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The Crown (Season 3)

The Crown (Season 3)

When Peter Morgan’s Netflix-original historical drama The Crown launched in 2016, it did so with an interesting conceit: In dramatizing the life of Queen Elizabeth II from 1947 to modern times, the cast would be replaced every two seasons to account for the roughly two-decade advance of the calendar. Season Three, which recently dropped on Netflix in its ten-episode entirety, is of course the first to feature such a complete re-casting.

 

It honestly never occurred to me that I might have a problem with this. But as Season Three approached, I realized just how smitten I had become with Claire Foy’s performance as Elizabeth and Vanessa Kirby’s brilliant turn as Princess Margaret. Trailers and clips of the new season, and interviews with its cast, left me cold. Made me a bit bitter, I’ll admit.

 

For anyone with similar concerns, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way from the giddy-up: The new cast is fantastic. Olivia Colman manages to capture the essence of Queen Elizabeth II perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute force of nature in the role of Princess Margaret. And I imagine Matt Smith is watching Tobias Menzies’ performance as Prince Philip right now with a tinge of envious respect. Simply put, the new cast has won me over completely, perhaps aided by the fact that John Lithgow returns ever-so-briefly as Winston Churchill (the only casting carry-over) to provide a bit of continuity to the whole affair.

 

It’s simply a shame that the writing this season doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the new cast. The thing I’ve always loved about The Crown—at least until the end of the second season—is that it was believable. I’m no Royalphile, mind you, so I’ve never really been bothered when the series had to take some liberties with reality to compress ten years’ worth of history into ten episodes of television. When it did so in its first two seasons, I rarely noticed.

 

The third season, though, takes such a turn for the tabloid that it strains the bounds of credulity. The second episode, “Margaretology,” in which Margaret attends a dinner at the White House in the midst of a vacation in the U.S., is one of the worst offenders in this respect. I have no doubt that a meeting between Princess Margaret and LBJ was a bawdy affair—by the standards of the day. The problem is that The Crown turns it into a bawdy affair by today’s standards, ripped right out of a 

modern revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, complete with a scandalous kiss on the mouth and an improvisational limerick contest so salacious I didn’t even need to fact-check it to know it didn’t happen.

 

As I said, I realize any dramatization of this sort is going to be at odds with reality from time to time.

The Crown (Season 3)

But a viewer’s reaction should be (and, speaking for myself alone here, was for the first two seasons) “Did that really happen?” not “There’s no way that happened.”

 

The third season so completely lost my trust by the end of the second episode that, had I not already committed to reviewing it, I would have cut my losses and kept my fond memories of the Claire Foy run of the series.

 

And that’s truly unfortunate, because The Crown is so beautifully made otherwise. The cinematography in particular has always been stunning, but reaches new heights of artistry this season, especially in the way it conveys the emotional isolation of Elizabeth. HDR is used brilliantly to create a tangible distinction between the interiors of Buckingham Palace and the sunlight of the outside word piercing through the windows, intruding on the space within but never able to fully illuminate it.

 

Set design, costume design, and all of the rest of the elements that contribute to the visual verisimilitude of this historical world are all captured wonderfully by the excellent 4K/HDR presentation. So, if you can stomach the unnecessary sensationalism of it all, you’re in for an absolute treat of a presentation worthy of the best home cinema setups.

 

My advice, though, if you haven’t seen any of The Crown yet, would be to watch the first two seasons and simply pretend that the series ends in early 1964 with the birth of Prince Edward. The third season of The Crown is gorgeous and brilliantly acted, sure, but simply ends up being too insulting to truly enjoy. The earlier seasons, imperfect as they may have been, deliver an emotionally fulfilling and interesting story, beautifully shot and wonderfully performed, and are still very much worth your time.

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.

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

When most people think about good acoustics, the first area of a home that comes to mind is an entertainment room. The audio in this space should be pristine—from clear, intelligible dialogue to realistic, three-dimensional special effects. You feel as if you’re in the middle of the movie action, and proper acoustical engineering and treatment of the space contribute just as much as the equipment to delivering this experience. If the acoustics of the space are off, the listening experience will suffer.

 

To prevent this from happening, it’s important that a home theater include properly engineered and installed acoustics customized for the unique sonic attributes of the space. The floor, ceiling, walls, furnishings, etc. often require some level of modification to ensure that the movie audio sounds its very best, without reverberation, echo, or disruption from other sources of sound.

 

But why stop at the home theater? The same acoustical principles of a home theater can be applied in bedrooms, home offices, living rooms . . . really any space that suffers from unwanted external noise or acoustical conditions that conflict with the intelligibility of conversations. Just as a noisy heating and cooling unit can distract you from the plot of a movie, it can be a

literal nightmare when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

 

And that’s just brushing the surface of the annoying sounds that can plague a household. Homes of all sizes and designs can be affected by excessive noise, lack of sound privacy, and an abundance of sound propagation.

 

Think about the things you hear at home on a daily basis: A delivery truck backing out of a neighbor’s driveway, the lawn maintenance crew working at the park across the street, barking dogs, the thump of the home gym treadmill at 5 a.m., and the incessant beat of your son’s garage band are just some of the many examples. They all add up to a lot of racket—most of which you’d probably rather not hear or at least muffle a bit. An acoustical engineer can minimize these audible distractions from any area of the house—not just the home theater.

 

Years ago, all of this commotion may have fallen on deaf ears. Most people worked in an office outside of the home, went to the neighborhood cinema to catch a show, and worked out at the gym. Today, though, we are home a lot, 

using it for a myriad of activities besides just eating and sleeping. We work in home offices, exercise in home gyms, entertain in home theaters, dine in gourmet kitchens, and shop online—subject to all of the audible chaos in and around the home. We cringe when the kids arrive home during a conference call, cover our ears during our son’s gaming marathon, and wait until the baby wakes up from a nap to throw in a load of laundry. Noise can disrupt our lives in so many ways. Thankfully, proper acoustical treatments applied by a professional can help.

 

Often, the remedy necessitates a structural modification of the ceiling or walls. Most homes are built in a way that allows sound to easily transfer from one room to another. Sheetrock is attached directly to studs and joists, which allows sound to move from one material to the next, one room to another. Separating these surfaces through the addition of isolation clips and hangers mitigates the sound propagation. It’s an expense, certainly, and more easily implemented during the construction of a home, but there’s no better way to preserve your sleep and sanity.

 

Other, less extreme remedies to tame the propagation of sound throughout a home involve adding aesthetically pleasing sound absorption materials to a room, such as acoustical plaster on the ceiling surface, fabric on the walls, specialty ceiling tiles, and even furnishings. If it’s sound from outside that’s bothering you, thicker, double-pane windows and heavy draperies can help.

 

Sound quality has an impact on more than just our ability to become fully immersed in a movie. It’s part of our everyday life, in good ways and bad ways. We might like how our audio system sounds in our home theater, but we’d rather not hear it in the bedroom upstairs. The same goes for other noises. They’re a part of the house and our lifestyle, but left untreated, they can interfere with work, play, and even our health. A professionally trained and experienced acoustical engineer can make these issues disappear, creating a more peaceful and healthy home environment.

Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Ed Gilmore

Ed Gilmore’s company, Gilmore’s Sound Advice, is known as one of the premier luxury integration firms in the intensely competitive New York City market. In business since 1991, it has seen high-end integration evolve dramatically, moving well 

beyond AV, as things like automated lights and shades and whole-house automation have come to the fore.

 

Given the notorious space constraints on even the most luxurious Big Apple spaces, Ed has had to be inventive when creating high-performance entertainment rooms, adapting the standards of reference-quality home theaters to limited, non-traditional areas—a resourcefulness amply on display in the innovative Tribeca loft profiled here.

 

Clients can get a taste of that same inventiveness at the Sound Advice showroom, located near the Hudson River in Manhattan’s midtown. A former art storage vault that mimics the layout of a typical upscale loft, the space displays cutting-edge solutions to typical urbanite living issues, including a large open-plan living area featuring a massive Planar video wall.

 

In the interview above, Ed talks about the emerging trends of voice control and “tunable” lighting, the misguided reliance on apps to control complex home systems, the importance of digital room correction, the premature launch of 8K, and the promise of video walls.

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Disney+ and the Return of the Water Cooler

Disney + & the Return of the Water Cooler

As Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run earlier this year, the web was flooded with stories about its cultural significance, with many outlets predicting that it would be the last “water cooler” TV series. In other words, as our viewing habits shift more and more toward streaming, many said, we would be missing out on those big shared cultural experiences that have dominated popular entertainment for decades.

 

Popular though it may be, it’s hard to really discuss Stranger Things on an episode-by-episode basis when entire seasons are dumped into our laps at once, with some of us binging in one day, some moseying toward the end in a more relaxed weekend, and others sipping each new season an episode at a time over the course of weeks or months, long past the point 

where any meaningful discussion has fizzled.

 

We’ve become so accustomed to this binge-watching delivery of new series that when Disney announced a more traditional, weekly release schedule for its serialized Disney+ exclusives, the internet was sorta shocked. Some instantly leapt to the most cynical assumption possible—that Disney+ didn’t want subscribers signing up for a month, burning through what they wanted to watch, then canceling. The truth turns out to be a little less sinister: Entire seasons of its launch shows simply aren’t finished and ready to be binged just yet.

 

But never mind the reasoning behind this decision to forgo the binge model. What I’m more interested in are the effects. The day Disney+ launched back in November, all anyone in my friend circle could talk about was The Mandalorian, the new weekly Star Wars series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. That was to be expected. It’s the new and shiny Star Wars thing, and most of my friends were champing at the bit to watch it.

 

Then the next Friday rolled around, and my chat groups 

and Facebook newsfeed were once again dominated by discussions of The Mandalorian. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. And throughout all of these discussions, there has persisted a fundamental assumption that everyone has seen the most recent episode—that we’re all on the same page—to a degree I can’t remember since the advent of the DVR.

 

Last Friday, my wife and I had friends in from out of town, which meant we would had to put off watching Episode Five of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” until later in the weekend. What hadn’t really occurred to me is that this also meant I would need to mute all of my chat channels, opt out of Facebook, and eschew Reddit completely (even subreddits totally unrelated 

to Star Wars or Disney+) until I was caught up. Not so much out of fear of being spoiled, but more because I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was talking (or memeing) about.

 

And it’s not merely The Mandalorian that’s creating this sort of phenomenon. While my main friend circle consists mostly of Star Wars geeks, I have 

Disney+ & the Return of the Water Cooler

The Imagineering Story

another, sizeable friend group that would be better described as Disney nerds. And their current idea of appointment TV is The Imagineering Story, a documentary series whose sixth and final episode airs (umm . . . streams) this weekend.

 

For my Marvel-loving friends, I can say with near certainty that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, What If . . ?, and other ongoing series in the months and years to come will similarly dominate the pop culture conversation in similarly sustained ways.

 

Of course, all of this creates something of a problem for those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of examining an entire 6- or 10- or 12-episode run of a TV show and evaluating its merits as a complete work. That’s why you haven’t seen me reviewing The Mandalorian here on Cineluxe, because much as I’ve loved it so far, I honestly can’t tell you yet if it’ll hold up to scrutiny once this season has wrapped.

 

Does that really matter, though? The show could completely flub the landing in its season finale (which debuts just after Christmas) and it would still have merit in the way it’s brought me and my friends closer together, giving us something to discuss on an ongoing basis that isn’t politics or doctor’s appointments.

 

And to be completely fair, I should point out that, in the larger discussion about the end of Game of Thrones and the water-cooler discussion that ended along with it, not every pundit saw it as the end of an era. In a piece with the unwieldy title Game of Thrones doesn’t mark the end of appointment TV—Hollywood always gives viewers what they want,” Alex Sherman predicted the Disney+ release model way before Disney announced it. “Netflix has upended TV watching by giving consumers what they want—lower prices, no commercials, entire season releases,” he said. “But as long as consumers want shared viewing experiences (and they do), streaming platforms will come around and begin to offer them.”

 

I doubt Sherman would have guessed that his prediction would come to pass so quickly, or in quite this form, but with subscriptions predicted to hit 20 million (on par with the 19.6 million people who viewed the finale of Game of Thrones legally) and a reported 43 percent of Americans expressing some level of interest in signing up at some point, it’s pretty safe to say that Disney+ has brought the water cooler back again. 

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.

Klaus

Klaus

We’ve been inundated with new origin stories over the past few years. We’ve had Spider-Man, the Joker, and now . . . Santa Claus? There is, of course, the historical origin story, which likely begins in what is now Turkey, with influence from Scandinavia and Coca-Cola. In movies, Santa pops up quite a bit, although there are only a few notable films that address

where he comes from (the most popular being the stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970).

 

Klaus, the first original animated movie Netflix has released, is a brand-new take on the Santa story. It was conceived, written, and directed by Sergio Pablos, who is best known as the animator and creator of the Despicable 

Me franchise. The Klaus story follows the privileged son of the head postmaster, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), as he is tasked to establish a post office in the remote island town of Smeerensburg (an intentional misspelling of the actual Dutch town of Smeerenburg) and postmark 6,000 letters or risk being ostracized from the family and his indulgent lifestyle.

 

As he arrives, he is made aware by the sardonic boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) that the dreary, snowy, northern town is inhabited by two extended families that have been feuding for centuries. They have no interest in speaking to one another, let alone carrying out a lengthy written correspondence. But moods in town begin to change, starting with the children, after Jesper meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons) and the two brighten up the lives of the children by delivering toys. This must be done in secret, lest they be discovered spreading joy and goodwill by the angry adults.

 

As their mission continues and they evade capture, the legend of Klaus grows, giving explanation to all the traditional Santa Claus lore—flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, Santa’s elves—in new, interesting ways. While most of Klaus is based in the expected rules of our own world, there are some mystical elements that keep the story of Santa magical. The movie is beautifully heartfelt with some lovely tear-jerking moments, and shows how ingrained negative philosophies can be changed with just one new generation of open minds. Speaking as a father, there are moments that toddlers might find scary, but the overall message is an excellent one.

Klaus

The 4K animation is gorgeous with excellent detail in the character design and scenery. The 2D style is beautifully shaded to give a feel of 3D, and the use of color throughout serves the story and helps to drive the narrative. While the HDR doesn’t deliver the bright highlights you might see in something like Blade Runner 2049, the increase in bit depth and color gamut add to the intensity of the animation. Even if the story is of little interest to you, the animation will completely draw you in.

 

The 5.1 Dolby surround mix supports the storytelling without being obtrusive. There were a few moments where the dialogue moved away from the center channel to follow whoever is speaking that were a bit more drastic than I expected. For most of the film, though, the sound did an excellent job conveying the changing atmosphere of Smeerensburg.

 

Klaus is a joyful new take on Santa and, at least in our house, has already earned its place in our list of yearly holiday movies.

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.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra

For an early anniversary present, my wife surprised me by sending me to attend the Adult Space Academy at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (Yes, much to my surprise, Space Camp is actually a thing, and something 12-year-old me had desperately wanted to attend but thought had long been a missed opportunity.)

 

For three days, I lived in Habitat One and was immersed in all things space, touring the grounds where much of the US space program developed under Wernher von Braun, training for and completing missions, spinning in the Multi-Axis Trainer, and much more. It was all quite a thrill, and made me feel like a kid again, experiencing and enjoying the wonders and scientific complexities of space travel.

 

Needless to say, after leaving One Tranquility Base, I was hopped-up on NASA and space travel, and when I saw that Ad Astra was releasing early for download at 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Virtually since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have frequently looked to the moon and beyond for creative inspiration in their storytelling, and over the years Hollywood has managed to deliver some truly epic films—both factual and fictional—that have revolved around space travel. Ad Astra’s director James Gray said he wanted the film to feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie,” so I was hopeful for a film that not only entertained but that nailed the science.

 

And . . . not so much.

 

Ad Astra belongs to that increasing number of films that has a real divide between critics and moviegoers, but whereas these disparities are usually with audiences preferring the film to critics, Ad Astra received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84% and just a 40% audience score. So, who’s right?

 

I have to side with the audience here. Ad Astra is such a slowly paced, agonizingly nonsensical, trying-so-hard-to-impress with its self-importance movie that I occasionally started questioning whether it was actually a brilliant film and I was just too dense or emotionally stunted to understand or appreciate it. Then there would be things like Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) droning expository voiceovers, lunar rovers being attacked by a group of space pirates (which, I guess, are a thing now), or random rabid space baboons that take over research stations and lie in wait to attack that I felt my disdain was fully justified. I hung in there through all 123 minutes waiting for some big resolution or enlightenment to drop on me and then . . .the end credits appeared.

 

In reading some of the critics’ reviews, I almost felt like I had watched a completely different movie. This was no transformational, emotional journey. Instead Ad Astra was so plodding and confusing it felt like a script that had gone through numerous writers and studios, with things happening that made no sense whatsoever.

 

And that “most realistic depiction of space travel”? Yeesh. The science in this film is virtually non-existent to the point of being insulting. (If you’d like a thorough breakdown of all the physics problems with Ad Astra, take a look at Bill Hunt’s “two cents” at the Digital Bits.)

 

Pitt has been widely praised for his acting in this film, but that wasn’t enough to connect me to his character or really care about what was going on. Most times McBride, who is known for keeping a cool, steady, slow pulse rate regardless the situation, and who has to regularly take Blade Runner 2049-style psychological evaluations, seems detached or disinterested, just a drone going about his duties. The film also features Tommy Lee Jones as Pitt’s long-lost, marooned-on-Neptune father, H. Clifford McBride, Donald Sutherland as a retired military colonel re-tasked to chaperone Pitt, and Liv Tyler as McBride’s (ex?) wife, Eve, who I don’t believe utters a single word in the film and is only shown in brief flashbacks and memories. Also, the actor playing Lt. General Rivas (John Ortiz) looks so much like a totally miscast Fred Armisen that I found his scenes to be a bit distracting.

 

So, assuming you are going to watch Ad Astra regardless of what I or anyone else says, are there any redeeming factors to screening the movie at home?

 

Fortunately, yes.

 

Filmed in ArriRaw at 3.4K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, images are mostly terrific looking. The film uses different color palettes for different environments, with scenes on earth looking very film-like and having greens, blues, and

neutral tones, with scenes on the moon being much sharper and having a silvery-white look, Mars a dusty, rusty orange-red, and Neptune a beautiful gleaming navy-blue.

 

You definitely can’t knock the film’s visual effects, and the large set pieces such as the ginormous earth antenna, the interiors of space crafts, and the moon-buggy chase all look great and show terrific attention to detail and set dressing. Closeups reveal tons of detail, such as the twist in the cabling used on the large antenna, the weave of fabric on Pruitt’s jacket, the woolen texture of Pitt’s army uniform, or scratches and blemishes on the astronauts’ helmets.

 

There are a lot of shots off into outer space, and blacks are deep and clean. HDR is used nicely to punch up the rocket engines during launches as well as some of the bright displays and instrumentation aboard the ships. 

 

20th Century Fox maddeningly refuses to supply Kaleidescape with the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack found on the UltraHD Blu-ray disc, but even still, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track here offers plenty to enjoy, especially if combined with an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X. There are lots of little atmospheric sounds that immerse you in the action, such as air hissing 

Ad Astra

when hatches open and close, the creaking and groaning of the antenna structure, devices giving off electrical buzzes and crackles, or a variety of PA announcements. 

 

Dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, though there were times when lines spoken inside of helmets sounded muffled and unclear. There are also some low, steady deep bass notes near the end that will test your media room for any loose items that rattle.

 

Ultimately, I was disappointed with Ad Astra and doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It was slow, unentertaining, and never seemed to find its footing. The film is summed up by one of the best IMDB-user reviews I read, “Brad Pitt goes to Neptune, but this script comes from Uranus.”

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Disneys new subscription-based streaming service Disney+ has given everyone plenty to talk about, from its fantastic original programming, to its war on binge-watching, to the surprise revelation that almost all of the Star Wars films are available for the first time in 4K with Dolby Atmos (and they look way, way better than the Blu-ray releases). But one of the service’s most compelling features—its user interface—isn’t getting much discussion at all.

I can only assume that some form of Stockholm Syndrome is at play here: We’ve grown so accustomed to fumbling around with the terrible onscreen menus for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other such services that when someone comes along and does it right, we’re almost blind to it.

 

I’m hoping, though, that the designers for these other services are taking notice.

 

 

What Other Subscription Streaming Services Could Learn from Disney+

One of the most obvious ways Disney+ sets itself apart is by having distinct domains —mini user interfaces nested within the main UI—for different types of content. There are separate screens for Disney-branded content, Pixar content, Marvel shows and movies, Star Wars shows and movies, and a wealth of documentaries and TV shows from National Geographic.

 

Within these domains, you’ll find expected sub-categories, like Movies, Series, and Specials, as well as a nifty section called “Through the Decades” that lets you navigate a body of work (like Star Wars or Pixar movies) chronologically.

 

Back out to the main menu, and there are even more ways of finding content to watch, including the usual search terms, as well as curated collections. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is that Disney+ allows you to navigate a complete list of all available movies, A-Z.

Keeping in line with the praise I heaped on the Kaleidescape UI in Pt. 1, one thing I really dig about the Disney+ UI is its varied aesthetic. The Star Wars portal doesn’t look like the Pixar portal. And an overall search of all Disney+ content looks quite different from navigating a list of, say, all the Toy Story movies. These different visual modes encourage different modes of thinking, and complement the different ways you might arrive at figuring out what you want to watch for the evening.

 

Disney+ also doesn’t seem to rely too heavily on algorithms for feeding you new content. It makes its entire library pretty easy to search, and while there are the obligatory “Trending” and “Recommended for You” lists, these make up such a small part 

of the overall experience that you could be forgiven for overlooking them completely.

 

Contrast this with Netflix, inarguably the biggest direct competitor to Disney+, which relies so heavily on its flawed recommendation algorithms that finding a movie or TV show any other way can be a hair-pulling, fit-pitching

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ National Geographic portal

exercise in masochism. I covered this to a degree in my previous post about Disney+, where I suggested you try to find a comprehensive listing of all the Netflix-original Marvel TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders) without stumbling over all manner of unrelated garbage. It’s nearly impossible on Netflix, whereas Disney+ treats this level of ultra-specific sub-categorization as a given.

 

To be fair, Netflix has a wealth of amazing content that’s right up my alley and that Disney+ would never offer in a million years. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a high-definition presentation of one of my favorite 1970s Hong Kong

Interface Faceoff, Pr. 2

action flicks, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in its proper aspect ratio, complete with the original Mandarin soundtrack and subtitles. (Amazon, by contrast, only presents the film with an awful English dub.)

 

Here’s the thing, though: I never would have found this hidden treasure by searching Netflix alone, and the service never 

spoon-fed it to me even though I’m right in the movie’s target demographic. I happened upon it entirely by accident because I was using Roku’s excellent universal search function to try to find the film for sale anywhere in the digital domain. Disney+ paves so many varied roads to its vault of films and TV shows that I can’t imagine something similar happening on the newer service. 

 

One other, seemingly minor thing about Disney+ that I absolutely adore and don’t want to leave unsaid is that the app doesn’t hold you hostage the way practically all other streaming apps do. Exiting Netflix, for example, requires you to navigate to the left, scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, and select the tiny Exit button.

 

Netflix isn’t alone, though. Practically all of these services hit you with a massive guilt trip when you attempt to leave. “Are you absolutely sure? Are you really going? I’m just going to go ahead and select ‘No’ for you since I can’t imagine you have anything better to do.”

By contrast, the only thing required to exit Disney+ is a single press of the back button on your remote, which evokes an air of confidence. Disney+ knows it can’t be your only source of streaming content, doesn’t take offense when you leave, and seems pretty sure you’ll be back sooner than later.

 

Of course, that’s not to say

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ “Disney Through the Decades” section

there aren’t areas where Disney+ could improve. I would like to see another level of sub-interfaces beneath the existing ones, so you could, for example, click on the horizontal Movies listing under the Pixar UI and be taken to a tiled list of titles instead of having to scroll right forever. But in the three weeks Disney+ has been available, we’ve already seen some substantial improvements, like the addition of a “Continue Watching” category, so you don’t have to keep a mental tally of which series you’re consuming and how many episodes you’ve seen to date.

 

It stands to reason that the service will continue to improve in numerous ways. The important thing is that it’s starting off with a well-planned and intuitive foundation, whereas all the other subscription-based streaming services need to start their renovations with a complete demolition.

 

 

The Best of Both Worlds

When you get right down to it, the two UIs I’ve held up as paragons of their disparate domains don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. Disney+ and Kaleidescape serve very different purposes and work for very different content distribution and consumption models.

 

But both seem to be built on the same fundamental premise: That movie-watching isn’t simply something that happens between the opening and closing credits. It’s an experience that starts from the time someone says, “Hey, wanna watch a movie?” and someone else answers, “Sure, whatcha in the mood for?” It’s about browsing a library—one you own or one you subscribe to—and figuring out what strikes your fancy without getting lost in the weeds. It’s as much about getting to the movie as it is watching it. And the entire industry could learn a lot from how Kaleidescape and Disney+ help you navigate that entire process.

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.

 

To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content 

libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.

 

The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.

 

And then Disney+ happened.

 

Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.

 

So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.

 

Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.

 

Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.

 

On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and 

Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.

 

There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content 

for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.

 

In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.

 

 

What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.

 

All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.

 

And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management 

that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.

 

Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel 

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.

 

Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.

 

No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.

 

A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens

which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.

 

This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference

between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.

 

You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.

 

There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.

 

To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.

 

In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.

 

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: Katherine Spiller

Steinway Lyngdorf is a relatively new brand, but it has quickly surged to the forefront of luxury audio systems, offering audiophile-quality speakers and electronics with a distinctive, yet restrained, design rooted in the look and feel of Steinway pianos.

 

The company’s most striking product may be its remote control (shown below), which completely breaks the mold of control design to arrive at something cutting-edge, intuitive, and even fun to use that’s also a distinctive evocation of the Steinway legacy.

 

Its RoomPerfect digital room-correction system has earned the respect of seasoned electronics professionals, as much for its

ease of use compared to other, finickier high-end correction systems as for its impressive results.

 

In the video above, we talk to Steinway Lyngdorf’s director of US sales & marketing, Katherine Spiller, about the recent resurgence of luxury audio systems, the increasing role of interior design in high-end audio & video installations, how to create a no-compromise cinema in a small Manhattan space, and the virtues of RoomPerfect.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Katharine Spiller

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Home cinema fans are increasingly being presented with something of a dilemma: Buy into the digital home video release of a film a few weeks early and miss out on some enticing bonus features or wait a few weeks and buy the full-fledge disc release, complete with all of the supplemental trappings but yet another damned box to clog our shelves.

 

In the case of Downton Abbey—the big-screen continuation of the smash-hit ITV/PBS soap opera about the decline of the aristocracy in post-Edwardian England—the calculus gets a little more complicated. While it’s true that the disc slated for release on December 17 promises to deliver all manner of goodies—from cast interviews to documentaries to deleted scenes 

to an audio commentary by director Michael Engler—that release will be limited to Blu-ray quality at best. The Kaleidescape release, like all of the other digital releases aside from iTunes, presents the film completely devoid of extras. But does come home by way of a 4K/HDR transfer.

 

So, do you go for the best presentation of the film 

now, or do you wait for a lesser presentation that’s backed up by some significant behind-the-scenes insight? (Or, for you Apple TV owners, do you opt for the feature-packed download?)

 

I can’t answer that question for you, of course, but what I can say is that Kaleidescape’s presentation of this delightful little film is simply stunning. I saw Downton Abbey twice in local cinemas, both times in BigD (a competitor of sorts to IMAX that focuses more on wide-aspect-ratio films), and neither of those experiences came close to the sheer visual splendor of the Kaleidescape download.

 

That is, I think, largely due to the fantastic (although subtle) use of high dynamic range, which gives the image more pop, depth, and sparkle when such is called for. The cinematography of Downton Abbey was always one of its most undeniable strengths on the small screen, and this big-screen continuation doesn’t stray far from the style of the series. But Kaleidescape’s presentation of the film does make me wish someone would go back and do an HDR grade for all six seasons.

 

One substantial way in which the look of Downton Abbey the film differs from Downton Abbey the series, aside from the HDR, is its aspect ratio. While the show was framed for 16:9 TVs, the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and this does make a substantial difference in how things are framed. Wider, longer shots of the estate and the adjacent village plant Downton Abbey more firmly in its geographical surroundings. Dinners, of which there are of course plenty, also feel quite different in the movie as compared with the TV series. With a wider canvas to play with, cinematographer Ben Smithard manages to make each table feel like a continent instead of a collection of loosely interconnected islands.

Downton Abbey

I can’t say for certain whether this transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate, but I have to imagine it was, as it wants for nothing in terms of detail. I can, on the other hand, say for certain that it was shot digitally on Sony Venice cameras, which are capable of capturing images at up to 6K resolution in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Forget the pixel count, though. What matters is that Downton looks better than ever here, in terms of sharpness, shadow detail, depth of field, contrast, and color. The largely brown-and-grey palette, punctuated by golds, reds, oranges, and lavenders throughout, is delivered with all the lushness and warmth it deserves, and skin tones are spot on.

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a largely front-focused affair, although it does lean on the surround channels a good bit to accentuate John Lunn’s iconic and familiar score. Aside from that, the surround soundstage does come into play occasionally to accentuate ambiance, be it the chirping of birds or the exuberant crowds at the royal parade, but by and large you won’t be pulling this one out to blow anyone’s hair back or shake their britches legs. For the most part, this is a dialogue-and-music-driven mix, and the lossless 5.1 track renders it with wonderful clarity and richness.

 

It should probably go without saying that the Downton Abbey film is primarily aimed at those who are already smitten with the characters and locations (which are, in some respects, characters in and of themselves). In many ways, it feels like a “Christmas Special” for a seventh season that never existed. (For the uninitiated: Each season for Downton Abbey since Season Two was bookended by a made-for-TV movie with a bigger budget and longer running time, broadcast on Christmas Day in the U.K. and presented as a special season finale when each year’s crop of episodes was broadcast a few months later here in the Colonies.)

 

I can’t see the film through anything other than the eyes of a longtime devotee, but I have to imagine that those who haven’t seen the series will be a little confused by stray references to characters who aren’t introduced, and relationships that aren’t spelled out for new viewers. Of course, little of this is essential to understanding the plot of the film, which is pretty self-

explanatory. The King and Queen are coming to Downton, and everyone is all aflutter. Who forgot to polish the silver? Who’s responsible for cooking the big dinner? Who’s going to be whose heir? What personal tragedy will befall poor Lady Edith this time around?

 

The magic of Downton Abbey (as both a TV series and a film) is that, like the best of the Merchant Ivory catalog it so evokes, it manages to make such low-stakes controversies seem like a Big Deal. And honestly, the details of the plot are, as always, secondary to the wonderful character interactions and performances, especially from Dame Maggie Smith, who seems bound and determined to make this, likely her last turn as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, the performance of her life.

 

Thematically speaking, the screenplay by showrunner Julian Fellowes does tinker around with the Downton formula just a bit. The series has always ultimately been about the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, and that remains true here. As always, this struggle is presented without a thumb on the scales, and those two opposing points-of-view don’t split across upstairs/downstairs lines as you might expect. There are agents of progress both in service and in the aristocracy, and bastions of tradition above and below the main floor. What makes the

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey movie a bit of cheeky fun in this respect is that Fellowes pushes many of the characters into positions of role reversal, with traditionalists defending a bit of change and change-seekers going to bat for the way things have always been done, right and proper.

 

When you get right down to it, the Downton Abbey film feels like returning home for a big holiday dinner. If you’re part of the family, it can be a wonderful exercise that recharges the soul. If you’re new to the family, you can feel a little awkward and out of sorts. In this case, though, the family happens to be so delightful that I think many a newcomer will be drawn in enough to explore the entire run of the show, if only to have a better understanding of the relationships at the heart of this wonderful little melodrama.

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.