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Why Movie Sound Matters

Why Movie Sound Matters

Oscar season is a strange time for me. I love seeing films recognized and celebrated (especially those that might have been looked over in the past, like Parasite), but I get frustrated that awards viewers see categories like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing as opportune times to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

 

It’s great that both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have separate categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing because they are significantly different disciplines. Quantifying the quality of mixing and editing can be difficult, if not downright stupefying, for someone unfamiliar with the process.

 

It’s first important to understand that, in most cases, most of what you hear when watching a movie was added or modified by a team of sound professionals after the film was shot. And the sounds that are edited into a film need to appear to be coming from the source on screen. The production sound (what was recorded on set by the production sound mixer) is sometimes

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Ford v Ferrari

used in the film, but there are times a scene or entire film is recorded MOS—meaning without sound. In those cases, everything needs to be constructed after the film has been put together by the picture editor.

 

Ford v Ferrari wouldn’t have nearly the impact, especially for car aficionados, if the Ford GT40 Mark II or Ferrari 330 P3 didn’t sound right. But there’s no way the film crew would be able to use the original cars for filming the race sequences. “Those are all kits,” said Donald Sylvester, Oscar-winning sound editor for Ford v Ferrari, during a panel before the Academy Awards. “They probably have Mazda engines or something reliable.”

With only 105 GT40s ever made, the sound team needed to track down one of the remaining ones to record, which turned out to be a difficult, and likely expensive, project. Many owners didn’t want to let anyone anywhere near a car valued at millions of dollars, let alone close enough to record—and possibly damage—it. In the end, the sound crew ended up using a car in Ohio that had been built out of original GT40 parts, but wasn’t one of the original 105. Without that sonic authenticity, the storytelling of the movie would have suffered.

 

But just using the recording of a car engine isn’t enough. On a film I recently worked on, I built layers of sound to create a believable environment inside a car. Door locks and windows, the sound of an accelerator pedal being depressed, gear changes, the clunks from the suspension, turn signals, the noise of tires moving over pavement, and squeaks from the seat leather as the driver shifts position all add realism to the scene that would be missing with the engine sound alone. And those are just the sounds from the car itself and don’t include the other layers of what’s happening outside the car (such as individual cars driving by, birds chirping, the lawnmower of someone cutting the grass at a house being passed, or a distant police siren).

While those car sounds were collected out in the field and then edited together in a Pro Tools edit suite, sometimes sound for a film is created in a studio by foley artists. And very often the materials used to create the sound in the studio have no relation to what is supposedly producing the sound on screen. Classic examples 

of this include squeezing cornstarch in a leather pouch for footsteps in the snow, snapping apart celery for bone breaks, and a watermelon being stabbed or smashed for some gruesome horror-movie injuries. Great foley artists are exceptionally talented individuals, and if you have 14 minutes to spare, I highly recommend the award-winning short film The Secret World of Foley that came out a few years ago and documents the work of some of these artists (one of whom, Sue Harding, worked on 1917).

 

Many times when a sound editor does their best work, it’s imperceptible to the viewer. Take, for instance, difficulties that can crop up when editing dialogue. A set is very rarely a pristinely quiet environment. A production sound mixer can do their very best to record the dialogue as cleanly as possible, but the shuffling feet of crew members, humming of the on-set kitchen refrigerator, or an A/C unit that wasn’t turned off can all make their way on to the recorder. And even if a light gel was flapping throughout the scene, if it’s the take the director wants to use, the sound editor needs to make it sound like the extraneous 

flapping was never there. (That example is from my own work experience.) Even differences in room tone between takes that are put together for a smooth visual scene experience would easily take a viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. But if the dialogue editor does their job well, you’d never know there were any issues.

 

Then there’s the sound designer. Not every movie has a credited sound designer, unless it’s a film that 

includes things that don’t exist in our world and the sounds need to be created from scratch. This could be as low-key as what an iPhone app that exists only in the movie sounds like to the lightsaber sounds created by Ben Burtt or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which were given voice by Gary Rydstrom.

 

This is a more quantifiable aspect of sound editing. Obviously Rydstrom couldn’t go out into the field and capture the real sounds of dinosaurs, as Donald Sylvester did with the GT40, so it’s easier to recognize the work that went into creating the sound of a dinosaur and how it fits into our perception than it is which extraneous sounds were deftly removed from a noisy dialogue recording.

 

But everything described above only encompasses one of the two awards. Without sound mixing, all of that work wouldn’t matter. Now, this isn’t the production sound mixing I referred to earlier that’s done on set. (The nomenclature can be confusing, I know.) This is done by a re-recording mixer once all of the sound editing is done. In order for the editing to sound believable, all of the layers that have been painstakingly put together by the edit team need to be joined into one cohesive soundscape. Sound levels are adjusted and how the sound moves around in space to match the action on the screen is set.

This is an art in itself and requires a trained ear, creativity, and the use of plug-ins like reverb and compression. Subtle changes in dB levels can completely alter the audience experience. There’s a moment in Logan (shown above) where Charles Xavier has a seizure that causes him to practically paralyze those around him. The high-pitched sound that lasts throughout the seizure until Logan is able to administer Xavier’s medication slowly becomes more intense. It was a genius sound moment, and in the theater I could see audience members becoming more physically uncomfortable as the scene progressed, mirroring the emotions of the characters, until the massive relief once the seizure and high-pitched sound stopped.

 

Both sound editing and mixing complete the world on screen, draw audiences in, and create visceral reactions in those of us watching. At their best, all of this is done without distraction or without us realizing what’s causing it. To remain engrossed and invested in the film, the sound of the GT40 or the roar of the dinosaur must seem accurate enough that we believe it to our core. To feel incredible relief once that high-pitched squeal finally ends, it needs to sound absolutely right. The next time you finish a movie, think back to the moments that worked well and I guarantee you a major reason is because of excellent sound work, even if you didn’t perceive it at the time.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

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?

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Train Your YouTube

How to Train Your YouTube

When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be 

covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.

 

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.

 

So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.

 

Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)

 

We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations, 

presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”

 

He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.

 

For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.

 

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.

 

But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.

 

My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of 

Baumgartner Restoration

What Makes This Song Great?

From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill

Biffa Plays Indie Games

channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.

 

It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.

 

My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.

 

In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.

Quantum OLED

So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.

 

Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.

 

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.

Midway (2019)

Midway (movie)

Maybe one of the most important things about a film concerning itself with historical events is that it do so truthfully and accurately. Sure, we’ll forgive some minor inconsistencies at the expense of storytelling, dramatic license, and time constriction, but you need to get the majority of things right. And in this respect director Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow, White House Down) retelling of Midway gets them right. (You can see a factcheck here at History vs Hollywood.)

 

Of course, the next thing a film needs to do to be successful is to be both engaging and entertaining, and I’d say Midway succeeds on these merits as well, an opinion echoed by its Rotten Tomatoes Audience score of 92%. This is not to say Midway isn’t without its flaws, attested by the critics’ less-than-enamored RT score of 42%.

 

The film opens four years before the events of Pearl Harbor with Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) ominously telling US intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) that Japan will attack if its oil supplies are threatened. Cut to December 7, 1941 and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which delivers the US Navy its biggest defeat in history.

 

Midway concerns itself with the events following that attack, and how the US regroups and looks to not only save itself but deliver a counterpunch to the Japanese navy, leading up to the attack known as the Battle of Midway.

 

With the modern-day might of the US Navy, we don’t often think about just how close to utter defeat the naval forces were following Pearl Harbor. On that day, more than 2,300 sailors were killed along and 1,000-plus wounded, 18 ships were damaged or sunk, and 180 planes were destroyed. To restore naval operations, Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, wearing a white wig nearly as distracting as his big white Joe Biden teeth from SNL sketches) is brought in to take control of the Pacific Fleet, described as “the most difficult job in the world.”

Midway (2019)

Following Pearl, the US had just three functional carriers, compared to Japan’s ten and zero functional battleships compared to Japan’s nine, with the Japanese also having more cruisers, bombers, and fighters; and much of their equipment was more modern. If the gamble at Midway didn’t pay off, the United States would have likely been sidelined for much of the war.

 

The movie does a good job of presenting these stakes, as well as compressing the timeline into an easy-to-follow narrative. If it is guilty of anything, it’s of trying to cram so many stars into so many roles that none of the characters are really fleshed out. It’s hard for viewers to really care for anyone when they have just a bit of screen time before another new and famous face is trotted out in the next scene.

 

And, honestly, there is more than enough drama in the true events of the war that we don’t need to be distracted by cutaway stories about USO parties or brief shots of homelife.

 

A perfect example is Mandy Moore cast as Ann Best, wife of hotshot pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who seems to be there just so they could have her name in the credits, and serves no real role in the film. Dennis Quaid is also underused as Admiral Halsey. Aaron Eckhart is given a small role as Jimmy Doolittle, a pilot awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a near-suicidal bombing mission on Tokyo who must bail out in China and evade capture from the Japanese army, which killed 250,000 Chinese civilians for aiding in the escape of Doolittle and the other American pilots who survived the raid (events covered in the 2017 film In Harm’s Way). Musician Nick Jonas is brought on to portray real-life hero Aviation Machinist Bruno Gaido, receiving enough dialogue and backstory to give his character a bit of depth.

 

It’s tough to build much suspense when retelling a story where most viewers already know the outcome, but Midway manages to give the action scenes enough tension that you can’t help but groan as bombs and torpedoes slide just past their targets, missing by scant feet. The film also blatantly telegraphs its heroes. We know early on that cocky pilot Dick Best is going to be playing a big role in the air campaign, and when we see him perform a ridiculous landing maneuver onto an aircraft carrier very early on, we know we are going to see this move again later in the film. When Nimitz instructs Layton to make sure the 

Midway (2019)

intelligence mistakes of Pearl aren’t repeated, you know the time will come when Layton will have to convince Nimitz to trust him. Or that the friction between Dick Best and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) will turn into a grudging respect.

 

Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, Midway is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not unusual for a film so heavily laden with CGI effects. Closeups feature 

lots of detail, but don’t seem to have that Nth degree of resolution of films with a true 4K DI. There is still plenty of detail to appreciate n clothing, from a crocheted top worn by Moore in one scene, to the wooly texture of Japanese officers’ uniforms, to the collar stitching on Americans’ shirts, to the leathery texture of the pilots’ seats.

 

Since none of the ships portrayed in the film still exist (at least not in their WWII-era state), they all had to be created, and the resolution does lay bare several instances of pretty blatant CGI, where things just look a bit video-gamey. The opening shot of an aircraft carrier with sailors doing PT on the deck just doesn’t ring true, especially if you focus on individual characters long enough. Nor does a scene at a graveyard in Pearl, which just looks . . .off. Any time there are so many computer-generated ships and planes on screen—which is often—there are bound to be a few instances where some shots aren’t perfect, but it is often the long shots that seem to suffer most.

 

HDR is used to good effect throughout, not just to enhance the brilliant red-orange fireballs that erupt from exploding ships and planes, burning with a vibrant fury and intensity, but also to bring an extra layer of depth and punch to interior shots aboard ships where sunlight in pouring in through port holes or walkways. The ocean gleams in shades of blue, with bright highlights as the sun glints off its surface, and exterior scenes are bright enough to make you squint into the sunny skies. Blacks remain deep and dark, and I didn’t notice any banding, which is a challenge with the varying shades of blue and grey

in the skies as planes fly in and out of different lighting and cloud cover.

 

Beyond the visuals, Midway offers a fun ride that sounds fantastic in a home theater. In fact, you might call it a 2-hour 18-minute Dolby Atmos spectacle masquerading as a war movie. The sound mix plays a dynamic role in nearly every scene, and if anyone has every wondered if their height speakers are working or if Atmos can add to the immersion of a movie, just show them any of the aerial attack scenes where the audio lends a wonderful third dimension to plane flyovers.

 

Planes rip along the side walls and into the back of the room, or roar past overhead, diving down on unsuspecting pilots, bullets shredding things around you. Flak shells explode left, right, above, and behind you, with bullets ricocheting all around the room.

 

Midway will also test your subwoofer’s mettle, with deep bass present throughout. Beyond the bombs and explosions, ships crash through waves with appropriate weight, and AAA guns thump you in your seat with repeated blasts. There is also the constant low, steady, bassy rumble as a background reminder that you’re aboard a warship, along with other ambient mechanical sounds to place you on

Midway (movie)

board, or the deep, throaty roar of the planes’ engines. There is also the carnage of the USS Arizona breaking up after explosions and then ripping itself apart with groans, creaks, and the rumble of crumpling steel.

 

Available for download now at the Kaleidescape Store ahead of its 4K disc release on February 18, Midway hits enough high points to overlook its flaws, and makes for a rollicking night in your home theater, with one of the most dynamic and immersive Dolby Atmos audio tracks I’ve heard in a while.

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.

Reviews: Oscar-Winning Films

The Academy showed some courage acknowledging that a non-Anglo film was the best of this
past year. (If only that had been true in the time of
Metropolis, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, La

Règle de JeuRashomon, La Dolce Vita, Bande à part, and C’era una volta il West.) Most of the
rest of the awards felt 
more diplomatic than sincere. But, to be fair, this was the strongest field
of contenders in recent memory (if your recent memory goes back a few decades)
So here are
our reviews of the winning films. By the way, anyone interested in looking deeper into that
unusually strong pack of nominees can click here

Parasite

Picture, International Feature Film, Director, Original Screenplay

Joker

Actor, Original Score

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Supporting Actor, Production Design

Jojo Rabbit

Adapted Screenplay

Toy Story 4

Animated Feature Film

Judy

Actress

Marriage Story

Supporting Actress

Ford v Ferrari

Film Editing, Sound Editing

American Factory

Documentary Feature

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

In any other year, Jojo Rabbit would be fighting for the top spot amongst my favorite recent films. This absurdist lark from Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is exactly what you would expect upon learning that the crazy bastard who actually made a great Thor movie against all odds then turned his weird attention toward the Holocaust and the Hitler Youth.

 

On the surface, Jojo Rabbit is the tale of a young lad so infatuated with der Führer that he conjures Hitler out of thin air, Calvin & Hobbes-style, not only as a best imaginary friend but also as a fellow agent of unwitting chaos and something of a conscience. Things take a turn for the weirder when little Jojo discovers a Jewish girl hiding within the walls of his home and

is forced to choose between the safety of his family and his commitment to an ideology he doesn’t understand in the slightest.

 

And if that’s as far as you decide to dig, there are loads of laughs to be had, assuming you’re not horribly offended by the premise. So many, in fact, that by the time the closing credits rolled, my cheeks legitimately hurt and I swear I felt abs forming under my tubby middle-aged tummy. 

 

But just as Waititi used the laugh-a-minute Thor: Ragnarok as a vehicle for some very real ruminations about colonialism and the lasting impacts thereof, he uses Jojo 

Rabbit to not only take the piss out of fascism, but also to explore its appeal. Seriously, what causes a precocious little boy to Sieg Heil! and buy into all manner of horrible conspiracies about the Jewish people? Furthermore, why is it that bumbling idiots seem to hold such sway over massive swaths of the general population? Waititi seems to be saying that if we can’t understand that, we’re ill-equipped to combat it. 

 

Unlike so many other filmmakers who have recently grappled with notions about why inherently good people do bad things, Waititi actually has answers. Pretty simple ones, when you get right down to it. But answers nonetheless.

 

His primary conclusion: “We’re asking the wrong questions.” Right from the opening scene of the film, Waititi uses a German dub of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” cut together with screaming crowds of Nazis that are almost indistinguishable from fawning crowds of Beatlemaniacs, to slyly point to the fact that cults of personality—any personality—are at least part of the problem.

 

Along the way from that cheeky beginning to the inglorious end of World War II, Waititi takes shots at groupthink, cognitive dissonance, nationalism, and identity politics in equal measure, but when you get right down to it, what he seems to be saying is that the root of all our problems is a lack of genuine human connection. And he uses the anachronistic disconnect between 

his setting and his choice of soundtrack music, language, and mannerisms to point out that, for all our pontification about social media and modern life, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

 

None of this should come as a surprise if you’re already familiar with Waititi’s work. What does come as a surprise is how often he plays it safe with this one. I guess he 

figured he had to tug on the reins from time to time to keep from offending literally everyone, and maybe he has a point. I wouldn’t know, since I’m not offended by much of anything. But sometimes the tonal shifts toward the conventional seem a little forced and insincere. Thankfully, the expected turn toward the sentimental at the end of the film is pulled off with such heartfelt authenticity that it’s difficult not to wooed by it all.

 

My only remaining niggle—and this is entirely subjective—is that Scarlett Johansson is somewhat miscast as Jojo’s mother. And I say this as someone who thinks Johansson is actually underrated as an actor. She positively transforms her body language and her entire demeanor for the part, but something about it all doesn’t feel quite right. Especially when the rest of the casting—especially the two adolescent leads—is so spot on.

 

Another unexpected thing is how gorgeous the film is from beginning to end. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., in his first collaboration with Waititi as far as I can tell, proves himself with this film to be an absolute master of color theory, bathing nearly every scene with a deft mix of rich warm hues and crisp, cool punctuation that’s delivered beautifully by Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR presentation. Jojo Rabbit was shot at 3.4K and finished in a 2K digital intermediate, so it might not satisfy the 

dermatologically obsessed or those who chase razor-sharp edges. But the expanded color gamut of HDR10 does wonders for the mix of subtle pastels and retina-shocking primary hues.

 

Whatever concerns you may have about resolution, this is one you’ll want to watch on as large a screen as possible, by the way. Malaimare goes for some unexpected long shots at times to capture the beauty and scope of the scenery during some dialogue-heavy scenes, where other cinematographers might have opted for tight closeups instead. In a world where streaming video is squeezing commercial cinemas out of the equation more and more every year, he defiantly composes for a massive canvas, assuming (hoping?) that the images will take up as much of the viewer’s field of view as possible.

 

The film’s sound mix isn’t quite as expansive, but Kaleidescape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a faultless presentation of it. The sound design here is far more interested in servicing the needs of the film than exercising your speakers, and as such it’s largely a three-channel mix, spread across the front, with surround channels only used to add ambience and a sense of space until late in the film when the action gets a little Looney Tunes. But that’s exactly the approach this film needs.

Jojo Rabbit

As I said in the beginning, in any other year, Jojo Rabbit would be hovering right near the top of my annual favorites. If there’s anything truly working against it, it’s not the instances in which Waititi plays it safe, or in which Johansson’s knack for emotional complexity works against her in a role that should be more one-note until it isn’t. No, the only thing really holding the film back is that it’s forced to share oxygen with a comedy like Parasite, which is more unapologetically unflinching and which navigates its tonal shifts more effectively.

 

But don’t let that keep you from watching this one. Any film that can make me guffaw as hard and as frequently as this one did without insulting my intelligence has a spot in my film library. It may not be perfect, but it’s a necessary film right now.

 

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.

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

In 2016, I wrote and directed a successful spoof of the musical Hamilton, entitled Spamilton. Although we opened and played in New York City, we soon after had a successful run in Culver City in Los Angeles. There we played our run at The Kirk Douglas Theater, an excellent refurbished showplace, financed by and named after Mr. Douglas.

 

I was struck by the fact that my somewhat rebellious, offbeat show was playing at a theater named after an actor known for playing rebels who brazenly thumbed their nose at the establishment. I mean, who did that better than the late, great Kirk Douglas? Since his passing, as we say farewell to this giant of Hollywood’s Golden Era, I’ve taken a deeper look at Douglas’ oeuvre and begun to realize he was an original iconoclast.

 

Most film lovers would identify him as one of the favorite male movie stars of the post-World War II era, well into the 1970s. Always a top-billed star and leading man, he almost always played the rebellious troublemaker or an insufferable force of nature. He never subjected himself to playing sweet or romantic (or even kind-hearted). No Cary Grant or John Wayne he, though he was equally a top draw at the box office.

 

At the height of Hollywood’s studio era, each star had a persona that applied to most all the characters they played. Gregory Peck was honest, noble, and slow to judge. Cary Grant was the leading lover boy women pursued (he almost never pursued them). John Wayne (for most of the ‘40s, and ‘50s) portrayed a vulnerable hero who ultimately stood up as a stalwart symbol of righteousness and so on.

 

But Kirk Douglas took on a persona that was much more difficult to play. He portrayed characters who were uncompromising in their vision, regardless of how self-destructive they were. Douglas had the super physique and square jaw of the ideal male star of his era, and also had a natural grit and intensity that made him fascinating to watch. He also had the intellectual insight

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

Out of the Past (with Robert Mitchum)

to choose his roles carefully. It’s this very specialized persona (which he no doubt created and developed in the 1950s) that kept him on the cutting edge of the late Hollywood Golden Age, an era when the world was changing fast and furiously.

 

Oddly enough, his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), cast him as a weak and mousy young man. Although it showcased his acting talents, he and Hollywood must have decided right off this wasn’t quite the right formula for a man with a muscular physique, toothy grin, and intense speech pattern.

His next picture came closer to the Douglas persona. In the film noir classic, Out of the Past (1947), he portrayed a ruthless yet clean-cut multi-millionaire mega-villain. Playing opposite Robert Mitchum’s amoral good guy, Douglas showed an edgy nastiness new to noir audiences and 1940s movie goers.

 

By 1949, he was pegged by the powers that be in Hollywood as one of the new wave of filmdom’s leading men, along with Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Although one of them, he was still savvy enough to stay away from the type of upright hero that might be portrayed by the formidable Peck. In fact, Douglas turned down MGM’s big-budget costume drama The Great Sinner to star in The Champion, a raw and realistic (for its day) boxing classic. Gregory Peck went on to star in The Great Sinner and, being a noble figure, repented his sins very well indeed . . . on the ample bosom of Ava Gardner. But in The Champion (1949), Kirk Doulas played a selfish (and often unlikable) athlete, much more suited to his screen persona. It earned him his first Oscar nomination.

 

Even though Douglas was a self-professed shy guy, he continued to pursue intense, often unlikable, multi-dimensional characters. The great director William Wyler was so impressed with Douglas, he cast him in the title role of the film version of the hit Broadway drama, Detective Story (1951). Under Wyler’s always superb direction, Douglas plays an overly aggressive, ruthless police detective who “always gets his man,” but ends up destroying his marriage and ultimately himself. It was a riveting film and an intense performance of the type of character he would develop all through the 1950s.

 

It continued to be a stellar decade for Douglas. Another standout performance was in The Bad and the Beautiful as a shameless David O. Selznick-type film producer who eventually turns all his friends and collaborators against him. He starred 

in wildly varied types of films, from Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to the Greek mythological fantasy Ulysses (1955). These films were more heroic in style, but Douglas easily found his way into the darker and more outrageous elements of the characters, men who live by their own rules. 

 

In 1956, he found perhaps his most successful portrayal as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. A masterpiece, directed with 

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

passion by the great visualist director Vincente Minnelli, Lust for Life unabashedly portrays Van Gogh as the ultimate outsider, relentlessly following his vision of madness and divine beauty. Douglas didn’t shy away from any of the unlikable qualities of the great painter and made his Van Gogh the ultimate artistic anti-hero.

 

It should be noted how much Kirk resembled Vincent in appearance. It seemed as if they were kindred not only spiritually, but physically. Since this 1956 film, no one has come close to portraying Van Gogh so well. Douglas deservedly earned his second Academy Award nomination.

 

About the time of Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas formed his own film production company (as did his good friend Burt Lancaster). This meant for the next 10 to 15 years, Douglas could control his career by carefully choosing his scripts. He also developed into a savvy and successful film producer of adventure hits like The Vikings (1959) and, more famously, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), in which he played the irascible and morally bankrupt Doc Holliday. Another perfect role for Kirk the anti-hero.

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

Paths of Glory

But Douglas also continued to pursue unusual, politically-charged stories like Paths of Glory (1957). For that anti-war venture, he hired and, in a sense trained, Stanley Kubrick as director.

 

His next co-production (with Edward Lewis) was the 1960 blockbuster epic Spartacus, the film and role for which Douglas is most identified. He had Kubrick take over as director when Anthony Mann was let go.

But more importantly, he hired the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay and gave Trumbo full screen credit under his actual name, thereby breaking the blacklist forever. Not only did Douglas play the historic rebel Spartacus on film, he was a true Hollywood rebel in real life.

 

In the decade that followed, Douglas continued his sojourn as the all-American odd-man out, as in Lonely are the Brave (1962). He was also secure enough to play outright villains, as he did in the political thriller Seven Days in May (1964). In this case, he took on the part of a thoroughly corrupt general, a role that made a solid political point to warn the public against the threat of the military-industrial complex. Also in 1964, Douglas played an egotistical military man in Otto Preminger’s In 

Harm’s Way, this time opposite John Wayne and Patricia Neal. Douglas’ expertly acted, dastardly amoral naval officer is quite a contrast to Wayne and Neal (both at their most noble). By this time, he was happy to take on the more colorful and rebellious roles, and it’s what audiences expected and enjoyed.

 

In the early ’60s, Douglas went east to star in the Broadway stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Once again,  he was taking on the

Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero

Seven Days in May (with Burt Lancaster)

part of a neurotic rebel of the first order. He was never able to finance a film version for himself, but of course his son Michael famously produced the iconic movie that won an Oscar for Jack Nicholson.

 

So, for those of you who think it was Nicholson who broke ground as the first great anti-hero, think again. Douglas’ entire career was built on the emerging and changing rebel that came out of the post-World War II era. When the GIs came home, having witnessed the atrocities of war, they could no longer identify with the smooth, glib leading men of the ‘30s and early ‘40s. Kirk Douglas was the perfect leading man for the morally shifting 1950s and ‘60s.

 

He was the supreme iconoclast, and perhaps the most original star of his era. Whatever film he was in, he was always groundbreaking, fascinating, and way outside of the box—even in Technicolor. Farewell to Kirk Douglas—rebel, anti-hero, and superb actor.

—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.

Knives Out

Knives Out

For any mystery-film fan, Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunnit, Knives Out, is a must-see. It stands up against the best of the genre, like the superb Agatha Christie films of the 1970s and ‘80s—Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Murder on the Orient Express. And it far surpasses the recent inferior remake of the last named. Hang up your oversized mustache, Kenneth Branagh, there’s a new Poirot in town—Benoit Blanc—sans mustache and perfectly played by Daniel Craig.

 

Knives Out has all the usual tropes for a good murder mystery—big house, wealthy victim, slew of suspects with strong motives for murder, reading of the victim’s will, and an eccentric detective. The film begins with a pair of barking dogs running in slow-motion through the fog, an imposing mansion in the background. The shot fairly screams “The Hound of the

Baskervilles” and is the first of several Sherlock Holmes homages throughout the film. Next we see a maid bringing breakfast to her employer, the famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey, only to find him in his study with throat slit in a pool of blood.

 

This opening scene tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. Your typical murder mystery . . . well, almost. Instead of screaming and dropping the breakfast tray upon discovering the body (like many an episode of the British TV series Midsomer Murders), the maid fumbles with the tray awkwardly and exclaims, “Shit!” This is not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie.

Cut to several days later when the police have come to interview the family, despite what appears to be an open-and-shut case of suicide. What follows is a series of interrogation scenes where the family members of the late Harlan Thrombey tell the police one story and we the audience get to see what really happened, through a series of revealing flashbacks. We soon learn that each of them had good reason to kill Harlan. And what about Harlan’s faithful nurse, Marta? 

 

Johnson’s Oscar-nominated original screenplay twists and turns, keeping us guessing. Was it a suicide? Was it an accident? Or was it pre-meditated murder? The film feels like it’s from another decade yet at the same time plucked from today’s headlines.

 

The issue of immigration is front and center, and the film gets political on more than one occasion, notably in a heated discussion during Harlan’s 85th birthday party. The script is packed with humor as well, from Marta’s inability to tell a lie

without vomiting, to references to TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and Hallmark Mysteries to Daniel Craig doing car karaoke to Sondheim’s torch song “Losing My Mind.”

 

And speaking of Craig, his detective Benoit Blanc is relaxed, fallible, and funny, a far cry from his brooding and intense James Bond. With a knowing smile belying his cool blue eyes,

Knives Out

Craig seems to be having a ball in this film. Whether pounding a single piano key during the interrogation sequences (much to the annoyance of the suspects) or playfully spouting vintage dialogue like “The game is afoot, eh, Watson?” in a Colonel Sanders southern drawl, Benoit is a modern, American Sherlock Holmes. And while the character of Benoit plays head games with the murder suspects, it feels as if Craig is simultaneously toying with us (the audience) and shaking off any pre-conceived 007 baggage.

 

The supporting cast is excellent, playing their quirky characters to the utmost without ever crossing into cliche. Christopher Plummer is pitch-perfect as Harlan Thrombey, and deftly manages to be cruel and hateful in one scene and lovable and 

Knives Out

noble in the next. Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan’s eldest daughter, is at her tight-lipped, controlled best in the first quarter of the film then smoothly transitions into a simmering pot before boiling over later in the story. Don Johnson is understated but completely believable as Richard, Linda’s riding-on-her coattails husband. Chris Evans plays (to the hilt) 

Harlan’s grandson, a spoiled, obnoxious bad boy. Michael Shannon as Walt, the youngest son and CEO of his father’s publishing empire, steals each moment the camera is on him. Twitchy, sweaty and desperate, his work in the confrontation scene at Marta’s apartment building is particularly chilling. Toni Collette as Joni, a skincare and lifestyle influencer, provides comedic balance to her more serious daughter Megan, played by Katherine Langford. They are joined by Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, Edi Patterson, and Noah Segan (hilarious as a goofy cop and die-hard fan of Harlan Thrombey’s books).

 

If Manhattan is the fifth lady in Sex and the City, then Thrombey Mansion is the last family member in Knives Out. The myriad of unusual objects filling the meticulously macabre house was conceivably inspired by (or inspiration for) Harlan’s novels, including the imposing wheel of knives that is the metaphorical “donut” Benoit keeps referring to.

 

The great surprise of the film (no spoilers here) is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera. I had never seen her before, so watching her in Knives Out felt like the debut of a new star. She is the emotional center of the film but never relies on overacting. Her Marta is believably sensitive, smart, caring, and cunning. We are with her every step (and misstep) of the mystery. Even when we are convinced of our heroine’s guilt and she is covering her tracks, destroying evidence along the way, we are on her side and in her shoes.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Turn on the TV, scroll through the radio dial, or browse a few Internet pages and it doesnt take long to see that the world is a pretty angry and divisive place right now. People are often mean and spiteful for no good reason, and there is little good news to be heard. Look no further than the partisan pettiness of Tuesday nights State of the Union Address. And I think thats one of the reasons why A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just so refreshing.

 

It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers and recreating his landmark television show. With little more than a wig, some larger eyebrows, a change of wardrobe, and a slower speaking manner, Hanks perfectly channels the essence and spirit of Mister Rogers. Deservedly, Hanks is up for another Academy Award, this time in the Actor in a

Supporting Role category.

 

Like Rogers, Hanks is genuinely likable and trustworthy, and he has chosen a slate of roles throughout his career that have made him beloved. I also have to think the wheels to cast Tom Hanks as Rogers might have started turning a few years ago when Hanks removed his blazer and donned a sweater during his opening monologue on his ninth hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and launched into his America’s Dad” skit.

 

However, this is not really a movie about Mr. Rogers per se, but rather the relationship that builds between Rogers and 

cynical Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) after Vogel is tasked with writing a 400-word puff piece on Rogers. Vogel has a penchant for being ruthless with his subjects, to the point where his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, whom many will recognize as Beth Pearson from This Is Us) says, Lloyd, please dont ruin my childhood” when he tells her about his assignment.

 

Interestingly, although much of this movie is based on actual events, central character Lloyd Vogel doesnt exist. The actual writer is Tom Junod who did write a piece for Esquire titled Can You Say . . . Hero?” back in 1998. While Junod has praised the film, he asked the writers to change his name and those of his family due to the way some of the family relationships are portrayed.

 

Fortunately for us—and Andrea—Lloyd discovers that Mister Rogers is exactly as he seems. There are no hidden demons, no buried secrets, and no ulterior motives. Rogers is just a genuinely kind, nice, and decent human being who spent every day striving to make himself and the world a better place, but especially for children. In an era where other childrens programming was entertaining kids by having people smash pies into their faces, Rogers treated children as real people, taking on real subjects like death, prejudice, and divorce, and helping kids to navigate through the complex world they were growing up in.

 

His message to parents was to love your children for who they are, not for what they will be, and not to forget your own childhood.

 

The movie tracks Vogels emotional journey as he struggles with a damaged relationship with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). We watch as the closer Vogel gets to Mister Rogers, he grows and learns the value of letting go of anger and truly offering forgiveness.

 

If you know nothing about Fred Rogers, I invite you to watch this video of him testifying before a Senate subcommittee back in 1969. Rogers was there to defend the federal funding for Public Broadcasting, and in the course of his six minutes of 

talking, he completely disarms and wins over the subcommittee chairman, Senator John Pastore. You will learn everything you need to know about Rogerscalm, soothing nature and passion for his work in this short exchange.

 

The film has an interesting visual style, being presented almost as an episode of Mister Rogers’ 

Neighborhood. It opens with Rogers’ classic walk into the playhouse, removing his blazer and loafers and donning the famous red sweater and blue sneakers. He then introduces his new friend, Lloyd, and the story begins.

 

Scenes in the neighborhood” were filmed in Pittsburgh at WQED, home of the original set, and director Marielle Heller went to lengths to get those visuals to appear authentic, even using the same model cameras as the original production. There are many cut shots styled as the neighborhood of Make-Believe” with small-scale models as used in the original series, and even an educational video as was common from the original series showing how a magazine gets made. These scenes are all presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with greatly reduced resolution making them look soft and dated and accurate to the original.

 

Spending time with Mister Rogers must have been an intense, emotionally draining experience, with him giving laser focus to whoever he was speaking with. You get a sense of this when Hanks breaks the third-wall, turning to the camera and staring for long seconds as he invites us to remember those people who loved us into being who we are.

 

While the films master format is listed as being taken from a 4K digital, it also shows that it is from a 1080p/24 source format. Watching the movie, I was never struck by the sharpness or detail of the visuals. Images often looked a bit soft even in closeups, never attaining that ultra pore-revealing detail many current films exhibit. If not for the fact that both my projector

and processor were indicating they were receiving a 4K HDR image, I would have thought I was watching a Blu-ray.

 

While blacks arent truly deep, they are clean and noise-free, with images free of any banding. And while there isnt much here that truly benefits from the higher dynamic range, it does help with low-lit interior scenes and adds depth and dimension.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track certainly isnt going to push the dynamics of your theater system. There are some nice atmospheric effects in some of the exterior scenes in New York as well as aboard the subway, and some reverb in large spaces such as a speech at a wedding early on, or the spaciousness of the soundstage of Rogersset.

 

Music is given plenty of room to breathe across the front channels and up into the front height speakers, giving it a better sense of space and width.

 

Neighborhood is a predominately dialogue-driven film, and fortunately the Atmos track does a wonderful job of keeping dialogue clear and understandable. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

There are a lot of movies that will look and sound better in your theater than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but there aren’t many that will leave you feeling better. The film released digitally this past Tuesday at the Kaleidescape Store, and will be available on 4K Blu-ray February 18. As a terrific companion to this film, I also suggest the fantastic documentary Wont You Be My Neighbor?, also available from the Kaleidescape Store.

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.