact, sometimes the film seems like it’s just looking for the opportunity to jump to the next scene where it can set up another room-filling bass-driven pop song in some new exotic location such as Rio, London, LA, Berlin, Hamburg, Istanbul, or Chamonix. 

 

As I said at the outset, going in with expectations low, and knowing this isn’t a movie you should over-analyze (like they just bring in Elena, this totally untrained civilian scientist, giving her access to an armory and top-secret gear, and effectively adopt her as a full-fledged member of their secret and highly trained team, immediately throwing her into harm’s way? But, she’s a woman, and—surprise!—also a master hacker, so of course she comes equipped with all these skills, so that makes total sense.)

 

Definitely watch through the first part of the end credits, which have some of the film’s most fun moments. Here we see Angels in a variety of training situations getting instruction from some cool cameos. We also get a reveal of who Charlie is.

 

While shot in a combination of 3.4 and 8K resolutions, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, however don’t let that deter you. Sony definitely knows how to make an excellent-looking home video transfer, and this doesn’t disappoint. 

Closeups reveal incredible levels of detail, showing the heavy application of makeup on some actress’ faces. We also get lots of textural detail in clothing and buildings, with images looking tack-sharp.

 

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, regardless the lighting condition. There is one underwater scene with shades of blue that would give bandwidth-limited streaming services a fit, but here there is no hint of banding or anything else untoward. Blacks are also deep and noise-free.

 

HDR is used effectively throughout, giving images plenty of depth and punch. There are several dark interior scenes where stray lights deliver lots of pop, to nighttime exteriors like the opening nighttime scenes showing streetlights right off the ocean in Rio. Explosions also have a lot of punch and glowing reds and oranges that benefit from the wider color gamut. The scenes in the Chamonix castle look especially good, with bright glowing tube lights and the Angels’ sequin dresses shimmering iridescently.

 

Sonically, the film is a bit reserved for a big action movie. Explosions and gunshots have the appropriate weight and impact, but most of the audio seems to be spread across the front channels. The surrounds are called into play during the big action and chase scenes, with things being thrown around the room and 

Charlie's Angels (2019)

debris flying overhead, and music is mixed dynamically up into the front height channels to expand the soundstage. But I didn’t notice the usual sorts of ambient room and city sounds that normally breathe life into more developed soundtracks.

 

If you’ve read my review up to this point, you’re probably sensing a lot of negativity, and might assume that I hated Charlie’s Angels, but that isn’t the case. While I didn’t think Angels was necessarily a good movie—Ocean’s Eight was a far better and smarter female-buddy caper film—it isn’t a total stinker either.

 

And while I’m not generally a fan of Kristin Stewart and her typically one-note emotional range, she is actually quirky and funny here, and the most interesting Angel in my opinion. Plus, at 52% on the Rotten Tomatoes meter and with a 78% audience score it definitely won’t be the worst thing you’ll see this year, and it has its big action and chase moments that certainly play well in a home theater.

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.

A Guide to Luxury Control Systems

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

In our ongoing series on the basic components of a luxury home media system, we’ve covered most of the big questions you need to ask and things you need to keep in mind when selecting your video display (TV or projector), sound system (both electronics and speakers), and the source components by which you access your entertainment. There’s one big category we haven’t covered yet, though. How do you plan on actually interacting with all of this gear? 

 

There are, of course, a number of DIY universal remote control solutions on the market, as well as basic smart-home systems you can pick up at your local Home Depot or Best Buy. And while some combination of those devices will give you control of

most of your home’s electronics, they’re not exactly the stuff of luxury (nor reliability).

 

That’s why you’ll want to invest in a professionally installed and programmed control and automation system, not only to provide you with a more reliable and elegant control experience, but also to integrate all of your home’s electronics, lighting, and comfort control into one unified system that works together.

 

What does this mean, exactly? Say, for example, you have a Kaleidescape movie server and you sit down to watch a film. With a good professional control system in place, you won’t have to worry about dimming the lights yourself or adjusting the thermostat to your preferred movie-watching temperature. A single press of a button can start the film, dim the lights, dial your Ecobee or Nest thermostat to 72 degrees, close the shades, and lock the front gate.

 

You’ll see that phrase a lot in any discussion of luxury home control, by the way: “A single press of a button.” The reality is, though, home control these days involves a lot less button-pressing than it used to. Sure, you may have a traditional wand-style hard-button remote on the end table in your home cinema or media room, as well as others of its sort near other TVs throughout the home. For channel-surfing, streaming video, or even pausing your Kaleidescape mid-movie, nothing beats a good hard-button clicker. But they’re not so great when it comes to operating lights, shades, climate control, or any number of other smart systems within the home.

 

For those, you’ll likely want to use a combination of dedicated touchscreens, mobile apps, and even voice control. Each approach—touchscreen, voice, hard-button control via remotes and keypads, and even motion-sensing—has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to fire up your AV system or initiate a lighting scene with a simple verbal command, but you wouldn’t want to use it to adjust volume in the home theater or turn on the hallway light on your trip to the fridge for a midnight snack when everyone else is asleep. The best control system is one that blends all of these methods of control to conform to your lifestyle and the way you use your home.

 

The good news is, all of today’s advanced control systems support all of these methods of control and more. Control4

Savant, and Crestron—the three biggest trendsetters in the home control and automation space—all support Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to one degree or another. All also support a more upscale digital voice assistant called Josh.ai, which was designed from the ground up to provide more intuitive voice control for luxury systems. All also offer compatibility with other, more specialized manufacturers in the luxury home control space, such as Lutron for lighting and shade control.

 

As for which of the three main control systems you should opt for, that’s really a discussion for you and your installer/dealer to have, based on your unique needs and preferences. Control4, the most economical of the three, is an easier-to-program, 

one-size-fits-all control solution that supports more third-party devices (especially off-the-shelf smart home devices) than the rest, but also has a lot of Amazon first-party control solutions, including my pick for best intercom/doorbell system on the market.

 

Control4 also offers a nice level of user personalization and customization. But for the most part, any Control4 system is going to look like any other from the standpoint of their user interfaces. In other words, the system uses a pre-made template that automatically adjusts itself depending on what other components it’s programed to control. So if you have your heart set on making your home control touchscreens 

look like exact recreations of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Control4 might not be the right solution for you.

 

Next up the ladder in terms of price and customization is Savant. While it still very much relies on a template-based interface, Savant offers a little more in terms of personalization, and it’s probably the safest bet if you want to know for certain that your touchscreens will be as pretty as possible. I also think Savant has the best hard-button remote control of any control system, which may be enticing if you do a lot of TV watching. It even has Siri built in, which is a big plus for Apple fans. Savant isn’t quite as easy to retrofit as is Control4, though, making it better suited to new construction.

 

At the top of the home control food chain is Crestron—by far the most expensive home-automation solution, but also the most customizable. Honestly, you’re only limited by the imagination and programming skills of your installer. You want that bridge of the Enterprise aesthetic? Totally doable, as long as you don’t mind paying for the custom programming. Have a palatial estate with 100 rooms or more? Crestron will thrive there, where Control4 and Savant might start to choke. 

 

Ultimately, though, no matter which control and automation solution you gravitate toward, the skill of your installer will make all the difference in terms of functionality, personalization, and reliability. So, it may be wise to ask if they have a show home or other demo space where you can see their work in action.

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.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

I’ll be honest with you: This was not an easy review to write. As a devotee of all things Terry Gilliam, I burned through multiple drafts that had me sounding like a drooling fanboy rather than a calm, introspective observer and commentator presenting a review of one of the most anticipated films of this or any century.

 

See? That’s what I’m talking about. I went into my initial screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with way too many expectations and background baggage to simply sit back and enjoy the film. Instead, it took no fewer than three viewings—and four drafts of this review—for me to appreciate and process Gilliam’s latest film without adding footnotes based on the long and harrowing story of a movie that materialized nearly 30 years after the director first went to work on a project that would become a textbook example of industry limbo.

 

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gilliam’s vision of the classic story is updated and twisted around without losing the plot . . . most of the time. In 1998, Gilliam secured the funding to make the film as he saw fit, with Johnny Depp starring as marketing executive (later film director) Toby Grummett and Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Though production commenced full swing in 2000, the series of early challenges that are laid bare in the documentary Lost in La Mancha were matched only by an equally disastrous series of setbacks that continued through early 2017, when production on the final version was announced.

 

Along the way, Gilliam directed no fewer than four full-length features (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Zero Theorem) and two shorts (The Legend of Hallowdega and The Wholly Family). Not too shabby for an artist who still had his sights and heart set on bringing Quixote to completion.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that he begins the film with a title card that proudly states: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making . . . and unmaking . . . a Terry Gilliam film.”

 

And it is indeed a Terry Gilliam film, with all the spectacle that comes with such a description, not to mention the darkness, humor, and general sense of foreboding that are his trademarks, ever since he showed in Time Bandits how easily fairly tales

can take unexpected and troubling turns without the promise of a happy ending.

 

Featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce taking over for Depp and Rochefort— let alone assorted other come-and-goers including Robert Duvall and Michael Palin—the film was ultimately, sort of let loose in May 2018 despite financier-producer Paulo Branco’s best efforts to

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

prevent its release. That was also the month Amazon Studios backed out of a deal to distribute Quixote in the U.S.

 

Jumping to the present, Quixote made few appearances in U.S. theaters but is now resting comfortably on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video. Not exactly the big-screen experience the typical Gilliam film deserves, but unlike his earliest solo efforts, especially Brazil, Quixote translates well to smaller screens. There is visual payback when viewing it on a big screen, yet the story and images are compelling on any reasonably-sized display.

 

Despite the well-publicized departures of the film’s former stars, Driver and Pryce are custom-tailored to their respective roles. Pryce’s depiction of Javier, a Spanish cobbler enlisted to appear in Grummett’s student production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is nothing short of sublime. We watch Javier move from being a shy hermit to a hero, at least in his own mind, as he gets to portray Quixote.

 

While in Spain years later to direct a TV commercial, Grummett discovers a copy of his old student flick, and sets out to the village where it was filmed. And, surprise, that’s where he encounters Javier, who not only still believes he is the real Quixote but that Grummett is Sancho Panza. Out of a sense of guilt for the man’s current state of mind combined with equal parts boredom with his current project and a sense of adventure, Grummett joins Javier on a journey that takes the two of them through encounters with the authorities, and a confrontation with a local who believes Grummett is responsible for his daughter leaving home to become an actress, only to find herself years later working as an escort.

 

As in many of Gilliam’s signature films, fantastical plot lines and troubling twists are held together with a sense of empathy for lead characters who are at once imperfect and wholly agreeable, in that order. Driver appears to revel in playing an over-the-top narcissist whose conscience drives him along on an adventure that is antithetical to anything Grummett, now a successful, lascivious director, ever had on his bucket list. He yells, he laughs, he even belts out the Eddie Cantor classic, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie),” complete with a dance routine.

 

Similar to some of Gilliam’s other 21st-century productions, especially The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Quixote revels in engrossing characters as the plot occasionally derails and characters lose some of their charm over the course of the film. Yet the life-or-death battles in the third act will reward viewers who stick with the flick until the end.

 

Gilliam is known for creating large, lavish sets with extensive use of otherworldly special effects to build upon otherwise familiar settings. (Think of his Vegas-on-LSD sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Though set in the modern era, many of Quixote’s more harrowing scenes convey a sense of imminent danger, even though there are no outward signs of its arrival until well into the denouement.

 

Considering the director’s talents as a visual storyteller who first gained worldwide fame as Monty Python’s resident animator, the settings are presented as boldly and as colorfully as the terrain allows, with imagery that pops off the screen. The soundtrack is more subdued, with a subtle mix that serves the purpose without calling attention to itself. 

 

In retrospect, it makes sense that Quixote received high praise at the Cannes Film Festival only to drizzle into limited availability in the streaming world, with barely a beep’s worth of promotion by Amazon. However, I disagree with Gilliam’s reference to “unmaking” in the title card. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph by any standard, and a worthwhile investment of two hours for fans of adventure and comedy that will leave the viewer on edge. It’s what Terry Gilliam does best.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.