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The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I gave my definition of a screwball comedy. In the list below, I describe 30 of the best screwball efforts from Hollywood’s Studio Era, focusing on the wildly fast-paced, slightly illogical and slapstick-laden films that can still make us double over with laughter today. They are listed here in order of their first theatrical release so you can see the progression of the genre and also how the studios were affected by the latest trends and what rival studios were up to.

The 1930s

Duck Soup

(1933, pre-Code)

This is the film where the Marx Brothers solidify their zany comedy style. It barely makes sense but that’s the beauty of it. The success of this movie gave the Depression audiences exactly what they wanted to see, and all the major studios soon followed with their own screwball comedies. Other Marx Brothers films in the same vein include Horse Feathers, Animal 

Crackers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and on and on . . . G I / K / V / Y

 

Bombshell

(1933, pre-Code)

Although this MGM Victor Fleming (director) movie is nearly forgotten as an original screwball comedy, screwball it is! Jean Harlow proved a woman can be at the center of the farce, and the fast pace and surprising turns of the plot make it one of the best comedies of the 1930s. Harlow is the blonde bombshell of this Hollywood satire, but the real troublemaker is Lee Tracey as her press agent. It contains one of moviedom’s funniest lines, as spoken with great depth by Franchot Tone: “I want to run barefoot through your hair.”  A / G / K / V / Y

 

It Happened One Night

(1934, pre-Code)

This is one of everybody’s favorites. A runaway bride (Claudette Colbert) and a hard-nosed newspaper man (Clark Gable) take a night bus to a zany romance. It proved that this type of comedy can be big box office in the 1930s and was lauded, with awards for Colbert, Gable, and director Frank Capra.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Twentieth Century

(1934, pre-Code)

In this film, Carole Lombard creates the ultimate blonde prima donna actress and sets the bar for all leading ladies in screwball comedies for the next decade. Not far behind her for broadness and insanity is John Barrymore. He 

Where to See Some Screwball

All but seven of the classic films listed here are readily available for streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 16 of the best into a Classic Screwball Comedies collection, and Tubi offers His Girl Friday, Merrily We Live (which isn’t available elsewhere), My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred for free. The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.

 

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

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

plays a Pygmalion-like creator and Lombard’s nemesis. This is one of the wittiest and earliest of the screwball comedies. If you’re wondering if any of the classic screwballs ever made great Broadway musicals, Twentieth Century became On the Twentieth Centurythe 1978 Broadway musical that starred Madeline Kahn.  A / I  V 

My Man Godfrey

(1936)

Carole Lombard is back and at her zaniest. William Powell plays her “forgotten man” butler who suffers through an insane asylum of a wealthy family’s home. This is one of the best examples of screwball comedy and in fact one of the best movies ever made. Lombard and Powell were both 

nominated for Academy Awards. A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (be warned: it’s colorized on Google Play, iTunes, and Tubi)

 

Libeled Lady

(1936)

Nominated for Best Picture of 1936, Libeled Lady is MGM’s witty answer to the screwball comedy. The star-studded quartet of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow topped the charts for sophistication and outright slapstick.
A / G / K / I
V / Y

 

Theodora Goes Wild

(1936)

Irene Dunne entered the race as a screwball comedienne with this movie about a hometown girl who writes a novel about her friends and family, thereby creating a near riot. Up to this point, Dunne had done mostly dramas or lovely musicals and had

great trepidation about taking on comedy. She was so successful in this film, not only did she receive an Academy Award nomination, but she was crowned the Queen of Screwball Comedies (though arguably a co-reign with Carole Lombard).

 

Easy Living

(1937)

Jean Arthur jumps on the bandwagon as a fun-loving screwball comedy star. This is a very improbable story of a girl who accidentally catches a mink stole that’s thrown out of a window by millionaire Edward Arnold. There’s a Depression-era dream come true if there ever was one!

 

Topper

(1937)

Talk about unrealistic fun, this is a ghost story meets frantic farce! It features Cary Grant’s first appearance in a screwball comedy; he will remain king of comedy over the next 20 years. Roland Young is the “haunted” leading man and Constance Bennett is the lovely blonde comedy queen. This is a top-notch production from MGM, which at this point certainly was in the forefront of screwball comedies. The “special effects,” which are actually mimed by the actors, are amazing and hysterical.

 

The Awful Truth

(1937)

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

Director Leo McCarey won an Academy Award for this classic screwball comedy starring comedy king and queen Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It is charming, surprisingly sophisticated, and, thanks to Cary Grant (and a spry little dog), full of slapstick.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Nothing Sacred

(1937)

Carole Lombard regains her place as the queen with this outrageous story of a girl who pretends she is dying of radiation poisoning in order to be the toast of New York City. It’s far-fetched but fabulous, and David O. Selznick, the producer, filmed it 

in three-strip Technicolor!  A / K / T  (free on Tubi)

 

Bringing Up Baby

(1938)

This is perhaps the ultimate screwball comedy. Katherine Hepburn proves that Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard have nothing on her in the comedy department, and she is at ease yet over-the-top with her frequent co-

star Cary Grant and a sweet leopard called “Baby.” This is the film to start with if you’re just entering the arena of screwball comedy.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Merrily We Live

(1938)

This is a sometimes-overlooked screwball comedy from MGM and a bit of a rip-off of My Man Godfrey. But Merrily We Live holds up in its own right. It’s fun, fresh, and quite lively. Hal Roach, the great comedy producer, cast it beautifully, too. 

Most notable is Billie Burke as the scatter-brained mother who has no control over her equally scatter-brained family. It’s an 

Art Deco delight to look at, thanks to the MGM budget. It’s terrific from beginning to end and worthy of being listed with the best of screwball comedies.  T

 

You Can’t Take It with You

(1938)

Although this is based on a sophisticated Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin have virtually turned it into a free-wheeling screwball comedy, accentuating all the wackiness of a poverty-stricken family, headed by Lionel Barrymore. Jean Arthur is the screwball blonde in this one, and James Stewart makes

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

his first foray into the genre very successfully. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938, coinciding with the peak of screwball comedy in Hollywood.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Midnight

(1939)

Claudette Colbert returns to the genre in this delightful and upscale romantic comedy that has most of the elements of screwball comedy to boot. Don Ameche provides a lot of the slapstick and quick-talking dialogue. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, it also features John Barrymore and Mary Astor at their peak.

The 1940s

His Girl Friday

(1940)

This is a perennial favorite, with comedy king Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at their fast-talking best. It’s an adaptation/ remake of The Front Page, and in fact improves on the original, which is quite a feat. This is one of the ultimate comedy

pictures of the pre-war era and it must be seen to be believed.  A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (free on Tubi & Vudu)

 

Christmas in July

(1940)

Writer/director Preston Sturges arrives at the top with this 61-minute romp about the common man’s struggle against wealthy corporations, yet it’s also a wild satire on the advertising industry. It might be noted that it has nothing to do with Christmas. Although it’s a joy, it is certainly not a holiday film. It’s fast moving and full of laughs thanks not only to Dick Powell but a supporting cast, including William Demarest, Raymond Walburn, and the lovely Ellen Drew.

 

The Lady Eve

(1941)

Preston Sturges marches on to add this great comedy to his long list of triumphs. Here Barbara Stanwyck tries her hand at the screwball genre, and she more than proves herself an expert right from the get-go. The great Charles Coburn is there too, adding his special zing of mature man’s comedic genius.  A / G / I / V / Y

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1
Love Crazy

(1941)

Since Libeled Lady, William Powell and Myrna Loy had been busy at MGM making the great detective comedies of “The Thin Man” series, but they return to screwball here with a truly insane and over-the-top “screwballer” that actually includes mental institutions. It’s silly but great fun. It’s the kind of comedy that couldn’t be made after World War II started when life and love had to be taken a bit more seriously. A / G / Y

Ball of Fire

(1941)

Barbara Stanwyck had already proven her excellence at screwball with The Lady Eve but here she’s with Gary Cooper and directed by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), so she’s even more effective. She received an Academy 

Award nomination for this film that’s a modern allegory of the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”!

 

Sullivan’s Travels 

(1941)

Preston Sturges is at his best (again) with this comedy that perhaps has a bit too much social conscience to be considered pure screwball, but it’s full of enough 

laughs and wit to make the grade. It also has a great screwball beauty, Veronica Lake, in the lead. Joel McCrae does the soul searching, Sturges provides the fast-paced direction.  A / G / K / I / V / Y

 

The Major and the Minor

(1942)

Ginger Rogers finally gets her crack at a real screwball as she impersonates a 12-year-old girl in order to buy a cheap train ticket. She keeps up the masquerade to hysterical effect and fascinates Ray Milland and a military school full of young boys to enormous comedic effect. It foreshadows the coming era of the sex comedy. Billy Wilder (of course) wrote and directed. He’ll

hit this high mark again and again.

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1942)

Ernst Lubitsch is at his directing best here with this early-World War II screwball farce. Carole Lombard, still one of Hollywood’s reigning queens of comedy, is on hand to bounce off the brilliant Jack Benny (in one of his very few films). You can feel the screwball comedy is changing with this gem, becoming more slyly paced and sophisticated.

 

The Palm Beach Story

(1942)

Again, Preston Sturges hits the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

To Be or Not to Be

bullseye with comedy diva Claudette Colbert. Here, romance warms the proceedings a bit more than usual, but it never shortchanges us on laughs, wit, or improbable circumstance. Its conclusion is a wonderful inevitable surprise—“. . . but that’s another story!”  A / G / I / K / V / Y

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

(1944)

Well, here is the zaniest, most fast-paced, and unbelievable screwball comedy ever! And who better to bring on the insanity than 1940s crazy lady Betty Hutton. Preston Sturges continues his avalanche of comedic gems. He continues right on with
. . .  A / G / I / V / Y

Hail the Conquering Hero

(1944)

Eddie Bracken, the male star of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, takes front and center as the 4F draft reject who lets himself be passed off as a returning war hero. Cantankerous William Demarest gets his share of laughs too.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

(1947)

After the war, the screwball comedy faded or morphed into Danny Kaye or Bob Hope musicals. But Cary Grant and Myrna Loy were still ready, willing, and able to serve up the laughs, albeit with a little more sophistication and class. Here the “out of her mind” trouble-making zany girl is none other than a pubescent Shirley Temple. When her raging hormones get the best of her, it’s nothing but trouble for Cary and Myrna, and side-splitting laughter for us. The original screenplay by Sidney Sheldon won the Academy Award for the best of 1947. Deservedly.  A / G / I K / V / Y

The 1950s

Monkey Business

(1952)

Writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks were still happy to deliver screwball as late as 1952. With old screwball veterans like Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, it’s a charming throwback to ten years earlier when this genre reigned supreme. Hawks knew it needed a sexy airhead blonde, and Marilyn Monroe was cast in her first (but not last) screwball classic. To be sure, this improbable story of a college chemist’s “fountain of youth” may not be the best film comedy ever, but the formula bubbles up just fine, especially with Charles Coburn on hand to add his special fizz. Hawk’s next screwball comedy would 

be a musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also starring Marilyn Monroe.
A / G / I / V / Y

 

 

Some Like It Hot

(1959)

Billy Wilder wrote and directed this all-out screwball comedy in 1959, well after the peak of the genre. But he must have known there was still plenty of juice left in this fruity delight because many have

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

called this the funniest movie ever made. But notice, like most screwball-type films from the postwar era, it contains a good amount of music. Although it’s not a musical, it exemplifies how songs became important to comedy in this era. Wilder also gives the screwball comedies of the past a sly wink. Even though there is no screwball king like Cary Grant, Billy Wilder has Tony Curtis do a Cary Grant imitation during the high-comedy sex scenes. And talk about the nonsensical element of the screwball: Does Joe E. Brown really end up with Jack Lemmon at the end? Now that’s screwy—or very modern.
G / I K / V / Y

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.

What Makes a Comedy Screwball?

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

During this difficult time in our national history, it’s important to remember and screen some of the best comedies Hollywood ever made. Here are some recommendations for one of the most beloved movie genres: The screwball comedy.

A successful and truly funny film can endure over many decades. The gems from the silent era by Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd continue to be tremendously entertaining. But comedy is ever-changing, almost to the extent that fashions in clothing can be. To be truly funny, audiences must relate to the situation, and that includes economy, social structure, and politics.

 

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, this was clearly evident. Slapstick was still effective to generate laughs, but a new element was added—dialogue. In the early ‘30s, this slowed most of the comedy of Lloyd and Keaton down too much, thereby ending their careers at the forefront. Chaplin, of course, resisted dialogue in his films till 1940. But along with the sound era came the Marx Brothers. Their dialogue (delivered mostly by Groucho) was as fast and silly as silent slapstick. With Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and Horse Feathers, they laid the basis for the screwball comedies that were to follow in the next two decades.

 

The absurdity of the plots’ situations and of the banter in their films also played right into the feelings of most 

moviegoers of the 1930s. The hard-knock life and social injustices of the Depression must have made daily struggles seem not only hard but absurd. So, comedy also took on an absurdity.

 

Most all of the zany screwball films that followed the Marx Brothers’ have a nonsensicalness about them. Romantic elements are present, but are never too heartfelt, deep, or sentimental. Most often, the plots are inane, often with holes in the logic.

They are just a fun rollercoaster ride for a movie audience to jump on to, ride with glee, and forget about the harsh demands of life.

 

Beyond the Marx Brothers, there arose several female stars who seemed perfectly suited to the antics of irrational behavior. Their behavior was socially unacceptable yet always charming. People loved seeing vibrant women break through the social and moral constraints of the day. Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katherine

Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and, later, Betty Hutton all could pull this off beautifully. Writers and directors sought to create properties especially for them. These beautiful women acted quite crazy—nearly insane! The plots, like life and bank accounts in the 1930s and ‘40s, didn’t quite add up. These comedy queens would drive men to “screwy” distraction. Ergo the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

“screwball comedy” was born. 

 

(The term “screwball” was probably derived from America’s Favorite Pastime of the 20th Century—baseball. A screwball was a spinning wild pitch that was laughed at, ridiculed, and illegal.)

 

Danny Kaye and Bob Hope starred in many screwball-like movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s but they are musical movies. And during those decades, all the best 

comedies are also musicals. For example, the Martin & Lewis movies all had songs like “That’s Amore.” Bob Hope comedies always contained new hit songs written expressly for them like “Buttons and Bows” and “Silver Bells.” All the zany Kaye movies are full-blown musicals. Even the Bing Crosby/Frank Capra comedy classic Here Comes the Groom has six songs, including the Academy Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Although all the musical moments in these films are excellent, they tend to soften sharp dialogue and smooth out the fast pace of screwball comedies.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe 30 of the best screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Studio Era. It is possible that many of your favorite “regular” film comedies may be absent from this list, maybe because they are either too logical or too witty (like

those that came from Broadway plays, such as The Man Who Came to Dinner or Arsenic and Old Lace) or they are more heartfelt and three-dimensional (like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story).

 

In the 1960s, most of the successfully funny films were “sex comedies.” With TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy filling in for family entertainment, the movies took up the subject of “Who’s sleeping with who?”. Of course, it all starts off 

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

rather mildly in 1959 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk but by 1967 films like The Graduate brought a whole new realism and rawness to the film comedy. Gone was the innocence of the 1930s screwball comedy.

 

But . . . by the early 1970s comedy changed yet again when What’s Up, Doc? brought back the screwball comedy. In Part 3, I’ll talk about the screwball-comedy revival from that watershed moment to the present.

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.

6 Questions to Ask About a Private Cinema

This theater’s sleek decor conceals finely tuned engineered acoustics and a high-performance, high-channel-count immersive audio system. An admirable place to shelter during the crisis and to celebrate when it’s over!

Why private cinema?

Film, television, and music are three of the most important art forms and media of modern society. While music has existed for ages, film and TV are more recent phenomena. All, however, share a timeless attribute that fulfills a necessary aspect of our lives: Entertainment. 

 

In times past, we would go to the theater for our drama or to a hall for our music. Now we carry them with us, but at what cost? Arguably at the cost of the experience and quality. Private cinema can reverse this trend. In the case of film, even noted directors have publicly stated that a private cinema, properly executed, is superior to any commercial theater. The beauty is

that a private cinema can deliver all three of these important entertainments at the highest level in a setting designed to be shared with our dearest friends and family!

 

What attributes should you look for?

A quiet room that delivers your choice of entertainment without distraction or interruption. An acoustically balanced room that is skillfully designed to also be ergonomically correct for your desired audience size. That design should be elegantly integrated to provide beauty but without compromising the performance. Your cinema should be properly equipped with a system engineered to deliver a defined level of performance, and that system should be calibrated, tuned, and programmed to provide reliability and ease of use. Finally, the room and system must be skillfully constructed, finished, installed, and managed so the engineered performance and designed elegance will be successfully delivered, assuring that you can enjoy your entertainment reliably for years.

 

How can you be assured your private cinema includes these attributes?

Just as there are several attributes to consider, all of which are vital, this assurance will mandate a closer look. Resist the trend to favor convenience and compromise over perseverance and performance. There are many home theater solutions that promise a one-stop, turnkey solution but leave many vital elements unaddressed. Unfortunately, when the truth comes out, it is too late to correct these oversights. Construction and design considerations, no different than with any residential project, must be addressed. Acoustics and aesthetics need to be integrated to bring out the best of both worlds. Ergonomics and engineering combined to assure comfort and an unequalled experience. Technical expertise is needed to provide the cutting-edge systems that drive the action. There are many moving parts that alone, would fall short. 

 

Who can bring it all together?

Someone will need to take responsibility for all the essential attributes, advise you on the impact of every decision, and help you make the right choices. Once these choices are 

made, these directions need to be documented and verified through a reliable design and engineering process. Subsequently, the team necessary to bring it all to fruition must be coordinated and supervised in order to assure quality control and verify performance.

 

In the past, a vendor for one or more sub-categories found within a private cinema has attempted to provide this project management and oversight with mixed results. The better approach is to engage a professional who, like a project

architect, has the overall objective in sight. Like a symphony orchestra, a conductor is needed to keep all the parts in harmony. The grand finale, the responsibility of the maestro!

 

When should I get the process started?

The correct answer is simple, however, rarely given. The response will differ depending on who is asked. The provider of seats may quote the lead time for manufacture of the furniture. A manufacturer of electronics may look at inventory to provide the answer. A finish subcontractor, their current pipeline and backlog of work. These considerations and others are coming from a limited perspective and wrought with potential pitfalls.

 

The correct answer is, “immediately”!  A private cinema is possibly the most complex and interdependent design specialty in any architectural project. The potential for missteps is tremendous. A designer may like the idea of a refrigerated snack bar that could be located in a lobby but 

TRENDING IN PRIVATE CINEMA

Current events have spurred some unique feedback and inquiries from both current and prospective private cinema owners. Here are a few examples:

 

Video conferencing
Current owners are commenting about how great it is to reach out from an ideal environment to others, while prospective owners are seeing the potential benefit. Any private cinema can serve as an unparalleled environment to conference in, and pre-planning can raise the quality of this experience.

 

Healthy break
It can be hard to find respite in stressful times but private cinema owners have the advantage of a space designed to be insulated from the outside world. A refuge in which to read, listen, and relax. It’s good for our health.

 

Entertainment is good for us, too!
There are many things we cannot do currently, but enjoying entertainment together is one of the most beneficial activities of all!

 

The new normal movie theater experience?
The film and theater industries were in flux even before the crisis. What will the future hold? We are already seeing developments for bringing the movies home. For those with private cinemas, the “new normal” may be better than the old!

S.C.

instead compromises the noise level of the cinema. Poured-in-place seating platforms “cast in stone” create poor listening positions. An unfortunate entry-door location skews the immersive system configuration, negating a smooth and believable immersive experience. A shared mechanical system shares not only ventilation with the adjacent powder room but the sounds. These defects and more can simply be eliminated with early planning. Some, however, cannot be corrected after the fact. The price for early consultation is no more, but the cost of oversights can be irreparable.

 

Where?

Your home. Do not allow yourself to be compromised. It is your home, your life, your time with those you love. There are many choices we make when we design our homes. From kitchen appliances to living-room furnishings to swimming pools and spas. Likewise, we make many acquisitions that bring us joy. From fine automobiles, jewelry, and watches, even fine art. All worthy rewards for a life well lived! But consider this. A private cinema is one amenity that serves to enhance and even facilitate the most elusive and irreplaceable asset: Good times in the company of those we love.   

Sam Cavitt

Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad,
CA. 
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Invisible Sound Solutions

Media Rooms: Invisible Sound Solutions
The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms

In the previous post in this series, I walked you through some of the ways in which a soundbar can—contrary to conventional wisdom—serve as the foundation of an expandable media-room audio solution with plenty of room to grow. And that’s great if you’re not entirely committed to the idea of filling your room with speakers, or if you want to start small while leaving open the door for more sophisticated solutions.

But what if you’ve already decided to install a high-performance entertainment system and you’re unconvinced a soundbar could deliver the kind of big, impactful, expansive soundstage you’re looking for?

 

In that case, it’s probably best to start from scratch with a carefully selected speaker system that more closely approximates what you’d experience at your local multiplex. That means having dedicated left-, right-, and center-channel speakers (for onscreen sound effects and dialogue) at the front of the room near your display, at least two or as many as four surround-channel speakers (to deliver offscreen sound effects around and behind you) and two, four, or six speakers overhead to deliver the height-channel sound effects of today’s Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersive sound formats.

 

Mind you, that’s a lot of speakers—anywhere between five and 13, even before you add a subwoofer or two to the mix. And I think we can safely assume you don’t really want to see that many speakers. But you don’t have to. In our last post, on expandable soundbar solutions, I put together a hypothetical system using Leon’s Vault in-wall speakers and Axis ceiling speakers to complement the company’s Horizon soundbar. Take out the soundbar and replace it with three Vault speakers at the front of the room, and you have a complete (and almost completely invisible) component surround-sound speaker system that can compete with the best of them.

Of course, there are any number of companies out there offering similar solutions. Another favorite around these parts is GoldenEar Technology. You could combine three of their Invisa Signature Point Source in-walls across the front with two or 

four Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls and two to six Invisa 650 ceiling speakers for a system that rivals GoldenEar’s own massive floorstanding towers. And best of all, all of these in-wall and ceiling speakers feature paintable grilles than can be color-matched to the surfaces of your room.

 

Granted, even with perfect paint-matching, ceiling speakers do still draw some attention to themselves. If that’s a concern, you might instead opt for completely invisible speakers for your overhead-effects channels. Companies like Nakymatone and Stealth Acoustics now make speakers that install flush with your drywall that can be plastered or mudded (or in some cases even wallpapered) over. In other words, they don’t just install in your wall or ceiling; they literally become a seamless part of those surfaces.

Stealth Acoustics even makes subwoofers with the same form factor. Or you might opt for subs that install in the ceiling and port out into small circular openings indistinguishable from can lights, like Gray Sound’s S80 and Sonance’s BPS6. Or, your integrator may prefer to install more traditional subwoofers in the floor and deliver their sound into the room by way of openings that look like your traditional HVAC vents.

 

CREATING AN INVISIBLE SYSTEM

So, putting it all together from previous posts, what would a complete “invisible”  home cinema system for an entertainment room or media room look like? You’ll need your display, of course: Something like an 85- or 98-inch Sony Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV. You’ll also need a surround sound preamp like Anthem’s AVM 60 or Lyngdorf’s MP-50. And you’ll need a source or two—our favorites being the Kaleidescape Strato movie player and the Roku Ultra streaming media player—along with a good control system.

 

Add to that three GoldenEar Technology Invisa Signature Point Source in-walls around your display, two or four GoldenEar Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls, four Stealth Acoustics SLR8G invisible speakers, and two Stealth Acoustics B30G invisible subwoofers, and you’ll have a home cinema system that not only sounds amazing, but also has zero impact on your interior design.

 

In the next entry in this series, I’ll dig into similarly invisible (or nearly so) ways of upgrading your picture in a correspondingly cinematic fashion.

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.

The Living Daylights

The Living Daylights

Numbers don’t lie. And following the dismally low critical and fan reception of A View to a Kill—Rotten Tomatoes score of 36% and audience score of 40%, both franchise lows—along with lackluster box-office receipts, the decision was made to move on from the aging Roger Moore as MI6 agent Bond, James Bond.

 

At the start of filming of the next Bond film, Moore would have been 59—far too old to portray the hard-living Bond that creator Ian Fleming imagined to be in his mid-30s. Casting for Moore’s replacement had the Broccoli production team interviewing a

variety of actors, including Sam Neill (best known for the Jurassic Park films) as well as Pierce Brosnan.

 

The role was offered to Brosnan, who accepted. However, interest skyrocketed in Remington Steele, the NBC TV series Brosnan was contractually obligated to, once word got out he would be the next Bond, and at the last moment—three days before its option expired—NBC decided to renew Steele for another season, causing Broccoli to withdraw the offer. (As we know, Brosnan ended up getting his turn to wear the tux and double-O license a few years later . . .)

 

Instead, the role of Bond in The Living Daylights, the 15th film in the franchise, went to Timothy Dalton.

 

According to an interview, Dalton said he wanted to bring a decidedly different take to the super-spy compared with the Moore-era Bond. “I definitely wanted to recapture the essence and flavor of the books, and play it less flippantly. After all, Bond’s essential quality is that he’s a man who 

DAYLIGHTS AT A GLANCE

Timothy Dalton helped pave the way for Daniel Craig by taking Bond back to his Ian Fleming roots in this tepidly received post-Moore effort to reset the franchise. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is sharp, featuring exceptionally deep blacks, but the original film elements haven’t fared as well as the ones for the much older Goldfinger

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix, derived from the original stereo, keeps almost all of the sonic action in the front channels and doesn’t show the dynamic range or solid bass we’ve become accustomed to in an action film.

lives on the edge. He could get killed at any moment, and that stress and danger factor is reflected in the way he lives, chain-smoking, drinking, fast cars and fast women.”

 

After years of having a Bond who was better with a joke than a gun, Dalton brought a definite edge and physicality to the role. You can tell from the opening minutes that this is a Bond ready to get down to work—maybe not always loving the job, but taking it deadly serious. Dalton’s Bond is cold—quick to point a gun at an unarmed woman and rip her clothes off to serve as a distraction—but also bringing a bit of wry humor when appropriate. And—true to Bond’s literary incarnation—taking no joy in killing, and disobeying an order rather than kill a non-professional.

Daylights is also the last of the pre-Daniel Craig-era Bond films to use a title and material directly from Fleming’s work, again connecting it back to the original feel. (The entire opening act with Bond facing off against the female cellist/assassin is pulled straight from Fleming’s story of the same name.)

 

Reception of Dalton as Bond is . . . mixed. Some lists rank him as the worst, while others rank him in the middle. Without a question, he had the difficult task of creating a darker, harder-edged interpretation of the character while simultaneously not alienating the legions of fans that had grown up watching Moore’s lighter take for seven films over 12 years.

 

It’s also difficult to divorce the actor from the films, and with only two movies to establish his Bond bona fides—one of which was the uneven License to Kill—it was tough for Dalton to create a solid legacy.

 

After recently re-watching Casino Royale (2006), it is a bit difficult to view the older Bond films without seeing them 

through the lens of both Royale’s modern style and Craig’s portrayal. While I really enjoyed The Living Daylights, being a fan of Dalton’s Bond and of the opinion that Maryam d’Abo (as Kara Milovy) is one of the most attractive Bond girls, some of the shortcomings of the earlier films are more apparent—particularly the over-the-top silliness of arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), John Rhys-Davies—who doesn’t seem Russian in any way—as new head of KGB, General Pushkin, and terrible portrayal/casting of Felix Leiter by John Terry, who more comes off like some kind of California surfer dude than a CIA field agent.

 

We’re not given any indication of the source material for the 4K Ultra HD presentation here, but it was likely taken from the file created for the 2012 Blu-ray Disc release. Originally filmed in 35 mm with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, if nothing else, the picture quality of Daylights makes you truly appreciate the amazing work done by Lowery Digital in restoring Goldfinger. Even though Goldfinger is 23 years older, in some ways it looks sharper and cleaner.

 

Daylights begins with a mock raid by 00-agents on a British compound at Gibraltar being defended by the SAS, and the greyish-blue skies reveal tons of noise and grain. Edges are generally nice and sharp, especially of the black-clad  00-commandoes against the white rock wall, and closeups often reveal lots of detail, such as the rich plaid patterns and wool textures of suits worn by Bond and others, particularly Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) Glen Plaid pattern.

The Living Daylights

Interestingly, I felt like the film started looking better after its first third. Whether it was different lenses used, brighter exterior scenes that filmed better, or just me getting used to the look I can’t say, but images were noticeably cleaner and less grainy. For example, the exteriors in Czechoslovakia with bright outdoor lighting and vibrant red buses all look quite good, as does the snow chase in the Aston Martin, with the sharp contrast between the white snow and the dark grey Aston Martin Vantage and the dark Russian military uniforms.

 

But I never really felt like I was getting that nth degree of resolution and detail visible from 4K transfers. There is also a bit of inconsistency with some of the longer shots looking a bit softer and not as in focus, and this was more noticeable on my 115-inch projection screen opposed to my 65-inch direct-view.

 

Blacks are deep and black, and with your theater lights off, Daylights definitely delivers a cinematic black. There is a scene where Bond is driving an Audi and we see the black of Dalton’s hair against the differing blacks of his tux and bowtie and the

car’s dark interior. Sometimes, however, the blacks are so dark that some details in the lowest end can be lost, such as in some of the night scenes where characters are almost lost in their black clothing.

 

The movie was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo, and the DTS-HD Master 5.1-channel mix here doesn’t really deliver much in the way of surround sound. I’d say about 80% of the audio is presented across the front three channels, with the surrounds occasionally getting bits of the musical score, or some reverb of explosions, engine noises, PA announcements, or other effects to provide a bit of expansion. If my processor’s Neural:X upmixer placed any sounds up in the height speakers, it wasn’t noticeable. Even still, the presentation had a nice width to it, delivering a soundstage that stretched across my front wall, with dialogue that was always clear and intelligible.

 

Sound mixers took a much more delicate hand to mixing bass frequencies back in the ‘80s—remember this was before the dedicated low-frequency effects (LFE) channel Dolby Digital and DTS designed to give mixers more headroom for deep bass—and things like explosions, vehicle crashes, a Harrier jet lifting off, and gun shots definitely don’t have the same dynamic impact they do today. The big desert finale is definitely the film’s sonic highlight, with explosions, gun fire, horses riding 

The Living Daylights

all around, the plane’s loud propeller engines, and ricochets sparking off in all directions, but even still, it is pretty light on sonics by modern film standards.

 

Sometimes it takes a bit of time away from something in order to appreciate it, and I think that is the case for many with Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of Bond. And it is surprising how well this holds up after 33 years, especially when compared to the schlocky final films in the Moore canon. If for no other reason, we need to thank Dalton for paving the road that led us to the Daniel Craig Bond we have today. The Living Daylights might not be the favorite in your Bond film collection, but I challenge you to not put it in the Top 10.

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.

Underwater

Somewhere along the line (perhaps in 2004 with the introduction of the first film in the Saw franchise), Hollywood started turning the horror genre into something . . . distasteful. Filmmakers went from trying to simply scare people to trying to outdo each other by shocking and brutalizing viewers with horribly graphic depictions of torture and mutilation. I mean, just because I might like some unsettling tension and a good jump-scare doesn’t mean I want to watch someone explicitly cut into pieces by some Rube Goldberg torture machine.

That’s one of the reasons why Underwater interested me, a film that looked like it was leaning into the scarier elements of its sci-fi nature, but with a PG-13 rating that insured the frights would be mostly gore-free. Also, the trailer screamed a mash-up of The Abyss, Alien, Deep Star Six, and The Meg, the first two of which I happen to love (especially the far superior—and “finished”—Special Edition version of Abyss).

 

At 95 minutes, Underwater isn’t a long movie, and I think that might actually be my biggest criticism. The story just jumps right in, with no backstory or character development other than some text on maps and prints during the opening title sequence. After a long opening shot that pans down a massive length of the Kepler research and drilling facility—establishing that we are seven miles under the ocean and well beyond any help from the surface—our first shot is of Norah (Kristen Stewart) in a bathroom brushing her teeth, just moments before all hell breaks loose. I think the film 

UNDERWATER AT A GLANCE

This Kristen “One Note” Stewart bottom-of-the-sea horror/thriller might not have been a box-office hit, but it’s a nice, tight 95-minute thrill ride that delivers big on the scares. 

 

PICTURE     

Both the atmosphere and action are enhanced by the 4K HDR transfer, which reveals every detail in the meticulously detailed sets and accentuates the pricks of light in the film’s many dark scenes. 

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix (no Atmos) is suitably immersive, featuring some of the most powerful and frequent deep-bass action you’ll find in any recent film.

would have been more interesting if we were given the opportunity to know any of the characters a bit and see what daily life aboard the Kepler was like before thrusting everyone into peril.

 

As it is, Underwater doesn’t much concern itself with telling us anything about the characters or what they’re doing seven miles under the ocean, just doling out the little bits and pieces of info we need to know as the movie unfolds. The upside is we jump straight into the story and the action, but the downside is we don’t really care much when someone meets their demise; it’s just one less person to follow. But maybe no character development is better than something schlocky that feels forced.

 

I’m not a huge fan of Kristen Stewart and her, ummm, “emotional acting range.” In fact, just Google “Kristen Stewart Underwater” images and you’ll see an entire page of thumbnails revealing approximately the exact same semi-perplexed/
angry/
concerned expression. (We also are given no insight into Stewart’s decision to shave her head and dye her hair blonde for the role for some reason.)

 

However, there is little in this film that requires much emotional range from her. She’s thrust into a pretty terrible situation from the opening moments in which she could die at any second due to any number of factors, so semi-perplexed/angry/
concerned is a pretty appropriate look.

 

The film’s plot is fairly straight-forward: After a massive undersea earthquake ravages the Kepler, the surviving crew must find a way to continue to survive under the constant threat of immense underwater pressure, lack of oxygen, and a constantly deteriorating habitat.

 

While making her way to the escape pod bay, Norah encounters other crew members, one of whom is Paul, played by T.J. Miller, who brings his usual sarcastic wit and tension-breaking humor to his scenes. After finding that the escape pods have been jettisoned and that the radio can’t reach anyone topside, the group of six decides their only chance is to don some massively pressurized diving suits, descend to the ocean’s floor, and walk a mile across the bottom of the ocean to join up with another station where they can hopefully resurface.

Underwater

During the walk, they stumble across an otherworldly deep-sea life form that has been awakened because, as Emily (the film’s other female role, played by Jessica Henwick) states, “We drilled too deep; we took too much!”

 

That environmental jab aside, Underwater manages to be entertaining and maintain enough tension and mystery that it kept me interested to see what happened next. And it delivered on the “horror” promise with some quality jump-scares that had my wife spilling her drink not once but twice.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows, with images that are sharp, clean, detailed, and fantastic-looking. Edges are razor-sharp and in focus, and closeups show incredible detail, revealing pores in actors’ faces, as well as defined single-beaded droplets of water or sweat. In one shot, you can clearly see that Norah’s chest is covered in goosebumps. Underwater shots reveal particles floating around that are individually sharp and defined.

 

The resolution and image quality also let you appreciate the attention to detail in the set dressing. The Kepler appears like it could be a functioning station (well, up until the earthquake), with screens and workstations all around, as well as the large pressurized diving suits with varying degrees of scratches and wear.

 

This is a movie that really benefits from HDR, with tons of dark scenes punctuated by a variety of bright light sources. The very opening shot has the camera panning down and down (and down . . .) the depths of the dark ocean, showing the Kepler illuminated by different colored lights that shine brightly in the dark background. There are also numerous dark shots inside the station or outside in the ocean lit by bright flashlights, overhead fluorescents, computer screens, crackling and sparking electrical lines, warning lights, etc. and they all look great. Blacks are deep throughout, and remain clean and noise-free.

 

Any time you are filming under dark and murky water with bright lights illuminating, you run the risk of banding or other digital artifacts. This is only exacerbated when you factor in the higher compression required for streaming. Fortunately, the Kaleidescape transfer keeps these potentially troubling shots from becoming a mess, presenting images without any noise.

 

Fox has a maddening habit of not providing its digital releases with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack available with the theatrical release, and that is again the case here. However, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix on the Kaleidescape download is so active and immersive—especially when run through a modern receiver’s capable upmixer—you won’t feel

like you’re missing much. (Though I’d be lying if it didn’t make me wonder how much better that Atmos mix could potentially be!)

 

From the film’s opening moments, we get the atmospheric sounds of water bubbling up overhead, followed by the creaking and groaning of the habitat’s steel structure, along with the steady buzz and hum of overhead fluorescent lighting to put us in the scene of the momentary calm.

 

Shortly after, the earthquake hits and the Kepler experiences a catastrophic hull breech, with the rig groaning and crumpling all around, filling the room with sounds of metal twisting, steam venting through burst pipe, announcements blaring from the overhead PA, and jets of water bursting. As they move about the structure, the group is accompanied by the surrounding sound of the ambient noises aboard; water dripping and splashing, ongoing PA announcements, electrical lines buzzing and humming. When the crew abandons the Kepler, we are immersed in ocean sounds, and the crew breathing.

 

The soundtrack also features regular immense bass activity that will push your subwoofer and room to its very limits. Whether it is the deep bass of the structures’ crumpling and buckling steel, or of things crashing and crumbling 

Underwater

around you, the movie has deep, room-jarring bass that is frequent, appropriate, and very tactile. In fact, this might have some of the deepest infrasonic bass signals I’ve heard, causing things to vibrate, shake, and rattle in my room that I’ve never heard before. At one point, I got up off the couch to check to make sure my speakers weren’t destroying themselves due to all the bass energy and discovered that it was my projection screen’s metal housing that was vibrating loudly in sympathy with the bass onslaught!

 

While Underwater stumbled theatrically, it managed an audience score of 60%, and I think it actually is more suited to viewing in a well-designed home theater. While the plot offers nothing new, it is fun and entertaining to watch, and offers some great visuals along with an even more dynamic, powerful, and immersive surround mix. Also, since the decision was made to not give Underwater a 4K Blu-ray Disc release, the full 51-GB download from the Kaleidescape Store is by far your best viewing option.

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.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Cineluxe Showcase: A Tribeca Trendsetter

photo by John Frattasi

Steve Haas is the person you call when want to make sure your home theater will sound better than any movie theater. His extensive body of work for various commercial venues and high-end private viewing and listening spaces has established him as one of the world’s leading acoustical engineers. And his collaborations with legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis have made him synonymous with the highest-quality dedicated home theaters.

 

But media rooms (also known as entertainment rooms, multi-use spaces, or communal spaces) are increasingly becoming the movie-watching venue of choice in the luxury market—even though they’re in many ways the antithesis of what you would want for a reference-quality home theater. They tend to be part of an open floorplan, need to serve other forms of entertainment beyond movies, are frequently flooded with ambient light, and feature serious acoustical challenges like hardwood floors, huge plate-glass windows, and large stone and concrete surfaces.

 

None of that changes the fact that the high-end market really likes these kinds of rooms. Fortunately, things like larger, brighter video displays, innovative projection-screen materials, digital room correction, and way more sophisticated lighting and shading control are helping to tame what would have until just a few years ago been impossible spaces for watching movies at any real level of quality.

 

But advanced tech can’t do everything it takes to make a room exceptional, or even acceptable. Which is why we wanted to talk to Haas about what he does to bring these often resistant spaces into line.

—Michael Gaughn

Media rooms can vary dramatically but clients are looking for great performance regardless or they wouldn’t be engaging you. How do you typically handle something like that?

One of the first steps we always employ is understanding from the homeowners how they and, if applicable, their family use their homes—or how they intend to use it, if it’s a new home. Will they all gather in the media room at the same time to watch a movie? In that case, it’s more about dealing with the quality and not so much worrying about whether the sound spreads to the kids’ bedrooms.

 

 

To ensure the acoustical quality of a media room, I would think it would be crucial for you to be brought in early in the planning for a new home or a renovation. Otherwise, you could be dealing with a badly compromised space. Are you usually advising from the beginning or do you find yourself having to make do?

That’s a great question because it really is all over the map. More often than not, the architectural design and interior design are already well underway or nearly completed; or worse, it could be that the construction has already started. And as 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

This multi-use media room in Connecticut contains a home theater . . .

sheetrock starts going in, the homeowner gets a sense of just how much this house is going to sound really “bouncy”— reflective and reverberant—and maybe they should get somebody to deal with these spaces.

 

That happened to us with a project in Westchester County recently. It was a gut renovation well underway; and that’s when the homeowner just realized, “Wow, we really need somebody.” We had to come in and do a lot of massaging to the interior design and the architectural design to 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . billiards lounge . . .

get what we wanted.

 

That project had two different rooms—a two-channel listening room and a media room that were both very open to the surrounding spaces, pretty much flanking the kitchen and breakfast-nook area. The entire right wall of the two-channel room was stone, surrounding a fireplace—which, of course, there’s nothing we can do about that—and the media room itself had a lot of glass, very much glass. So we’re always dealing with compromises in situations like that.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . and recording studio. Unique acoustic treatments and acoustically transparent finishes—including metal mesh, micro-perforated clear shades, and both exposed and concealed wood diffusion panels—were employed to achieve the desired aesthetic and acoustic performance. (photos courtesy of Audio Command Systems)

A lot of luxury homes, especially out west, favor very open floorplans and almost exclusively hard surfaces like wood floors, stone walls and fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. And often the client wants their great room to double as a media room, which is usually the least conducive space in the home. That has to be a worst-case scenario for you.

We’ve certainly worked on rustic media rooms in Colorado, Utah—all that part of the country. And there are solutions, like monolithic plasters and 

micro-perforated woods, that can be used in an open-plan home to at least tame the sound, to help ensure it’s not just one echo chamber, one reverberant nightmare bleeding into the rest of the home. Also, trying to achieve as much tonal balance in the way the architectural materials are absorbing sound between low, medium, and high frequencies is essential. You have a fair chance of at least being able to enjoy a controlled room, even if it’s not dialed in with the level of finesse we would have in a dedicated room in a different type of architecture. It’s really important to understand that not every architectural style is going to lend itself to a fabric-wrapped room.

 

 

Home theaters are designed to be isolated, but in an open floorplan, the great room is often the physical center of the home. I would imagine you have to worry as much about the sound bleeding into the rest of the house as you do about the quality of sound in the room itself.

Because media rooms are outside that dedicated area, we often design them as part of the whole-house acoustic design. So we’re looking at various spaces throughout the home, not just for a high level of performance, but basically for general acoustic privacy.

 

If somebody wants to play a movie loud or have other types of entertainment, such as watching TV or playing video games, there’s really no way to stop that sound from completely taking over a good portion of an open-plan home. And that’s where we really have to think about the compromises. We have to think about it very holistically in terms of the

usage of the home.

 

Are we able to implement engineered absorptive/diffusive treatments, like we would in a dedicated room? Sometimes, but often not. Your left wall relative to the screen might be completely treatable because it’s just going to be bare sheetrock, but then the right wall is that huge stone fireplace we talked about.

 

 

Is it more important to get sonic symmetry—which is usually one of the key criteria when designing a 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve Haas with the Father of Home Theater (and
Cineluxe contributor), Theo Kalomirakis

listening room, media room, or home theater—or do you just place treatments where you can and not worry about the symmetry?

I would argue that symmetry is extremely important because even if the sound is compromised, you don’t want it to change drastically when you go from left to right across the room. As long as we can treat other surfaces (ceilings especially) and achieve overall control, this approach can get decent results.

 

 

A lot of these homes have large, open stairwells that feed directly into the great room area. That has to be a particularly big challenge.

That’s always a very important issue to raise, and there are a lot of times where the designers will say, “You know what? Yeah, we have to close off the stairwell. Otherwise, they will hear everything everywhere in the home.” And you can do that when you’re in early enough in the design process. There are creative ways to design contained stairwells that provide that type of sound control.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve calibrating a 38-channel audio system in a large event space for a private residence in Sydney, Australia

Some people would say that digital room correction—not the kind found in mass-market receivers but the higher-end implementations—can compensate for a lot of the problems you’ve been describing with media rooms.

Well, it can fix a lot, certainly—or I shouldn’t say “fix,” because it’s a matter of just taking what is already there and reducing what the physical space has done to compromise it. If you know your speakers are behaving fine out of the box, then you have to understand what makes them not perform optimally at those particular seats. And that has a lot to do with their interaction with elements of the room that aren’t perfectly controlled because of the compromises we’ve been talking about.

 

With today’s processors, whether it’s mid-level or certainly the higher-end processors, there are a lot of tools in place to do this. But it cannot be done fully in an automated fashion even with the best processors. They just don’t work well without somebody with trained ears and skills looking at their results and saying, “OK, that got me a fair distance forward. Now here’s what we need to do to tweak it. Here’s how to optimize it with a manual calibration to get that last 10 to 20%.”

 

It’s easy to understand why the processors some manufacturers claim are perfect and get perfect results really don’t. There are things acoustically that can be overcome with electronics and there are things that just cannot. If you have a room that is

all hard and reflective surfaces, whether it’s glass, sheet-rock, stone, you name it, there’s just nothing a processor can do to overcome the excessive reflections and reverberations.

 

Yet there are those who will claim they can. The end users and AV integrators really need to understand that you can bend the laws of physics, but you can’t break them. If you have speaker interactions with nearby hard surfaces that cause what’s called “comb filtering”—short delayed reflections that combine with the direct sound to cancel a series of frequencies—no  processor eliminate that. That is absolutely a physical correction that needs to be made to the interaction of the speakers with the surrounding room and the surfaces close to the speakers.

 

 

So, when you talk to a client, what do you tell them is the best you can achieve with a media room, compared to a dedicated home theater?

We can say that on a scale of 1 to 10, that it’s not going to be a 10. No media room I’ve ever worked on is a 10—essentially flawless acoustically. Now, do we have solid 9’s? Absolutely, because we’ve worked hard with the entire design team to make intelligent compromises that achieve a well-balanced experience that thrills the end user.

 

If something is going to be well below an 8 or 9, then the client needs to understand that. They need to get to the point where they say, “I’m OK with a 6 or 7 because I’m gaining all these other functions. I have these beautiful vistas of the mountains out this glass window. The stone fireplace is just over the top. Wonderful. All these things.” We have to always remember it’s not just about what we do and what we bring to the table. It’s the overall experience. And people sometimes are OK with balanced compromises.

 

 

Since you often find yourself being brought into a project later than you would prefer, what needs to happen to change that?

First of all, it’s educating homeowners and architects on what happens when you ignore the need for proper acoustics. And fortunately there are a lot of case studies, a lot of horror stories, we can share that say, “OK, here’s what happens when you ignore acoustics in any regard.” Either the quality in some cases or the privacy, the isolation of just general noise, allowing exterior noise or mechanical equipment noise to infiltrate the rest of your house.

 

I really do think the answer lies with the architects and designers because they have to be on board with saying, “You know what, we don’t want our houses just to look good or feel good. We want them to sound good as well.” And that is a stretch for a lot of visual designers. That’s no secret because it’s just not something they’re used to. And they also have a lot of preconceived notions about what it means to implement acoustics.

 

What we’re trying to do is basically quell those misconceptions to say, “There is a way to do this without turning your beautiful house into a science project or burlap panel or whatever.” The biggest challenge and biggest effort one can make is to let the designers understand that we can give homeowners a much better sensory experience and also add to the wellness factor of their home from multiple senses and not compromise in any appreciable way.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

I am a congenital tightwad, yet I shell out a significant amount of money each year for subscription video-streaming services. The usual suspects show up on my credit card statements: Amazon Prime Video (as part of my annual Amazon Prime $119 subscription), Netflix ($15.99/month), and HBO ($14.99/month). In an unusually weak moment last June (albeit one I haven’t yet regretted), I signed up for a Mubi yearly subscription that set me back $95.58.

 

Despite well over $500 disappearing from my bank account over the course of a year, my go-to source for streaming movies (and other video content) hasn’t cost me a dime since I discovered it about eight months ago. I’m not talking about one of the more prominent, ad-supported services like Tubi—the self-proclaimed “world’s largest free ad-supported video on demand 

(AVOD) service”—or Pluto TV, the ad-supported streaming TV/VOD service. Instead, I’ve become enamored of Kanopy, a free service that’s mostly streamed under the radar of most cord-cutters.

 

Kanopy describes itself as “a video-

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

streaming platform dedicated to thoughtful and thought-provoking films” that was founded in 2008 “to provide academic institutions with essential films that foster learning and conversation.”

 

That was great as long as you were a student or faculty member at a participating university or college. Three years ago, though, Kanopy began offering its services to public libraries, a move that enabled anyone with a library card at a participating library to stream selections from Kanopy’s impressive collection of films and videos. Kanopy’s reach is pretty remarkable, too.

 

I must admit that when I read that Kanopy specializes in “thoughtful and thought-provoking films . . . that foster learning and conversation,” I assumed they meant either “boring as hell” or “incomprehensible high-concept art” flicks. Of course, one man’s cinematic gold is another man’s cure for insomnia. In this case, however, there’s enough variety among Kanopy’s 30,000-plus titles that you’d have to be the most contrarian, irritable, and thoroughly unlovable person on the planet (no offense intended for those of you who happen to fit that description) not to find something worth watching in the selections obtained from Kanopy’s 12,000-plus filmmaker and supplier partners. Some of the more recognizable of these partners include The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Paramount, PBS, Film Movement, Oscilloscope Laboratories, and A24.

 

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Movie

Although using Kanopy doesn’t cost anything directly, either in subscription fees or time spent watching advertisements, it isn’t really free. Your ability to use it is funded by the academic institution you’re associated with or your local public library.

 

“Just as libraries purchase books for their patrons to borrow,” the folks at Kanopy helpfully explain, “they also offer a variety of digital resources. Kanopy can provide its viewers with free access because the public library or university covers the associated costs, allowing patrons to watch for free, with no advertisements.” As a result, not just anyone with internet access 

can log into Kanopy and start streaming movies for free. You have to have a valid library membership with a participating public or institutional library.

 

Not every public library offers access to Kanopy as part of its digital services. In my case, I live near the county line that separates two public library systems. I’m a member of both thanks to reciprocal agreements among a handful of the regional libraries in my state, but only one of these two

a sampling of Kanopy’s film collections

(click on the images to enlarge)

systems offers Kanopy. (Both, on the other hand, do offer Hoopla, a digital service with fewer movies—a little more than 10,000 last time I checked—but Hoopla also includes access to music, audiobooks, ebooks, and comics.) Kanopy says its service is available in more than 4,000 libraries worldwide with more than 45 million public library patrons potentially able to stream titles from its collection.

 

Getting Credit Where Credit is Due

In addition to the library membership requirement, there are two other aspects related to using Kanopy that potentially limit its overall appeal. One is that Kanopy is a streaming-only service. Unlike Amazon Video, Netflix, and even Hoopla, it doesn’t offer downloads for offline viewing.

 

The other drawback is that some libraries may limit the number of videos a user can watch each month. Kanopy says this number will vary by library, but in my case, the limit is six plays/month. I’ve found other libraries that offer only four plays and some that allow eight per month.

 

The play credits reset at midnight on the first day of each calendar month. Unfortunately, unused play credits do not roll over into the following month. A play credit is deducted from your account once the video you’ve selected has played for five seconds (yikes!). After that, you have 72 hours to finish watching the video or, for that matter, watch it in its entirety as many times as you can fit into the 72-hour timespan without being charged for an additional credit.

 

There is one workaround for the play-credit limit, and it’s totally legit to use. When you create an account with Kanopy, you can link it to memberships from more than one library. That way, if you use all of your play credits from one library, you can switch to the next linked membership and begin using those play credits. I don’t have that luxury. My daughter, on the other hand, can use her access to our local public library as well as the library at the university where she goes to school.

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies
Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Although my interest in Kanopy primarily involves its movie streaming library, it also offers over 6,200 educational titles from The Great Courses—plus an extensive collection of children’s titles, called Kanopy Kids. You can access the titles in either group without being charged any play credits.

 

Speaking of access, Kanopy makes it easy to access its service. In addition to streaming titles via a web browser on your computer, it has mobile apps for iOS and Android devices, as well as Amazon Fire tablets. There are also Kanopy apps for TV devices, including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Roku, and Chromecast.

 

Free Isn’t Even the Best Part

As I mentioned at the outset, my inner penny-pincher is what initially drew my attention to Kanopy. But if I were to make a list of all the things I like about the service, the fact that it’s free would be near the bottom.

 

For some reason—and this is entirely subjective—I am quite fond of the interface. In many respects, it’s not that much different from the look and feel of the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video interfaces. Kanopy’s, however, is more subdued (much like, dare I say it, a library), whereas navigating the others is more akin to dodging salespeople as you wander through a big-box store.

 

I especially appreciate the fact that Kanopy’s “Browse by Subjects” page is unadorned and straightforward, with none of the incessantly blinking “Watch Me!” banners or the prominent placement of each service’s exclusive content. I’ve also found that the selections offered under the “Related videos” and “People who watched this also watched” tabs are much more appealing than the suggestions I usually get from Amazon or Netflix—so much so that my watchlist of movies on Kanopy continues to grow faster than I’m able to enjoy them. (I’m up to 216 at the moment, but I always end up adding two or three movies for each one I watch.)

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy’s theatrical selection, while not being as wide as Amazon’s or Netflix’s (ever-shrinking) options when it comes to standard box-office fare, is first-rate if you’re a fan of silent movies, classics, foreign, or independent films. Just as a quick example, the latest searches I did came up with 50 releases from The Criterion Collection, nearly 950 from Kino Lorber, 86 from A24, and 152 from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Since Kanopy’s catalog covers over 100 years of filmmaking, the picture quality will vary. Many of the early titles are remastered, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (the meticulously restored 149-minute original-length version as well as 1984’s color-tinted, 84-minute reconstruction Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis that includes a most unfortunate MTV-era pop soundtrack). Other films, including many of the selections from the DEFA Film Library’s collection of East German films, are unaltered from the original source and will exhibit scratches and other flaws.

 

OK, So It Isn’t for Everyone

For most people, Kanopy won’t replace all of their other streaming services. For folks without library (public or academic) memberships, it won’t even be an option. Anyone who regularly streams more than one movie a week will likely exhaust their available play credits before the end of each month. Fans who like to binge-watch sitcoms won’t find much to watch. (Although there is an episode of “Screenwriting 101” from The Great Courses called “The Sitcom: The Simpsons” available—and viewing it doesn’t count against your play credits, either.) I can tell you that I use Kanopy often enough that I’ve moved it to the top of the list of apps on my Roku Ultra’s home screen.

 

One final note about the hidden costs behind Kanopy. I know next to nothing about the economics of libraries. Nor do I know virtually anything about the way the various movie-industry players, especially the independents, make (or lose) money. Kanopy says that “On average, over 50% of the revenue collected from public libraries and academic institutions is paid to the independent film market through royalties.” To me, that sounds fantastic. But evidently, the cost to the libraries of providing Kanopy to their patrons is not insignificant. If you’re interested in the gritty economic underbelly of the Kanopy/Public Library/Academia ecosystem, check out Chris Cagle’s “Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free” post from May 2019 at Film Quarterly.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Does Watching Movies Really Matter Right Now?

Does Watching Movies Really Matter Right Now?

What we do seems frivolous at times like this, but is it?

 

A time like this elicits many thoughts and emotions. Naturally, concern ranks high on that list. However, self-reflection may also arise. What can we do to help? Are we doing enough? How about our work. Is it relevant? Is it frivolous?

 

As a private-cinema design and engineering firm, this last consideration resonates. In the gamut of career paths, from first responders, doctors, nurses, and public-safety providers to those of us providing entertainment solutions, we might think of

ourselves as being on the unimportant end of the spectrum. Certainly, in times of immediate crisis, screening a film or the availability of background music are not urgent needs.

 

Not everyone can be on the front lines. Just like theater designers and integrators, most who own or are considering private cinemas or other similar entertainment amenities are more of the entrepreneur type. Entrepreneurs’ contributions to society include providing careers, stimulating the economy, and providing products and services that enrich the lives of others. Where would we be without these things? All of us look forward to when we can get back to business and on with our lives.

 

And what about that? What our lives will look like is an important consideration. Undeniably, they will be different. How so is yet to be determined. That determination is in many ways up to us. Individually, we can choose to shrink away, following recent trends even further into an isolated lifestyle, connecting electronically but leaving more tangible contact in the past. Too risky. 

 

And what about those pursuits that feed our happiness—fine dining, art, and entertainment, among others? These will change for certain. But it will serve no good purpose to compromise on life well lived. It is vital that we continue to pursue and celebrate the best that life has to offer. Our meals should be exquisite; we must find beauty and appreciate it. We are created to celebrate and enjoy. 

 

But not alone. A 75-year Harvard study tells us that it is the quality of our relationships that counts. Good relationships keep us healthier, happier, and living longer. So, it isn’t just about finding things to enjoy, it is about enjoying them with those we love. We know this but we don’t always act on it. We are more likely to grab a bite on the run than prepare a meal to enjoy together. Plug in our earbuds instead of going to a concert and stream the latest movie on our device rather than go out to the movies.

 

Next to dining together, group entertainment activities are the most important times for building togetherness. Unfortunately, these facts do not bode well for us given 

today’s trends. It seems the mad rush to do more has resulted in our doing less of the more important things. We do not take the time to savor a meal together. Instead we rush to a convenient eatery to sit at the same table miles apart from others as we check email, social media, and text before rushing off to the next pressing activity. Would it make a difference if the dining experience were more compelling—a meaningful occasion, capable of breaking the spell of our urgent lives, enabling us for a time to pause, connect, and enjoy the time and each other? 

 

Applying this logic to our entertainment activities, we can see that private cinema has much to offer. First of all, movies are intended to draw us away from the whirlwind of life and into a story. Using our emotions, thoughts, and senses, film is the one artform capable of engaging us so completely. The result is a connection.

Does Watching Movies Really Matter Right Now?

This CEDIA Gold Award-winning private cinema was designed and engineered
by Paradise Theater and installed by DSI Luxury Technology

Even in a public theater, strangers laugh, curse, and cry together. How much moreso if the audience is family and friends gathered together. The private cinema experience itself becomes an event and a destination. Important if we are to realize the benefits of gathering. It is too easy to multi-task our way through casual gatherings, thus failing to connect. Choosing to come together for the purpose of enjoying an anticipated movie or program and sharing that experience is singularly bonding. What’s more, private cinemas, when well done, are particularly attractive spaces. It’s easy to lose track of time when ensconced within these environs. A private cinema is an altogether appealing diversion!

 

None too soon, there will come a time for us all to put this social distancing behind. In the meantime, we can all do our part to stay safe and make those first responders’ and public servants’ jobs easier. Those of us in business can be diligent to maintain our enterprises and supply the jobs, products, and services we have under our purview.

 

We in the entertainment-related industries can take heart that what we do will be essential to our society as we recover. Who knows, we might have some impact in doing it better this time around as we offer ways to make our homes into places that draw us together rather than staying apart. Where our love of life, beauty, family, and friends can be more contagious than any virus. After all, it is transmitted with laughter and a smile. Both pretty common occurrences in a private theater.

Sam Cavitt

Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad,
CA. 
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.