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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I have been a fan of the musical and movie versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a very long time and take a certain amount of pride knowing that I was in on the phenomenon quite early. I got into the original cast recording when the show was still in its infancy. We even flew from California to New York in 1999 primarily to see the show when it was still way Off 

Broadway down on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Michael Cerveris was starring in the production then; I think he was the second Hedwig, right after creator John Cameron Mitchell.

 

Hedwig was everything I expected and more. I came home abuzz, trying to tell as many people as I could about this amazing music and production. I even convinced a one-off cover band I was in for a special benefit concert to do “Wicked Little Town”—which confused many in the audience, who had no clue what we were playing, yet it excited the handful who were hip to it. (I have a recording of that somewhere.) I’ve seen other productions of the show since, including most recently Mitchell’s fabulous Origin of Love concert tour, which was extremely rewarding—I finally got to see the original Hedwig!

HEDWIG AT A GLANCE

Criterion does its typically superb job of presenting this glam/punk/pop musical classic on Blu-ray.

 

PICTURE

Wonderful 4K transfer, but maybe a little too faithful to the original film, retaining more grain than contemporary audiences are used to.

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix is warm and inviting, but way too conservative for a rock ‘n’ roll film that could use a little rear-channel action. 

The music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is spectacular, springboarding off of an early-’70s glam-punk-pop template shaped by David Bowie, Marc Bolin (T-Rex), Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Mitchell and songwriter/lyricist Stephen Trask crafted a grand rock musical so compelling that Hedwig has enjoyed performances around the globe, including a successful Broadway run in 2014 starring Neil Patrick Harris.

 

When I recently learned about a Blu-ray release of the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had sneaked out last year, I scurried over to Amoeba Music and found their last copy. Thus, our review here today . . .

 

Generally, I’m quite pleased with this new edition from Criterion. Packaging-wise, it has a very different look from the original DVD version, more in keeping with the show’s artful, Germanic, drag-punk aesthetic. With its wild hand-drawn angular lettering and such, the design feels like some alternate-universe German silent film akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The original movie art looked nothing like that.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Those are details not lost on me given the story’s genesis (which I assume you know . . . but if you don’t, please click here for a link to the Wiki that can help bring you up to speed).

 

The picture quality on the Criterion Blu-ray of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite wonderful, restored at 4K. The colors are beautiful, with a very distinct sense of film grain. The latter detail is both appealing and distracting, and I admit I’m a bit on the fence about how I feel about this. I know it’s the most authentic vision, representative of how the film should look, but perhaps we see almost too much grain. I wouldn’t change it, of course. But I do need to acknowledge this, for what it’s worth. 

 

The detailing is nonetheless quite lovely, especially in the closeups. The ruby slipper-like sparkle on Hedwig’s lips is pretty incredible!

 

The detailed booklet in this Criterion issue features all 

manner of behind-the-scenes images and insights, including artwork tracing the character’s evolution. The bonus materials are essential, including a charming memory piece where John Cameron Mitchell explores his archives, telling stories of how Hedwig came together, illustrated with rare memorabilia and video footage. (Some of this section mirrors tales he told on his recent Origin of Love concert tour.) The interviews with cast and crew are revealing and enlightening. I’m still going through these materials, but so far I am very pleased.

 

My only disappointment with this edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch involves the sound. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix was a letdown—it is effectively a stereo mix with generic room ambience in the rear channels. It would have been nice to hear even a little bit of discrete activity in those channels! Maybe we will get that in a Super Deluxe Edition version somewhere down the pike.

 

That said, the mix does ultimately treat the music very nicely, sounding warm and inviting, almost analog at times. Accordingly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch sounds its best when you play it loud—after all, rock ‘n’ roll should be played at full volume! So if you love this movie musical and decide to get this new Criterion edition, don’t hesitate to turn up your amplifier to 11 for maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.

 

You won’t regret it.

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?

Onward

Onward

By all normal logic, you should not be reading this review right now. Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Onward, was just released theatrically on March 6, and with an opening gross of $103 million—and status as the #1 movie in the United States—it was already well on its way to becoming the studio’s next mega-hit.

 

But then the world went topsy-turvy and all the commercial cinemas closed, forcing studios to make a difficult and unprecedented decision: Wait until theaters reopen and hope interest for these movies is still there, or release them in non-

traditional ways. (You can read my post “Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date to see more on this fascinating development.)

 

Like others, Disney chose to greatly accelerate the home release date for Onward, making it available for purchase on digital download just two weeks after its theatrical debut. And, like Frozen II, Onward will also see a far earlier release date for streaming on Disney+, arriving there on April 3.

 

These plans came about so abruptly that digital retailers like Kaleidescape and Vudu didn’t even receive the 4K HDR files. However, in another unusual move from Disney, the company is using “harmonized pricing” for users purchasing Onward, meaning that one price—$26.99 in the case of Kaleidescape—gets you access to the film in HD resolution now with rights to download the UHD and 4K HDR versions when they are available.

ONWARD AT A GLANCE

Pixar had another mega-hit on its hands before it was forced to take this heartfelt but fun D&D-derived tale of loss & redemption out of theaters and straight to the home market.

 

PICTURE     

Picks up where the groundbreaking Toy Story 4 left off, with photorealistic graphics and dazzling effects.

 

SOUND

The adventurous mix—7.1 in the current version, but with an Atmos upgrade due soon—features plenty of pans, ambience, and bass.

So, with that preamble out of the way, we can proceed with the review . . .

 

Onward is set in the fantasy world of New Mushroomton, a world long ago that was filled with adventure and wonder and magic. But magic wasn’t easy to master, and over time, it faded away, and now it is a forgotten skill replaced by technology. I mean, why struggle learning to cast a light spell or rely on a wizard when now everyone can just walk over and flip a switch?

 

This setting is one of the first unique things for Pixar, in that the film is set in an entirely fantastical world. Every other Pixar film has been set to some degree in the “real world.” Whether it is the distant future of Wall-E, the underground insect world of A Bug’s Life, inside Riley’s head in Inside Out, or the alternate reality of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s world-building has thus

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Toy Story 4

far been built around our reality. (Even Monstropolis from Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University is tied to our world, as the monsters cross over into our side of the closet door on multiple occasions.)

 

Onward also features some deep ties to fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, with tons of references overt and subtle that fans of these games will pick up and love, specifically one gelatinous monster that even passing D&D fans will be familiar with. The movie’s substitute for these is Quests of Yore, “A historically based role-playing scenario.”

In a way, it reminded me of a “Weird” Al Yankovic song like “All About the Pentiums.” You can enjoy the song on the surface for what it is, but the deeper you are into geek culture, the more you’ll appreciate its brilliance on different layers. Pixar is known for littering Easter eggs throughout its films. Onward features more references and hidden jokes than perhaps any other, and the home release allows you to pause and analyze scenes to loot-hunt these treasures at your leisure.

 

Whether it’s The Lion King, Bambi, Frozen, Finding Nemo, or numerous other films, a common theme among Disney heroes is having lost a parent, often in some tragic manner. But no film tackles this subject head-on quite like Onward, where the entire plot revolves around the opportunity to bring back a lost parent, to spend one last day with him. Also, for the first time we hear Disney characters not only talking about the pain and loss of losing a parent, but of the emotions of having to deal with a parent that is sick and dying. Heavy stuff for a “kid’s” movie.

 

The film focuses on elven brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) some 16 years after their father has died. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) unveils a present their father left behind for when both boys were over 16. Inside the present are a wizard’s staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and instructions for casting a “visitation spell” that will allow the dad to return for a single day to see how the boys have grown. Of course, things go awry when casting the spell, and Dad only returns from the waist down before the Phoenix Gem—an assist element required for casting powerful magic—is destroyed.

 

This sets up the campaign quest, as the brothers—and the lower-half of dad—head off in Barley’s sweet-van, Guinevere (fueled by an appropriately epic mixtape, of course), to follow clues left behind from the magic of old to discover another 

Phoenix Gem and finish casting the spell before the sun sets, and Dad is again lost forever.

 

Pixar inhabits this fantasy world with all manner of creatures, including gnomes, pixies, mermaids, unicorns, centaurs, cyclops, and goblins, which keeps scenes visually entertaining. In keeping with the RPG “rules,” different character classes have different abilities; and it is the shy and awkward Ian (whose name might be

Onward

a subtle nod to Sir Ian McKellen, who played a certain wizard named Gandalf the Grey in a few Tolkien films) who develops the ability to use the wizard’s staff to cast spells rather than his RPG-obsessed, living the “longest gap year ever” non-starter brother, Barley, perpetually wearing a jean vest emblazoned with patches and buttons of Metal-like band names and a 20-sided die, like so many of the kids I went to high-school with in the ‘80s.

 

And like any epic quest, the story begins at an all-too common starting point: The Tavern. From Chaucer’s Tale to Hobbiton’s Green Dragon Inn to numerous D&D campaigns, the Tavern is often the place where parties gather to palaver prior to beginning their journey. In this case, the Tavern is run by a Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a mythical creature with “a vaguely humanoid head, the body of a lion, and the wings of a dragon [whose] long tail ends in a cluster of deadly spikes,” according to D&D rules. With magic gone, our Manticore has lost its bite, and the tavern is now more a family-friendly TGI Friday’s affair. But it serves as the launching point for the brothers’ adventure—as well as a way for the Manticore to do some self-discovery—and provides the first clue to tracking down the Gem.

 

As mentioned at the outset, this review is of the HD version, which looks fantastic in its own right, but it definitely left me eager to see this visual glory all over again but in higher resolution, and with the added color and punch of HDR, when the 4K HDR release becomes available.

 

As literally every pixel shown on screen is rendered in computer, we get an amazing level of detail, especially in closeups. Here, literally every strand of hair or fur is visible in perfect detail, as are things like the grain in desks or the stones in walls. Other things have a photo-realistic quality, such as slices of bread, vehicles, or wet roads. Pixar continues upping the ante in computer visuals, and Onward picks up where the gorgeous Toy Story 4 left off.

Lighting effects are dazzling, whether it is fire, sparkling magic, or light streaming in through windows. Dark spaces like caves or night scenes make for especially vibrant eye candy. 

 

As is the case with every Disney release I am aware of, the digital HD version—and Blu-ray disc on release—doesn’t contain the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is reserved for the premium 4K content. Instead, Onward’s HD version has a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack.

 

While I can’t wait to audition the Atmos track when the 4K version drops, this mix offers plenty to enjoy. There are strong panning and surround effects tracking the onscreen action, especially during the driving scenes on the expressway and the final challenge quest in the tunnels, where multiple objects whiz past your head. Even with the 7.1-channel mix, my processor’s upmixer smartly put sounds up into the ceiling, such as a dragon’s tail swiping overhead or fire breathing across the room. Outdoor scenes feature tons of ambient sounds to place you in the action, and bass is deep and authoritative when called for. I find dialogue to be slightly forward with DTS mixes, but I had no difficulty understanding all the lines.

Onward

Of course, the brilliance of Pixar is in making movies that appeal to a broad range of viewers, and not just for that small subset of hardcore fans of a specific genre or RPG subculture. Unlike any other studio, Pixar has a knack for writing stories and jokes that play across multiple levels. Kids appreciate the top-level humor, with other jokes and references for adults, and deeper meanings and storytelling themes that parents recognize.

 

Ultimately, Onward is Pixar doing what it does best, which is creating movies about deep relationships and going right for the feels at the end. Whether you’re a beginning Level 1 Crafty Rogue or a veteran Level 20 Wizard, there is plenty in Onward to engage and entertain family members of all ages.

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.

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Those who listened carefully—and knew how to read the signs—heard the first domino fall a few weeks ago when MGM delayed the release of No Time to Die, the upcoming 25th James Bond film, from an original opening date of April 3 to November 12 in light of the recent virus outbreak. At the time, it seemed a pretty drastic decision to push the opening of such a tentpole film seven months, especially after so much had already been committed to and spent on advertising.

 

Following that, we saw other premieres cancelled, as studios delayed movies in the uncertain market. The next big domino to drop was announcements from major cinema chains saying they would be voluntarily cutting capacity in auditoriums and limiting ticket sales to 50% in an effort to encourage social distancing. But as the outbreak continued to spread, pretty much all of the commercial cinemas soon shut their doors.

 

Along the way, other studios followed MGM’s example of pushing back release dates of upcoming major titles. Things like Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, and F9 have all been delayed; some by months, some with no new scheduled release. We also saw multiple studios halting production of major films currently in the works such as James Cameron’s

Avatar sequels, Matrix 4, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, and many more.

 

The next domino to drop was by Disney last weekend when the company upped the digital release date of Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker a few days, followed almost immediately by the announcement it would be making Frozen II available on its Disney+ streaming service months earlier than planned.

 

Then the biggest domino of them all (so far . . .) dropped this past Monday, March 16 when Universal 

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date
Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Studios announced it would be making three films still early in their theatrical runs available for viewing at home in a premium-video-on-demand release: The Invisible Man (released theatrically on February 28), Emma (released theatrically on March 6), and The Hunt (which just opened at theaters on March 13). As of today, you can watch any of these movies in the comfort of your own home without any special hardware for just $19.99 on platforms like Vudu, Fandango Now, or iTunes.

 

Even more surprising, in that same announcement, Universal also said that its upcoming Trolls sequel, Trolls World Tour, would debut on April 10 at home, day-and-date with its originally scheduled theatrical release.

 

Having followed the day-and-date landscape for some time, these changes—and the speed with which studios made themare nothing short of jaw-dropping.

 

Outside of the elite Bel Air Circuit—where an invitation-only group of A-listers are allowed to watch cinema content in their personal screening rooms using the same digital files sent to commercial theaters—there has been no way for “normal” people to view content still playing in theaters at home, and studios have maintained a very clear firewall of release windows to ensure that theater owners are given exclusive access to this premium content.

 

Typically, movies play exclusively in the theater for a month or so before going to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) services such as pay-per-view or airlines, then to an online digital release such as via Kaleidescape, Vudu, or iTunes, then a disc release about 14 weeks after the theatrical run, then to home video services like HBO a couple of months later, and then

finally to non-pay TV services. 

 

Universal’s recent moves have taken this model and blown it up.

 

And, here is a bit more perspective on how radical Universal’s decision is to make these films available at the 48-hour PPV viewing window of $19.99. Just a few years ago, Universal was one of the early investors in a high-end home theater startup 

company called Prima Cinema. Prima planned on bringing first-run, day-and-date theatrical content to the home market, but with a slew of restrictions that included an insane amount of anti-piracy measures, a limit on the number of seats in the theater, biometric sensors, and requiring a piece of proprietary hardware installed in a closed system that cost $35,000. Oh, and each viewing cost $500.

 

That is why letting anyone with a Roku, Firestick, or AppleTV watch Trolls day-and-date for $19.99 is utterly gamechanging. (Currently the quality of these titles appears to be limited to HD resolution, not 4K HDR, but this is a rapidly changing landscape and that is subject to change.)

 

After the big Universal domino fell, other studios started adopting a similar strategy.

 

Sony Pictures announced the latest Vin Diesel actioner, Bloodshot, which just hit theaters on March 13, would be 

available for purchase for $19.99 starting March 24. Warner Bros. is releasing the Ben Affleck sports drama, The Way Back, which hit theaters on March 8, for purchase on March 24 as well. And the faith-based music drama, I Still Believe, which Lionsgate released on March 13, will be available on March 27.

 

Then, on March 20th, the next domino dropped—the biggest one so far from Walt Disney Company, which announced that its latest Pixar release, Onward, which just hit theaters on March 8, would be available for purchase starting at 5 p.m. eastern and heading to Disney+ for streaming on April 3. This was a massive release from Pixar, with an estimated budget of $175-200 million, yanked from theaters after less than two weeks and put into the home market.

 

With commercial theaters forced to temporarily shutter their doors, the home market is the only outlet for studios to get these films out there and try to recoup some of the costs. Of course, I’m sure an argument was made for just “freezing” films in the theater as they were, and going back to business-as-usual once theaters reopen. But with film releases often scheduled months or years in advance—and films already stacked up in an uncertain pipeline—sometimes it is a now-or-never proposition to secure a film’s release date.

 

This offers Hollywood an almost guilt-free major-market test of bending or easing the early-release window. With commercial theater owners forced to close and unable to claim this is hurting their profits, the studios can experiment with the market demand and interest in early release and see if there is enough money to be made from going into homes early.

 

What we are seeing now could be an end to theatrical releases as we knew them, or it could just be a temporary anomaly forced by unprecedented events.

 

Either way, we’ll continue covering this news as it develops. Meanwhile, you now have the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic content in your own home far earlier than normal.

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.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy (2019)

Wherever you stand on the controversial topic of capital punishment, it’s probably safe to say that no one wants to get it wrong and accidentally put an innocent person to death. And while we would probably all like to believe the justice system is infallible and that it goes out of its way to get it right and ensure those given the ultimate sentence are truly guilty and deserving, the sad truth is that isn’t the case. Especially in the past. And even more especially in parts of the South.

 

Just Mercy is the true story of an idealistic, fresh-from-Harvard-Law graduate African American, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who travels to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larsen) to seek justice for those wrongfully convicted or who had received inadequate counsel. While visiting the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, Stevenson meets with a variety of inmates and listens to one sad story after another about being railroaded by a legal system that seems rigged to work against them.

 

One of these is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), accused, convicted, and sentenced to death in Monroe, Alabama for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white girl. After McMillian has spent years on death row, Stevenson takes up his case. (Interestingly, Monroe County is where Harper Lee was born, and the wrongful trial and conviction of Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in many ways echoes what happened to McMillian.)

 

As Stevenson starts digging through files and records and court transcripts, it quickly becomes apparent that the case against McMillian was fueled by deep-seated racism and the need to solve the murder, with much of the evidence that would have acquitted him having been excluded, and with the guilty verdict—and the prosecution’s entire case—hinging entirely on the forced and fabricated testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).

 

Beyond the compelling story, what truly drives Just Mercy are the fantastic performances turned in by Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson. Jordan is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine, after engaging roles in Creed, Black Panther, and Fruitvale Station, and he definitely delivers here, showing off Stevenson’s idealism and hope to change the system and save lives. And we repeatedly experience the shocking injustice at virtually every turn through his eyes and expressions.

 

Foxx is the polar opposite of his normal bombastic and cocky persona, instead being reserved and slow to believe and hope that this time this lawyer will actually be different, but when intensity and emotion are called for, Foxx delivers.

 

Nelson, who has made a career of playing quirky characters (and whose appearance in movies never fails to elicit an, “We thought you was a toad!” quote from my wife and me, recalling his character Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother Where Art Thou?) does a terrific job of inhabiting the conflicted Myers, adopting a tic and speech pattern that represent his abuse growing up in the foster system and bringing some humanity to what initially seems an unredeemable person.

 

The film avoids all of the usual prison-film tropes of guards beating prisoners, yard riots, or shower rapes, and instead focuses on the friendships that develop between prisoners on the Row and the helpless feeling of waiting around in a cage for someone or something else to make a decision that will change or end your life.

 

There is one execution that underscores the high stakes involved should the appeals fail, but even that scene shies away from reveling in anything gruesome, with the camera instead cutting away right before the electricity is applied. However, it retains a high level of emotion as we experience what we can’t see through Stevenson’s eyes and the feelings of the other prisoners along with a low, steady hum of high-current passing off camera.

 

Repeatedly, the film leaves you feeling infuriated by the smug confidence and corruption of the (then) all-white Alabama law machine, specifically Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) who seems less concerned whether McMillian is the guilty person and more so that someone is going to pay. The justice system appears to circumvent and corrupt justice at every turn, and, like 

McMillian, you end up with a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and anguish. Just how many wrongs can be uncovered and the truth still be denied?

 

Filmed in 8K, Just Mercy is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and closeups certainly reveal each pixel of this detail. Facial detail is sharp and in razor focus, showing every pore, pockmark, and whisker. Early on Stevenson wears a V-neck sweater vest, and there is fine-line stitching clearly visible along the neck and shoulders.

 

The film has a mostly reserved color palette throughout. Many exterior scenes feature earth tones under a mostly muted and overcast sky, with even the often bright-blue Alabama skies dialed back. The interior of McMillian’s home is filled with tans, browns, creams, and other muted tones, and the prison interiors are taupes, greys, whites, and beiges.

 

HDR is used to provide punch to shadows and sunlight streaming through windows, but this isn’t really a film that stuns with amazing visuals.

 

Sonically, I’d call the Dolby Atmos soundtrack reserved. Fortunately, dialogue, which is the all-important character here, is well and faithfully presented in the 

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

center channel, letting you easily understand every line. They do use some opportunities to provide some ambience in the mix, such as having birds chirp, wind blowing, and leaves rustling in outdoor scenes. The mix also does a nice job of putting you inside the prison, with dialogue mixed in a way to makes you feel like you’re in a low-ceilinged room, with the subtle buzz of lights and hum of the HVAC system. Occasionally, you’ll hears doors slamming or shouts off in the distance. When McMillian is locked in his cell, the door slides shut with a weighty and convincing thunk.

 

Just Mercy is a heavy and powerful 2 hour and 17-minute film that received a well-deserved 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is one that will leave you thinking well after the credits roll. In fact, an end-credit scene leaves you with the staggering statistic that for every nine persons executed in the United States, one is exonerated and set free.

 

The film dropped a week earlier than expected at the Kaleidescape store, nearly a full month before the physical Blu-ray release on April 14. No 4K disc version is announced at this time, making Kaleidescape your best option for the highest-quality viewing experience.

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.

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

In “The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs,” Tony-winning director Gerard Alessandrini talked about his efforts to hunt down the promotional programs for classic movies spanning the entire history of film. Here, as promised, is an extensive dive into that unique and diverse collection of movie ephemera.

 

Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

SILENT FILMS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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MUSICALS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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EPICS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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SCI-FI / FANTASY

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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DRAMAS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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1950s WIDESCREEN

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

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. . . and lastly

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

As promised, Gerard’s copy of the movie program for Star!, signed by both Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs

Collections of film memorabilia are always fun and interesting because posters and paraphernalia are essentially advertisements that are attractive and eye-catching, as well as informative. And because advertising styles change every year, a poster or press book from the 1940s is enormously different from one from the 1990s. But no matter the decade, the tie-in is often a fond reminder of the movie it promotes.

 

I’ve always appreciated movie posters, but there is another type of film memorabilia I’ve enjoyed even more—the souvenir movie program. This is definitely a long-lost art from the past. In fact, it’s not even well known that these even existed.

 

From 1915 to about 1995, many films wanted to be taken seriously as theatrical-type “events.” These films sold elaborate color programs, just 

like the ones sold at theatrical shows and concerts. In the 1960s when reserved-seat road-show engagements were popular, films were marketed like a Broadway show. (Indeed, many of these films were adaptations of Broadway hits.) The film companies would print up hundreds of booklets to be sold at the initial engagements.

 

In the 1960s, they sold for about a dollar each. Often, they were displayed and sold at the concession counter. You felt they were a very special souvenir because they could only be purchased at the movie palace where the film was playing. Nowhere else. When the film went into general distribution to “neighborhood theaters,” the programs could no longer be found.

 

What made these programs important to film lovers at the time was that they were a lovely reminder ergo “souvenir” of the film they just saw, as it might be a very long time before they viewed the film again.

 

In the first part of the 20th Century, there was no video you could buy a few months after the film’s release. It could be many years until a movie would be broadcast on TV. Or if it was a true blockbuster, like Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments, the studio would hold it from view or re-issue for seven years until a new generation was born.

 

Likewise, movie posters were never for sale or available to the public since distributors would save the used posters and store them for secondary distribution or future use. Even up to the 1970s, if you wanted a movie poster of a favorite film, you had to steal it. Remember Francois Truffaut’s childhood memory in Day for Night, where he steals the Citizen Kane lobby cards?

So, the only item a film fan might have to remind them of the film was a souvenir program.

 

I first started collecting them in the 1960s. I always brought an extra dollar along with me to a road-show film so I could buy the program to the likes of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, or Oliver!. As my collection grew, I realized from research and sometimes inserts in the programs that they had been printing up souvenir programs for many years.

 

In thrift shops and out-of-print book stores, I found the likes of the hardcover Ben-Hur (1959) souvenir book. From the back page, I found the address of the original publishers. (Remember, there was no internet then.) I began writing directly to the 

publishers and found they were more than wiling to sell me older programs for a dollar. I was able to add How the West Was Won and many other of the 1960s epics.

 

As I collected what I could find from the past, I continued to collect newer ones from road-show movies I attended, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and The Godfather. As the road-show era subsided, so did the production and sale of souvenir programs. However, about that same time in the 1970s, I found out that in Britain the idea of the color program was still popular. The British have a love and knowledge of theatergoing, and understood and enjoyed their value. I was soon sending to London for programs like The Boy Friend and The Battle of Britain.

THERE’S LOTS MORE TO SEE!

Gerard’s collection of movie programs is so extensive that we didn’t even have enough room for all the highlights. So if you’d like to see some more rare treasures—like a look inside the original Singin’ in the Rain program, the industry-only booklet for the original Star Wars film, and even the program for the infamous mega-flop Star!, signed by Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise—check out our image gallery for “The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program.”

Here in America, the rise of the science-fiction blockbuster helped keep the tradition of the souvenir program barely alive. Star Wars had a modest souvenir program for the general public to buy at the candy counter. For the audiences attending the premiere, however, a more spectacular program for the “upper class” movie industry was distributed. The Star Wars special edition was larger, more colorful, and glossier. To acquire a special-edition program like that you had to know somebody in the industry. As a young man that was a challenge!

 

But I think I enjoyed expanding my collection because movie souvenir programs were so hard to find.

 

When I grew up, I would take business trips to Hollywood, where I found various film bookstores like Larry Edmunds where they had large selections of classic Hollywood programs. I began to collect souvenir programs back to the 1920s, such as 

The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program

Noah’s Ark, and even much earlier D.W. Griffith films like Intolerance and Birth of a Nation. Even these were elaborate booklets with many color pages.

 

After the LA earthquake of 1994, a big bookcase fell over at Larry Edmunds’ bookstore, and behind it lay a well-preserved collection of 1930s souvenir programs. They were kind enough to sell me this lost treasure trove, which included an elaborate die-cut program from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

 

As I added to my collection, I found it easier to locate programs from the 1920s and ’30s than the 1940s and ’50s. But many of my favorite films are from that later era. I wondered, “Were there souvenir programs for The Best Years of Our Lives or An American in Paris?” Through private collectors, I found out. Indeed, there were! The reason for the scarcity of programs from that time was the paper shortage caused by World War II and the subsequent Korean War.

 

After years of searching, I eventually found very rare souvenir programs to Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and even All About Eve.

 

Since the country was still recuperating from the paper shortage, these are mostly in two-color monotone, but in this way, they match the films. Only the American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain seem to want for more, although they have a certain two-color charm of their own. What they lack in Technicolor punch they make up with in stylish collage design.

 

As the movies became more spectacular in the 1950s, so did the programs. Hardcover editions for Around the World in 80 Days, Spartacus, and El Cid were created. They are loaded not only with color stills but profuse information about the making of the epics and “backstage” behind-the-scenes pictures.

 

For that reason, they are still helpful and very fun to thumb through today. Sometimes they are even fun to pull out when you’re watching a classic David Lean film like Dr. Zhivago in your high-end home theater.

 

Today you can’t buy a program at a theater’s concession counter. Instead, blockbuster and fantasy films have complete film books that are sold to the public in stores such as Barnes & Noble. They are spectacular and often of the coffee-table variety. But that’s a different kind of film-book collecting.

 

One of the last programs sold in a movie was Dreamgirls (2006). I remember buying a gorgeous oversized program 

for the movie at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Even then, I suspected it was not a return to the golden age of souvenir programs but part of the marketing choices to give a 1960s retro feel to the film.

 

Gone is the era of seeing a film and leaving with a little piece of a movie by taking home a souvenir program. But if you search the internet enough you can still find a few. They are a vivid reminder of the golden age of Hollywood hype!

 

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

The Report

The Report (2019)

Sitting at home during the early stages of what may turn out to be a genuinely spectacular pandemic, I sometimes let my mind drift over recent history, with specific key aspects of select periods pointing to some deeper meaning.

 

Sure, it may be the wine talking, but there are truths that only become apparent when allowed to ruminate without the burden of an overly hectic social schedule. Facts like how 2019 was unlike any other year in that it indeed was the Year of Adam Driver.

 

Think about it: Last year, Driver starred in no fewer than four full-length North American releases: The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Report, the last of which came and went in a haze all too fast to garner nearly as much box office success as it deserves.

 

Released in November ’19 a month ahead of the super-hyped wrap to the original Star Wars saga, The Report places Driver in the role of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones who, in 2009, was enlisted by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to investigate the ’05 destruction of videotapes documenting allegedly abusive CIA interrogations of prisoners in the months following 9/11. 

 

When the report detailing the findings of the original two-year investigation is brushed aside, Feinstein directs Jones and his team of six to dig deeper, leading them to discover horrible truths that the CIA preferred to remain buried.

 

As a thriller, The Report relentlessly grabs viewers by the collar as we’re taken behind the scenes of the torture program that came to be known for the introduction of the term waterboarding into the American vernacular.

 

Like Three Days of the Condor and other classic thrillers of the ‘70s, The Report builds tension by allowing the story to unfold around a central character, in this case Jones, whose sincerity and near-disbelief at the attempts to thwart his investigation only inspire him to push harder, if not always with the greatest of prudence.

 

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is a big film with big-ticket stars that remarkably maintains the feel of a lean, independent production. Special effects are replaced by a keen eye on detail, as Jones and his team methodically research the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” videos of which went missing shortly before the original investigation kicked into gear. This isn’t some Watergate-style 18-minute gap in audio—hundreds of hours of tapes quickly went MIA thanks to the CIA, or so Jones and his team maintained as the followup investigation built momentum over five years. According to history, the small group dove into more than six million pages of documents, conducted interviews, and met with interference by the Agency and members of the Obama administration, among others. 

 

Unlike thrillers that expand the narrative into the leads’ personal lives, The Report is all about the business at hand. We’re left to surmise that Jones’ home and love lives are anemic at best, as we see him work tirelessly with an added boost of adrenalin every time he or a member of his staff discover a new and potentially beneficial revelation.

 

Playing a man who is consumed by his mission, Driver portrays Jones as supremely buttoned-up, humorless, and wholly wonkish as he dives into a sea of paper in pursuit of the true story. Burns, making his directorial debut, lets the day-to-day details of the story build as the 6,700-page report takes shape. Aside from occasional violence depicted in flashback scenes to the CIA black sites where the abuses took place, The Report is all talk and tension in the best possible way.

 

It is a challenge to present relatively recent news.Yet, Burns and the cast pull it off with what felt like a never-ending race from the windowless box where the team did their research to meetings with administration officials, the CIA, and conversations with anonymous sources. Throughout, Driver maintains a focused, sort of angry composure that had me anticipating an explosion of emotion that never materializes. Instead, he is simply a professional with no intention of letting up, especially as it becomes clear that early suspicions about allegations of torture are in fact true.

 

As a screenwriter, Burns collaborated with co-producer Steven Soderbergh on several films, including Contagion, which unsurprisingly is getting cited in current news stories. He eschews oversized scenes for adherence to the story, acknowledging that the story itself is more powerful than any dramatic flourish can provide. Of course, this means the viewer must keep up with the dialogue, which is mixed clear and upfront, with sound effects and music playing their roles as distant seconds to the words.

 

This is Driver’s sweet spot. His dry yet impassioned delivery comes across as honest and sincere, whereas a lesser actor may have lapsed into a more over-the-top presentation throughout the film. As Sen. Feinstein, Annette Bening becomes the character—from her outward appearance to her mannerisms in public and private, she embodies the senator’s pleasant, no-nonsense manner without it becoming a caricature.

 

Upon its release, The Report came and went without making a dent at the box office, which is a shame, given that you will be hard-pressed to find an equally gripping film with a commitment to historical accuracy that makes it required viewing for fans of historical narratives. The combination of a tight script and first-rate cast makes The Report a home run for Burns, box office losses to the contrary.   

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

There hasn’t been a lot of good news swirling about lately, so it was a real treat to open my email on Saturday morning and see a message from Kaleidescape announcing that Disney and Lucasfilm had decided to give fans a little bit of weekend fun by releasing the latest Star Wars movie a few days early. (It as originally scheduled for March 17; the disc release is scheduled for March 31.)

 

While the Mouse House offered no official announcement (at least that I could find) about the reasoning behind this early release, the company did make an announcement that Frozen 2 “will be available three months ahead of schedule on Disney+ in the U.S. . . . surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period,” an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

With more families staying at home, a bit of Star Wars could be just the thing to lift spirits.

 

Officially carrying the weighty title Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker, this film brings to a conclusion the space opera created by George Lucas back in 1977, and wraps the final trilogy of films which began in 2015 with The Force

Awakens and continued in 2017 with The Last Jedi.

 

Following the mixed fan reception of director Rian Johnson’s Jedi, which received a favorable critics’ rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a dismal, franchise-low audience score of just 43%, Star Wars looked to finish strong with Skywalker. But there was difficulty early on as initial writer and director Colin Trevorrow was quickly replaced due to “creative differences,” and J.J. Abrams was brought back in to helm the ship and finish the trilogy he began with Awakens.

 

To be fair, Abrams had an almost impossible task here—to conclude a saga that had taken on myth and meaning in people’s lives, with expectations far beyond what any movie could ever deliver. To its credit, Disney threw a ton of money at the film (an estimated $275 million), and J.J. tried to give fans the farewell they wanted, even bringing back a host of characters not seen in years, including Lando Calrissian (Billy De Williams), Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson), and Wicket (Warwick Davis), along with even more that are only heard. And while he reversed the tide of Last Jedi’s ratings, scoring an audience score of 86%, he also managed a franchise-low critic’s rating of just 51%.

 

Abrams also faced the major obstacles of losing Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia was supposed to be a central character in this final episode, and having to follow some of the story choices Johnson took with Last Jedi. The result is a movie that feels a bit disjointed at times, shoehorning and repurposing previously shot footage and dialogue of Fisher where it could, and feeling like it was rewriting Johnson’s film at others. The result left some with more questions than answers.

 

Like many of you, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the first film at a small theater in Carmel, California while my parents were out shopping when I was 7. I can remember that first Star Destroyer flying overhead and thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. When the movie was over, I walked out and met my parents outside, told them how amazing it was, and then turned around and went back in and watched it again.

 

For the record, I enjoyed Skywalker, but left the theater on opening night a bit conflicted. When my wife asked me what I thought of it, I said, “I liked it, but I’m not sure it is the movie I wanted. But I’m not sure what I wanted.”

 

No matter how great this film was, it was always going to be somewhat of a bittersweet experience for fans. We all watched the final credits knowing this was the end of 

something that had become important in our lives, and now there is no more Star Wars to look forward to. (At least in the manner that we’ve grown accustomed to. Disney and Lucasfilm will most certainly continue to mine that galaxy far, far away for stories for years to come.) For me, this is now the third time I’ve “lost” Star Wars, the first being when Return of the Jedi finished in 1983, the second when Episode III—Revenge of the Sith finished in 2005.

 

Now, I’m not going to presume my review or analysis of Skywalker is going to sway your decision to watch it, nor am I going to bother wasting time and space trying to recap the plot—especially since this is an almost two-and-a-half-hour film that concludes 42 years’ worth of storytelling. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve already seen the movie, and have already drawn your own conclusions, and have likely already pre-ordered the mega box set of all the films, scheduled for release at the end of the month. (Incidentally, the other eight films in the Star Wars saga were also released in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks at the same time as Skywalker.) But if you haven’t seen Skywalker by now, maybe you can be swayed to give this a viewing in your home theater. I assure you, it’s well worth the time, and I feel it improves on repeated viewings. (I far more enjoyed it on my second viewing this past January in Las Vegas on the only Sony Premium Digital Cinema in the country.)

 

OK, with that out of the way, lets get down to it: How does the 4K HDR release of Rise of Skywalker look and sound? Fortunately, this is a far less controversial question to answer, as the presentation is top-notch! The film even garnered three Academy Awards nominations, for John Williams’ original score, visual effects, and sound editing.

 

Shot on a combination of Kodak film stocks, Skywalker’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and uses HDR throughout to really pump colors and highlights, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that surrounds and immerses you in the action.

 

From the opening scenes, Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) unstable lightsaber sizzles on screen, glowing and seething with bright reds. The final battle on Exegol is like an HDR demo reel, with dark skies dotted with glowing engines of ships, and illuminating the room with frequent bright blue-white bursts of pupil-searing lightning strikes and laser bolts.

 

While space is never “pitch black” in Star Wars films, images remain clean and noise-free, and we get some true blacks in interiors. The scenes aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer (which reminded me of what an incredible job Disney did of transporting you into the Star Wars universe in its new Rise of the Resistance ride) look fantastic, with gleaming, glistening black decks, bright lighting illuminating hallways, and laser blasts and sparks.

 

The underground sand worm’s lair on Pasaana is another scene that could be a recipe for producing a video and compression nightmare, with dimly lit passageways illuminated by BB8’s glowing lights along with a couple of flashlights and the searing blue of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber. Blacks remain deep, with lots of shadow detail without any distracting banding or other artifacts.

 

Closeups reveal a terrific level of detail, showing every pore, strand of hair, stitch, texture, and bit of wear. Part of owning the film—and watching it repeatedly—is the you can revel in the attention to detail in nearly every shot, such as the creature design and the large interiors. The only scenes that appear “soft” are the ones with Leia. All of her shots are comprised of previously unused footage shot while filming Force Awakens. The previous background elements were removed digitally so she could be composited into the new shots.

 

Disney has received flack over the soundtracks on many of its top-level releases, but the Atmos audio included here is beyond reproach, with lots of dynamics and activity. Whether it is the snap and hum of lightsabers, the effects of Force energy, the waves crashing on the moon in the Endor system, the thrum of various engines, or explosions, bass is deep, powerful, and room-energizing when appropriate.

Surround and height speakers are used frequently to immerse you in the scenes and action. The speeder chase on Pasaana has laser blasts that shoot around the room and troopers launching and flying overhead. The scenes on Kijimi are filled with expansive street sounds to place you on location, with wind blowing, snow falling, and distant shouts and voices. The height speakers are also used to good effect during Rey and Ren’s Force chats, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) booming voice, and the voices of Jedi past that echo in Rey’s mind.

 

Sonically, my favorite scenes are aboard the remnants of the second Death Star. These scenes are among the most interesting from an audio standpoint, with loads of drips, creaks, and groans of wires twisting and metal straining as the giant ship constantly settles while Rey moves about in the cavernous interiors. The exterior shots are filled with the roar of wind and crash of waves and water splattering—all of it an ambient feast for the audio senses!

 

Beyond dialogue being clear and easily intelligible, the soundtrack also does a wonderful job presenting Williams’ score, what he says will be his final time working with Star Wars.

The Rise of Skywalker

Even if Rise of Skywalker isn’t your favorite film in the Star Wars saga, the movie is worth purchasing just for the extras, including the feature-length documentary The Skywalker Legacy, along with five other featurettes. Included with the Kaleidescape release as a digital exclusive is “The Maestro’s Finale,” which has John Williams looking back on his 40-plus-year career working with Star Wars.

 

While this might not be the conclusion to the Skywalker saga that some wanted, this is the one we’ve been given. And there is still a lot here to enjoy, especially in a home theater setting. Get a bowl of popcorn, turn down the lights, turn up the sound, sit back and enjoy, and I all but guarantee the Force will be with you.

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.

1917

1917 (2019)

Filmmakers don’t typically cover World War I with the frequency they do more recent wars. Perhaps it’s because with the age of the war there aren’t many first-hand accounts to draw from, or it doesn’t feature the cool tech of modern wars, or the political angle of Vietnam, or the clear-cut good-versus-evil themes of WWII. Whatever the reason, if director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is the last film we ever get covering the First Great War, the subject will have been well served.

 

This is a personal project for Mendes, who not only directed but also co-wrote and produced, being based in part on stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in the war as a 17-year-old. And it clearly resonated with both fans and critics alike,

raking in over $360 million worldwide and nabbing ten Academy Awards nominations, including Director and Picture, along with wins for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.

 

To me, 1917 is less about the actual story—which is rather simple—and far more about the way it is told and how it visually unfolds.

 

The film opens on April 6, 1917, where we are introduced to two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Den-Charles Chapman). Actually, “introduced” is really an 

overstatement; we just see them lying down and learn nothing of them before they’re called in to meet with General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who has some vital news that must be delivered by dawn to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

 

Through aerial reconnaissance, the British army has discovered that instead of having the German army on the run, Mackenzie is about to lead his men into a massive German ambush, likely causing the massacre of two full battalions—upwards of 1,600 men. Making the message even more personal, Blake’s brother is among the men in the regiment scheduled to attack, so failure could mean a personal loss. The two soldiers are thus sent off with a message ordering Mackenzie to call off the attack, covering miles of hostile territory alone and in the full light of day.

 

Welcome to the opening minutes of 1917.

 

In the hands of a different director, this likely wouldn’t have been such a successful and powerful film, as Mendes does two things that combine to make it feel so much more real, immediate, and personal.

 

First, it’s shot in a manner that makes the movie feel like one (well, actually two) continuous takes. There are almost no interruptions to the two long scenes; no quick camera cuts or edits, no perspective changes, just a continued focus on our heroes. You get a sense of the planning needed for this as the cameras follow the two protagonists through what feels like miles of trenches, sliding around other soldiers and navigating twists and turns, or following them as they run through battle scenes.

 

Second, the shots are almost always framed tight—either head-on or from a close follow—rarely more than just a few feet from the two leads. You frequently see little in the distance or much off to the periphery as you are locked tight on them. This draws you naturally in to their situation, seeing their feelings and emotions, the wear of their uniforms, and the strain of the task at hand, making you care more about the mission. But it also serves to add to the tension and unease and fog of war of the journey, as you are given far less information about your surroundings, and end up reacting to events as they happen instead of being prepared for them.

 

As you’d expect, Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography looks beautiful. When the camera does pull back, we see the immense scope, with huge landscapes and wide vistas looking epic in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The lighting is also beautifully done—and greatly benefits from HDR. Whether it is the dark interior of a tent warmly lit in rich red-orange glows from lamps, the dark insides of bunkers illuminated by flashlight, or a French village lit up at night by overhead flares and a conflagration, blacks are deep, with lots of shadow detail. Skies during the daylight scenes—the first of the two shots—are a bright, overcast grey, free of any noise or banding and still revealing clouds and other details thanks to HDR.

 

Equally impressive is the attention to detail in the set dressing and production design (also nominated). Filmed in ArriRaw at 4.5K, with this transfer taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you appreciate all the little details on screen. In the opening scenes, you can see the layers of texture and materials on the soldiers’ uniforms and kit, with individual stitching, fray, and wear, and the aging on their leathers.

 

Going through the trenches, you can see all the work required to dig in a protected position and the nightmare of having to sleep in a constant state of mud and muck (later juxtaposed by the much more advanced German trenches). We follow right on the heels of the two soldiers as they slog through the muddy, gritty, terrifying textures of life as a WWI soldier, where the landscape is frequently littered with rotting, fly-covered carcasses, rats running in and out of decomposing bodies, various bits of limbs protruding from dust-covered landscapes, and rusted-out helmets pocked with bullet holes. You could nearly get a case of trench foot from the wet-muddy realism of it. And all of these shots without break in a single, long take!

 

The only video issue I noticed was a pretty severe bit of judder at around 42:40 (immediately preceding “The Dogfight” scene). The camera shoots through the gaps between some vertical wooden fence slats while slowly tracking to the right. Whether it is the shutter speed used, the speed of the camera panning, or just an inherent issue with the limitations of filming at 24 frames per second, on my two displays (a JVC 4K projector and Sony 4K TV), the wooden posts broke down into a ghosted mess during these few seconds. At first I thought there might be an issue with the Kaleidescape encode, but I had fellow reviewer Dennis Burger check the same scene on a 4K version of the movie streamed from Vudu, and he had the same experience. (Another Kaleidescape user at the Owner’s Forum commented that he didn’t notice any issues with that scene, so it is likely display dependent.)

 

Given the film’s Academy Award for sound mixing and nomination for sound editing, I was excited to hear the audio mix; and while the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack included with the Kaleidescape download is certainly dynamic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t (again!) call out NBC Universal for not providing Kaleidescape with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos track.

 

Even still, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did an admirable job of extracting ambient cues from scenes, adding the swirl of wind through leaves and trees in a forest canopy, the roar of plunging water, or the sounds of a bunker caving in around 

you, with its wooden supports splintering and dust and debris filling the room. Another scene has a biplane roaring overhead and disappear out through the front of the room, and in another you hear flares launched up overhead, where they sizzle and burn.

 

This is a war film, so there is a fair bit of shooting and explosions, and rifle shots have an appropriately loud and sharp crack, with the sounds of ejected and spent brass shell casings tinkling and bouncing on the floor. One explosion was so loud and sudden that it literally had me jump in my seat!

 

Further, the movie is well served by Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated original score, which seems to always add the right level of sweeping scale, tension, and urgency to the film. It reminded me in some ways of the frantic, haunting music Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, always reminding you that our characters are in a race against the clock, and the clock is ticking.

 

Dialogue is mostly easy to understand throughout, and when it wasn’t, it was more due to the occasionally thick accents of the actors than to any poor quality of the mix.

1917 (2019)

If I have one last nit to pick, it is again with NBC Universal. As is another of their maddening policies, they don’t provide Kaleidescape with any of the film’s extras or supplemental features, and 1917 is a movie that demands a making-of documentary viewing to see how they pulled off the incredible cinematography and camera work. Hopefully this policy will change in the future.

 

For me, recommending 1917 is a total no-brainer. It is not only one of the most unique and engaging films I’ve seen in a while, it looks fantastic in a home theater—the bigger the screen the better. It’s an intense viewing experience, but one that is well worth it.

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.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

I cannot tell you how faithful Greta Gerwig’s new big-screen adaptation of Little Women is to Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. I’ve never read the book. Nor can I tell you how it compares with previous adaptations, including the beloved 1994 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Daines, et al. I’ve never seen any of them. What drew me to this film wasn’t the source material or any respect for its cultural significance. What lured me in was Gerwig herself, whose brilliant directorial debut—2017’s Lady Bird—earned her enough creative currency in my book that I’ll watch anything she helms going forward.

 

Still, my wife snickered when I told her we’d be watching the film.

 

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

 

“You’re way more of an Emily Brontë than a Louisa May Alcott, that’s all.”

 

I frankly have no clue what that means. But I do know this: If I honestly cared about organizing some personal ranking of the best films of 2019, Little Women would leave me scrambling to rearrange it yet again.

 

I think I can safely say that Gerwig’s film is structured very differently from Alcott’s book, if only because a novel written in such a temporally idiosyncratic way would read like James Joyce on a bad acid trip. The film follows seven years in the life of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen—but rather than following their maturation from adolescence into womanhood chronologically, Gerwig instead groups scenes thematically, jumping forward and backward in time with seemingly no rhyme or reason until you catch onto the fact that rhyme and reason are exactly what influenced the grouping of moments in time, rather than the straightforward passage thereof.

By taking this approach, Gerwig has constructed more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative, and it reminds me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in its pace and momentum; definitely not in its tone or effect) than perhaps any other film I’ve seen in recent decades. Much like that film, Little Women assumes the intelligence of its audience, and trusts the viewer to locate themselves in time and space by way of context. Only one subtitle early in the film calls out the drastic time shifts, and from there on out Gerwig seems to assume you’ll either keep up or give up and enjoy the ride.

 

Far more than merely a cinematic conceit, these near-constant temporal shifts allow the viewer to do something I honestly wasn’t quite sure I would be able to do at the beginning of the film: Truly understand the unique personality of each of the story’s numerous characters. By clumping the tale’s visual, thematic, and narrative echoes together rather than sprinkling them throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime, Gerwig invites us to ruminate more on meaning than exposition, more on character than narrative.

 

Again, I’m at a loss to compare the themes of the film to the themes of the book, but the story as Gerwig tells it is really about the creative impulse. The drive to make art. The struggle to be taken seriously not just as a woman in Civil War-era America, but as an artist in an inartistic world. In many ways, the film ends up being as much a commentary on the story as an adaptation of it, best I can tell. And while it also grapples with issues of class, gender, and societal norms—all with surprising nuance and complexity—it’s really that artistic impulse that centers the film and gives distinct personality to each of its characters.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Little Women is that it isn’t afraid to get a little weird at times. But it’s not a weirdness driven by affectation. Instead, it’s a weirdness driven by the needs of the story. As much as Gerwig’s film deviates from the structure of any comprehensible book to craft a uniquely cinematic work, it’s still in many ways a celebration of the written word. And in paying homage to the inimitable structure of written language, it relies on tropes that would normally drag a film down or cheapen it—like narration, for example. Rather than taking the safe approach or trying to bury that narration in the tried-and-true ways, Gerwig hangs a lantern on it at times and has her characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, even when they’re not speaking to the viewer.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but in Gerwig’s hands it does. And the cumulative effect is a film that’s as playful as it is heady, as sentimental as it is rebellious, as joyful as it is solemn in places. The one place where Gerwig doesn’t take bold risks is with the look of the film. I could have told you without looking that Little Women was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T stock, which gives the cinematography a decidedly warm cast, with a yellowish tint to whites

and a flush ruddiness to skin tones. But the overall look of the film is intentionally muted, and even the 4K/HDR presentation on Kaleidescape doesn’t make much obvious use of its expanded dynamic range and color gamut.

 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely film. Just not one that will be used as videophile demo material. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, on the other hand, is unapologetically adventurous. Shockingly so for a period film of this sort. The height channels are used judiciously but effectively to provide a vertical boost in scenes that need it—large parlors, big theaters, the grimy city streets of 19th century New York—but they probably get used most to expand Alexandre Desplat’s score (his best since The Shape of Water, in my opinion) into the z-axis.

 

Sadly, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is delivered sans extras for now, which is unsurprising given that it’s a Sony release. Expect those bonus goodies to drop right around the time the film is released to disc (Blu-ray and DVD only, no UHD) in April. One supplement in particular I’m eager to see is an exploration of Orchard House, the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women.

Little Women (2019)

While I wait, I think I might actually give Alcott’s book a try based purely on the strength of this film alone, and despite my wife’s objections. As the credits rolled, I looked at her and playfully scolded her: “Why have you never pestered me to read that book?!”

 

She pondered for a few moments and replied: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the book. It’s one of my favorites. But the book wasn’t that good. It’s entertainment. That film was art.”

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.