Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

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


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 In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright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

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


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


And then Disney+ happened.


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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



What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

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

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

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


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

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


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

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


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

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Dennis Burger

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

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Katherine Spiller

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


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


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

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


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

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Katharine Spiller


Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

Downton Abbey

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

Downton Abbey

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


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

Dennis Burger

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

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Theres a truism about golf that focusing on your grip and overthinking your swing is the easiest way to sabotage your own game. Im not really sure how true that is, because the closest Ive ever gotten to a golfball field was the Mountasia mini-golf course that used to sit where my favorite barbeque joint now resides. But Ive heard the same said of everything from tennis to endurance racing to sex, so Ill assume theres some validity to it.


Given that, its sort of amazing that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantinos ninth and reportedly penultimate film, isnt an absolute swing-and-a-miss. Throughout the films 160-minute runtime, its pretty obvious QT positively obsessed over every aspect of not just this film but his entire oeuvre, as well as every single trope that has defined his style.


That could have something to do with the fact that this film was in the works when longtime collaborator Harvey Weinstein was outed for years of predatory sexual assault. This is also Tarantinos first film since he got caught in the crossfire between Weinstein and former muse Uma Thurman, and took responsibility for a car crash that seriously injured her during the filming of Kill Bill. (For what its worth, Thurmans daughter Maya Hawke plays a small but pivotal role in Once Upon a Time, which lends some credibility to Uma and Quentins apparent reconciliation.)


I normally wouldnt mention such behind-the-scenes controversies in a review, since they normally have no bearing on the quality of the work in and of itself. But despite the fact that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been brewing in the back of Tarantinos mind for a decade now, you can see the fingerprints of all of the above throughout the film. You can also see the filmmaker grappling with, reflecting upon, embracing, and/or altering the formula that has defined his career.


Say what you will about Tarantino as a filmmaker—and Ive criticized him as often as Ive lauded him—theres simply no denying that it takes serious talent to juggle all of those balls in broad daylight and still hit one out of the park. (And I swear to you, that will be the last ham-fisted sports metaphor I attempt to make in the course of this review.) Once Upon a Time is the first Tarantino film Ive genuinely enjoyed since 2007s Death Proof, and its arguably his best since 2004s Kill Bill: Volume 2. What isnt really up for argument is that its his most mature and personal work by far, which is a bit of a conundrum given that this is ultimately a comedy.


I wont dig too much into the plot for numerous reasons, but suffice to say, the story centers on the relationship between an actor who is past his prime and the longtime stuntman who functions as his right hand, confidant, and personal assistant of sorts. The interactions between these two—played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who turn in some of the best work either has ever committed to the screen—form the bedrock of what could almost be described as a tone poem about the end of an era, personally, culturally, and politically. Its a rumination on the changing landscape of Hollywood and of society as a whole at the end of the turbulent 1960s.


While DiCaprio and Pitt stand at the center of this loose tale, though, they cant really be described as its heart. That function belongs to Margot Robbie, who positively mesmerizes as Sharon Tate, one of a number of real-world figures who populate the wholly (and I do mean wholly) fictionalized world of Tarantinos film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

QTs handling of Tate as a character is honestly one of the films most fascinating elements. He doesnt put her on a pedestal. He doesnt objectify her. He doesnt turn her into some magical, mythical, or tragic creature. He humanizes her, to a degree Ive never seen in any of the fictionalized or dramatized portrayals of her. This, combined with Robbies pitch-perfect performance, gives her a presence that feels somewhat out of proportion with her relatively limited screen time, not to mention the minuscule amount of dialogue given to her.


Speaking of dialogue, thats another thing that sets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood apart from Tarantinos larger body of work. While his characters in previous films often feel like little more than delivery mechanisms for the words in the script, in this one the dialogue works first and foremost in service of the characters. True, those words are still too clever by half much of the time, but that trope works in this case, at least as well as it did in Pulp Fiction.


Once Upon a Time also leans hard on a number of other tried-and-true Tarantino tropes, though not always in the expected ways. As always, pop music plays a huge role in the soundtrack, though the filmmaker seems less interested in digging up long-forgotten deep cuts like “Stuck in the Middle with You” or “Flowers on the Wall,” relying instead of iconic cuts that evoke the era and the personal emotions hes exploring.


Another trope Tarantino seems to be consciously grappling with is violence. Ill admit, Ive never had quite the problem with his use of gore and splatter as some critics, if only because its generally so over-the-top and obviously cartoonish that theres only the most tenuous relationship between Tarantinos violence and real-world bodily harm. In Once Upon a Time, though, not only is the violence massively downplayed; its also shockingly realistic. That combination—the overall lack of bloodshed combined with an undeniable lack of glorification or sensationalism when it does appear—honestly makes this films two or three brief violent scenes the exact opposite of cartoonish. In fact, theyre so brutal as to be difficult to watch.


Im only guessing here, but it seems to me this is intentional. Indeed, one of the minor recurring themes of the film is the representation of violence in movies and TV (including Tarantinos own previous efforts). Unsurprisingly, its a theme he handles with a hefty helping of Gen X irony. But the fact that hes handling it so blatantly in the first place cant go unnoticed.


One also cant help but notice that Tarantino agonized over the look of the film. Shot on a combination of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film stock, the color portions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are outright dazzling, even if the image seems to be a revolt against current digital video standards. If youre a videophile, be prepared for some seriously crushed blacks, overly ruddy skin tones, primary colors that sizzle with near-neon intensity, and a defiant lack of dynamic range, especially on the lower end of the value scale.


I dont say this as a criticism of the home video transfer, mind you. The Ultra HD/HDR presentation, especially the one provided by Kaleidescape, seems absolutely true to Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardsons artistic vision. Im merely giving you a heads-up that if you go in expecting near-infinite shadow detail and subtlety in the color palette, youre going to be a bit taken aback by what you see.


On the other hand, this is one of the few modern films that genuinely takes advantage of Ultra HD resolution, since it was finished in a 4K digital intermediate. And, indeed, the wider color gamut, as compared with the older HD home video standards, allows the extra intensity of those vibrant primary hues to shine through unscathed.


Interestingly, despite the overall lack of dynamic range on display, there is one very dark scene in the film that I think would have benefited from the dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision HDR. “Dynamic metadata” is just a jargony way of saying the overall dynamic range of the image can be adjusted on a scene-by-scene basis, and it’s one of the major advantages of Dolby Vision vs. HDR10. I know a Dolby Vision master was created for digital cinema exhibition, although the best we have on home video is the standard HDR10. Again, though, that one dark scene aside, the only time the film really calls for enhanced dynamic range is one or two rare instances of high-intensity brightness in the TV-pilot-within-a-film that comprises so much of the movie’s second act.


Overall, its a gorgeous film that is well-served by this home video presentation. It simply isnt what most people would consider home theater demo material, because it has absolutely no interest in acting as such.


The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying the Kaleidescape download also does a wonderful job of delivering the films mix, which runs the gamut from safe and unobtrusive to unapologetically playful, depending on the needs of the scene. There are creative uses of the surround soundfield that will likely go unnoticed unless youre taking notes and critiquing the mix from a technical perspective, and other, more obvious surround-sound tricks that seemingly serve Tarantinos meta-purposes of making a film about filmmaking. But all of this really takes a backseat to what matters most: The fidelity of the soundtrack music and the intelligibility of the dialogue, both of which are unimpeachable.

Its just a bummer that, for now, Sony Pictures seems fit to have left the Kaleidescape release of this film devoid of bonus features. Im not quite ready to proclaim Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a masterpiece or anything, but it is a fascinating film made for lovers of cinema, and as such it deserves some supplemental exploration.


The upcoming UHD Blu-ray promises to be pretty packed with bonus goodies, and indeed, other digital releases already available include some substantial extras, including a documentary about how Tarantino transformed modern-day L.A. into a  convincing recreation of its late-1960s equivalent without the use of computer effects, as well as over 20 minutes of deleted or alternate scenes. The latter are of particular interest, given that many of the scenes shown in trailers for the film appear nowhere in the finished product, and indeed seem to have no place in it.


Kaleidescape tells me these bonuses will be coming in the next few weeks,” presumably closer to the disc release on December 10. So, dont let the present lack thereof keep you from purchasing the film on Kaleidescape if thats your preferred movie service.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As to whether you should purchase the film at all, no matter the platform, thats a difficult question to answer. For Tarantino diehards, its a no-brainer. On the other hand, those of you who have never found anything to love in any of his films likely wont be swayed by this one. Despite the obvious self-critique of his own cinematic shorthand, he still relies on it, though not as unapologetically as hes done in the past.


For those like me who love some of Tarantinos films and outright loathe or are bored to tears by others, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an interesting work. It isnt perfect. It isnt consistent. It is utterly captivating, though. So much so that Ive been unable to think about much else since watching it.


Will it stand the test of time? Honestly, who knows? I will say this, though: After taking a bit more time to sort out my own thoughts on the film, Im eager to dive back in and explore it at least one more time. 

Dennis Burger

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

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Cory Reistad

SAV Digital Environments is headquartered in far-flung Bozeman, MT, pop. 45,000. And yet it’s become one of the largest and most influential luxury integrators in the country.


It hasn’t hurt that SAV has been involved with the Yellowstone Club since Day One. Doing the integration work for that sprawling enclave of luxury vacation homes in nearby Big Sky gave the company a chance to hone its skills at creating complex systems for large, entertainment-centric environments. It’s also helped that Bozeman has transitioned over the past few years from classic western cowtown to thriving tech community.


But, more than anything, it has been SAV’s ability to seize on these opportunities and create solid, flexible home systems backed by exceptional service and support that has brought them into the top tier of integrators


In the video above, we talk to founder and president Cory Reistad about, among other things, his clients’ preference for cutting-edge media rooms, the importance of creating bulletproof systems, and his renewed interest in Kaleidescape.


Die Hard

Die Hard

Few things give you that, “Wow! Really?! It’s been that long?!?” feeling like a milestone anniversary re-release of one of your favorite films. Die Hard came out in 1988, the same year I graduated high school. I first saw the movie on VHS with two high-school buddies, viewing it on a relatively small TV with a pair of speakers connected to a stereo system. (Remember that home theater was virtually non-existent back then, and a VHS Hi-Fi player—or LaserDisc player—connected to a stereo was practically state-of-the-art!) But the presentation didn’t matter. The film was so gripping and unlike any other action movie I’d seen that it held my attention from start to finish.


For the film’s 25th anniversary, 20th Century Fox re-released the Die Hard series in a box set, but those transfers were taken from existing video elements and featured no improvement over the initial Blu-ray release. Fortunately, for the 30th anniversary, the studio decided to right that wrong, and gave the movie a full remaster, with this release sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate. And while Die Hard has been available on 4K Blu-ray Disc since May 2018, it is just now available in full-quality download from the Kaleidescape Store, which is how I enjoyed it.


For me, there are two standouts that make Die Hard the great film it is. First is Bruce Willis in the role of off-duty NYPD officer John McClane.


Remember that when this movie came out in 1988, Willis was certainly nothing of an action star, and not much of a movie star at all. Besides his role in the TV series Moonlighting and some bit parts in other TV shows, his “big” film role had been as a kind of goofball in Blind Date.


But Officer McClane was not your typical highly-trained and overly-lethal Spec Ops-trained action star of the day, but rather a relatable everyman suddenly thrust into an incredible situation where he had to figure things out on the fly and struggle virtually every second to outwit the bad guys, save the hostages, and survive. The decisions he makes as a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time give viewers the hope that maybe they could do the same. And Willis interjects just enough humor 

and personality to keep the film from being too dark.


But even bigger and more important to the film’s lasting success than Willis’s performance is that of Alan Rickman as ultra-cool villain, Hans Gruber.


Gruber was really unlike any other villain we’d seen to that point. He wasn’t a bizarre, megalomaniac Bond villain; he didn’t have 

Die Hard

any weird predilections or affectations; nor was he some supernatural character or monster. He was an exceptional thief who reads Forbes, quotes literature, and wears bespoke Savile Row suits. His first lines are read from a small notebook as he addresses the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza: “’And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education.” This is not the typical bombastic entrance of a film’s central villain, and lets you know that Gruber is different. Further, Gruber’s fantastic lines of dialogue are delivered perfectly thanks to Rickman’s classical theater training. Gruber, who conducts the raid on the Nakatomi Plaza like he’s negotiating a hostile business takeover, ranks among the greatest villains of all time.


It’s hard to imagine anyone not being familiar with Die Hard, but it’s likely been years since you’ve watched it, as was the case for me. (Unless you belong to that group that considers Die Hard one of the best Christmas films and make it part of your annual festivities.) I had an imported copy of the DVD sitting on my Kaleidescape server, and, frankly, it never looked that great. So, the 4K HDR release was a perfect time to revisit this classic, which looks hands-down better than I’ve ever experienced it. 


On Christmas Eve, a group of European criminals take over and lock down the Nakatomi Plaza, taking a floor full of employees enjoying a holiday party hostage in the process. The plan is to break into the vault and steal more than $600 million in negotiable bearer bonds, blow up the building, and be on a beach earning 20% before the authorities realize what happened. But the thieves’ plans are disrupted by the presence of an unexpected party guest in the form of Willis’s McClane. Using nothing but his wits and his duty weapon (well, at least until he can commandeer something better), McClane fights off the terrorists, makes contact with local law enforcement, and uses every resource available—save for shoes—to save the day.


I know fellow Cineluxe reviewer Dennis Burger feels “older movies shot on 35mm or larger film stock are the ones that stand to benefit most from the latest Ultra HD and HDR home video standards,” but it’s important to set expectations. Die Hard unquestionably looks the best we’ve seen here, but if you’re looking for the gleaming sharpness and every last pixel of detail you’d find from a modern digitally captured film, you’ll likely be disappointed.


There are definitely moments where the added detail and resolution are greatly appreciable, such as the closeups revealing pore detail of the actors’ faces without any of the “waxiness” that can come from overly used DNR. You can also see the weave of fabrics, such as the fine lines in Willis’ undershirt, and notice the detail on the gold frame sitting on Holly Gennaro’s (Bonnie Bedelia) desk. As the limo pulls into Nakatomi Plaza to drop McClane off, you clearly see the sharp lines and detail in the paver stones.


But other scenes sprinkled throughout look almost out of focus or even blurry, such as one scene in Holly’s office when she is talking to John. And while lines and edges are mostly sharp, there are other scenes that reveal some aliasing, such as a pile of sheetrock on one of the unfinished floors of the Nakatomi building. 


Black levels are nice, deep and clean, but sometimes blacks are so black that detail is lost, such as with the texturing of Hans’s suit. Colors are rich, such as the sunset in LA revealing a rich, vibrant red-orange tapestry that has no banding.


HDR is not used aggressively, but definitely adds impact to explosions, gunfire, and bright computer-monitor images. It also enhances the fluorescent lighting on the unfinished floors and oncoming headlights, compared to the Blu-ray. The night scenes overlooking LA from the top of the tower also look terrific.

Die Hard was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing (as well as Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects), so you might have hoped that a new immersive sound mix would have been part of the 4K release, but that isn’t the case. (I wish studios would pull a page from Sony’s book on how to do a proper anniversary release, but that seems to be too much to ask . . .) What we have here is a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix that is certainly serviceable.


The musical score is given nice room to breathe across the front channels, and dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, which is paramount in any sound mix.


Sound mixes have evolved over the past 30 years, and Die Hard doesn’t look for every opportunity to mine deep low-frequency information. Even some of the big explosions don’t have the bass impact you might would hope for. But still, bass impact is there for the big moments, such as the rocket-launcher attack on the SWAT vehicle or the elevator-shaft explosion or when the final seal of the bank vault is released. Gunshots—of which there are plenty—have good dynamics.

Die Hard

There is a good bit of ambient and surround information that upmixes well using either Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural. We get the nice effect of the FBI helicopter flying overhead, sounds of sprinklers from the fire-suppression system, secondary explosions, and glass shattering.


Die Hard was a gamechanger for the action-film genre, and is considered one of the best action films of all time. Fortunately, we can enjoy it again looking better than ever. It remains a ton of fun to watch and is a must-have for any home theater 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

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen (2019)

Shocking. Thats easily the best descriptor to sum up the opening of the new HBO series Watchmen.


If the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the Zack Snyder film a decade ago, which was in turn an adaptation of a seminal 12-issue DC Comics series from the mid ’80s. The comic takes place in an alternate version of our world where the point of divergence is 1938. Masked heroes (some might say vigilantes) have won the Vietnam War for the American side, 

thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a god-like character born from a scientific experiment.


At its heart, the comic is a murder mystery. One of the Watchmen is murdered at the beginning and we spend the 12 issues finding out the who and why, all with the backdrop of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.


The HBO series is a sequel that primarily takes place in Tulsa 34 years after the events of the comic. The location is significant because of that shocking opening scene: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. Its a disturbing moment in 

American history that is unknown, or at least not well known, by most of the population. I know it wasnt covered in any of my history classes.


On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsa residents attacked the city’s black Greenwood district, referred to as Black Wall Street” because of the prosperity and wealth of the residents there. Officially, 36 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that number as high as 300, with thousands left homeless. This sets up the racial backdrop of the Tulsa of Watchmen. In it, police officers wear masks to protect their identity from the population they are trying to protect, and from the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.


The main characters of the series are new creations by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and The Leftovers fame). That isnt to say the original characters from the comic are absent; in fact, a few are supporting characters (at least through the third episode of the series). But the story is at its heart seen from the viewpoint of Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked police officers who has a murder mystery dumped in her lap in Episode One.


The cast of Watchmen is absolutely fantastic, and while its the story of Abar, it really is dependent on its ensemble; Louis Gossett Jr., playing Tulsa riot survivor Will Reeves, feeds the mystery of the story with his cryptic hints to Abar; Jeremy Irons is fantastically peculiar; and Jean Smart (introduced in Episode Three) has an inspiring performance that, I think, should lead to awards talk. The cast as a whole handles the challenging and uncomfortable material deftly.


Visually, there are beautiful references to the comic book (for those who are fans), and the breadth of cinematography is very cinematic. But being HBO, resolution is capped at 1080p. Luckily, I didnt experience any of the godawful compression issues found during other HBO shows, even during some dark, nighttime fight sequences.


The Dolby Digital surround mix (the highest available through HBO Go or HBO Now) is very good. Action scenes filled my room while keeping my focus forward on the screen where it needed to be. The shining star of the mix, though, is the score composed by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which expertly captures the mood of the show and helps drive its narrative forward.


For those who want a deeper dive, there’s a companion podcast, The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and director of Chernobyl), joined by Lindelof. A new installment is released every third series episode, and each one adds some interesting insight into the creation process.


Watchmen is not for the faint of heart, and those unfamiliar with the source material might be thrown for a loop at times, but hang in there. The storytelling is top-notch to match the excellent acting and score.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Demo Scenes: The Wizard of Oz

Demo Scenes: The Wizard of Oz
“Meeting Oz”
(Chapter 13, 1:08:44–1:12:42)


I keep making the claim in my reviews and elsewhere on Cineluxe that older movies shot on 35mm or larger film stock are the ones that stand to benefit most from the latest Ultra HD and HDR home video standards. And I’ve yet to see a better example of this than the new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz.


Granted, this 80-year-old classic isn’t perfectly consistent from beginning to end in its visual presentation. It’s a little soft in places and a little too grainy in others. But the new restoration simply reveals a level of depth and detail in the image that most people have never seen.


Check out the pivotal scene in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion meet the Wizard for the first time in his gloomy and imposing throne room. If you go back to the Blu-ray release (and indeed, many previous home video

efforts), the long hallway leading to this meeting looks obviously fake, hilariously flat, undeniably a matte painting. But given more dynamic range to work with, this new transfer doesn’t need to boost the brightness of the entire scene to illuminate our heroes. As such, the backgrounds have a much more natural depth and more convincing shadows, so that long hallway actually seems to recede into the distance.


Fast-forward to the face-to-face meeting, specifically when the Wizard says, “I am Oz, the great and powerful! Who are you?” In the very best Blu-ray release, Dorothy’s dress when those lines are uttered is an indistinctly textured wash 

of blue, not the gingham we all know her to be wearing. In the 4K/HDR release, the gingham is restored, and undeniably so. That’s not all, though. In previous home releases, the Tin Man simply lacks a little luster, despite the polish he just received a few scenes back. In the 4K/HDR, he positively glistens, as he should.


But it’s not merely little details such as this that make the new restoration work. This scene overall benefits from more nuanced dynamic range. Shadows aren’t a mass of crushed blacks; they contain detail and depth. Highlights don’t have to be overblown to be seen. The shift in brightness of the background as the Wizard’s showy flames rise from his throne are subtler, and indeed more effective for it. Overall, the atmosphere of the entire throne room and the occupants within simply seem more convincing. Less a stage and more of a genuine space.


The effect overall isn’t merely about eye candy. It’s not about more pixels or more colors or deeper shadows or what have you. It’s about the subliminal effects of all those little visual improvements, which combine to draw you deeper into the illusion of this magical film, in a way we’ve never quite been able to achieve at home before now.

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.

Angel Has Fallen

Angel Has Fallen

I’m a pretty big sucker for military thrillers. You make a movie involving submarines, fighter jets, Navy SEALs, Delta Force, or something tied to Tom Clancy, I’m 100% gonna be down to watch. Another of the military sub-genres I’m a sucker for is anything involving the US Secret Service.


Years ago, while working as a golf professional at a private country club in the Bay Area, I got a chance to watch the Secret Service in action as our club hosted then-president Clinton for a round of golf. His single foursome required a total of 17 golf carts, including the forward and aft security details featuring guys riding around with giant binoculars and touting large unzipped black bags holding shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, a colonel carrying the “football” with the nuclear launch


Hunter Killer

codes, and the president’s personal doctor with a chilled supply of medical equipment. (There were also black-clad Spec Ops assaulters who disappeared up into the trees, snipers on overwatch at the top of the country club, two presidential limos circling the streets bordering the course to shadow the president’s position, helicopters sweeping over the course, and even fighter jets that occasionally flew over! How much that single round of golf cost tax payers I can only imagine.)


I volunteered to take box lunches out to all of the groups, and as I was driving up to the security detail tasked to the president’s group, I noticed that the agent in the passenger 

seat very nonchalantly crossed his leg and slipped his right hand down to his right thigh. And there was his pistol, perfectly aimed at me and tracking me the entire way as I pulled up and got out to hand over the lunches. Rather than being scared, I thought it was so cool how subtly professional and dialed-in the guy was, covering me the entire time, but being so discreet about it. And not everyone can say that they’ve had a Secret Service agent point a gun at them.


So, after that, I’ve had a special place in my heart for the professionalism and thoroughness of the Secret Service detail and love movies that show them in action. (In the Line of Fire is a real favorite!)


One of the more exciting film series in this genre has been the Has Fallen trilogy starring Gerard Butler as former US Army Ranger turned US Secret Service agent, Mike Banning. Starting with Olympus Has Fallen in 2013, where Butler had to retake the White House and save President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) after he was captured by a North Korean-led terrorist group, followed by London Has Fallen in 2016, where Banning had to transport Asher through the streets of London after Marine One is shot down and seemingly everyone in the city has become a terrorist hellbent on killing the President, we now get the third in Angel Has Fallen.


Noticeably different in this film is the replacement of Eckhart’s Asher as president, and if there were any overt references to Asher in Angel, I missed them. But, as five years have passed since the end of London, it makes sense that Asher has moved on from the office and political life. He is replaced with some semblance of continuity by Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who has steadily risen in the government ranks, having served as Speaker of the House in Olympus, Vice President in London, and finally getting the presidential nod here in Angel.


Bannon is still the principal agent on the presidential detail, though his body and mind are a bit worse for wear after all the years of active service. But he once again finds himself in the middle of things, after an assassination attempt leaves Trumbull in a coma, and all of the evidence points to Bannon as the mastermind behind the attempt.


Bannon is forced on the run, needing to evade capture from both the FBI (led by Jada Pinkett Smith as Agent Helen Thompson) and the Secret Service while also trying to track down those responsible for the attempt on Trumbull’s life and insure they aren’t successful in another attempt. Along the way, Bannon enlists the help of his estranged and off-the-grid father Clay (Nick Nolte). 


Angel belongs to that increasingly common group of movies that has a real divide between critics and fans, with critics giving it only 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences giving it a 93%. While not the strongest movie of the trilogy—Olympus holds that title—it features a steady stream of action, with plenty of explosions, gunfire, and car chases designed to give fans of the series what they want.


Shot in ArriRaw at 3.4K, Angel is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and generally looks terrific. Edges are razor sharp, and closeups reveal tons of detail. In fact, perhaps a bit too much detail for the likes of Butler and Freeman, whose faces show lots of weather and wear, while shots of Nolte clearly show every crazy stray hair on his head and in his beard. Even things like the small American flag pin on Trumbull’s lapel clearly show the individual red and white stripes of the flag, and you can also see the thread and stitching detail in clothing. Compared to the Blu-ray version (included with the 4K purchase

from Kaleidescape), there is noticeably more sharpness and detail, especially in closeups.


There are quite a few night or very dark interior scenes, and blacks are generally deep and clean. There is a bit of digital noise in some of the scenes when Bannon is being transported by the FBI, but these are shot in torturously low light, and really are more a testament to how far digital capture has come rather than being a drawback by revealing a bit of noise. Most night/dark scenes look terrific, such as the night shots of DC, which look gorgeous, with the city beautifully lit in full HDR glory.


HDR is used nicely to enhance the image throughout. During the opening, sunlight streams through openings in a building, illuminating its dark interior with bright shafts of light. Car tail lights, police lights, and dashboard instruments all have tons of pop, courtesy of HDR.


Sonically, Angel has a lot going on thanks to a very active and immersive Dolby Atmos sound mix that kicks off almost from the opening frame. The sound mixers seemed to use every opportunity to put appropriate sounds overhead, such as helicopters flying and hovering, or a swarm of drones zipping around the ceiling. There’s a near constant bit of atmospheric audio filling the speakers, like radio 

Angel Has Fallen

chatter and off-screen announcements, and gunshot echoes and reports. Equally important to the quality of the special effects is the ability to clearly understand dialogue and what is being said, and Angel has no problems in this regard.


My only real complaint with the audio is that bass seemed to be a bit anemic. There were numerous big explosions throughout that never seemed to really push the LFE channel. None of the big moments delivered the kinds of pants-fluttering bass levels you’d expect from a big action film, and it was a little disappointing that Angel didn’t have some more low-end impact to accompany gunshots and detonations.


Fans of the Fallen series will be pleased to hear that series producer Alan Siegel recently announced plans for a fourth, fifth, and sixth film, meaning we haven’t seen the end of Bannon’s days on the detail.


Angel Has Fallen is available for download now from the Kaleidescape Store, two weeks ahead of its physical-media release on November 26.

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

Inside “Forbidden Broadway”

Cineluxe is fortunate to have a number of writers whose expertise extends well beyond their ability to comment on the latest trends in luxury home entertainment. To take one truly exceptional example, contributor Gerard Alessandrini is the creator, 

writer, and director of the longest-running musical revue in history, Forbidden Broadwayan accomplishment that earned him a well-deserved Tony.


A spoof of all the latest Broadway shows and an incisive satire of musical theater in general, Forbidden Broadway has had productions around the world, including England and Japan, and has been the launching pad for many well-known actors, including Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander.


We recently had the chance to take a backstage look at the creation of the show’s latest edition, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, which ran at New York’s Triad and York theaters before preparing for a national tour. In 

the video above, Gerard provides glimpses of the new show and its amazingly talented cast, while also reflecting on the show’s storied history and enduring legacy.

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

The cast of Forbidden Broadway: The Next GenerationChris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin,
Aline Mayagoitia, and Immanuel Houston. 

From Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation: Jenny Lee Stern’s virtuoso turn as Judy Garland offering her critique of Renee Zellweger’s portrayal of her in Judy.