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King Creole

King Creole

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

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

 

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

 

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

CREOLE AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

King Creole

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Gladiator

Gladiator

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Gladiator

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

 

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and 

collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive 

orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

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.

Video Options

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: Video Options
The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms

photo by John Frattasi

Our ongoing series on media rooms has, to this point, focused primarily on audio solutions, and with good reason. When constructing a stereo, surround sound, or Atmos audio system for your entertainment space, you’ve got a wealth of options, from soundbars to in-room speakers and discreet architectural speakers, on to completely (or almost completely) invisible speaker systems.

 

When it comes to video displays, though, the choice seems a little simpler: You either get a big TV or you get a projector, right? Actually, no, it’s not that simple. Once you move beyond media-room setups for smaller spaces like bedrooms or home

offices, where a TV is really the only way to go, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of a TV versus a projector. You might even find that the solution is to have both—as it is for our own John Sciacca.

 

That may spark a few questions for the uninitiated—namely “Why?” and “How?”

 

To get to the why, we need to back up to something I said in the first post in this series: We here at Cineluxe consider home cinema to be a shared experience. So, while a 75- or 85- inch TV may be more than sufficient to give two or three people sitting on a couch a panoramic viewing experience if the screen is a mere six or seven feet away, your room may be far too large for that sort of setup. If you’re 10, 12, 15 feet away from your screen, no reasonably-priced TV is going to give you and your family enough screen real estate to create a truly immersive viewing experience. A projector and screen, on the other hand, can. Quite easily.

 

So, why not just go with projection and forget the TV? To answer that, we need to remember that media rooms are also called multi-use spaces. The same room where you gather the whole family together to watch The Last Jedi may also be the room where you watch Last Week Tonight on Sunday evenings. And far be it from me to besmirch John Oliver’s looks, but do you really need to see his face at IMAX proportions? Because we’re talking about a media room and not a dedicated home theater, it should be able 

to accommodate casual watching but be able to transition to a more focused and immersive experience for more serious viewing. And depending on the size of your room, a single display may not give you that kind of flexibility.

 

Having a dual-screen setup means you can match the display to the needs of the moment. But how does it work, exactly? It usually involves a retractable screen that slides down from a hidden compartment housed in the ceiling (or in the floorspace above a room in a multi-story dwelling). Stewart Filmscreen’s Cascade is a great example, although other screen manufacturers offer their own variations on the theme: Evanesce from Elite and the gorgeous Zero-G from Screen Innovations (shown below), just to name two.

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: Video Options

Mind you, going this route does complicate things a bit, at least in terms of using your system, so you’ll definitely want to add a good control and automation system to your media room budget. This will allow you to drop the projection screen down in front of your TV for movie night at the press of a button (or the uttering of a simple voice command), and still access your source devices with a single remote.

 

And it probably goes without saying that if you’re going through all this trouble to ensure the most spectacular video presentation, you probably don’t want to rely on a soundbar for your audio experience. Instead, you’ll want to spec in all of the speakers and processing necessary for true 5.1 to 9.2.6-channel surround sound, depending on your appetite for aural immersion.

 

So, putting it all together, what would a complete dual-screen media room system look like? Combine a 124-inch SI Zero-G drop-down screen with an 85-inch Sony Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV, and add to that the sound system and sources detailed in our previous post: An Anthem AVM 60 or Lyngdorf MP-50 surround sound processor, driving three GoldenEar Technology Invisa Signature Point Source in-wall speakers, two or four GoldenEar Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls, four Stealth Acoustics SLR8G invisible speakers, and two Stealth Acoustics B30G invisible subwoofers. Throw in a Kaleidescape Strato Movie Player and Roku Ultra streaming media player, and you’ve got the makings of an incredible home cinema system that practically disappears when not in use. If you want to take that ethos to the extreme, you could even add a TV lift and projector lift from Future Automation to keep your gear completely hidden when not in use.

 

Tie it all together with a professionally installed home control and automation system like Crestron, Control4, or Savant, and you’ll have the power to transform your unassuming living room into your own private cineplex at the touch of a button.

 

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.

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Live Die Repeat

Having already covered Top Gun from the recent spate of HDR releases from the Tom Cruise catalog (which includes War of the Worlds, Vanilla Sky, and The Firm), we thought we would dip back in and take a look at Live Die Repeat, which was released theatrically as Edge of Tomorrow before being rebranded for the home video market. While Repeat was released on Blu-ray several years ago, it never got a higher-resolution release on physical disc. Fortunately, you can now enjoy the movie in its full potential via Kaleidescape, which offers it in a near 60 GB download featuring 4K HDR video with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos immersive audio soundtrack.

I belong to what I can only imagine is a fair-sized group of people that doesn’t really care for Tom Cruise the person but who really respects the choices made by Tom Cruise the actor. Say what you will about the guy’s antics, he gets a first look at some amazing scripts, he makes a lot of really smart choices of roles that work for him, and his decision to perform his own stunts is well documented. (His role as Jack Reacher aside, something I’ll never forgive the casting department for. I mean, Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs about 250. Cruise wouldn’t even come up to his armpit! But I digress . . .)

 

My wife and I saw Repeat when it was released theatrically back in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t our first choice for a movie that night. I recall we had a babysitter lined up that evening, and we went to the theater to see something else (X-Men: Days of Future Past, I think). When X-Men was 

REPEAT AT A GLANCE

One of the earliest takes on the “let’s kill off the  lead character repeatedly” trope, the film is hugely entertaining, because of—and despite—the presence of Tom Cruise in the starring role.

 

PICTURE     

Not the last word in razor-sharp detail, but the clean and clear Kaleidescape download is a big step up from the Blu-ray release.

 

SOUND

An aggressive and fun Atmos mix will keep all your speakers active, with lots of room-rattling seismic subwoofer action for the bass-head crowd.

sold out, we turned to whatever was playing at a similar time and bought tickets to Repeat.

 

I don’t recall knowing much of anything about the film as we went into the theater, but I clearly remember turning to my wife about halfway in and saying, “Man! I am really loving this movie!” Boasting Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 90%, I’m really surprised Repeat wasn’t a bigger success than it was. Perhaps it was the title, thus the rebranding for home release. Whatever the case, Repeat is a really entertaining and clever sci-fi film based on the Japanese short novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

 

Imagine Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds and you’ll have a rough idea what Repeat is about.

 

Against his will, Major William Cage (Cruise) is stripped of his rank and sent to Heathrow Airport to join a misfit bunch of soldiers in J-Squad who are preparing to head to the front lines as part of a major invasion force to combat an army of aliens known as “Mimics.” Cage has just enough time to piss off everyone in his new squad before suiting up in a mechanized armored suit and being loaded on a dropship into the heart of combat. Just moments after hitting the beach, he manages to kill a rare alien known as an “Alpha”—but in the process of doing so, manages to get himself killed as well.

 

Moments later, Cage jolts awake exactly 24 hours prior, back at Heathrow ready to join J-Squad and prepare for the fight.

 

He lives the same day over and over (and over . . .), retaining knowledge of each prior day before being jolted awake in the same instant. Each time he learns a bit more about the fighting pattern and habits of the Mimics (and of the people around him), and we watch his character and story slowly continue and develop. What keeps it from being dull and repetitive are some great turns by supporting actors Brendan Gleeson as the general ordering the assault, Bill Paxton as Cage’s new J-Squad master sergeant, and Noah Taylor as Mimic expert Dr. Carter.

 

Even better is the relationship between Cage and war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Vrataski uniquely understands Cage’s predicament as she too once had the power to reset the clock, using it to defeat the Mimics in the battle of Verdun . . . before losing it.

 

Instead of the usual cocksure, toughest/smartest-guy-in-the-room character Cruise typically portrays, here he starts way out of his element, and it is Blunt who takes on the alpha role. With no warfighting experience—Cage was part of the Army’s media relations following a failed career in advertising—Cage relies heavily on Vrataski for combat training, and she is merciless, repeatedly killing him over and over (and over . . .) at any sign of a wound. The results are humorous and keep the film interesting as Cage and Vrataski work together to figure out strategies to continue advancing their day and problem solving.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this 4K HDR transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Images are not bristling with micro detail, but the transfer is just incredibly clean and clear. I really wasn’t impressed with the image quality until I went back and compared it with my Blu-ray version, and that is when the fine layers of detail and benefit of higher contrast really come through.

 

Comparing closeups, the 4K transfer is considerably sharper, producing more fine detail like pores, whiskers, and lines in the actors’ faces. During one shot, you can see the fine weave on Cage’s collared shirt, and one tight closeup on him would enable a dermatologist to conduct a full exam. In another lengthy shot, you can clearly make out the individual strands of razor wire on a fence in the 4K version; they were small blob-dots on the Blu-ray.

 

While the movie retains its film-like image quality, what really impressed me throughout was just the clean, clear, noise-free quality.

 

Much of the film is on a dirty, drab battlefield under grey French skies, so there isn’t a lot of room to push the color gamut here. However, HDR does a nice job of keeping blacks deep and dark and clean, while still allowing for bright highlights—nothing that really pushes the boundary, but that just results in very natural-looking images. There are some scenes where 

HDR is used to boost the brightness, such as in fluorescent lights in the barracks, or lights inside the dropships, some bright red fires burning in the dark of night, or the bright blue-white glow of an alien underwater.

 

Even more entertaining was the Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which makes full use of all the speakers in your system. There is a lot of combat in this film, and the sound mix does a great job of placing you in the midst of the mayhem. We get helicopter blades and turbine fans blowing, jets streaking past overhead, troopers falling out of dropships swinging past you, along with all matter of ordnance blasting around the room. The area where Vrataski trains Cage has these spinning metal blades that slice and dice around the large space, clearly traveling 360 degrees around the listening position. There are also some nice, subtler audio moments— just the rattles and hum that put you aboard the dropship, hearing Mimics climbing and crawling on metal structures up over your head, or the drips of water and echoes of cavernous spaces with Mimics moving all around the room.

 

Also, be warned that this soundtrack features some serious low-frequency information. Bass heads will love it, as the many explosions definitely hit you in the chest and rattle your couch. And for no apparent reason, the very opening 

Live Die Repeat

scene has some of the most seismically huge deep-bass notes you will hear outside of a test tone. That ultrasonic bass will energize every air molecule in your room and possibly damage your subwoofer if it isn’t up to the task, so set your volume knob—and alert your neighbors!—accordingly.

 

Live Die Repeat is just a really fun movie that retains its entertainment value. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a viewing. If you avoided it because you’re not a Tom Cruise fan, I assure you watching him get killed over and over (and over . . .) is highly entertaining. And if you haven’t seen it with the Dolby Atmos audio soundtrack, then you will definitely enjoy giving it another viewing. They are rumored to be working on a sequel—Live Die Repeat and Repeat—so now is a perfect time to (re)watch the original.

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.

Inside a Film Connoisseur’s No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb isn’t just a casual film fan but a true connoisseur who both loves movies and savors the whole movie-watching experience. So it’s not too surprising that he’s the principal engineer of user experience for the premium movie-download service Kaleidescape, nor that he has a reference-quality theater in his Silicon Valley-area home.

 

What really sets him apart from most film lovers, though, is how deeply he became involved in the process of researching, planning, and executing his theater—a process he recently recounted for Cineluxe’ John Sciacca.

ed.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb

Most people have a story about how they got involved in home theater. For me, I saw Speed on LaserDisc at a friend’s house, and that was it. What is your story?

My dad took me to visit a friend of his who had a home theater. He had a CRT projector with a ridiculously ahead-of-its-time control system called Frox with an onscreen display to control all of the components. The system looked and sounded great for the day, but ironically the thing that really stuck with me was that he had his equipment in a bookshelf on the back wall with a closet you could walk in to access the back of the gear. When I built my theater, I put the equipment in a separate room for sound reasons but I made sure to incorporate access to the back of the racks.

 

How has your theater system evolved over the years?

My first system was just a big rear-projection TV with a LaserDisc player and VCR. After that, I moved to a front projector. Then I bought my own house and planned on 

converting an existing room into a theater, but the dimensions were really wrong, making it hard to arrange seating. We basically had to restructure the house to accommodate my current theater.

 

Your space isn’t really a traditional man cave or reference movie theater, but more of a hybrid. How did that design come about?

It was really an interesting process. I hired general contractor Bob Byrne with the intention of converting that existing room, but as I was explaining the project to him, he realized that if we took out a wet bar and relocated a bathroom and a 

mechanical room, we could gain a lot of space. It went from a 13 x 19 room to 19 x 24, which was a crucial change. It required taking out a load-bearing wall, pouring a couple of footings, and putting in a steel I-beam. A lot of work, but incredibly worth it.

 

I also brought in theater designer Keith Yates, who gave me two proposals for having two rows of seats [shown at right]. One had a riser, and the other required cutting the concrete slab and excavating down a foot to lower the front row, which I never would have thought of, but was the way to go for a host of reasons.

 

I wanted a big bookcase in the room, both because I needed someplace for my books and also to make it feel more like a study than a scaled-down commercial theater. Bob designed the aesthetics of the bookcase and Keith’s team did the engineering to incorporate the center speaker and two subwoofers, air returns for the HVAC system, and acoustic treatments behind all the books. We also have acoustically transparent motorized shades that mask the outer shelves when the screen is down, to eliminate visual distractions.

A Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

I requested the curved stage, having seen a similar design in a magazine. I picked tanoak flooring for it, which is a really pretty wood with a little red tone in it that fits in well with the sapele mahogany used for the bookshelves and the other woodwork, and with the rosewood on the floorstanding speakers. Originally, the boards were going to just run front to back, but Bob proposed tapering them to follow the curve, and that totally took it to a new level. If you follow the convergence point the tapers make, the really cool thing is that the focus of those boards is the front-row center seat, which is my seat.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

A clamping system was used to hold the curved boards for the stage in place
while the glue dried so there would be no visible nail holes

Tell us about your current theater system.

Unsurprisingly, the primary content source is the Kaleidescape—a combination of the Premiere components for disc-based media and our Strato family for downloaded media and 4K content joined through a software and hardware solution called Co-Star that makes it all act like a single system. I have about a thousand movies in my collection. I also have a TiVo and a streaming player to be able to watch other stuff.

 

It wasn’t possible to have a booth or hush box for the projector, so I needed a model that was quiet. I’ve had a series of Sony projectors, culminating with a Sony 995ES. With its laser light engine and ARC-F lens, it produces fantastic bright and vivid images while still being reasonably quiet.

 

Video processing is handled by a Lumagen Radiance Pro, which works with the motorized screen-masking system from Screen Research and also provides the HDR tone mapping. The screen is 96 inches wide, or 110 inches diagonal in a 16:9 aspect ratio, but masks down to 104 inches diagonal for 2.4 aspect-ratio films. I went with a motorized screen because I

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Trinnov MC processor was used during construction to create two
separate calibrations for the theater—one for group viewing and one
optimized for solo listening from the center seat

wanted this room to be multipurpose, with the screen out of the way of the big bookshelf up front when I’m not watching movies.

 

The front speakers are Aerial Acoustics, and the subwoofers are a mix of three Seaton SubMersive HP subs and four Velodyne SC-IWDVR in-wall models, three of which are in the ceiling. I’m currently upgrading my audio processing from the Trinnov MCwhich handles the system’s room EQ and speaker correction, to the Trinnov Altitude 16.

A Control4 system operates everything, including automated screen masking and lighting scenes, triggered by the Kaleidescape system. I have to laugh because the thing that really floors new visitors to my theater is that the lights come up by themselves when the end credits start.

 

How about acoustic treatments?

The acoustics were designed by Keith Yates and his company. All the walls and the ceiling are covered with fabric that conceals the acoustic treatments and the surround speakers.

 

I spent lots of time auditioning fabrics because the material had to be aesthetically appealing, meet certain acoustical characteristics, and not reflect light coming off the projection screen. I bought extra fabric and have it squirreled away in case it’s ever damaged or we have to take fabric down for a repair or upgrade.

 

Keith’s team also designed ultra-quiet HVAC for the room, and sound isolation. The theater achieves an NC-14 noise rating with the HVAC and the projector running, which is comparable to many recording studios. Even the lighting transformers are remote-mounted to eliminate hum. Bob also took great care to ensure that there would be no rattles or vibrations. All the construction is glued and screwed rather than nailed, and even the speaker wiring is glued to the walls. We also did an extensive vibration/rattle test before installing the fabric.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

An interactive 3D tour of the theater

People don’t generally consider seating essential theater equipment, but I know you spent a lot of time researching your chairs.

I had previously sat in various dedicated theater seating that I found uncomfortable so I wanted seating comfortable enough for the length of the movie. I happened across these chairs made by a Norwegian company called Ekornes that lift your head slightly as you recline, which seemed perfect for movie theater seating, and there were many models to choose from. I went to the local dealer, told them I was building a theater room, and asked if I could come by from time to time and sit in a chair and read a book for a couple of hours, and that’s what I did until I found the right ones. You can sit in these chairs for hours and hours.

 

Do you have any upgrades planned?

My system is 7.1 right now, but I will be able to use my new Altitude 16 processor to add ceiling speakers to do a 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos system. Once we do that upgrade, the room correction processing will move from the MC to the Altitude, and the MC will be retired.

 

With a room like mine, some upgrades are easier than others. Changing the projector is comparatively easy, and we were smart enough to run conduit for any cabling changes. But the speakers behind the fabric are not easy to change. Adding new Atmos speakers will likely mean redoing the entire ceiling. Fortunately, I do have extra fabric. Also, the ceiling is acoustically treated, so I’ll work with Keith to identify where those speakers will go and if anything else will need to be changed acoustically; and of course Keith will update the calibration.

 

Do you plan to upgrade to 8K as well?

On my screen, a 4K pixel is less than 1/32nd of an inch. Obviously, those pixels would be bigger on a larger screen, but I would also want to be sitting farther away from a larger screen. So, do I need my pixels to be smaller than 1/32nd of an inch when viewed from 12 feet away? I don’t think so. It’s already hard enough to get a 4K image in sharp focus—just imagine what an 8K lens will cost!

 

The exception might be something like IMAX. But, in my opinion, IMAX-size screens are only appropriate for content that is shot for an IMAX-style presentation. When you take content shot for cinematic presentation and blow it up to IMAX size, it’s 

too big for my comfort. It doesn’t become more immersive for me, it just becomes too big. If I were watching IMAX nature features at home on a screen double the size of mine, but from the same seating distance, then sure, 8K would be dandy.

 

Has spending time sheltering at home caused you to rethink the space? Are you finding you are using it more for non-movie viewing like TV, concerts, or gaming?

I have definitely been using the space more! I usually watch a movie a week with friends, but since that is not 

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

feasible at the moment, it’s freed me up to watch a movie any time I feel like it, without the pressure to save the good ones for when people come over. So I’m really enjoying that!

 

There have also been some very enjoyable series streaming recently—Watchmen, Westworld, The Mandalorian—though you see the shortcomings of streaming video pretty readily on a big screen, which can be distracting. But The Mandalorian was 2.35:1 aspect, which made it feel more cinematic.

 

I love music and concerts, and I have a bunch of concerts on the Kaleidescape system I watch when I’m in the mood. There are a few I go back to again and again because they look and sound so darned good! Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall is one of the best mixed concerts I’ve ever heard.

 

Any closing thoughts?

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of hiring great people. Bob was the perfect contractor for this complex and detail-oriented project, and he brought in numerous craftsmen whose skills all contributed to its success, especially Steve Kent, the cabinetmaker and finish carpenter. Keith and his team did a fantastic job with the acoustical and technical requirements of the theater and making it all work within the existing framework of the house. Every time I go into my theater, I’m grateful to everyone who built it.

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.

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

In “3 Must-See Music-Based Videos,” I presented a performance video, a jukebox musical, and a legendary concert performance. This time, all three of the highlighted titles are traditional movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less divergent in how they handle their music-themed material.

HAIRSPRAY (2007)

John Waters’ original 1988 movie was fantastic fun, with a quirky yet amazing oddball cast of characters including drag legend Divine, Debby Harry (of Blondie fame), Sonny Bono (yes, as in Sonny & Cher), comedian Jerry Stiller, Rikki Lake, and even special-guest showcases by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.

 

While music is central to the movie—it has a terrific soundtrack—Waters’ Hairspray can’t really be considered a true musical in the theatrical sense. But the film became such a cult favorite over the years that is was eventually transformed into a fun hit Broadway musical. (I saw it in that original run with theater legend Harvey Fierstein taking over DIvine’s leading role of Edna Turnblad!)

 

Happily, the next stage for Hairspray was to bring things full circle and make a major movie out of the Broadway version, and that is where we enter the story:

 

“Good morning, Baltimore!”

 

The 2007 Hairspray is a wonder of poignant scripting, swingin’ songwriting, Technicolor-flavored staging, and a good ol’ dose of sweet-hearted fun. A joy to watch right from the opening number, the movie is chock full of earworm-worthy moments. (The 

Blu-ray version even has a sing-a-long feature!)

 

The terrific cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Jerry Stiller (yes, he appears in both film versions, in different roles!), and Nikki Blonsky in her feature-film debut as Tracy Turnblad. The ensemble cast becomes especially important for the large group and dance sequences later in the film. Even Travolta’s full-drag portrayal of Edna Turnblad makes a great deal of sense once the dance numbers start. (He’s much more limber than Harvey was on Broadway, obviously still retaining some of the skills he honed during his Saturday Night Fever days.)

Where to See Some Music

All of the films here are available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape.

 

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

The original music in Hairspray echoes the vibe of early Motown soul and Brill Building girl group rock ’n roll, falling just this side of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The songs effectively represent the near underground sounds that helped change the pace and face of musical entertainment in the early 1960s—a period when mainstream pop was quite bland and stagnant until about 1963 when Motown and The Beatles hit it big.

 

The 48 kHz (probably 24-bit) 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is gently immersive and mostly in stereo, with a tasteful use of the surrounds for select sound effects, choral group singing, and overall ambiance. The music sounds rich, warm, and rocking.

 

The film’s look and feel features a rich, diverse color palette balanced by the gritty street realities of urban Baltimore. All this combines to make Hairspray a highly enjoyable home entertainment experience that somehow makes time melt away.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

ONCE (2007)

Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once tells the story of a charming near-romance between two broken-hearted musicians who meet amidst unusual circumstances. In reality, Hansard is primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter who not only led his fantastic rock band The Frames for decades but also first came to this writer’s attention as part of the band in movie The CommitmentsIn Once, he plays an aspiring singer/songwriter armed with great songs, a passion for his unfulfilled musical dreams, and the unlikely prospect of reconnecting with his former girlfriend.

 

There is a great real-life back story to this film that ultimately became a terrific promotional vehicle for Hansard and Irglova, who ended up romantically involved and later formed a musical side project called The Swell Season. In the film, members of The Frames participate in a recording session that borders on Partridge Family idealism yet somehow manages to make you suspend disbelief while simultaneously tugging at your heartstrings. 

 

This is not a big-budget production, but Once has a great independent-film look and feel that plays well on a big screen. Parts of it were filmed guerrilla style on the streets in Ireland.

 

It’s well worth the price of admission to watch Once for the mesmerizing opening sequence and for Hansard’s jaw-dropping performance of “Say It to Me Now” on solo acoustic guitar. (Do take note of his guitar, which has been worn down so much it has gaping holes in it!) 

 

There is much joy to be found in this heartwarming film that eventually became a Broadway show. Once can be found on Kaleidescape and on Blu-ray with a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that sounds good and feels as natural as the cinematography. This film is ultimately a beautiful cinematic experience, thanks to compassionate acting, a strong script, and a timeless tale.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

A STAR IS BORN (1954)

This Judy Garland masterwork—the second of the (to date) four versions of A Star Is Born and in many ways the benchmark-setter—deserves to be seen and appreciated on multiple levels. Beyond the fascinating and heart-wrenching story line, this film was a make-it-or-break-it moment for the Wizard Of Oz star. Accordingly, the studio pulled out the stops. Containing truly stellar performances by both Garland and James Mason, A Star Is Born contains many jaw-dropping visuals, including a fantastic behind-the-scenes perspective on what Hollywood was like in its Golden Age.

 

To get some idea of the richness of the production, one need go no further than the demo-worthy scene featuring the now classic pop/jazz standard “The Man Who Got Away.”  Set in an after-hours jazz club, you will see arguably Garland’s finest moment on the silver screen, a perfect blend of tremendous music, impassioned performance—I still can’t believe she’s lip syncing to a pre-recorded track, it’s that good!—and beautifully designed staging supported by expert lighting. This one scene is like a mini film-within-a-film that took months and several complete redesigns to perfect—as explained in the deluxe edition bonus features on the Blu-ray + DVD deluxe edition that came out in 2010.

 

From a home theater enthusiast’s perspective, one of the really interesting things about the 1954 A Star Is Born is that it has one of the first stereophonic movie soundtracks, a good four years before stereo records became a commercial reality. The movie is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but the surround channels are mostly for room-filling ambience. Most of the action is up front in stereo, and that’s just fine. The sound design is tasteful, innovative, warm-sounding, and ultimately an integral part of the viewing experience. 

 

When Norman Maine (James Mason) walks into the club prior to “The Man That Got Away,” note how the audio perspective convincingly creates the sense that you’re Mason’s character opening the door and entering that environment. And near the end, when Mason is starting to seriously contemplate suicide, the scene suddenly switches perspective. You can see him reacting to a distant conversation that Garland is having, which sounds like it’s literally coming from another room.

 

A Star Is Born is full of well-crafted details like that, making it an important film to take the time to appreciate. One of Warner Brothers’ first CinemaScope films, it remains one of the greatest dramatic musical movies ever.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

5 Great “Big City” Films

5 Great "Big City" Films

Anyone who’s spent much time in metropolitan areas knows that each big city has a distinct personality. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this fact, allowing urban centers to be not just the backdrops for their stories, but practically characters. Woody Allen’s work is a prime example: What would Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, and Manhattan be without New York City? Here are a few movies that celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of major American cities and their inhabitants.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956)

How can a film without a single on-location shot qualify as a celebration of New York City? Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps relies on studio sets for its very few outdoor scenes, and the establishing skyline doesn’t pretend to be anything but a hand-painted set. It works because a city is more than its buildings. In Casey Robinson’s screenplay, based on Charles Einstein’s 1953 novel The Bloody Spur, the characters’ actions, attitudes, and dialogue define Manhattan. On its surface, this is a homicide thriller, but we know who the murderer is in the first scene (it’s John Drew Barrymore). The real point of the story is to show how the news media exploits crime for ratings. That practice is commonplace now, but it used to be centered in New York.

 

Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV newsman, part of the Kyne News Syndicate, which has just been passed to its founder’s lazy playboy son, Walter Kyne, played with wide-eyed bafflement and bravado by Vincent Price. Kyne pits three of his top newsmen—George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, and James Craig—against each other, competing for the new job of Executive Director. Mobley gets caught in the middle of their battle. The underhanded dealings, the snide remarks, the workaholism fueled by alcoholism, the use of sex as corporate currency (Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, and Ida Lupino hold all the power)—these are hallmarks of the frantic NYC media life of the 1956. We don’t need a shot of Times Square to recognize Manhattan’s pounding heart.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

Fast-forward into the 21st century, to a very different movie that’s just as much a love song to Manhattan’s frenetic pace. Written and directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger who gets finds his life in danger when a customer specifically asks for him to pick up a parcel. Unfortunately, gambling-addicted cop Michael 

5 Great "Big City" Films

Shannon wants what’s in that package—at any cost. Good thing fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) steps up to help.

 

The normal whoosh of bike messengers in traffic turns even more breathless as Shannon chases bike-bound Gordon-Levitt from the safety of his car. The client is up at Columbia University and the package is going to Chinatown, so the movie becomes a lightning-paced tour up and down Broadway. This film uses only on-location shots, mostly outdoors, so 

lovers of NYC will enjoy recognizing landmarks block by block. Action fans will love all the hair’s-breadth near-misses as bikes maneuver between moving cars, thanks to visual effects orchestrated through a combination of a crack stunt team and the CGI magic of Zoic Studios. The sound design alone makes this movie a thrill; Jamie Baker and his Foley team put the viewer right there on the street with the yellow cabs.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

ABOUT LAST NIGHT (1986)

Not every city has that East Coast vibe. In 1974, David Mamet wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a lean, sarcastic play about dating in a midwestern city in the 1970s. More than ten years later, the play inspired a screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy About Last Night. The only remnants of Mamet’s signature 

acidic, stylized dialogue are hilarious passages where Bernie (Jim Belushi) flaunts his sexual exploits to his pal Danny (Rob Lowe). Yet, while the language may have lost its zing and the expanded plot runs toward Hollywood predictability, there are few finer cinematic tributes to the city of Chicago.

 

From a baseball diamond in Grant Park and a walk over the Chicago River on the Adams Street Bridge to the commute north from the Loop on a clattering L train, Zwick and cinematographer Andrew Dintenfass capture the essence of the Windy City. The focus on noisy bar life squares with midwestern reality. Zwick filmed pubs on Division Street, and the interior of Mother’s, the characters’ favorite 

Where to See Some Big City

All of the films here are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape, except for the The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which isn’t available on iTunes.

 

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

hangout, is a studio set exactly replicating the real thing, although they chose a bar across the street from Mother’s to be its exterior.

 

As for the film itself, there are some interesting moments of truth about relationships as Danny dives too fast into a commitment with Debbie (Demi Moore). Debbie’s best friend Joan (Elizabeth Perkins) is the snarky-tongued female counterpoint to Belushi’s character, and she gets in some prime jibes about male behavior while simultaneously craving men.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

STRAIGHT TIME (1978)

On the West Coast, filmmakers have viewed Los Angeles from many angles and in many different lights. One distinctive view is Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, based on Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce. Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, newly 

released from a six-year prison sentence for armed robbery. The opening sequence shows him lost in the wide, cold world of L.A., trying to get his bearings and re-enter life.

 

The fates and the system are stacked against him. An irresponsible friend (Gary Busey) and an unsympathetic parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) make going straight impossible. A nice girl who thinks she wants adventure (Jenny Mercer) falls hard for Max, even as he returns to his life of crime with an old colleague (Harry Dean Stanton, who flat-out steals the film). 

5 Great "Big City" Films

There’s nothing nostalgic or sweet about this version of the city. To the accompaniment of David Shire’s sultry jazz score, Grosbard focuses on gritty L.A. as an empty shell. Its wide streets and wide sky ironically symbolize what a harsh, suffocating prison society can be.      A / G / KV / Y

5 Great "Big City" Films

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019)

Some 500 miles north of L.A., writer/director Joe Talbot gives cinematic life to a unique perspective on San Francisco. This is the true story of a black man named Jimmy Fail (playing himself) and his best friend Jonathan (a wonderful performance by Montgomery Allen), who decide to go live in a historic mansion when the owners move out. Jimmy has been told his whole life that his grandfather built the house, and he believes he has an ancestral right to it.

 

This is a quiet yet intense film about the search for belonging. Jimmy and Jonathan, thoughtful and artistic, don’t feel they fit in with the colorful characters in their own poverty-line neighborhood. But they don’t seem to belong in a four-million-dollar house either. The spot between those extremes eludes them, a place where they could celebrate their heritage yet also be modern individuals. Innovative editing and the use of slow motion make everyday actions take on an otherworldly quality. There’s a lot of humor, too. San Francisco comes across as both a great mystery and an old friend, holding secrets in her fog and answers just over the rise of each hill.     A / G KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

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

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

The Canadian province of Newfoundland may seem a strange place to set a TV series to those who live on the North American mainland. To apply what John McPhee once wrote of Alaskas relationship to the lower 48 states, Newfoundland is a foreign country largely populated by Canadians.

 

But because it is so small and insular, the capital and largest city, St. Johns, with a population of just 114,000, makes an unexpectedly interesting setting for the under-appreciated streaming TV series Republic of Doyle.

 

Republic of Doyle, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hit whose six seasons stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime, has all the elements of a successful series. Its about a loving but frequently squabbling father-son team of private detectives. The co-creator, main writer, and showrunner Allan Hawco plays Jake Doyle, whose impulsiveness and risk taking dont serve him any better than it did when his brashness got him kicked off the St. Johns police force. While solving crimes, he still causes trouble that requires balancing by the slightly steadier hand of his dad Malachy, played by the veteran Irish actor Sean McGinley.

Its built around family; it blends comedy and crime, sex and romance with finesse. But the most important character may be St. Johns itself. Hawco and company are keenly aware of the foibles of a place where English is spoken in an accent that may require subtitles or closed captions for other English speakers, where the slang may seem foreign to other Canadians, much less Americans. Hawco and 

Want to See Some QLCF?

You can find Republic of Doyle on Amazon and NetflixSpiral resides on Hulu, while Nit i Dia can be found on AmazonThe Paper on Netflix, and Bordertown (Sorjonen) on Netflix.

most of the rest of the ensemble cast are natives of Newfoundland, and their fondness is evident for the quirks of a place where police and thieves, doctors and gangsters, all seem to have known each other since high school.

 

The importance of place is recognized in meta fashion in Episode 10 of Season One. A pretentious Toronto-based crime novelist Garrison Steele (played with comic condescension by the fine Canadian actor Victor Garber) shows up in the Doyle home with the intention of writing a new book based on Jake and the Doyle clans peculiarities. My publisher wants me writing QLCF. Can you believe it?”

 

A clueless Jake murmurs: QLCF?”

 

Quaint-location crime fiction,” Steele says. He suggested I try Newfoundland. . . . The seafood seems passable, and you speak something like English, so I agreed.” Jake reluctantly agrees to let Steele accompany him on a case, and a sub-genre of international streaming TV has been given an official moniker. 

 

Quaint-Location Crime Fiction has become one of the great allures of streaming TV, now that so many channels—including Netflix, Amazon, PBS Masterpiece, and others—have gone deeper into programs that take place all over the world. The 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

appeal is obvious in this time of staying at home: Armchair travel was never easier to places some of us have never ventured, or even considered visiting.

 

One of the rules of QLCF is that it avoids the visual clichés TV long used to identify larger cities. The long-lasting French police and justice series Spiral works because you almost never see a shot of the Eiffel Tower or a storefront on the Champs-Élysées. Exteriors are mostly shot in arrondissements where tourists

never tread, immigrant banlieues where even the police dread to visit. Its not exactly QLCF because it is in Paris, and much of it takes place inside the corridors of power, like Law & Order: Paris.

 

American network shows rarely get it: Hawaii 5-0, with its touristy shots of Waikiki beaches, is not QLCF. Neither is NCIS: New Orleans, with its try-too-hard French Quarter headquarters and broad clichés about music and food. Perhaps Miami Vice, with its pre-mega-monetized South Beach locations, could thank its quaint location for some of its success.

 

But QLCF isnt just a setting, or a studio set, in the streaming world. Indigenous architecture, especially when shot on streets that capture neighborhoods, homes, and apartments that take you behind the doors where the characters might live, are part of the appeal. Here are some recent favorites that make the most of their QLs.

Nit i Dia (Night and Day). Amazon Primes Catalan-language show, is set in Barcelona. While most QLCF is set in smaller cities and towns, Nit i Dia stays away from the tourist areas to show the private side of the metropolis. The ensemble revolves around forensic specialist Dr. Sara Grau (Clara Segura), who 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

becomes deeply involved in the hunt for a serial killer. Like many of the characters, she is unhappily married, a paragon of professional responsibility with a singular compulsion: engaging in the anonymous and semi-public hookups for which Erica Jong coined the phrase zipless” sex. She is far from the only unhappily mated member of the large, talented ensemble of doctors, cops, judges, lawyers, and psychiatrists, whether married, unattached, gay, or straight, with kids or without.

 

There are exterior shots of the massive modernist buildings designed by Gaudi and Miers van der Rohe that Barcelona is known for, but the interiors that take us into the homes and workplaces of characters gives Nit i Dia its quirky flavor. There are scenes of churches from which a killer seeks his prey, and neighborhood bars where thugs, drug dealers, and prostitutes gulp beers and plan their schemes.

 

Most Spaniards live in apartments, according to a survey in The Atlantic, and Nit i Dia likes to go inside the buildings. If youve ever visited a large European city and wondered where the residents really live, Nit i Dia will show you. The dark, depressing railroad flat in which a divorced fireman lives, detesting his aging mother and doting on his middle-school age son, gives a hint of the struggles of his divided personality. A guilt-ridden judge, miserably married to his crippled classical-music-critic wife, are evidently well-off, but they live in a claustrophobic apartment, crowded with a piano and the sound of bitter music. In a middle-class neighborhood, a suspected killer gets stuck in an old-school single-compartment cage elevator during a power outage and the other apartment dwellers try to break into the elevator to capture him before a power restoration somehow allows him to escape.

 

It seems purposeful, then, that Dr. Grau and her moody, immature husband, a volatile self-absorbed sales manager, live in a pretty, modern house, with plenty of glass, an indoor swimming pool, and a surfeit of marital strife.

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

The Paper (Novine) is a newspaper drama (not to be confused with the London-based Press) takes place in Rijeka (population 128,000), the third largest city in Croatia. Much of the show appears to be shot there, although credits (in Croatian) cite locations in Zagreb as well. The first Croatian-made series on Netflix, the drama centers on an independent newspaper in a corrupt country, region, and city. The black, white, and 

red fonts in the opening credits remind one of the childhood riddle from a time in which everyone read print newspapers: Whats black and white and re(a)d all over? (The concept may also be borrowed from the color scheme of Masterpiece Mystery.)

 

Like print newspapers everywhere, Novine is proud of its independent journalism and struggling to survive. The series begins with a fatal automobile accident and hints of a police cover-up. Initially pursuing the story, the editors and reporters start feeling political pressure to leave the story alone. Though these journalists are finely attuned to the labyrinthian ethical landscape in which they must work, they are unprepared for the disruption caused by Novines purchase by the corrupt construction executive Mario Kardum. Editors are fired; an ambitious, talented woman reporter is promoted to run the paper; and, as always, power corrupts. Reporters flee or stay, depending on their ability and willingness to compromise their integrity. The drinking of local beer and fruit brandy, for sorrow or celebration, is ubiquitous. The sex, of the easy-come, easy-go variety. Cigarette smoking is so universal it seems mandated by Croatian law.

 

Rijeka has a lovely-looking port when looking out from the city, but the landscape is filled with construction cranes, cracked cement, houses built on hills with little regard for zoning regulations, and a surfeit of crooked cops, politicians, and clergy wielding power, by fist, gun, blackmail, or through the pages of the newspaper. Its a small city, and its hard to stay out of the way of trouble, especially if youre one of the throwback journalists seeking the truth.

 

Scandanavian noir has been a staple of QLCF even before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crossed over to the mainstream. The venerable Wallander (the original Swedish version) is set and filmed in Ystad, Sweden, where the detective played by Krister Henriksson drinks, walks his dog by the Baltic Sea, and broods while pondering the crimes in his small city—the prototypical example of QLCF.

Bordertown, a Finnish show known in Finland as Sorjonen after the main character, is a particularly interesting example of the sub-genre, and the first Finnish series go to international, via Netflix. (A third season of Bordertown came to U.S. Netflix in May.) Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) is a cop of 

Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

extraordinary mental acuity. His wife has been treated for brain cancer: It seems like a good idea to relocate to her quaint, quiet, scenic hometown, Lapeenranta. It would seem like a nice place to raise their teenage daughter, too, if it wasnt for the teenagers easy access to drugs and a roaming pedophile sex trafficker terrorizing young teen girls. The move from city to country is a staple of quaint location crime fiction, and it never works out for the cop and family looking to lighten their load.

 

Set and shot in largely in Lapeenranta (scenes in Season One were also filmed in Estonia and Lithuania), the small city of 73,000 is equidistant from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, and about 18 miles west of the Russian border. Its a popular tourist magnet and center of commerce. But theres a lot of bad stuff happening here, and like the St. Johns of Doyle, everyone knows everyone else: Paulina Sorjonens high school boyfriend is now the deal-making mayor of the city.

 

Sorjonen joins the Serious Crime Unit of the small police department, and it seems both financial shenanigans and heinous sexual crimes involving both sides of the border require his attention. Hes a crime-solving genius with poorly developed social skills: A flashback to his childhood shows signs of autism, or perhaps what used to be known as Aspergers. His quirks include barefoot, nearly headache-inducing trances to focus on suspects and solutions, twisting his limber, lanky torso in some sort of inner tai-chi knot while he rearranges his notes on the wall.

 

Hes a fascinating character, but only to the extent that his personality seems a perfect match for the place. A Lapeenranta tourism website quotes Bordertown show creator and native son Miikko Oikkonen as saying the town is depicted in the series as if it were one of the main characters. Which, of course, is an essential requirement of Quaint Location Crime Fiction. Walking tours of Sorjonens Lapeenranta are available.

Wayne Robins

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

Jaws

Jaws

Widely regarded as one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, residing well within the AFI Top 100 list, and holding the honor as the first-ever true summer blockbuster film are all fine reasons to pick up the new 45th Anniversary 4K HDR transfer of Jaws, but none of them are why the film still resonates with me to this day. 

 

Nope.

 

I was five when Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to take 

our family to see it at a drive-in theater. So, I remember Jaws for absolutely ruining night swimming for me for my entire life, and for giving me a fairly unhealthy fear of the water that persists.

 

I don’t remember a lot about my childhood from age five, but I do remember seeing Jaws. (Well, all of it except the very opening, where my dad made me cover my eyes as Chrissie [Susan Backlinie] runs naked out into the ocean for what turns out to be a very unfortunate evening swim. So, yeah, watching a Great White shark brutalize and eat people was somehow OK for a five-year-old, but catching a brief glimpse of Chrissie’s shadowed side-boob, not so much. Go figure.)

 

I remember drawing pictures of a lone stick floating on top of the water inspired by Pippet, the black lab that played fetch with a stick. I also recall recoiling at Quint’s (Robert Shaw) strangled, bloody screams at the end at he is slowly eaten whole alive. But the real doozy for me was when old 

JAWS AT A GLANCE

The first summer blockbuster ever, and the film that launched Spielberg’s career, gets a restrained but effective makeover in this 45th-anniversary edition.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration respects the looks of the original 35mm film stock, sticking to freshening it up a bit and showing a light touch with the HDR enhancements.

 

SOUND

The new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t venture far from the original mono track, but does add some nice atmospheric effects and effectively places John Williams’ score among the surround channels.

Ben Gardner’s (Craig Kingsbury) head pops out of the bottom of his boat punctuated by a sudden intense burst of music, likely the first jump-scream in my life.

 

For the rest of that summer, I kept expecting that head to come popping out of anywhere there was water. The toilet, the bathtub, you name it. I can also thank Jaws for the fear that the tile mermaid at the bottom of my grandparents’ black-bottomed pool would somehow come to life and drag me under whenever I went swimming.

 

So, yeah. Jaws has been a part of my life for just about as long as I remember.

 

And you know what? The film still totally holds up. The acting, the dialogue, the chemistry, the editing . . . it’s all still great and all still works. The best parts of the film are aboard the Orca with Quint, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) interacting. The dynamic between the three of them is fantastic, and Quint’s monologue about surviving the USS Indianapolis is still powerful and compelling (despite the fact that he was apparently black-out drunk when filming that scene initially).

 

Of course, John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score retains all the tension and drama to enhance each scene, but even the shark scenes and effects remain believable and frightening after 45 years. Sure, there are scarier, more brutal, and bloodier shark films out there today, but Jaws sets the standard for scary things in the water, and the bar remains high.

 

There are actually some close-to-home parallels between Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) arguing to keep the beaches open for all of the 4th of July festivities and our current economy and states deciding on what and when to reopen. With tourists set to pour into the town, bringing needed lifeblood to the little beach town’s economy in light of a giant alpha predator turning the shallow waters into a smorgasbord, the Mayor argues that closing the beaches shouldn’t be an option.

 

About the only things that really date the film are Mayor Vaughn’s suits and the variety of clearly out-of-fashion swimwear seen on the beaches of Amity.

Jaws

One thing I really noticed on this viewing was just how little we actually get to see that 25-foot Great White shark. In fact, it isn’t until an hour in that you finally get your first brief glimpse. But this turns out to be one of Spielberg’s master strokes in creating suspense and unease, wondering every time someone enters the water if there will be an attack or sudden reveal. In fact, Jaws is an example of a film that succeeded because of its technical challenges, rather than in spite of them. The shark model, “Bruce,” was notoriously buggy during production, frequently causing Spielberg to shoot around it, but instead of hampering the film, it makes it work that much better.

 

Another thing that struck me on this viewing of Jaws was the dearth of end credits. Compared to modern films, where it isn’t unusual to have eight or more minutes of credits, with the screen packed with hundreds of names at a time, usually of those serving on a variety of visual effects teams, here they run just over a minute and most of the screens feature just a couple of names. This really showed the stark contrast in production back in the ‘70s, relying entirely on practical effects, and how much Spielberg was able to accomplish with just a relative handful of help compared to modern blockbusters.

 

For its 45th Anniversary release, Universal Studios has given Jaws a full 4K HDR restoration, and this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer retains the look of its photochemical origins, with grain visible in the pale blue and low-lit evening or sunsetting skies, but it is as if layers of age have been wiped away in the restoration to produce images that are just clean and new-looking.

 

This isn’t a movie with lots of sharp, detailed edges—though it appears to look sharper and more detailed later in the film aboard the Orca—or one that has micro-details leaping off the screen, but rather a transfer that retains the best of both its film and digital look to present something that looks both new and correct for its period.

 

Closeups occasionally reveal plenty of detail, with one shot of the Mayor’s anchor-festooned suit revealing fine, sharp blue single-line pinstriping detail that i is horizontal on the lapel and diagonal on the breast and arms; and foreground objects have nice defined edges. But this transfer is more about the overall pristine look than moments of single-strands-of-hair pixel resolution. Some shots look a bit soft and defocused, but this appears to be more an issue with the original focal point during filming than a lack of resolution in the transfer.

 

They took a pretty delicate touch with the HDR grading here, with occasional bright highlights such as the opening flames of the beach fires, or bright lights aboard ships, but the added dynamic range lends itself to more natural and realistic-looking images as light levels get low, and we retain deep blacks but still plenty of shadow details. There are several underwater scenes with a variety of lighting, or with bright lights probing through smoke and mist on top of the water that could cause banding issues, but images remain clean and distortion-free.

 

When I heard Jaws had been given a Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio makeover I was . . . curious. I mean, what could an immersive sound mix do with a 45-year-old mono master short of possibly being used to gimmicky effect that spoiled a classic? Well, much like the video, the new audio track takes the best of the Jaws soundtrack and uses modern technology to expand and improve it. This is most noticeable in John Williams’ fantastic score, which is now lifted above the front channels and mixed into an enveloping canopy overhead, filling the room and surrounding you in the iconic music.

Beyond that, they have used audio cues to subtly enhance other moments throughout the film. There are bird chirps, ocean waves crashing or lapping against things, wind sounds, or creaks and groans of the boat rolling in the water that all pull you into the scenes. On the beach, we get a nice mix of radios playing, and a helicopter flyover as it patrols the waters for sharks.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and understandable throughout—especially with Williams’ score given room up in the height speakers—except for a few moments where many people are talking/shouting at once in some of the crowded exterior scenes. Also, don’t expect much from your subwoofer, though it does get a little room to show off during the finale.

 

The best word I can use to describe this 45th Anniversary release is “restraint.” They used technology where available to improve the experience while being careful not to do anything that would be detrimental to the Jaws so many of us remember.

 

While the Kaleidescape download doesn’t include any of the fairly extensive extras that accompany the 4K Blu-ray disc—which include two near feature-length documentaries, The Making of Jaws and The Shark is Still Working: The Impact &

Jaws

Legacy of Jaws—these are the same extras included with the 2012 Blu-ray release, so if you have that, you aren’t missing out on anything new. On the plus side, the 4K HDR version is available from Kaleidescape for an incredibly reasonable $15.99—or just $11.99 if you are upgrading from the Blu-ray version—which helps offset this, and makes it an absolute must buy.

 

Jaws is one of my favorite films and this newly restored version illustrates why it remains a classic that belongs in every collection.

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.