Author:admin

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

This week marks the one hundredth birthday of Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013), the legendary visual-effects artist, writer, and producer whose name is practically synonymous with the art of stop-motion animation. Even if you don’t know his name, you’re surely familiar with his work from classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Below is an interview I did with Mr. Harryhausen back in 2007, which appeared at that time in a much more abbreviated form in another, now defunct publication. Presenting our entire exchange seemed like a fitting way to pay tribute to the effects master on the centenary of his birth.

—Dennis Burger

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit tongue-tied. I’ll admit I’m quite nervous to be speaking with you.

Well, I don’t have two heads. Just one.

 

I know it’s a question you must have been asked a million times, but how did you originally become interested in special effects?

King Kong, when I saw it at the age of 13 or 14, I think it was, at Grauman’s Chinese. I haven’t been the same since. That shows how a film can affect you. It just overpowered me. I had seen The Lost World in the silent days, when I was four or  

five, because my parents were great cinemagoers, and I had seen the German films—Metropolis and all of those. But somehow Kong, with the music and the sound effects and startling animation, was just amazing.

 

When did you start to develop your own special-effects craft?

Well, I started experimenting with it. It 

took a long time—it wasn’t just “Eureka!” overnight. It took several months before I found out the glories of stop-motion. I started reading about King Kong—there were various misleading articles in Popular Mechanics, assumptions of how it was made. Very few people knew anything about animation at that time.

 

What sort of misleading things were they saying?

Oh, one guy said Kong was a great big robot, and it showed drawings of a big mechanical thing walking through a forest, and big cables coming out of his heels and going to an organ, and there’s a little man in the corner playing this organ, and that was supposed to have made King Kong move.

 

So they were just guessing.

They were just guessing, or else deliberately misleading. They kept it secret how these creatures were made because there was nothing else like them on the screen. Finally, the secret came out in Look magazine and several others. It showed Fay Wray shaking hands with King Kong, and he was small and she was big! 

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Say the name “Ray Harryhausen,” and most people think of those wonderful stop-motion animation models, but your Dynamation process was so much more than that, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was. It was a combination of special photography effects and animation. It was rear-projection, mostly, which was the basis of all my Dynamation. When we first released Mighty Joe Young, the critics would say, “Oh, it had animation in it,” and the word “animation” had always been associated with cartoons. So we wanted to get a separate name for this process. Charles [Schneer] came up with “Dyna-,” because he had a Buick at the time and it said Dynaflow, and we put “-mation” on it and made it Dynamation.

 

You’re kidding. That’s where the name came from? A Buick automatic transmission?

Yes. 

 

I believe that name was first attached to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [1958], but you had been developing the same process for several years, right?

Oh, yes, before that—since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953].

 

So it would have been the same process on 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Oh, yes.

 

Which has been re-released on DVD.

In color! Because, you know, we would have shot it in color but our budget wouldn’t take it. At the time, color was very expensive, so we had to shoot it in black & white.

What do you think of the colorization process?

Oh, I think Legend Films have done a wonderful job. We colorized She—Merian Cooper’s old film. He wanted to shoot it in color originally, but RKO cut his budget at the last minute and he had to shoot it in black & white. The picture wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—it dealt with reincarnation. I’m glad that 20 Million Miles is being released in color. It makes it a new picture. The color really helps things. You know, I worked really closely with Rosemary Horvath in colorizing it. She knew how to push what buttons to get the right shades. I’m not that up on computers.

 

Can you tell me about the process?

Well, it’s all done on the computer. I don’t know the details. I would just say, “I think this should look more bluish, because it’s ice, and this should look that way,” and we worked it out together.

 

It’s amazing how far the colorization process has come, because I remember when King Kong was first colorized, it looked like a child had taken to it with crayons.

I know! Well, this is much better, believe me.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

What do you think about using modern computer technology to enhance a film that’s more than 50 years old?

I think it’s good. It makes it sharper and you can do things digitally that are quite remarkable.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently had you been able to shoot the film in color?

No, not really. Black & white was so much easier to work with at the time, though. This process of rear-projection—there was a big problem in that when you photographed a projected image, the colors would change due to the lamp of the projector. That was a big problem on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when we made it. But we overcame it by various processes.

 

You’re known for working alone.

Yes, I did everything myself—because there were no books at the time about special effects. Today there are a number of them. And everything is exposed about how things are done before the picture comes out. I think that spoils it. I used to keep it quiet, because I know I was haunted for years about how King Kong was made, and I thought it was wise not to divulge everything.

 

So you worked alone to keep your work secret?

Not only that reason. I preferred to work alone because it requires a great deal of concentration. And I didn’t want to be talked out of anything.

 

I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that you, as a sort of lone-wolf animator, had so much creative control over the stories of your films.

Yes, I worked on the stories. I don’t just wear the animation hat. So, many times, I would bring the original idea in. 7th Voyage was brought in by myself, although I was very modest in those days, and I didn’t realize that modesty was a dirty word in Hollywood—it took me 50 years to realize that.

And 20 Million Miles to Earth—that was your idea, too, correct?

That was originally my story, and then I got Charlotte Knight involved, so I gave her the full credit. But it was originally my idea. I had it set in America, crashing in Chicago, in Lake Michigan, but I wanted to take a trip to Rome, so I changed the location before I submitted the story to Columbia and Charles Schneer.

 

What did you think when you saw special effects houses like Industrial Light and Magic start to pop up?

It’s amazing that they made an industrial process of it, because I found it very hard to rely on other people to do things. I’m amazed that they did it, and they did a wonderful job.

 

When you saw ILM’s work with Star Wars and so forth, did you feel threatened in any way?

No, not at all. I think there’s room for every technique, depending on the story. Stop-motion gives a quality to a fantasy film—I think if you make fantasy too real—that was half the charm of Kong: You knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looked real. I get a lot of fan mail saying that they prefer my things to that of the computer-effects guys, who try to make it so realistic that it loses the quality of fantasy.

 

So, what did you think of the remakes of Mighty Joe Young—your own film—and King Kong, the film that inspired you?

Well, it’s another person’s point of view. Merian Cooper was a single producer, and they had five producers on the remake of Mighty Joe Young. They tried to do the concept realistically, and it was a fantasy, you know?

 

What did you think of the special effects in the new King Kong, though?

They were brilliant. But you know, people don’t go see a film just because of the special effects. I think they stretched it out, the new one. The beauty of the original Kong was that it was so compact. Right from the first word of dialogue, when he said, “Is this the motion-picture ship?” you knew what you were in for. The story was so compact—there wasn’t a superfluous scene in it.

 

Whereas the new one takes a bit of heat for being overly long.

Well, yes, because they go too far into Ann Darrow’s past. And people who go to see a picture like King Kong aren’t really interested in that. I think it breaks it when the girl tries to amuse the gorilla by doing tricks. It gets into the realm of Dino De Laurentis’ remake.

 

Oh, come now. It’s not that bad, is it?

No, it was a wonderful film, but it’s a different point of view. Everybody has a different point of view, you know. And Merian Cooper, being an adventurer himself, he specialized in these adventure films.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

For someone my age, the film of yours that had the most impact was Clash of the Titans. That’s one of the major films of my childhood. But it was your last film. Why?

I don’t know. I just felt I’d had enough in the dark room. After all, I did 16 features, and did nine-tenths of the animation by myself. And most of it is the first take. We seldom had time to do retakes, so unless there was something radically wrong, we would never do a retake. With computers you can go over and over and refine it and refine it without it showing, but when you’re dealing with film, the minute you try to dupe it, it gets dupey looking. So we had great limitations.

 

When you were making Clash of the Titans, did you have any idea it would be your last film?

No, not really. I just felt we’d had enough.

 

What do you think about the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake?

Well, I think it’s a mistake. They’re not going ahead with it, are they?

 

I can’t believe I’m the one saddled with the burden of telling you this, but yeah, unfortunately.

Good heavens. Well, I read somewhere that they wanted to make it realistic. That’s the worst thing you can do to a fantasy film! You know, Greek mythology is not supposed to be realistic. I think that’s their first big mistake. But life will go on, I suppose. You have no control over that.

 

On a happier topic, what are some of your recent favorite films? Have you seen many new films?

No, I’m not attuned to the latest concepts. They forget that there’s supposed to be a story told, and they depend on cut after cut and dynamic zooms and eight-frame cuts, and that’s not my cup of tea. So I don’t see many recent films. The subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, either. They’re usually very depressing. I don’t like to sit for an hour and a half watching someone in the process of dying.

 

Given that so many people dislike CGI, why do you think filmmakers continue to use it?

Everybody wants to do things a little differently than the previous one. If someone makes a successful film, which has been going on for years, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and makes a similar type. And most of them depend on explosions.

 

What about things like Wallace & Gromit?

They’re wonderful, the puppet films.

 

But you never wanted to make them, right?

Well, I did. I worked with George Pal for two years in the early days, and we made puppet films. His films were very stylized. But Wallace & Gromit, you know, it’s a field in itself. It’s not the type of thing we were making.

 

Both the new Wallace & Gromit film and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride contained homages to you. They seem to be carrying the flame of your work.

They’re doing a marvelous job. Wallace & Gromit have been a big success, and I get a big kick out of Creature Comforts. They’re very clever.

 

Mr. Harryhausen, it’s been a real honor to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Well, I’m delighted. Thank you.

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.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

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.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.

 

Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.

But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?

 

With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.

I am going to take a look at 10 films that have yielded questionable results, beginning with five from 1927 to 1953. In Part 2, I’ll consider some more recent classics like the 1954 A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.

Lost Horizon (1937)

This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both 

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.

 

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company

of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.

 

That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when 

Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.

 

Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.

 

In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and 

subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”

 

Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by 

Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.

 

The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”

 

If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.

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.

Emma (2020)

Emma (2020)

And, yes, before you think to ask, the title does include a period after “Emma”. According to Autumn de Wilde, making his big-screen directorial debut here, this is to signify the movie as a “period piece” set in the original era.

 

Emma. was one of the first films Universal decided to release on premium video on demand (along with The Invisible Man and The Hunt) due to the theatrical shutdown, bringing it to the home market as a $19.99 48-hour rental just 10 days after

its theatrical debut. The initial release was limited to just 1080p resolution, causing some to hold off.

 

Emma. is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape for that same $19.99 price, but with a 4K HDR transfer. (The film had a theatrical Dolby Digital sound mix, and it is provided with a DTS-HD Master 5.1-mix for home.)

 

As a movie lover, I’m always up to watch just about anything, but I’ll admit that Emma. was a bit outside the wheelhouse of films I usually take on for review. I didn’t remember anything of the story, and all the I could recall from the previous Emma (1996) was Gwyneth Paltrow holding a bow and arrow. (Spoiler: There is no archery in this version whatsoever!) Fortunately, my wife, Dana, is a huge Jane Austen fan and she was game for reviewing the film portion and offering a bit of perspective from an Austen-loving background:

EMMA AT A GLANCE

While this may look & sound better than the 1996 take on the Jane Austen classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s earlier portrayal of Emma was far more likable than Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance here. 

 

PICTURE     

Kaleidescape’s 4K download is true to the film’s pastel tones, but the digital intermediate seems soft compared to some recent 4K transfers.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job conveying the dialogue, atmospherics, and evocative classical score.

I discovered Jane Austin at 14. I first read Pride and Prejudice, followed in quick succession by Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Austen’s writing draws you into a world of grand houses, ladies and gentlemen, and the proper manners expected of such people. In spite of the sometimes pretentious and flowery speeches, the wit and humor is easily understood, and the banter between characters is a bit like looking in on a 200-year-old sitcom.

 

Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is actually one of my least favorites. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled snob, both self-centered and vacuous. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine from my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is well-read, intelligent, and caring. In Emma, Emma’s neighbor and friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) berates and corrects her, causing her to pout as if she were a child, whereas in Pride, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy banter back and forth, sharing interesting ideas and concepts more as equals.

 

So far, there have been two film versions of Emma, the previous being the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (There have also been at least three TV mini-series versions.)  [JS: And not to mention 1995’s Clueless, which is a very modern retelling of the story.] While the costumes and locations are similar in both films, I found the color scheme of the 1996 version more somber. While I initially thought Taylor-Joy was actually of English descent, it turns out she was born in Miami, Florida, was raised in Argentina until she was six, and then moved to London, where she spent the next eight years. While English was not her first language—she spoke only Spanish until she was six—her English accent here is solidly believable throughout.

 

Many scenes from this retelling have a grander scope, revealing more of the vast countryside views. [JS: While the theatrical resolution is listed as 1.85:1, the home release is actually 16:9, or 1.78:1.] Some of the framing, pacing, and closeups feel a bit Wes Anderson-esque, with title cards occasionally breaking up scenes, or the way some background characters moved in scenes. 

Emma (2020)

As with many of Austen’s works, there are numerous characters and names to keep track of. In the opening scenes, Emma’s governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) weds a local gentleman, and Emma is convinced she orchestrated their union and that matchmaking is her calling.  When a Miss Harriet Smith “Biddy” (Letty Thomas) enrolls in the local ladies’ school, Emma takes her under her wing and is determined to find a suitable husband for the young lady. Though Miss Smith’s parentage is unknown—meaning she is probably someone’s illegitimate daughter—Emma is convinced Miss Smith is actually the daughter of a gentleman, and thus suitable for a good match. However, in 19th-century England, no respectable gentleman would marry someone with Miss Smith’s unknown background. Yet this doesn’t stop Emma from setting her sights on the local rector Bartholomew (Angus Imrie) as the perfect choice for Miss Smith, even convincing Miss Smith to decline a marriage proposal from someone she is quite fond of.

 

The just-over two-hour film spends most of its time with Emma negotiating and arranging meetings between characters in beautiful settings and gorgeously detailed costumes and hoping to arrange her own chance encounter with Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). As the most well-off of Austen’s heroines, Emma sees herself as the perfect match for Churchhill as he is set to inherit one of the largest estates and salaries around.

 

As is typical of films, a lot of detail and storytelling from the book are omitted, but this version doesn’t provide as much backstory into Emma’s life or give us any sense of the history she has with the other characters as the ’96 film. For example, we know very little about Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) or why she is Emma’s chosen frenemy, and just a throwaway line tells you she has not family or fortune. Also, in the novel, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is an extreme hypochondriac, constantly worried about all manner of things such as what people are eating and if they will get sick, but here, while Nighy superbly supplies most of the comic relief, his fears of catching ill have been reduced to concerns over cold drafts and having a doctor on routine call.

 

Compared to Taylor-Joy’s portrayal, Paltrow played Emma with more compassion, not as if matchmaking is just some game for her amusement, but rather as if she actually cares for the people involved. Also, Paltrow comes across as kinder and less snobbish, where Taylor-Joy seems like she is above others and has the proverbial stick lodged up her corset from the get-go. Also, Mr. Knightley—who is some 17 years Emma’s senior—treats her more like a child or irritating little sister.

 

While this version is beautiful-looking from a cinematography standpoint, and you get to appreciate far more of the well-appointed and -dressed interiors of the fine Woodhouse estate compared to the ’96 film, much of which takes place outdoors, I actually preferred the previous version due to Paltrow’s more likable portrayal.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 4.5K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect Emma. to look good, and it does. However, I never felt I was getting that hyper-resolution of some modern true 4K DI’s. Closeups were certainly rich with 

texture and detail, especially on the many finely detailed costumes and delicate lace that Emma wears, and the resolution also helps you to appreciate the fabric, patterns, and detail of the many suits and dresses throughout, but I would have bet that it was taken from a 2K DI. Perhaps I’ve just gotten spoiled by some terrific transfers lately.

 

Many of the interior scenes throughout Woodhouse estate feature rooms painted in a host of pastel colors—powdery blues, mint greens, carnation pinks—that are well represented but not necessarily saturated or pushing the boundaries of the wider color gamut. Where the video quality really shines is during the interior scenes that are lit by an abundance of candles. Here we get rich, warm tones, lighting the room and characters with glowing skin and deep shadows that look very lifelike and true with the use of HDR. Of course, the flickering flames also benefit from the added dynamic range, as do scenes where sunlight is pouring in through open windows, or exterior scenes under what seems to be a perpetually overcast British sky that have some nice punch.

 

Sonically, Emma. doesn’t offer much to write about. As mentioned previously, we are given just a basic 5.1-channel track, and there a just a few moments of atmospheric audio, such as the occasional bird chirps or wind blowing, or the 

Emma (2020)

crunch of carriage wheels and the creaks and groans of a carriage as it moves along. Interior scenes are given the appropriate sense of audio space, being flat when appropriate, or lively and echoey, such as inside the church.

 

The soundtrack is actually quite nice, featuring many classical pieces that are spread well across the front channels and that upmix nicely into the height speakers. There are also a few choral pieces that offer some nice room-fill. Of course, the most important part to a dialogue-driven film like Emma. is being able to clearly understand what characters are saying, and it definitely accomplishes this, even giving them some nice movement across the front channels that tracks on-screen location.

 

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma available, this one certainly looks the best and is available in the highest quality via Kaleidescape. If you are into period films, or just need a mental palate-cleanser after the recent slate of action films that have been released, Emma. is easy on the eyes and offers a new presentation to a classic tale.

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 King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

I know people like the characters in The King of Staten Island exist but I don’t like paying to be reminded of that fact, especially over a grueling two hours and 17 minutes. I felt the same revulsion watching American Factory, another grisly reminder of the underclass spawned by successive generations of callous, punitive economics and an increasingly toxic pop culture. Yes, this is who we’ve become, but it’s nothing to be proud of.

 

I can’t imagine what kept Judd Apatow motivated through the protracted process of developing, writing, shooting, and doing post on something like this. When he sat down every morning, what did he see in this dung heap that gave him the energy to carry on?

 

The answer may lie with the Apatow house brand—which is something distinctly different from his style as a filmmaker, which I’ll get to it a minute. Imagine Freaks & Greeks grafted onto Buñuel’s Los olvidados, and you’ll have some idea of where he was trying to go with Staten Island. And that could have potentially been fertile ground. Problem is he couldn’t resist the

impulse to apply his patented warm and fuzzy formula in an effort to redeem his irredeemable characters, so what starts out like Trainspotting ends up a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life. The former rings true, but something nobody really needs to be exposed to; the latter is just nauseating.

 

His distinctive style has been apparent from his earliest directorial efforts. (Even a casual observer can see the clear through-line from the freeze-pop scene in Freaks & Geeks to Staten Island.) And his work has the potential of being tremendously expressive—if he can ever find the right material. The problem is, Freaks remains his strongest effort to date, aside from some occasional moments in 40 Year Old Virgin and This is 40. Whenever he’s tried to bring some discipline to his work and act more like a “filmmaker”—like with Knocked Up, the egregious Funny People, and here—he always goes seriously awry. But he’s definitely onto something, and might actually somehow someday get far enough out of his own way to latch onto a more promising subject.

STATEN ISLAND AT A GLANCE

Judd Apatow’s latest is two-plus hours of unpleasantness, a kind of Trainspotting-meets-It’s a Wonderful Life mashup yanked from theaters right before its release date and dumped onto the video market. 

 

PICTURE     

Faux documentary visuals done in the patented “independent film” style, neither helped nor hindered by the 4K HDR treatment.

 

SOUND

The clean-enough audio can’t really be held responsible for the pervasive, unpleasant Staten Island accents and fights a losing battle against the mumbled line delivery.

Staten Island was supposed to have had a limited theatrical run, mainly at drive-ins, but Universal at the last minute decided to send it straight to video. My guess is they couldn’t figure out who the audience was supposed to be and were afraid it would flop hard even at a time when people are starved for entertainment.

 

But premium video on demand wasn’t such a great alternative. I had to fork over two hard-earned sawbucks to watch this on Amazon—that’s a hefty amount to wager on a film that doesn’t give you much of a clue of what you’re in for. The bigger problem is that you can be halfway through the seemingly interminable slog of watching it and still not have a clue.

 

I know it’s heresy to bring this up at a time when every film sprawls and nobody has the creative discipline, or a strong enough sense of mercy, to cut anything to the length it actually deserves, but Staten Island could have easily been a nice, tight 90 minutes and still have been, for better or worse, the same film. At least I would have gotten 45 minutes of my life back.

 

I don’t have much to say about the acting except that, if you’ve ever seen an Apatow film, you’re seen all of these performances before. And there’s the recurring problem of nepotism. What has to happen to keep Apatow from casting his own family members? His daughter Maude is OK as Pete Davidson’s responsible, grounded, empathetic (insert morally laudable trait here: _____) sister, but is in no way exceptional and is a kind of poster child for the daughters of privilege swelling the acting ranks in New York and LA, people with only modest abilities but terrific connections.

 

There’s nothing exceptional happening on the technical side either. Staten Island is shot in the standard-issue faux documentary, “independent film” style that’s been dragging down serious films for at least a decade now. (Did I mention that this isn’t really a comedy?) Everything is well enough shot and assembled, but this could have been presented as a radio play with pretty much the same impact. Part of the almost $20 price of admission can be attributed to Staten Island being a 4K HDR release, but I couldn’t see where that really helped or hindered anything.

 

The audio is perfectly serviceable, and can’t be held accountable for the unpleasant accents and some of the actors’ inability to articulate their lines. There are the obligatory pop-music cues meant to create a false sense of energy, and some firearms are discharged during a robbery scene. I guess the gunshots sounded realistic. I’m kind of glad to say I have no way of knowing for sure.

 

Maybe this thing panders just enough to have an audience beyond self-pitying brats. God only knows Staten Island embodies the corrosive masochism that lies at the black heart of the culture. I just know that trying make our dance with Thanatos (no, not that Thanatos) more palatable by turning it into something that veers awful close to becoming a musical isn’t healthy for anybody. If you really feel like you need to piss away $20 online, go play some poker instead.

Michael Gaughn

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

Space Force

Space Force

It’s not hard to figure out how this all began. Netflix had an unexpected boon when Millennials didn’t discover The Office until after it had migrated over to the subscription service but then seized on and devoured it as if they’ve just summoned up manna. As all that was playing out, NBC announced it would be bringing The Office back under its wing as part of its new Peacock streaming service, eventually depriving Netflix of what is probably its steadiest flow of viewers.

 

While they would never publicly admit it, Netflix found itself desperate for a new series that looked, walked, and smelled enough like The Office to retain a sizable portion of that show’s audience.

 

Enter Office creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell with an itch to do a service comedy—an idea as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristophanes)—and as fresh as today’s headlines. Or at least that’s how they would have presented it at the 

pitch meeting—assuming they even had to do a pitch before Netflix handed them a blank check.

 

To cut right to the chase, Space Force is nothing but a mess, way overinflated in every possible way, the most hackneyed of sitcom premises puffed up with a stupidly large budget and a random mob of a cast. If this had been made for a fraction of the money and with a little less latitude, the constraints might have brought some badly needed discipline to the exercise, yielding something tighter, funnier, and more watchable. Maybe.

 

What we have instead is the Netflix equivalent of It’s a Mad, 

Mad, Mad, Mad World—a too-big-to-fail comedy that puts a gun to your head and tells you to laugh because it’s desperate to justify its existence. There are some laughs, occasionally (I have to admit to falling for the space chimp bit), but far too rarely. Space Force is the sitcom equivalent of spending an evening watching a room full of monkeys perched at typewriters and waiting for one of them to randomly tap out a joke.

 

To go with another animal analogy, it’s a great, big slobbering Labrador of a show, utterly superficial, with no ideas or convictions of its own, desperately trying to please everybody and willing to do anything to get a little attention. If you’ve heard that it’s a spoof or satire, you heard wrong. Space Force doesn’t bite—it licks your face instead. It doesn’t have the creative courage to skewer a damn thing.

 

But enough of the generalities; let’s talk specifics. You get the sense Carell loves The Great Santini and decided, for some reason, to bring it up to date. But it would be hard to name another actor more different from Carell, with his extremely limited acting range, than Robert Duvall. That cognitive dissonance might help explain why he can’t get a bead on his character but constantly shifts between playing a pint-sized general, Michael Scott, and an ambiguous third being who might actually be Carell himself.

 

The cast is big and, almost without exception, unexceptional, the most offensive member being Ben Schwartz as Carell’s media manager. His every moment on screen is the comedy equivalent of waterboarding. Carell’s character fires him in the first episode, which seemed logical and felt definitive, and led to the hope we were rid of him forever. But this is a cliché-laden sitcom after all, so he keeps arbitrarily popping back up throughout the series, like a horror-movie villain or a rodent, even though his shtick is predictable, his actions implausible, and he fails to generate any laughs.

 

The biggest offense—although you can’t really blame the completely bland, inoffensive actress saddled with playing her—is the pilot who starts out as Carell’s whirlybird chauffeur and somehow ends up commanding a lunar mission. She’s not a character or the product of a legitimate creative act but a fashionable amalgam, born of checking off a bunch of boxes meant to suck up to contemporary sensibilities. As far as you can get from three-dimensional, she’s a direct descendant of the personified virtues in a medieval morality play.

 

More specifically, she’s only there to be the token tough-but-caring black girl who rises to a level of great responsibility because she has a massive father complex.

 

If there’s any glimmer of light in this black hole of a series, it’s John Malkovich as the lead scientist. He’s ultimately nothing but a stereotypically affected straw man, Alice to Carell’s Ralph, Felix to his Oscar. It’s only Malkovich’s ability to make something out of nothing that causes his screen time to add up to anything resembling creative redemption.

 

Pardon a little inside baseball, but I watched Space Force straight through when it debuted and planned to publish this review then. But my reaction was so strong, I felt the need to buy some distance before going public with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the weeks that have since elapsed have only reinforced my original impressions.

 

If you’re big on Anointed vs. Underclass fictions that come down firmly for the Anointed, this show is for you. If you find succor in a day-care center view of the world, you’ll probably actually enjoy the image of a military mission jubilantly jumping around the lunar surface like a bunch of infants. I didn’t. Space Force shows how far we’ve devolved since Metropolis, and suggests the Fredersens of the world have irrevocably won.

Michael Gaughn

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

Another Helping of Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

ELVEN (THE RIVER)

A man finds a foot in a river. It makes him nervous, but not because he does not know where it came from. He’s nervous because he seems to already know where more body parts remain unburied.

 

A little girl finds a hand in the same river. Her name is Silja, she is 10 years old, she seems intelligent, but does not speak. “Different.” “Sensitive.” She lives with her mother and grandmother. Grace, Silja’s pretty single mom, is a barmaid who works hard to get away from her own critical mother. Grace is so lonely that when she reluctantly has to turn a trick for some extra 

money, she tells the customer that she can stay longer. When told “that’s not necessary,” her sadness is palpable.

 

Welcome to Djupelv, a tiny village on the northern tip of Norway, 800 miles northeast of Oslo, the capital. Djupelv is also the name of the river (sometimes spelled Djupelva), cold, relentless, icy, that gives the show its title. The camera pans between dramatic interactions to scenes of the flowing river, as if to say corrupt human nature cannot match the elemental, pristine, power of nature.

 

It’s not police against criminals in the Norwegian series The River. It’s a policeman from Oslo, Thomas Lønnhøiden 

(Espen Reboli Bjerke), now working in a town from which his parents disappeared in a plane crash, along with the plane, when he was an infant. He wants to find justice for Silja, but he’s also compelled to solve the mystery of his parents’ death. He’s up against a lazy, incurious police department, an ineffectual local media, and complicit Military Intelligence. Norway’s military calls the shots in this region, where the Cold War never ended, and where Russian and Norwegian agents still play Spy vs. Spy. In some ways, it’s an oddball companion piece to the brilliant three-season thriller Occupied (Netflix), in which Russia engineers a relatively subtle invasion of Norway to maintain a steady, cheap oil supply.

 

In the plot-packed first episode of The River, Russian troops have been spotted at the border. A preparedness drill, led by a determined, ambitious woman sergeant Mia Holt (Ingeborg Raustol), takes on extra urgency. When the girl Silja disappears and is found dead near a ramshackle building on Army property, no one but Lønnhøiden seems to want to find out the truth. “They talk in half-truths and riddles,” he complains, and for eight episodes, through suicides, sabotage, and snowmobile chases, the lies keep on coming. Plausibility is not a strong point, but the raw beauty and frequent bursts of unpredictable action may keep you watching.

 

Unlike some cold-weather settings that wait for better weather to shoot, The River revels in its frosty locale. There are chases through knee-deep snow in the woods, cars skidding into snowbanks, and overhead shots of long roads cleared by snowplows 24/7.

 

The scenery is reason enough to enjoy much of The River, shot in tones of Arctic gray that make it difficult to guess the time of day. Everyone is dressed in thick wool and heavy parkas, so that even though some sexual chemistry develops between Thomas and Mia, there are so many layers to take off that it’s hard for them to find the time.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece

HAMARINN (THE CLIFF)

A river is also featured in the Icelandic show Hamarrin, which takes place in a rural region hundreds of miles from the capital, Reykjavik. Helgi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a special investigator from the city, is called in to help the local policewoman Inga (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir) investigate a suspicious death at a construction site. (Haraldsson and his character Helgi are also featured in The Lava Field, which has appeared on Netflix and Amazon Prime from time to time.)

 

Developers, with the eager participation of some local landowners, want to build a hydroelectric plant, which would require blowing up the the cliff and damning the rivers and falls that make the area a popular tourist area during the summer. Building the plant offers plenty of money and jobs, but to some the cliff is not just sacred but invested with supernatural powers. Shiny round blue lights, like small comets, or balls of lightning known as “the Moon of Urd” are sometimes spotted in the sky at night, falling near the cliff. The real moon hovers low in the sky, a natural wonder of its own.

 

Facing the cliffs, the few residents, and their many horses, see plain pasture. On the other side of the cliff (about 62 feet high, a brisk recreational hike to take a peek from the peak), the world looks different: a sumptuously beautiful ecosystem of hills, wild horses, streams, flowing water, and waterfalls, as gorgeous as anywhere on earth.

 

Environmentalists (and some residents) want to stop the project; some dynamite and blasting caps are found missing. The police “raid” the environmentalists’ encampment, looking for the dynamite, and if you want to see what citizen-friendly policing looks like, it’s a kind of comical scene. When Helgi and Inga rush to control the conflict, they come upon a lot of shouting, not shooting. The greens claim the police brought drug-sniffing dogs, which they describe as “rude.”

 

Obviously, there is plenty of tension beneath the façade of Icelandic cooperation. Everyone seems to have had a past with everyone else, marriages are frayed but alternatives are few. The men do have the option of visiting Halldora, who runs a massage parlor. Helgi and Inga are always knocking on her door, as she in quick turns is considered a witness, a suspect, and a victim.

 

Everyone suspects everyone else; even families are divided. “A bit of jealousy and envy is normal,” one of the residents says. A bit, sure. But long-buried emotions often swell, punctuated by the sometimes spare, sometimes symphonic electronic music soundtrack. In this remote place, some people (and children) are more attuned to the currents emanating from the cliff than others. Those who do not heed those powerful vibrations don’t see trouble until it’s too late.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece

Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, 
and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–
1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in
Queens, NY.

5 Great “Road” Movies

5 Great "Road" Movies

The Straight Story

It’s no secret that road-trip movies are usually metaphors for the characters’ inward journeys, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Road trips are particularly well suited to American filmmaking, thanks to the vastness of the North American continent and the highway system that transects it. With all those thousands of miles available, there’s no story that can’t be told. The following examples represent a collection of human types as various as the regions they travel and the vehicles they travel in.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)

If any movie can be described as dark and light at the same time, it’s this one. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedic gem with a bitingly funny script by Michael Arndt.

 

Olive (the wide-eyed, adorable Abigail Breslin) is an average-looking but unusually determined seven-year-old girl. She’s been training for the Little Miss Sunshine competition, coached by her foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin is the 

5 Great "Road" Movies

embodiment of a man powered by pure sarcasm). Her exhausted, underappreciated mom (Toni Collette) convinces her hypercritical dad (Greg Kinnear) to drive the family from Arizona to California for the contest.

 

Along for the ride are Olive’s angsty teen brother 

(Paul Dano), who’s stopped speaking in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche, and her gay uncle (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who’s fresh out of the hospital after trying to off himself over a failed love affair. The script’s best moments happen in the van on the highway as this crazy bunch of characters spar with each other.

 

Little Miss Sunshine may be about the ultimate dysfunctional family, but the movie is underpinned by such intense love that the joy outweighs the black humor in the end.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Family is also the driving force behind The Straight Story, and this time the journey moves from darkness into light. But don’t expect the revelations to announce themselves in Hollywood fashion. This movie takes its pace from the people and landscape of the rural Midwest—long, slow, patient, inevitable. While it might be a surprising piece of work to come from David Lynch, it’s one of his best films. The screenplay, based on a true story, is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who also edited the movie.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly Iowa man, learns that his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke. With his eyesight too poor to drive, and no available bus service, Alvin hitches a trailer to a 30-year-old John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out toward Wisconsin to heal the rift with his brother 

while he still can. The story is told through Straight’s interactions with strangers along the way, as he quietly doles out wisdom and humbly accepts small kindnesses. Sissy Spacek is wonderful as his special-needs daughter who holds down the home front while he’s away.

 

Profound but never preachy, the script is often very funny and the visuals rewarding. Rich green farmland melts into gray autumn sky, forming a continuous backdrop, the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.     A / G / I / V

 

 

AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

Family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but chosen families can be just as challenging as biological ones. That’s one of the themes of American Honey, the ruthlessly hyper-realistic road movie written and directed by Andrea Arnold.

A young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) is stuck in poverty and an abusive relationship, so she doesn’t need much convincing when slick-talking Jake (Shia LaBeouf) tells her he can get her a job selling magazines in Kansas. She joins up with his band of scarred and scared people all seeking some strand to hold onto in life. The van they travel in acts as a protective chamber, letting them be their true selves in safety. Whenever the van stops and its inhabitants have to venture out, we see the “normal” world through their eyes, as a harsh, hostile place that can’t adapt to accept outsiders.

 

As the team’s leader, Riley Keough is an unsettling combination of maternal and cold. Arnold is careful to

Where to See Some Road Movies

Little Miss Sunshine, American Honey, and My Own Private Idaho are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services as well as Kaleidescape. You won’t find The Straight Story on YouTube or Kaleidescape, and Transamerica isn’t on Kaleidescape.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

avoid stereotypes among the troubled young people, focusing on specifics that make them individuals. A standout is Arielle Holmes, who plays Pagan, a tiny, delicate woman obsessed with Darth Vader because she understands the darkness he represents.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

TRANSAMERICA (2005)

While it’s not as original in its structure as any of the previously mentioned films, Transamerica is groundbreaking for its subject matter. A trans woman in L.A., only one week from her transition surgery, is amazed to discover that she has a 17-year-old son in New York. He’s in jail with no one to help him. She shows up, bails him out, and offers to drive him to California. But she neglects to mention that she’s his dad.

 

The script by director Duncan Tucker, while satisfyingly emotional and hilarious, uses the road-trip trope in predictable ways to develop, destroy, and rebuild the main characters’ relationship. Still, the issue of a young person discovering his parent is trans is new enough to cinema that it’s well worth exploring. Felicity Huffman is completely convincing as Bree, the trans woman, even if activists at the time were disappointed that a trans actor was not cast in the role. As her son Toby, Kevin Zegers hits the right range of teen overconfidence, rage, and sexual confusion. Graham Greene makes a wonderful cameo appearance as a good Samaritan who helps and befriends them as they pass through Texas.     A / G / I V / Y 

5 Great "Road" Movies

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

Most road trip movies are about completing a journey; My Own Private Idaho is about how we are stuck being whoever we are, no matter how far we travel. River Phoenix is Mike, a homeless narcoleptic who turns tricks to scrape together a living. Keanu Reeves is Scott, heir to a fortune, who turns tricks because it amuses him to dabble “in the life” until he inherits his money.

 

Mike is in love with Scott; Scott acts like Mike’s friend—he even drags him to safety when his narcolepsy strikes, over and over—but friendship has no meaning to him. Their ragtag band of misfits is lorded over by Bob Pigeon (William Richert), aka Fat Bob, who is their Falstaff. Just so you don’t miss that allusion, writer/director Gus Van Sant wrote Bob’s scenes in iambic pentameter.

 

As for the road-trip element—well, there’s definitely a road. The movie begins with an endless black highway cutting through the flatness of Idaho (cinematographer John J. Campbell captured some breathtaking vistas). Mike stands on the shoulder, with no car in sight. This film is largely about what isn’t there. As Mike and Scott travel around—to Seattle, Portland, Idaho, even to Rome—it doesn’t matter how they got there. The places have roads between them, but just like Mike’s narcoleptic experience of the world, much of their surreal journey is riddled with blank spots. Even if you know what road you’re on, you might still be lost.      A / G / IKV / Y

Anne E. Johnson 

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

King Creole

King Creole

So often when we techie types attempt to explain the benefits of High Dynamic Range to the masses, we fall back on the clichés of “blacker blacks!’ and “brighter highlights!” as if that were the beginning and end of the story. If anything, though, Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR release of King Creole—Elvis Presley’s fourth film and the last before he went into the Army and came out the other side as an amphetamine-addled self-parody—proves that this simple explanation is woefully inadequate 

when it comes to explaining the actual benefits of HDR video.

 

Compare the 4K HDR download of the film to the Blu-ray release (the best you’ll find on disc, since the 4K transfer is a digital exclusive), and you’ll see that the blacks are no more black, the whites no more vibrant. The difference HDR makes is on the journey from one end of the value scale to the other. What the 4K HDR download has that the 1080p disc doesn’t is a proper richness and nuance between those two extremes. Rather than merely cranking the overall brightness of the image to drag it out of the shadows, this transfer allows the bright spots to shine and the darkness to revel in its inkiness, while also allowing for some middle ground. And the result is an image that’s wholly dimensional, with believable depth and oodles of texture that’s lost in the overly contrasty 1080p transfer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film was beautifully shot to 

CREOLE AT A GLANCE

One of the few “good” Elvis movies, thanks partly to Michael Curtiz’ expert direction, atmospheric Big Easy locations, and a provocative turn by Carolyn (Morticia Addams) Jones. 

 

PICTURE     

4K honors Russell Harlan’s evocative cinematography, which benefits greatly from a non-gimmicky application of HDR.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is primarily mono, until Elvis bursts into song, when it blossoms into multichannel splendor.

begin with. Director Michael Curtiz (best known for Casablanca and White Christmas) and cinematographer Russell Harlan (who deserves more credit for the success of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird) approached this musical noir/melodrama as if they were filming Olivier instead of Elvis, and their choice of New Orleans as setting lends the film a gritty verisimilitude that’s positively captivating.

 

It isn’t just the HDR treatment that helps push this download into must-see territory, though. The 4K transfer also reveals fine details—the filigree in the iron terrace railings on Bourbon Street, the fine mesh of screen windows—that simply get lost in the film’s 1080p transfer.

The visuals alone more than make up for Creole’s occasional shortcomings—the uneven performances (especially by Dolores Hart of The Virginian fame) and the often-laughable lip-syncing during Elvis’ barnburner performances. There’s also the weird sexual tension between Presley and Carolyn Jones, who slinks her way through every scene in a way that’s wholly distinct from her turn as Morticia Addams on the small screen just a few years later. When Presley’s down-on-his-luck Danny Fisher and Jones’ gangster concubine Ronnie share the frame, there’s a dangerous energy that’s unmatched by most films of the era. Watching them together, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been—what Presley’s film career might have been like if Colonel Parker hadn’t kept the King on a leash, forcing him to take roles in fluff like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Viva Las Vegas when he returned to the spotlight a couple years later.

 

But go too far down that road and one also can’t help but wonder what King Creole would have been had James Dean lived to play the role of Danny Fisher, which was written for him before it was rejiggered as a musical about a New Orleans singing sensation rather than as a straight drama about a New York boxer.

King Creole

We’ll never know, of course. But I do know this: King Creole has never truly thrived on home video until now, until our residential display technology finally caught up with the capabilities of good old-fashioned film stock. Indeed, the film sounds better than ever as well. True, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remains a mostly mono affair except during Elvis’ musical numbers, when the soundstage comes to life thanks the multitrack recordings of those songs. But much like the rest of this wonderfully and captivatingly imperfect film, somehow it just works.

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.

Review: Gladiator

Gladiator

Having not watched the film for years, what I most remembered about Gladiator prior to this viewing was the incredible recreation of the Roman Colosseum filled with tens of thousands of cheering, blood-thirsty fans. I recall marveling at the size and scope of it and how they had been able to resurrect and recreate this 1,900-plus-year-old monument.

 

Those digital effects didn’t hold up quite so convincingly viewed in 4K resolution 20 years later, but that’s OK. While the movie boasted some impressive visual effects for its day, they were always there just to serve the greater purpose of telling the 

story and never just for the sake of, “Look what we can do!” digital wizardry. At its heart, Gladiator remains a thoroughly compelling story featuring powerful acting all around with impressive practical sets and effects and action scenes that remain dynamic and thrilling, keeping this film as entertaining today as it was on its release back in 2000.

 

I had also forgotten just what a powerhouse Gladiator was at the 2001 Academy Awards, snagging a total of 12 nominations and pulling down a total five Oscars including Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, and Visual Effects. 

 

Director Ridley Scott wastes no time jumping into the story, quickly introducing us to General Maximus Decimus (Crowe) as he is about to lead his Roman army to victory against a Germanic horde in what will be the final battle of his latest campaign. It’s immediately clear Maximus is an accomplished war fighter, leading from the front, and beloved by his men.

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

Twenty years on, aside from some of the digital effects, this sword & toga potboiler holds up surprisingly well in 4K, thanks to its strong acting, excellent production design, and classic action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is excellent, and true to the movie’s 35mm roots, with occasional glimpses of grain in the images and an analog softness.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is consistently effective, whether evoking the subtle sounds of casual interaction, the mayhem of battle, or the intense engagement of gladiatorial combat.

Following the battle, aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells Maximus of his plans to leave rule to him rather than his debauched son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Predictably, Commodus doesn’t take this news well, instead killing his father in private and declaring himself Caesar and then ordering the Praetorian Guard to kill Maximus and his family. When the soldiers fail to kill Maximus, he rides towards his home, arriving just in time to see it burned to the ground and his family slaughtered. Severely wounded, Maximus is taken prisoner and sold as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed) and made to fight as a gladiator. Maximus’ motivation throughout remains solely to survive long enough to be able to avenge his family by killing Commodus.

 

If Gladiator were just about fighting, fancy sets, and costumes, it wouldn’t hold up nearly so well. What keeps it great is the acting, primarily by Crowe who earns his Oscar in every scene and seems fully at home in the role of commanding troops and fighting. Maximus is always believable as the general who could come in and organize a band of gladiators to overthrow the people they are forced to fight, leading a rebellion from within. Phoenix brings just the right level of loathsomeness to petulant Commodus, someone solely interested in his own rise to power and willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, along with his lecherous relationship with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson).

 

At over two and a half hours, Gladiator is a long film that doesn’t feel long. Rather, Scott takes us on what feels like an epic journey, even though, in reality, the events portrayed in the film would take less than a year to play out. The running time gives us plenty of opportunity to care about Maximus and his journey; to root for his fellow gladiator/slaves Jubu (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller); to follow the political machinations of Roman Senators Gauis (John Shrapnel) and Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) as they try to keep Commodus in check and do what is right for the Republic. It also allows enough time between matches in the arena to keep the film from feeling like just a string of fights.

 

Filmed in 35mm, Gladiator was given a restoration in 2018 and both the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download are taken from a new true 4K digital intermediate. The movie looks like it has been born anew. Image quality retains its film-like look, with grain occasionally visible in some of the early-morning sky scenes or through some of the battlefield smoke, but you are drawn closer to the action with the clarity and cleanness of the picture. Native film scanned to 4K doesn’t produce the micro-level of detail seen in modern transfers, but you can still appreciate far better resolution here than in the previous, HD version.

 

Closeups reveal the texture and feel of the fabrics used on the elaborate Academy Award-winning costumes, the nicks and dents in the battle armor or links in chainmail, the cracks and lines in the walls of the city, or the fine stalks of wheat with individually detailed wisps, or the dirt and dust Maximus rubs on his hands before each battle.

 

The added detail also helps you to appreciate the large vistas that give the film its sense of scope and scale. But I did notice that some of the long shots and even the occasional closeup appeared a bit soft. Also, the lengthy shots leaning heavy on CGI, such as the Colosseum and the initial Rome flyover, are softer due to the graphics limitations of the day, and the greater resolution makes the digital crowd feel a bit less real.

 

The added contrast from HDR also helps to improve images. There are a lot of low-lit scenes here, whether in tents or prisons or at night time, and the deep black levels and shadow detail add to the realism. Many interior scenes are lit by numerous torches, and we not only get the nice pop of brightness from the fires, but the warm, natural glow of the firelight, and the deep shadows as actors move around a space. The spectacle of Commodus’ Rome benefits from the wide colors, with bright, gleaming golds and other regal colors looking vivid, along with the bright-red blood spilled in battle and the deep red-orange of fireballs and flames in combat.

While the UltraHD disc receives a new object-based DTS:X soundtrack, the Kaleidescape version gets a DTS-HD Master 7.1-channel mix that’s still exhilarating and exciting, especially when run through an upmixer found on modern AV processors.

 

The opening battle features shouts and chants from the armies along with the din of soldiers, which engulfs you from all around the room, followed by the sounds of arrows whistling past you into the surround channels and fireballs sailing overhead and bursting into treetops. The crowd noise inside the Colosseum is also appropriately huge and room-filling, putting you right in the midst of the action. Bass is deep and authoritative when appropriate, such as chariots crashing in the arena or when the fireballs smash into trees.

 

Equally as impressive as the bombast are the subtler audio moments that help to define and establish the scene and space the characters are in, with nearly every scene or moment featuring little bits of audio that help to set the space of things happening on or off camera. Listen to the carriage ride as Commodus is riding to the front—you hear the sounds of the rocking and creaking of the carriage itself 

Gladiator

along with things jingling inside, as well as the noises of the horses and the wheels turning outside. In another scene, you can hear the delicate, gentle tinkle of Lucilla’s earrings knocking together as she talks. Or in the prison at night, where you hear the sounds of doors opening and closing, crickets chirping in the distance, or echoing footsteps. Throughout, the audio mix is impressive whether in the midst of battle or in quieter moments.

 

Of course, Hans Zimmer’s dynamic Oscar-nominated score sounds wonderful here, giving more room to breathe across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Gladiator holds up remarkably well after 20 years, not just visually and sonically, but also from its involving story and acting, and the new 4K HDR version clocking in at a whopping 95 GB from Kaleidescape represents the best you’ve ever experienced this film!

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.