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Reviews: Oscar-Nominated Films

Cineluxe has looked at most of the movies nominated for the major Oscar categories, so
we thought we’d make it easier to get up to speed on this year’s contenders by gathering
all the 
reviews in one place. You can click on the movie titles below to go to the original
post. We’ll be covering additional Oscar-nominated films as they become available for
digital release.

Joker

Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay
Cinematography, Original Score, Film Editing
Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Costume Design
Makeup and Hairstyling

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor
Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Editing
Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Production Design

Jojo Rabbit

Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay
Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design

Ford v Ferrari

Picture, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

The Two Popes

Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay

Knives Out

Original Screenplay

Klaus

Animated Feature Film

Missing Link

Animated Feature Film

Avengers: Endgame

Visual Effects

Ad Astra

Sound Mixing

Honeyland

International Feature Film, Documentary Feature

The Irishman

Picture, Director, Supporting Actor
Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography
Film Editing, Costume Design, Production Design
Visual Effects

Parasite

Picture, International Feature Film, Director
Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Production Design

Marriage Story

Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress
Original Screenplay, Original Score

Judy

Actress, Makeup and Hairstyling

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Supporting Actor

Toy Story 4

Animated Feature Film, Original Song

I Lost My Body

Animated Feature Film

How to Train Your Dragon 3

Animated Feature Film

The Lion King (2019)

Visual Effects

The Edge of Democracy

Documentary Feature

American Factory

Documentary Feature

Missing Link

Missing Link

There are few storytelling art forms I find more fascinating than stop-motion animation. Perhaps it’s because of growing up watching the documentaries on Star Wars and how Industrial Light & Magic implemented stop-motion for the Rancor and the AT-ATs invading Hoth. Something about the meticulous nature that’s necessary to create a stop-motion sequence, and the stylized look, spoke to my imagination.

 

We’ve all seen it, even if we didn’t know the name—from the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the Wallace & Gromit series, or even just moments in movies that were mostly live-action, like the Star Wars films or Clash of the

Titans. In the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a slight uptick in the number of stop-motion releases, and some have received award consideration, such as Kubo and the Two Strings, Anomalisa, and Coraline.

 

This year, another stop-motion film got an Oscar nod. Missing Link was co-produced by Annapurna Pictures and Laika (who also produced Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline). It takes place in 1886 and follows explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to prove the existence of various mythical creatures in order to be accepted into the Society of Great Men. Fortune smiles on him when he receives a letter claiming to know the location 

of a Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis—yes, it can talk) in the Pacific Northwest. Upon traveling there, Frost discovers he was tipped off to the location by the Sasquatch himself. Encroaching civilization has caused him to want to leave and find more of his kind in the Himalayas. But he needs Sir Lionel’s help in order to get there.

 

The story is a bit lacking. The characterizations can be clichéd (although there are a couple of twists and turns that are unexpected), and while there is a good amount of humor, much of it only elicits a few chuckles or falls flat.

Missing Link

But visually the movie is phenomenal. The 4K presentation (currently available for rent or purchase on Vudu) shows off the incredible detail put into the characters—from the fuzz of a wool jacket to the subtle freckles and coloration of skin. Colors have vibrancy and depth thanks to Dolby Vision. It’s a sizeable step up over the 1080p presentation that can be found free to stream on Hulu.

The sound mix is primarily focused to the front channels with surrounds handling reverb effects and music. There is an ocean storm that uses the surrounds a bit more for dramatic effect, and some low-frequency moments so the sub doesn’t feel left out. But it’s nothing that will stress a system like a Marvel film might.

 

Missing Link certainly isn’t a life-changing story that will stay with you for days, but the visuals are well worth the 93 minutes and seeking out in 4K.

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.

Parasite

Parasite

Three thoughts occurred to me pretty much simultaneously as I sat and reflected upon Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as the closing credits scrolled by.

 

Thought the first: How on earth am I going to say anything meaningful about this film without spoiling the entire experience? I’ve never been one for rehashing plots, so it’s easy enough to shy away from giving away story beats or plot twists. What a

film means and how well it’s made are generally far more interesting to me than the what-had-happened of it all.

 

With Parasite, though, the themes are so nuanced and ever-evolving that to go down that road would be to rob you of half the experience of watching the film. Just as you think you’ve figured out what Parasite is really about, it 

becomes about something subtly different, in a way that seems shocking at first but utterly inevitable in retrospect.

 

Thought the second: What a fascinating counterpart to Todd Phillips’ Joker this film is. It isn’t, I think, a spoiler to say that on the surface Parasite is about wealth inequality and class struggles, territory Joker explored as well. But while Phillips uses this thematic kick-starter primarily as fuel for one of the most enthralling character studies of the past few years, Bong uses it as the bedrock of a tightly scripted narrative that doesn’t merely encourage rapt attention—it downright demands it.

 

While Joker lives or dies by Joaquin Phoenix’ improvisation, and indeed feels like it could have been cut together a hundred different ways resulting in a hundred different films, Parasite by contrast comes across as a meticulous orchestration that 

hinges upon every piece of punctuation in the screenplay. Shorten one lingering glance or snip one line of dialogue, and I can’t help but feel as if it would be akin to playing Rush’s “YYZ” in 4/4 time.

 

Of course, comparisons between the two films can only go so far, as one is a drama based on a comic book and the other is a wholly original black comedy that morphs into farce before shifting gears into thriller territory before evolving into . . . well, something else altogether. And yet, I can’t help but see the two films as opposite sides of the same coin. Perhaps due to the proximity of their release? Maybe. But it feels like there’s a deeper connection going on here. Something both zeitgeisty and timeless.

 

In addition to surface thematic similarities, the films do share one other thing in common: Stunning cinematography and absolutely unimpeachable home video presentations. Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR release seems to be an absolutely faithful transfer of the 4K digital intermediate of the film, which was shot on Arri Alexa 65 cameras and captured at 6.5K resolution. The transfer doesn’t lean too heavily on intense highlights, but has a wonderfully high-

contrast look that makes most use of its expanded dynamic range at the lower end of the value scale.

 

Colors are simply sumptuous, but more than anything else, it’s cinematographer Hong Gyeong-pyo’s eye for framing and composition that makes Parasite such a visual feast. Kaleidescape presents the film with your choice of 5.1 or stereo sound, both in Korean despite being labeled as English. There are no caption options, as subtitles are baked into the transfer and positioned within the 2.39:1 frame.

 

There will be some controversy, I’m sure, over the fact that Universal decided to release the film here in the U.S. without its original Atmos soundtrack. This is true of both its digital release now as well as its disc release (Blu-ray only, no UHD) later in

the month. Interestingly, other local distributors (The Jokers Films in France, for example) are delivering Parasite with its object-based audio intact, and I’ll admit even I’m intrigued to hear what that sounds like, because the surround mix is as bold and cheeky as the film itself. Aggressive pans from the surround soundstage into the front channels are employed frequently, though not gratuitously, to redirect the viewer’s attention and extend the fabricated reality of the film out into the room.

 

If I had to speculate about why we’re not getting Atmos in the U.S. (and let’s be clear here, this is nothing more than speculation), I would guess that the 5.1 option we’ve received is a new nearfield mix intended for the relatively more intimate confines of home theaters or media rooms. Whatever the reality, it’s hard to complain about such a brilliantly crafted audio experience, and it does up-mix quite nicely into Atmos, if that’s your preference.

 

Thought the third: If Parasite wins a condescending Best International Feature Film Oscar and gets snubbed for Best Picture, I’m going to pitch a hissy. (And I say this as someone who normally puts as much stock in the Academy Awards as I do the serving-size suggestions on a box of Cheez-Its.) This isn’t the sort of token foreign film Hollywood trots out every year and then dislocates its collective 

Parasite

shoulders in an effort to pat its own back for patronizingly celebrating a film with subtitles. It’s a universally applicable work of art whose themes resonate across cultural boundaries.

 

It’s also one of those rare films that manages to be both poignant and approachable. It asks tough questions without offering pandering answers and it somehow manages to not be even slightly opaque in the process. Quite frankly, if it doesn’t win Best Picture, I can only assume it’s because the Academy jealously recognizes that few modern American directors would have had the courage to make this film, at least not in quite this way.

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.

Checking Out Sony’s First Digital Cinema

With the last day of CES ending at 4 p.m., and my flight home usually not leaving until around midnight (2:04 a.m. this year, as it turned out), I’ve developed a post-CES tradition of going to watch a movie at one of the premium large-format cinemas in Las Vegas.

Two years ago, I visited the AMC Town Cinemas to see The Commuter in that theater’s Dolby Cinema. This year, I was excited to visit the first—and currently only—Sony Digital Cinema, at the Galaxy Theatres in the Las Vegas Boulevard Mall. 

 

Even more exciting, this was the final week Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker would be playing there, giving me a much desired second viewing of the film in arguably the finest theater in Vegas and potentially the entire country. (I am keeping this spoiler-free for anyone who has yet to see the movie.)

 

Last February, Sony announced it would be introducing its new Digital Cinema, the company’s first foray into an

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

experiential premium large-format (PLF) theater. The Vegas theater location opened in April, with Shazam being the first film shown. (A second theater is expected to open in the Dallas/Fort Worth area this spring.)

 

I had wanted to visit the theater since reading about its opening, so I was extremely excited to finally be able to stop by after CES. The ticket prices were surprisingly reasonable, with an evening show costing just $14.75 (plus a small convenience fee 

for booking online). Compared to theaters in New York and LA, that is a bargain and a half!

 

Designed to compete against Dolby Cinemas and IMAX, the Sony PLF theaters are built around Sony’s flagship dual 4K HDR laser projectors as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. The SRX-R815DS projector combination delivers 30,000 total lumens on screens up to 82 feet wide with an industry-leading 10,000:1 contrast ratio.

 

The Sony Digital Cinema is touted as having “the biggest screen in Las Vegas,” and, in a town where size matters and bigger is better, that means something. While the theater didn’t have exact specs on the screen size, they said it measures roughly four stories tall by seven stories wide.

 

On the audio side, the Sony theater has a total of 18 side surround speakers (nine per side), six rear surrounds, and 16 overhead height speakers, along with an array of screen and subwoofer channels, delivering pinpoint audio immersion from any seat.

 

As you approach the ticket taker, you are greeted by an

array of nine flat panels showing what is playing in each of the theaters, along with a large display advertising the Sony Digital Cinema in Auditorium 2.

 

Dolby incorporates something it calls “inspired design” into its Cinemas, which is meant to transport viewers into another space to be fully absorbed in the cinematic experience. This starts before you even walk into the auditorium with an audio/

visual pathway with a full-motion HD video wall, and immersive sound sets the mood as you enter.

 

The Sony theater doesn’t employ anything quite so impressive, rather a sleek sign as well as digital signage indicating the movie playing and upcoming showtime.

 

Entering the theater, you get your first glimpse of the massive screen, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. This is an auditorium where you would not want to sit anywhere near the front rows, as you would be straining your neck trying to take in the full scope of the image. The screen takes up nearly the entire front wall, and definitely fills your field of view.

 

The auditorium holds up to 217 people, with an entire row reserved for handicap seating. Chairs can be reserved 

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

when ticketing, and each faux-leather seat offers full power recline as well as a swing-out snack tray with integrated drink holder. (The theater has a large snack bar with a fairly extensive food and drink offering.)

 

The chairs were very comfortable, but I do prefer the Dolby Cinema’s seating, which is in two-chair, “loveseat” arrays where you can pull up the center arm rest for two people to sit together, if desired.

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

Also, there wasn’t as much care given to sightlines at the Sony theater compared to Dolby. Depending on where you sat—and how high or low you sat in your seat—the view of the very bottom of the screen could be blocked by the front-row seats. Also, the Sony seating array felt more like traditional “stadium-style” seating, where the Dolby seating has partitions between rows and is

staggered and positioned so you can’t see anyone in front or behind you, making it feel like a more private, personal experience.

 

For a design aesthetic, Sony chose a dark grey paneling look for the floors and walls, which offered a good contrast to the black seating and kept the environment nice and dark. Blue accent lights highlight each of the surround and height speakers 

prior to the beginning of the film.

 

The assistant general manager, Mike Boyd, was a fantastic ambassador for the cinema, and when I shared my enthusiasm for being able to experience the Sony Cinema, he went out of his way to provide me any details, including bringing the head projectionist down and letting me speak with him.

 

The projectionist, Paul, offered to let me stick around after the film for a special private viewing of some of Rise of Skywalker in 3D. However, 

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

due to some issues with my plane reservation, I had to head to the airport straight after the movie finished.

 

Sonically, Star Wars sounded flat-out awesome. The system delivered deep, powerful bass that was tight and sharp, easily able to produce frequencies I could feel in my seat. The snap and thrum of lightsabers delivered a near tactile experience that added to their power. The large array of surround and overhead speakers produced truly hemispherical sound, with ships streaking down the side channels and lots of creaks, groans, and water dripping from overhead aboard the destroyed Death Star, and voices echoing overhead and swirling around the room at appropriate moments.

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

Visually, the Sony projector combo easily lit up the entire screen, delivering bright and intense whites as well as deep and inky blacks. The brilliant reds of Kylo Ren’s light saber sizzled off the screen with true HDR vibrancy, as did crackling Force lightning bolts. The screen was so huge, the heaving waves 

outside the destroyed Death Star almost felt a bit disorienting, like I was floating and rolling on the water. Images were tack-sharp with razor-edged detail.

 

My one complaint with the image quality had nothing to do with the projector system, but rather with the layout of the theater. The walkway running between the first three rows of seats and the reserved handicap seating is constantly illuminated with pathway lighting. This was distracting, and just enough to kill the absolute contrast the Sony projection system is capable of, showing that the auditorium wasn’t truly black during dark scenes. Also, the lower corners of the screen were washed out a bit from the stair lighting left and right of the front three rows. I’m sure these are concessions to safety, but are issues I don’t recall with the Dolby Cinema.

 

I’m assuming readers will want me to choose a “winner” between the Dolby and Sony offerings, but that is difficult to do after watching two completely different films nearly two years apart. I’ll say that both theaters offer a fantastic experience that surpasses even what the finest luxury home cinema can deliver. Sonically, they were very similar (at least to my memory), with both featuring very immersive Dolby Atmos audio delivered via numerous speakers.

 

The Sony Cinema edges out Dolby in sheer size, but only by a few feet. However, I think I have to give the Dolby Cinema the edge in picture quality due to the better light control, keeping all stray light off the screen to deliver higher absolute contrast.

 

Bottom line, theater lovers living in or visiting Vegas have two great choices when it comes to watching cinematic content, and I’d strongly recommend checking out both for your next moviegoing experiences!

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 Witcher

The Witcher

The sword & sorcery fantasy genre was mostly relegated to movie theaters until Game of Thrones came around and busted into popular culture. When it finished its run in May 2019, there was a hole left ready to be filled, and many prophesied that The Witcher would be that successor.

 

In truth, it isn’t, but not in a negative way. There are no question similarities between the two: Both have a rich collection of novels and short stories that were written around the same time, both have the aforementioned sword & sorcery components (although The Witcher has more outward sorcery than GoT), and both have fervent fan bases that were ecstatic to see the stories get adapted for the screen. But where Game of Thrones was a highly complex political intrigue show with an enormous cast of characters supporting that narrative, The Witcher focuses on three main characters: The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Cirilla (Freya Allan), and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra).

 

Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher Saga is a collection of five books beginning with Blood of Elves. But the two short-story collections—The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny—set up the relationships in The Witcher Saga, and it’s from those short stories that the eight episodes pull from, which can cause the storytelling to feel disjointed early on in the

The Witcher

series.

 

The episodes also follow multiple timelines that eventually converge. As viewers, we’re not made implicitly aware of the different timelines, and they only become apparent four episodes in. Add to that a slew of names that are just thrown about, and the potential for confusion is high.

 

But it all comes together and works. There are some wonderful stories that give 

a sense of how deep the mythology of this world is, and some interesting character study, particularly of Yennefer. There are frequent moments of levity and self-awareness that I found endearing, and multiple instances of a well-placed expletive from Cavill’s stoic portrayal that caused me to laugh out loud.

 

The Netflix presentation is in 4K HDR with a 5.1 surround mix. The HDR is used to great effect with a bunch of dark scenes that are aided by the depth available from the dynamic range. Moments of sunlight felt piercing as it supported the narrative of the scene. Detail is excellent and the magic visual effects look convincing and epic. The surround sound effects mix is subtle and lets the score, by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, soar. The series has been renewed for a second season that is expected at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021.

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.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this year’s Golden Globes played some part in my awareness of Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix Original film Marriage Story. Ashamed because I couldn’t care less about awards ceremonies and rarely base any of my viewing choices on self-congratulatory pomp.

 

I do, on the other hand, care quite a bit about Baumbach’s work. And I’m drawn to him, in part, because his films aren’t predictable. While I’ve loved all of his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (especially the delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox), his own directorial efforts have been a little more uneven. For every engaging The Squid and the Whale, there’s been an off-

putting Margot at the Wedding. For every mercurial Frances Ha, there’s been a muddled While We’re Young.

 

But even Baumbach’s failures have been noble failures in my book, because he has a singular talent for writing dialogue that’s simply unmatched in our generation. And all of that is on full display in what I consider to be one of his best films yet.

 

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as soulmates at an impasse. It’s ostensibly the story of their divorce, territory Baumbach already explored from one perspective in The Squid and the Whale. But to call it a film 

about divorce (which The Squid and the Whale most certainly was) would be to miss the point of Marriage Story. Instead, it’s a story about the individual sense of identity that’s often lost in any marriage, but also the intimacy that’s gained in return. That back and forth, give and take, yin and yang ultimately influences all of the film’s themes.

 

It really isn’t the thematic or narrative heart of Marriage Story that makes it work, though. It’s the characters that drive the film, as well as Baumbach’s aforementioned gift for crafting dialogue that sounds completely organic and natural to the ear, but upon closer inspection turns out to be a masterfully assembled jigsaw puzzle agglomerated from pieces pilfered from two different boxes.

 

Characters talk past and over one another, they inject non sequiturs and distractions, they leave thoughts dangling and stumble over interruptions, and if you didn’t know better you might suspect that Baumbach is allowing his performers to improvise. They’re not improvising. Every pause, ever “uh,” every clipped and broken sentence fragment is meticulously scripted to keep the flow of what’s actually being communicated between two characters who aren’t really listening to one another unambiguous for the viewer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film is perfectly cast. It’s seems pretty clear to me that Baumbach selected Johansson and Driver not merely because of their inherent talent, but as much for the audience’s expectations of what they bring to a film. With Johansson, we expect a certain emotional complexity—an ability to convey two contradictory emotions on her face, in her body language, in her vocal inflections. With Driver, we expect a certain caged-animal ferocity—explosions of intensity and frustrated vulnerability. Baumbach plays around with those expectations in wonderful ways, and I hesitate to say more than that.

Marriage Story

The one thing I will say about characterization, though, is that Baumbach seems to be going for more universal relatability with this film than with previous efforts. Much as I love his last Netflix Original, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I’ll admit that as with most of the writer/director’s films, I found its neurotic characters as unrelatable as they were fascinating. It could simply be that I’m from Alabama, where—to paraphrase Julia Sugarbaker—we proudly display our crazy out in the open rather than bottling it up until it boils over, but there’s always been an aloof affectation to Baumbach’s characters that made them seem more than a little alien to me.

 

That’s far from the case with Marriage Story, save for a few supporting characters whose affectations are more of a contrived West Coast sort that I at least understand. At its heart, though, the two leads are less defined by their neuroses than by their sympathetic human failings.

 

If all of the above makes Marriage Story seem like the sort of film that could just as easily be viewed on a laptop or mobile screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the characters room to breathe, opting for wide shots throughout except when closeups are needed for punctuation. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen in the home, and one that rewards quality of presentation thanks largely to its distinctive, filmic look.

 

Shot on Kodak Vision3 200T and 500T film stock (depending on lighting levels, one would assume) in an increasingly uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Marriage Story is an analog cinephile’s dream. The organic grain structure and photochemical idiosyncrasies of the stock give the film a unique character that’s missing from so many modern, digitally captured movies.

 

What surprised me, though, is that Netflix’s UHD/HDR presentation—at least by way of my Roku Ultra—is more than up to the task of delivering this unabashedly analog imagery pretty much perfectly intact. Much as I love this modern era of high-efficiency, relatively low-bitrate streaming, I’m not blind to its limitations. One expects a few seconds here and there with a little light banding or digital noise. Indeed, there is a handful of shots in Marriage Story—one in particular featuring characters positioned against an inconsistently lit cream-white wall—where I leaned forward to judge just how prominent the banding would be. And yet I saw none.

 

Ask me to find a visual flaw in the presentation and I might point to one scene in which the structure of the film grain and the textures of an onscreen object interfere a little, and may have been presented a little less noisily in a much higher bandwidth download or on disc. But without being able to do direct A/B comparisons, I’m just guessing.

 

That aside (if it’s even valid), Netflix presents Marriage Story beautifully, preserving the slight golden cast of the film stock, as well as its overall low-contrast aesthetic. It’s important not to confuse contrast and dynamic range here, as the HDR does leave a lot of room between the not-very-black blacks and the never-very-intense highlights, allowing us to peer deeper into shadows and appreciate the subtle differences between, for example, two black pieces of clothing dyed differently and aged asymmetrically.

 

The sound mix, too, is one that hinges on subtleties. Mostly a mono affair, the barely-surround soundtrack makes another strong case for why the center channel is the most important speaker in your sound system. The mix does spread to the front left and right speakers occasionally, mostly to give width to Randy Newman’s sparse-but-poignant score, but also, creatively, to give some space to the often dense and chaotic cacophony of dialogue.

 

Netflix, it seems, is somewhat under siege as of late, with some criticizing the inconsistent quality of its original offerings and others (yours truly included) musing on how the service can maintain any semblance of identity in the face of new competitors like Disney+ and the upcoming HBO MAX and Peacock.

 

If the company keeps supporting the creation of films like this, though, it can count on my $15.99 every month. And if Noah Baumbach is going to keep maturing as a filmmaker and delivering consistently amazing character studies like The Meyerowitz Stories and now Marriage Story, he’s going to convert me into an unapologetic and unreserved champion.

 

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.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Tim Sinnaeve

Given all the brilliant art that’s been created using video since the technology was introduced—going on eight decades now since the commercial launch of TV, and five since the appearance of video recorders—and also given the culture’s gluttonous and largely indiscriminate appetite for video content, it was inevitable video art would start showing up on TV and

projection screens.

 

But tossing that art into the same aesthetic shredder with soulless blockbusters, assembly-line sitcoms, echo-chamber news channels, and morons eating chili peppers is to reduce it to the level of bland diversion. So it was just as inevitable that a more discriminating audience, realizing the potential of the latest video displays and sources, would start yearning for gallery-quality art installations at home.

 

Enter Barco, with its reputation for creating ultimate-performance video products—which has led to their projectors being deployed in elaborate, cutting-edge art 

spaces such as the Carrières de Lumières in Provence (shown in “Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?”) and Artechouse in New York City’s Chelsea Market (shown in the video below). So it’s not surprising it’s now being called into service to provide the imaging for the first fully-fledged residential digital-art installations.

 

It is a little surprising, though, to see a tech company doing so much to lead the art-wall charge—thanks in large part to the efforts of Barco Residential managing director Tim Sinnaeve. But Sinnaeve seems to sense that this is an opportunity—

Above are some fragments of Refik Anadol’s Machine Hallucinations captured on a cellphone at NYC’s Artechouse gallery and cobbled together (with apologies to the artist) to provide a sense of the potential and appeal of domestic art-wall installations

poised at the point of intersection of no-compromise video and luxury integration, architecture, and design—to have video displays seen not just as a means of viewing indiscriminate entertainment but to become a more edifying and organic part of the home.

 

In the interview above, Sinnaeve provides a crash-course introduction to art walls, discussing the new tools they provide artists, how they’re becoming

a way for architects and interior designers to not just tolerate but embrace technology, and how we may be at the very beginning of a wave that could completely redefine the meaning of video in the home.

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin’

How to Listen: Just a LIttle Lovin'

In the first installment of “How to Listen,” I talked about the sonics of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album with a sound as immense as the album’s influence. The sound of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ is exactly the opposite.

 

A tribute to Dusty Springfield, with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs and other covers (plus “Pretend,” a Lynne original), it’s almost minimalist in its approach, with Lynne’s lower-register contralto voice accompanied by just a few instruments on any 

given track—typically one or two electric or acoustic guitars, along with lightly-played drums (usually with brushes), acoustic or electric piano, and acoustic or electric bass.

 

As such, her vocals are right up front, and on a good system her singing and each instrument stand out with an almost physical presence, essential parts of a simple, pure, and clean sonic presentation that is remarkably well recorded.

 

No wonder—the album was produced by Phil Ramone, recorded and mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt and mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab. For the most part, it sounds like it was recorded with the musicians playing together live, although I don’t know that for a fact, and on a good system you can feel as well as hear them grooving together with a relaxed yet swinging feel. And Lynne’s gorgeously husky, smoky voice is so well-recorded and expressive that I don’t think you can help but be moved by the emotional nuances of her singing.

 

Small wonder the album has become a bonafide audiophile classic.

 

I listened to the Analogue Productions vinyl LP remaster, an astoundingly quiet and well-done pressing, as well as a Qobuz 24/96 hi-res stream and a recently purchased CD.

 

The tonal balance of the album is warm and smooth—if Just a Little Lovin’ doesn’t make your stereo sound sweetly, richly inviting, something isn’t right. In fact, it could be argued that the tonal balance is a touch too warm; but, on the other hand, some of that very deep bass you should be hearing is there (or should be) because on a few cuts (“Breakfast in Bed” for example), the bassist is playing a five-string electric bass, which goes deeper (usually tuned to a low B) than a four-string electric or acoustic bass.

 

The midrange sounds about as natural as you’ll hear on a recording and the upper-midrange should be detailed and transparent, without a hint of stridency or forwardness. The soundspace overall is big and deep, but not hugely extended beyond the speakers. This is a more intimate than cinematic recording.

 

Another attribute of the album is that while Lynne’s voice is 

dead center, the instruments, while occupying their own sonic spaces, aren’t laser-focused in terms of imaging. It sounds like some of them were miked in stereo and then panned a little more to the left or right, but I can’t verify this. In any case, most 

of the time the instruments create more of a sonic spread across the soundfield than the hard left, center, or right placement you often hear in jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, for example. So if that’s what you’re hearing, your system’s imaging isn’t vague—it’s what you should be hearing.

 

One of the key sonic ingredients is the reverb on Lynne’s voice. During quieter instrumental sections, it should not only be clearly audible but should fill the sound space. This leads to my one quibble about the album’s sonics—at times, the reverb sounds over-applied, and I would like to have heard more of her singing presented “dry” instead. This is especially apparent on the last track, a cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.”

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will impress you with their loud and sometimes bombastic dynamics. This record is exactly the opposite—it’s the detail in the sparse, soft parts that will draw you in.

 

There’s no need to go into a track-by-track analysis since the above paragraphs describe the overall sound of the record, but there are a number of specific sonic attributes to listen for.

 

The first one happens on “Just a Little Lovin’” almost immediately with a literally startling thwack rim shot that happens with incredible realism. Lynne’s voice is so upfront and present that you can, on a good system, actually hear some mouth sounds at points when she pauses between phrases. The Rhodes electric piano gives notice of the sumptuously rich sounds to come.

 

Listen to the way the acoustic piano and electric guitar blend chordally and rhythmically on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” It’s the sound of master musicians at work. It’s very hard for a guitar player and a piano player to “comp” together in a band, but here you can hear it done perfectly. And listen for the scrape of the drummer’s brushes on the drum heads. Incredible. Most of all, listen for the restrained passion in Lynne’s voice. Hair-raising.

 

“I Only Want to Be with You” is an all-acoustic-instrument (guitar, piano, bass, drums), languid take on the song Dusty Springfield made famous. As such, it’s a can’t-miss system demo track—if your system’s up to the task. The same is true for “The Look of Love.” It’s a song that’s been done and heard countless times, but Lynne brings a grit and a yearning to it that no one else does.

 

“Willie and Lauramae Jones” has a distinctly different sonic feel than the other tracks, thanks to the fact that Lynne is playing guitar on this one along with the other musicians. Listen for the “ring” of the drum hit (not sure if it’s a snare or

something else; the tuning is odd), the beautifully-recorded dobro happily sliding away in the left channel, and the acoustic guitar “chops” in the right channel, where you should very distinctly get the feel of a real person doing them.

 

Speaking of feel, Lynne’s version of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” is so emotionally riveting, I’ll bet it had him in tears the first time he heard it. The way the song ebbs and flows will simply be 

lost on a lesser system. And just when you think you’re hearing a fadeout, the musicians reveal they’re just getting quieter until they decide to end the song. Masterful.

 

Perhaps the best is saved for last: Lynne duetting with acoustic guitarist Dean Parks on the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Now the sonic minimalism is at its most sparse, just the two of them playing with, and off of, each other. Not only can you hear that Parks is fingerpicking rather than flatpicking the guitar, you can hear the sound of flesh on string and the way he continuously varies the touch of his fingerpicking. The beautiful fade out is the perfect ending to this sublime-sounding recording.

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.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

If you haven’t already seen Season One of The Mandalorian on Disney+, it stands to reason that you’re simply not interested. You may even be sick of hearing about it altogether, given that it’s the only thing in 2019 that managed to out-meme that crazy woman from Real Housewives yelling at a cat eating salad.

 

Here’s the thing, though: While much of the discussion about The Mandalorian has centered on its adorable baby-alien McGuffin or the show’s ties to the larger Star Wars universe, or even on its everything-old-is-new-again weekly release 

schedule, there hasn’t been an awful lot of talk about whether it is actually good. Not as a Star Wars TV series. Not as a lore drop about one of the franchise’s most beloved and mysterious factions. Not even as a small plank in the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, chronologically speaking. But as, you know, just a TV show. A thing that exists in and of itself, independent of the fanatical fanbase or larger mythology.

 

The last time I wrote about the series, five episodes into its eight-episode run, I withheld judgment on that matter. Now that we’re a few days past the first-season finale, and I’ve had a chance to watch the season again from front to back, 

I wanted to step back and take off my Star Wars scholar hat and discuss the show on its own terms (not an easy task, since I once defeated the president of the Star Wars Fan Club in a trivia contest and still have the prize to prove it).

 

The Mandalorian is the love child of Jon Favreau, a name you definitely know, and Dave Filoni, who may be unfamiliar if you’re not a big Star Wars fan. In short, Filoni was half of the creative driving force behind The Clone Wars, one of the best TV series of the past 20 years, but also one of the most criminally underrated, likely because it was animated.

 

That aside, though, there’s one massive difference between The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian: The former assumed you were deeply invested in Star Wars lore and wanted to know more; the latter seems more interested in deconstructing the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a cultural phenomenon and reassembling them into something new. Something that both pays homage and reinvents.

 

You don’t have to know much about George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy to know that this means going back to the wells of both Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the former of which influenced the latter and both of which inspired Star Wars in very different ways. Since The Mandalorian isn’t about a larger civilization-spanning conflict, Favreau and Filoni leave other influences—like The Dam Busters and Tora! Tora! Tora!—on the table and bring in some new inspiration, namely Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic Japanese comic-book serial Lone Wolf and Cub and the film adaptations it spawned.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The beauty of Favreau and Filoni’s new pastiche is that you really don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Nor do you have to know that the show’s producers have eschewed CGI as much as possible by going back and developing new techniques for photographing and compositing spacecraft models that are very much inspired by the techniques of ILM circa 1976 to 1983. Without knowing any of that, you can just feel it. There’s this wonderful mix of the familiar and the foreign that drives this series.

 

And that’s true of everything, down to Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which may be my favorite thing about The Mandalorian. Instead of aping John Williams’ iconic themes, as so many other composers have done when playing around in ancillary Star Wars projects, Göransson gives us something new that isn’t really new at all. Squint at it from one direction and

there’s an undeniable Eastern influence to the tones, the textures, the overall structure of the music. Step back and look at it from another angle, and it could just as easily have accompanied any of the misadventures of the Man with No Name.

 

As with Williams, Göransson also sprinkles in the flavor of Holst and the spice of Stravinsky 

from time to time, but—at the risk of sounding repetitive—it’s the way he combines these influences, along with his own unique aesthetic, that results in something new and compelling that still feels familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

 

I hinted above that The Mandalorian doesn’t attempt to bite off more than it can chew, namely in the way that it doesn’t attempt to mash up every classic work of cinema or serial that inspired the original Star Wars, and that’s as true thematically as it is narratively and stylistically. There really isn’t much here by way of spiritual rumination. The mystical is treated as a mystery, and doesn’t play heavily into the meaning of the series.

 

Then again, it can take a while to really figure out what fundamental ideas the show is attempting to play around with, in large part due to its very episodic structure. In crafting this season, Favreau and Filoni seem intent upon letting the writers and directors of each 33- to 49-minute episode create their own little narratives, reminiscent in ways of David Carradine’s Kung Fu from the mid-1970s. And it isn’t until the very end that one episode really connects to the next and a larger story arc begins to congeal.

 

Taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to see a very simple thematic through-line woven into this collection of eight largely disconnected episodes: A tale of principles, of honor, of cultural (or familial) baggage, and of redemption—all themes that resonate within the larger Star Wars mythology, but that work just fine on their own.

 

Technically speaking, The Mandalorian is beautifully shot and honestly looks even more cinematic than its $15-million-per-episode budget would lead you to suspect. There has been some controversy over the fact that the show doesn’t make use of the expanded dynamic range or larger color gamut afforded by its Dolby Vision (or HDR10, depending on your device) presentation. Gleaming specular highlights are nowhere to be found, and the lower end of the value scale can be a bit flat. I’m guessing this was largely an aesthetic choice, as it does give the show a somewhat “classic” look, especially in comparison to other contemporary series that do make more obvious use of HDR.

 

I hesitate to accuse Disney+ of being dishonest in presenting The Mandalorian’s non-HDR cinematography in an HDR container, though, and that mostly boils down to a little-discussed advantage of our new home video standards in the era of higher-efficiency, lower-bitrate streaming: The minimization of video artifacts.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

On a lark, I disabled the HDR capabilities of my Roku Ultra and spot-checked an early episode, just to see what differences might pop up. In terms of color purity, shadow detail, overall brightness and so forth, any differences were hard to spot. But without the benefit of 10- (or 12-) bit color, large expanses of clear, pale sky were occasionally rendered like sun-bleached sticks of Fruit Stripe gum, with blatant banding stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Say what you will about the series’ overall flat color palette and lack of value extremes, but simply packing it in a Dolby Vision box does keep visual distractions of that sort to a bare minimum.

 

As for the audio, you’ll definitely want to enjoy The Mandalorian on the best sound system you can. One evening, whilst hanging out at a friend’s house, someone floated the idea of watching the most recent episode, which I agreed to despite having just watched it the evening prior. To be frank, I found it a lackluster experience mostly due to my buddy’s inexpensive soundbar. And it wasn’t really the explosions or gunfire that left me wanting more (although the sound mix does them justice); it was the presentation of Göransson’s score. There’s a dynamic drive to his musical accompaniment, as well as a rich blend of timbres and textures, that simply demands to be heard by way of a well-calibrated, well-installed, full-range surround sound system.

 

But should you give it a chance to shine in your home theater or media room even if you care little for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away? I daresay yes. At its heart, The Mandalorian is a delightful bushidō/gunslinger mashup that nods at fans quite frequently, but also quite slyly, such that you’re likely to be completely unaware of any allusions or references you’ll almost certainly miss if you’re not a franchise devotee, at least once you get past the first ten minutes of the first episode (the only place where blatant fan service really rears its ugly head).

 

Taken as a whole, it definitely does stand on its own, despite its tenuous connections to the larger mythology, despite its heavy nods to works of classic cinema and television, and (perhaps most importantly) despite the fact that everyone else on your Facebook newsfeed won’t stop memeing the hell out of the series’ most heartfelt moments or most quotable dialogue.

 

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.

Gemini Man

Gemini Man

Between Men in Black, Bad Boys, and Independence Day, there was a time when Will Smith ruled the summer box office with hit after hit. He was a bankable star studios could count on to carry tentpole films, but then a string of disappointments took some of the shine out of Smith’s star, and he stopped being offered those marquee roles.

 

Smith’s latest bid to return to box office bankability was Gemini Man, which is available as a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack from the Kaleidescape Store a full three weeks prior to its January 14th 4K Blu-ray release. Unfortunately for Smith—and Paramount Pictures—Gemini was a flop at the box office, costing an estimated $138 million to make, and grossing just $173 million worldwide against an estimated $275 million needed to break even. Further, Gemini belongs to that increasing list of films that sees a real divide between critics—receiving a measly 26% on Rotten Tomatoes—and viewers—scoring 83% from audiences, making you wonder, “Who’s right?”

 

According to Wikipedia, Gemini Man was originally conceived in 1997, but “the film went through development hell for nearly 20 years.” Over that time, multiple directors were attached along with numerous actors, with Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Nicholas Cage, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, and many others set to star at

various points. This kind of struggle to get a film to screen rarely results in box office success.

 

Another challenge Gemini faced was director Ang Lee’s insistence on shooting the film at a high frame rate (HFR) of 120 frames-per-second (fps), five times the 24fps Hollywood standard. Besides adding to the cost and complexity of production, this limited the number of screens that could actually show the film at Lee’s desired frame rate, with just 14 Dolby Cinema screens in the US able to show the film at the full 120fps. (Even then, the Dolby Cinemas were limited to showing it at 2K resolution, being unable to display 3D, 120fps, and 4K simultaneously.)

Lee’s previous HFR release, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was given a chance for a wider audience in its home video release, becoming the first major title to be released in 4K HDR at 60fps, the technical limit of the 4K Blu-ray format. And while the film had some stunning, truly reference-caliber visuals, it had a distinctly un-filmlike video look that distanced many viewers.

 

While the 4K Blu-ray disc of Gemini Man will include the film at 4K 60fps, the digital download is currently limited to the traditional 24fps, which is the version currently available from Kaleidescape and what I’m reviewing here. (It’s important to note that Billy Lynn was initially available from Kaleidescape at only 24fps, but later became available at 60fps as a free upgrade, so it’s possible the same will be true for Gemini Man. According to Kaleidescape, “There is no announcement at this time. Paramount hasn’t made a 60 fps file available for digital, but we have made them aware that we are interested.”)

 

Smith plays Henry Brogan, a former Marine Scout Sniper now working as a top-tier assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Brogan’s skills behind a rifle are legendary, but he’s a bit haunted from years of killing and the 72 people he’s dispatched, and decides to retire when he feels he’s losing his edge.

 

When he learns that his latest kill might not have actually been guilty and that he has been used, Brogan starts investigating. In retaliation, the DIA decides to get rid of all loose ends, including sending kill squads to take care of Brogan and his former team. When Brogan dispatches the first hit team, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), who heads a black-ops unit codenamed Gemini, unleashes a young new assassin to finish the job.

 

This young assassin named Junior (a digitally de-aged version of Smith) bears a striking resemblance to Smith and seems to know and anticipate all of his moves. After a test reveals that Brogan and Junior share identical DNA, Brogan is determined to learn where this clone came from and what the government is using him to do.

 

Shot in a combination of 3.2 and 4K at 120fps, Gemini’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the images look reference-quality throughout. Closeups bristle with detail, showing every pore, whisker, and strand of hair. Images of Smith’s hands and fingers while he’s holding his sniper rifle reveal every whorl and loop in his fingerprints. Apparel shows fine textural details like the weave of a linen shirt, the loops in a terrycloth robe, or even the individual gold links in a necklace.

 

Without question, this film put all the resolution and detail up on the screen, and it looks gorgeous. Only once, at the very beginning, did I notice any video that was anything short of reference—a small bit of line twitter in the lines and structure of the roof complex.

 

The plot takes Brogan to multiple locations around the world, and outdoor scenes are bright, sharp, and very detailed, with long-range shots featuring rich depth and dimension. The scenes in Cartegena are especially vibrant and rich with color. Some scenes, like in Budapest, look like they were obviously filmed against a green screen—one of the dangers of 4K’s ultra-revealing nature.

 

Blacks are clean and detailed, though many night shots on the ocean are lit like via a full moon and aren’t totally dark. HDR is used nicely to create shadow and dark-level detail in outdoor scenes resulting in beautifully realistic images. A scene in some catacombs includes a fight where a flare is thrown into water, creating layers of shadows with no hints of banding. And a

scene in Varris’ office is bathed in various shades and layers of black while still revealing rich detail and clean images.

 

One of the film’s big gimmicks is Smith’s digital de-aging, where you get him fighting a much younger version of himself. The first big encounter/fight between the two Smiths played out like a non-stop video game battle, with them running, jumping, leaping, and chasing each other from building to building and through the streets, including a John Wick-esque motorcycle fight, as if each character had multiple lives in reserve. At a distance, the de-ageing effect worked very convincingly.

 

But closeups of young Smith looked just slightly . . . off. His face was a bit waxy and smooth, like he’d undergone excessive digital noise reduction, and his mouth while talking looked somewhat digitized or like the audio was out of sync. My wife felt Junior looked like a videogame character. Since the movie’s premise rides on the believability of this effect, I have to say that as good as Smith looked, you were often aware that you were watching an effect.

 

As mentioned, the Kaleidescape download includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and the audio is used nicely to create some ambience in scenes, such as birds and bugs buzzing about on Brogan’s farm. Gunshots also have nice snap and 

Gemini Man

impact. The Atmos mix also provides a ton of width to the front images, making sounds extend well out into the room and far beyond the screen.

 

While I found the soundtrack adequate, it wasn’t especially dynamic or immersive. Whether this was because I was so caught up in the movie and enjoying the drama or just because the mix actually was a bit restrained, I can’t honestly say.

 

While Gemini Man is far from perfect, it is entertaining, with a plot that’s just complex enough to stay interesting; and the picture quality looks fantastic on a luxury home cinema system. This might not be a movie we’ll still be watching years from now, but it does make for an entertaining night in your own theater.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.