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Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that The Nightmare Before Christmas works at all. The film, after all, wasn’t really based on a story so much as it was cobbled together from some poetry and sketches and ideas from Tim Burton, who intended to turn it into a half-hour TV special à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or maybe a children’s book. Or maybe something else altogether. There’s also the fact that the screenplay by Caroline Thompson ended up serving almost more as a skeleton for the film than an actual script, given that much of the final product was developed visually by director Henry Selick and was constantly in flux.

Honestly, if anyone deserves the utmost praise for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it would be Danny Elfman, who worked with Burton to flesh out something resembling the major story beats, then wrote the soundtrack that, in the end, actually serves as the story rather than merely as accompaniment. So much so that Chris Sarandon, who was cast in the role of the speaking voice of Jack Skellington—the film’s protagonist—has very little to do. Elfman ends up being the primary voice of Jack, the spirit of Jack, and the driving force for the film, while Selick filters Burton’s aesthetic through his own similar style and every other aspect of the production just gets dragged along for the ride.

NIGHTMARE AT A GLANCE

Given its genesis, Nightmare ought to be a mess, but it remains one of the most charming and heartfelt of all holiday films.

 

PICTURE     

Even though it’s only in HD, the transfer looks flawless on Disney+. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are rich, highlights don’t clip, midtones are subtle, and the level of detail is incredible.

Truthfully, it ought to be a mess. And yet, Nightmare remains to this day one of the most charming and heartfelt holiday films I’ve ever seen. And, yes, it would be more accurate to call Nightmare a “holiday” film than a Christmas film per se because although it appropriates all the trappings of our modern commercialized, paganized melting-pot celebration of the nativity, the story makes it abundantly clear that the trappings of Christmas are hardly the point.

 

Instead, Nightmare cuts to the heart of why this time of year has been the center of celebration for millennia, from Saturnalia to Yule to Hanukkah to Ayyappan to Calan Gaeaf to Yaldā Night to Christmas and so many other holy and secular holidays that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s a recognition of the fact that this holiday season represents the return of the light after a period of encroaching darkness beginning around the harvest/Halloween/Samhain/Día de los Muertos. It goes straight to the cyclical and seasonal reasons for these festivals that far too many of us have forgotten, living as we do indoors and disconnected from the earth.

 

There’s also a thematic aspect of Nightmare that resonates outside of its connection to the holiday season, and it’s a theme few storytellers have explored so effectively. (Really, only Tolkien comes to mind, most notably with the story of Míriel from the Quenta Silmarillion and Morgoth’s Ring.) It’s the simple lesson that when we attempt to be who we are not, to defy our true nature, nothing good can possibly come of it. In attempting to assume the role of “Sandy Claws” merely as a means of 

rejecting or pacifying his own dissatisfaction with the doom and gloom of Halloween, without truly understanding why or how people celebrate Christmas, Jack makes a mess of pretty much everything. And yes, the resolution of this story thread is all wrapped up a little too tidily, but what more do you expect from a 76-minute cartoon?

Honestly, though, any fan of the film probably already realizes all of the above. So why am I going on about it all? Frankly, because the original premise of this review fell out from under me. I had every intention of writing a scathing (and perhaps pleading) criticism about the fact that The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a 4K HDR remaster more than just about any of the Disney animated films that have already received such.

 

But when I sat down to watch the film again—mostly to take notes on all the scenes I thought would be improved by a modern home video transfer—I realized the current HD master (which has been with us since 2008) is pretty much flawless. Fans revolted when Disney dropped a 25th-anniversary re-release on the marketplace in 2018 with nothing more than a new singalong mode and a bit of extra bandwidth for the film itself. And I was right there, pitchfork raised alongside theirs.

 

But truth be told, even the HD version of the film on Disney+ looks flawless. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are richer than liquid gold and there’s nary a hint of crush to be found. Highlights don’t clip, midtones don’t seem in any way lacking in subtlety, and the level of detail is incredible. Simply put, all of the shortcomings we now associate with HD video are pretty much nowhere to be seen in this film. I think I’ve seen Nightmare on the big screen at least 10 times, and frankly even the Disney+ stream looks better than any of those commercial exhibitions, revealing fine textures and little visual Easter eggs I didn’t even notice in IMAX from the fourth row.

 

Granted, the Disney+ version doesn’t include all of the supplemental material that has appeared on various home video releases through the years. It does include several deleted scenes and storyboards, along with a few other goodies. But it lacks a couple of essential gems, namely the audio commentary by Selick, Burton, and Elfman, as well as Christopher Lee’s reading of Burton’s original “Nightmare Before Christmas” poem. You can find those on Kaleidescape, though, and they’re all worth a watch/listen.

 

More than anything, though, I just wanted to point out that if you’ve been waiting on a UHD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you should probably stop. If it were going to happen anytime soon, it would have been two years ago. Given Disney’s penchant for tying home video releases to anniversaries, our next shot at a remaster probably comes in 2023. And that’s simply too long to wait before diving into this charming little holiday gem again.

Dennis Burger

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

Ep. 11: Inside The Minema with Sam Cavitt & William Erb

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This episode is the first chance we’ve had on The Cineluxe Hour to really dive deep into the creation of a luxury home theater. And the room explored here is a trailblazing effort that goes beyond being able to produce a better-than-movie-theater experience at home to include state-of-the-art video- and teleconferencing—a need that has come to the forefront as the pandemic has caused more and more people to work from home.

 

Since this theater, dubbed the Minema (for “mini cinema”), was essentially a collaboration between designer Sam Cavitt and his client, William Erb, we interviewed both William and Sam about the process that led to its creation.

 

Sam Cavitt (a frequent contributor to the site who we’ve featured in Cineluxe Trendsetters) is known for designing—and spreading the gospel about—no-compromise home entertainment spaces, which he prefers to call private cinemas.

 

William Erb isn’t a typical client. His enthusiasm for high-quality video and audio caused him to get deeply involved in the planning, building, and tweaking of the Minema. The mandate to create a high-end movie-watching and music-listening space that could also accommodate conferencing was difficult enough, but Sam and Willam had to make it all work within the constraints of a high-end LA condo.

 

Here’s an overview of the episode:

 

1:18  Sam talks about how a designer is different from an integrator, and how only a small group of people do what he does.

4:04  Sam discusses the kinds of clients he usually works with, and what makes someone a Cinema Connoisseur.

5:27  Sam introduces Willam, who talks about how he found Sam and brought together the team that created his theater.

10:34  What Sam and his company bring to a project like the Minema.

13:10  How Sam collaborates with integrators.

15:32  William describes his approach to finding the trades to create a theater.

18:01  William gives his objectives for the Minema.

20:12  The emergence of multi-use luxury theaters.

23:14  The problems of doing sound isolation in a condo.

29:00  William talks about how the theater was developed for more than just movie watching and what his expectations were for videoconferencing.

32:45  How to create a space where none of the functions are compromised.

37:19  The recent surge in demand for luxury home cinemas—and for making them more flexible.

42:10  William’s future expectations for his theater.

44:09  Sam on appreciating a private cinema as a luxury item.

46:29  William on how video- and teleconferencing is a great opportunity for integrators.

47:36  William on how beginning the planning of a theater by giving the integrator a budget number can actually hurt a client’s chances of getting what they’re looking for.

50:09  Sam talks about the importance of thinking of a private cinema as an experience and a luxury acquisition instead of just some room for watching movies.

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Sam Cavitt is the founder & CEO of Paradise Theater. His firm has collaborated with leading integrators, architects, designers & builders on nearly a thousand of the world’s finest private cinemas, employing an exclusive process that assures excellence always. Sam is also spearheading Cinema Connoisseur, an initiative to create a community of enthusiasts—cinema connoisseurs—both professional and public to embrace and enhance the world of private cinema and film. He likes to spend his spare time in Maui surfing, sailing, paddling & drumming.

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music. 

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

Review: Elf

Elf (2003)

You’re going to need to bear with me here because I will get around to recommending that you watch Elf. But I first need to point out that it’s just not a very good movie.

 

The story is contrived and soulless, the casting—with one very obvious exception—is tone deaf, it’s badly shot, and the practical effects are so unconvincing that they would have been better off going with early-‘00s CGI instead.

 

Every character except Will Ferrell’s is one-dimensional and pretty much interchangeable. Any irascible middle-aged actor could have played the James Caan role, Mary Steenburgen is just there to be stereotypically empathetic, the kid that plays their son is just unpleasant, and a very anemic and kind of homely (before she went full Kabuki and became an “It” girl) 

Zooey Deschanel is just there to admire Ferrell—Nicoletta Braschi’s thankless job vis-à-vis Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, although not quite that bad.

 

Everything about this film feels half-baked, like a Tim Burton movie. The ending is a completely botched deus ex machina, with every kind of contrivance thrown at the audience, all but forgetting about Buddy, ladling on a ton of fake drama because the filmmakers hadn’t been able to generate any real drama before then—the kind of thing that happens when the so-called creatives only have other movies to draw on for tactical support because they don’t have any bearings in real life.

 

It might seem misguided to beat up on a 17-year-old film, but I’m trying to make a point about why we watch Elf, and should watch Elf.

ELF AT A GLANCE

Elf isn’t so much a fully fledged movie as it is a 90-minute one-man show—but Will Ferrell’s performance is so brilliant that it’s worth making some time for over the holidays.

 

PICTURE     

Aside from some creepy crawlers whenever there’s a blown-out white patch, the movie looks surprisingly good in HD on Kaleidescape.

 

SOUND     

An unexceptional mix—but at least it never gets in the way of Ferrell’s schtick.

This movie has become a tradition because it’s great holiday wallpaper, meant to be played in the background during Yuletide celebrations, but liberally sprinkled with “O wait!” moments that momentarily draw your attention back to the screen—like “O wait! This is the scene where he eats the Pop Tarts with the spaghetti,” and “O wait! Here’s that thing where he gets attacked by the midget.” In other words, A Christmas Story, except made with some intelligence and a modicum of taste.

 

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Elf anticipated and helped create the current age of maximum repetition and redundancy where the last thing we want from a movie or a series is to be shown anything challenging or new. It’s meant to be big, warm, and fuzzy like a well-worn security blanket, something utterly predictable and familiar you can wrap yourself in so you don’t have to feel anything, except coddled.

 

What would seem to be the movie’s greatest vice is actually its saving virtue. Elf is ultimately nothing but a Will Ferrell vehicle—he doesn’t just carry the film, he is the film. And that’s not a bad thing but a great thing—a cause for celebration—because 

he’s able to pull it off, and in spades, turning an otherwise by-the-book studio hack job into a virtuoso one-man show.

 

Ferrell has Peter Sellers’ ability to make cartoonish, completely impossible, characters feel more real than than the more realistic characters around him. And his investment in Buddy is so complete that he’s able to rise above the incredibly tepid and inept script (which apparently everybody but the gaffers worked on) and energize enough scenes to make it worth tolerating all the many areas where the movie sags.

 

I know that’s a really back-handed recommendation, but it’s a very sincere one. It’s definitely worth anyone’s time to watch Elf and just hone in on and savor and sit in amazement of what Ferrell is able to bring forth. He makes Buddy so completely embody Christmas that Santa, the elves, the North Pole, and all the other traditional trappings seem not just threadbare but unnecessary.

 

Elf looks surprisingly good viewed in HD on Kaleidescape. I can’t see any point in rushing this movie into a 4K HDR upgrade—it would likely just make it look even more poorly executed than it already does. The only real flaw in HD is the crawling corpuscles that appear whenever there’s a bright white patch, like the 

Elf (2003)

blownout sunlight seen through the doors at Gimbels or the lighting under the kitchen cabinets in Caan’s apartment.

 

The soundtrack is nothing special, just serviceable, but you can hear all the lines so I’ve got to give it credit for that. The extras? (of which there are many). Let’s not go there.

 

Nothing I’ve said here is going to make even the slightest dent in Elf’s reputation as a latter-day Christmas classic. But hopefully I can jog the perception of it just enough that it seems less like an obligation, like fruitcake, sweaters, and socks, and more like a genuine source of holiday cheer.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Tenet

Tenet (2020)

I don’t believe I’ve written more about any single subject this year at Cineluxe than I have about Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet. Nolan has been quite vocal about his preference that his films be seen on the largest screen (i.e., IMAX) possible, and was insistent Tenet receive a theatrical release rather than bow on a PVOD streaming service. In accordance with his wishes, it was one of the first films to show theatrically in the States after closing restrictions were lifted, but it had a pretty dismal performance at the box office, grossing under $58 million in the US and Canada—not great for a film that had a production budget of $200 million.

As a fan of Nolan’s work, I went and saw Tenet at a theater, renting out the entire auditorium for a private watch party, and I had been looking forward to its home video release ever sense. I left that first viewing . . . confused. The story is incredibly complex, with physics concepts like entropy (“a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system”) and inverting (or reversing) entropy being key plot points.

 

Further complicating Tenet is Ludwig Goransson’s often aggressive, kinetic soundmix and blasting sound effects that pummel you almost constantly, especially during key sequences when you’re struggling to keep up with who is where (and when). Add to that the fact that characters are

TENET AT A GLANCE

Christopher Nolan’s big & loud cerebral spy thriller arrives on home screens—which means you don’t have to risk your life anymore to go see it.

 

PICTURE     

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX, Tenet looks gorgeous, with reference-quality video throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio mix is both fantastic and—thanks to some overly emphatic bass and hard-to-hear dialogue—damnably frustrating.

frequently speaking behind masks, which makes some of the dialogue all but impossible to understand. And it just adds to the frustration when you’re constantly asking yourself, “What did (s)he say?”

 

As I wrote after my first viewing:

 

Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. It will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.

 

Prior to watching for the second time, I did a bit of homework. Googling “Understanding Tenet” produces quite a few results of blogs, theories, threads, and videos from people who have really dug into the film and tried to dissect it to make it a bit more 

viewer friendly.

 

Concepts like the Sator Square were new to me, and discovering how Nolan weaved this into the story added to my appreciation. You’ll notice that the words below read forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, forming a palindrome in both directions, playing into Nolan’s forwards-backwards time concept with Tenet.

 

SATOR

AREPO

TENET

OPERA

ROTAS

 

While there is still a good bit of the film I don’t fully understand—maybe on a third or fourth viewing!—I will say I got far more out of a second viewing, thanks to the foreknowledge of why people were doing things and some other visual clues Nolan throws in if you know what to look for. And, with apologies to Mr. Nolan, I think Tenet actually works better at home.

 

Of course, if this is your first viewing, I’d suggest going in “blind.” Part of the fun is being thrown into this world and trying to figure out how to make your way in it. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy) says to our hero, the Protagonist (John David Washington), “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

 

Nolan has said that while Inception was his heist film, Tenet is his version of a spy thriller. When boiled down to its essence, it’s about The Protagonist trying to stop Russian Oligarch/arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. How the Protagonist goes about uncovering Sator’s plans and draws close to him, how Sator intends on destroying the world, and how the Protagonist goes about stopping him are what make the story so twisty-turny and visually compelling. The film also benefits from the strong performances of Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s suffering wife, Kat, and Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s partner, Neil. And Pattinson’s handling of Neil also makes me think that he is up to the task of playing Bruce Wayne whenever the next Batman film is released.

 

There are a couple of ways to watch Tenet, and depending how you do so will also affect your viewing experience. With the 4K HDR version from digital retailers like Kaleidescape or Vudu, you will see a constant 2.2:1 aspect ratio film. However, those watching the physical disc (4K or standard

Blu-ray) or watching the HD version of the film from Kaleidescape will see the film alternating between 1.78:1 and 2.2:1 ratios, switching to 1.78:1 for the scenes shot on IMAX. If you’re watching on a traditional direct-view TV, or have a 16:9 aspect-ratio projection screen, you will likely enjoy the alternating ratios, as the big action scenes will get bigger, filling your entire screen. But if you own a widescreen projection system—as I do—the constant 2.2:1 ratio is likely preferable and less disruptive to the viewing experience.

 

Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, Tenet looks gorgeous. It doesn’t have that tack-sharpness of movies shot digitally, but looks like a movie shot on film in all the right ways. Grain is absolutely minimal, and the images on screen just look natural and terrific. In looking through my viewing notes, I wrote down the words “clean,” “clear,” and “crisp” repeatedly.

 

Edges are sharp and defined, and closeups bristle with detail. Much of Tenet takes place in the world of billionaires, and the trappings of luxury are beautifully displayed. You can really see and appreciate the character styling in the fine detail, texture, patterns, and prints in the clothing worn by the main characters. One scene where the characters are dining aboard Sator’s mega-yacht had so much fine detail to appreciate in the tablecloth and linens and other bits on the yacht that it was almost distracting. Daylight shots of the Amalfi Coast are also just stunning to look at, with the beautiful array of colors and sharply defined buildings contrasted against the craggy cliffs and water.

 

Blacks are clean, clear, and dark, and we get plenty of bright highlights in the form of explosions or bright lighting. Colors are bright and punchy when called for, like bright yellows of safety vests, or the red-orange of fireballs, or the warm, golden hues of a candlelit dinner. Throughout, Tenet delivers reference-quality video, with images that look incredibly natural, sharp, and detailed. While it might have been impressive on an IMAX screen, it absolutely looks fantastic viewed on a high-quality home theater.

 

As much as I wrote down about Tenet’s video quality, I have more notes about the audio. Presented in 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (Nolan famously eschews immersive mixes like Dolby Atmos), the mix is both fantastic and damnably frustrating.

 

It’s fantastic in the way it is just filled with atmospheric sounds both subtle and overt in virtually every scene. Interiors are densely layered with little sounds—echoes, ocean sounds, machinery noises, background chatter, etc.—that fully place you in that space. While not an immersive mix, my Marantz’s processor did a wonderful job of upmixing the 5.1-channel track to provide a fully hemispherical presentation. A scene where gas is filling a room literally fills your room with the hissing jets of gas coming from all around. Another scene has the Protagonist in the middle of a train yard, and when the trains pass by left and right of him, the cacophony of the squealing and groaning and clacking of the wheels makes you experience what the characters is experiencng.

 

Dynamic sounds are dynamic and loud. Gunshots sound fantastic, having appropriate weight that engages the subwoofer and delivers the zip and snap of close misses, with bullets slamming into things with appropriate force. Wood splinters, metal thunks, glass shatters. Both the opening opera scene and later gun battle on the highway are perfect audio demos to show off your system. 

You’ll also never need to wonder if your subs are working, which is a part of why the audio mix can be so frustrating. Bass is frequently on the verge of being overwhelming—I wrote down “bombastic”—or crossing over into just walloping you with low-end for no apparent reason, often from the musical score, which frequently is filled with a steady, deep, low-frequency hum, pulse, and throb. But when things blow up, your sub needs to be there to deliver, and it will produce couch-rattling, chest-stomping bass.

 

Dialogue intelligibility is still a very mixed bag. At its best, you can understand what characters are saying; at its worst, dialogue is so drowned out by background effects and music that it’s impossible to understand, or even hear at all in some cases. I’d say most of the film’s dialogue—spoken behind oxygen masks or just in very noisy environments—is challenging. On this second viewing, I decided to not to struggle and opted to just turn the subtitles on from the get-go, and that made for a much more entertaining experience. If you want to argue that you shouldn’t have to turn subtitles on to fully understand a film, you’ll get no argument from me.

Tenet (2020)

But this is the audio mix Nolan wanted, and it’s the audio mix we’re stuck with, warts and all. Nolan says he likes viewers to experience the confusion and disorientation his characters would be feeling, and that he uses “dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.” Fortunately, at home you have the option of enabling subtitles—and rewinding—in case you missed something.

 

Whether you love it, hate it, are confounded by it, or just curious over the hype, Tenet is an experience that plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. And seeing giant practical effects play out on a big screen—yes, they literally blew up that 747—in pristine quality is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, unlocking the “I understand Tenet” achievement demands multiple viewings, which provide more appreciation and understanding over subtle details, giving it huge points for replayability.

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.

Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: The Muppet Christmas Carol is not exactly the creative apex of the Muppets franchise. As the first film in the series to be made after the death of Jim Henson, it lacks a lot of the creator’s bohemian funkiness and marks the beginning of a transition period in which the Muppets became a little more kid-friendly and a little less clever. (Although, to be fair, you could just as easily level some of the same criticism at The Great Muppet Caper.)

But—and this is a pretty huge “but”—it’s still my all-time favorite interpretation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, just nudging out Richard Donner’s Scrooged and the excellent made-for-TV version from 1984 starring George C. Scott. A lot of that can be attributed to Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge, in which he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his co-stars almost all have hands up their butts. Instead, he plays the role straight, leaving the winking and nodding mostly to Gonzo the Great, who plays the role of Dickens himself.

 

There’s also the lovely soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams, who didn’t quite turn in as many memorable

MUPPET CAROL AT A GLANCE

The Muppets’ shockingly faithful take on Dickens’ oft-adapted holiday classic is a must-see for every Christmas season.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K version appears to be upscaled from the HD master, but HDR helps to soften any over-saturation, bringing some needed subtlety to the presentation.

ditties as he did for The Muppet Movie or Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but still gives the movie an extra heaping helping of charm.

 

Oddly enough, despite the songs and despite the puppetry, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book, abridged though it may be. And as such, it’s a must-see for me every Christmas season.

 

But as with It’s a Wonderful Life, one must ask whether or not this movie is actually worth owning. And for now—and only for now—I say probably not. That’s primarily because it’s available for free on Disney+—in Dolby Vision no less. The service was, as best I can tell, the first to offer The Muppet Christmas Carol in 4K, and although other digital providers have caught up, I 

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can’t imagine it looking any better on any of those services than it does on Disney+.

 

Honestly, the 4K resolution does very little to add detail or definition to the cinematography, and unless my eyes deceive me, the current 4K master wasn’t sourced from the original camera negative. It frankly looks like an upscale from an HD master taken from a print (or at best an interpositive), with the only noteworthy resolution differences coming in the form of enhanced (but very inconsistent) film grain.

 

The HDR does add a lot to the presentation, mostly by 

toning down the over-saturation seen in the HD version, leaving the most vibrant hues for those spots with pure primary colors, like the inside of Kermit’s mouth. The HDR also brings more consistency and subtlety to contrasts, making blacks a good bit more consistent and eliminating some crush.

 

So, yes, this is definitely the best The Muppet Christmas Carol has looked to date. But hang on. In recent weeks, it was actually revealed that the original camera negative for the deleted musical number “When Love Is Gone” had been 

discovered and would be included in a new ground-up 4K restoration of the film sourced from the original elements.

 

If you’re not familiar with “When Love Is Gone,” that’s probably because the song was cut from the theatrical version of the film at the insistence of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney, for fear that it was too emotionally sophisticated for a children’s film (something I can’t imagine Jim 

Henson ever allowing, but it was his son Brian’s cinematic directorial debut). The song was integrated into the LaserDisc and VHS releases, as well some DVD versions, but has disappeared from higher-quality releases due, one would assume, to quality concerns.

 

Whether you’re particularly interested in that song or not (for my money, it’s one of the film’s best, and thankfully it’s included as a deleted scene on Disney+ and elsewhere), the news that The Muppet Christmas Carol is getting a proper restoration is enough to warrant holding off on a purchase for now.

 

But if you’ve got Disney+, you should still add the movie to your holiday viewing rotation this year. For all its flaws, it’s an incredibly charming children’s classic with tons of genuinely funny moments and some wonderful performances throughout, from humans and Muppets alike. And for what it’s worth, it’s the only cinematic adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has genuinely made me shed a tear over the death of Tiny Tim.

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 Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

While translating the three volumes of The Lord of the RingsThe Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—into three films made perfect sense, being the only way to try and bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy to the screen with any semblance of being faithful to its beloved source material, turning The Hobbit, or There and Back Again into a movie trilogy—An Unexpected Journey (reviewed here), The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies—seemed more like an effort to re-cash-in on the massive success of Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy. Especially when you consider that the Hobbit was only about 300 pages.

 

Yes, the Hobbit trilogy feels a bit long and plodding in parts, with the relatively straightforward story from the book heavily padded and expanded by weaving in bits from Tolkien’s later writings, as well as fabricating completely non-canon subplots 

and a love triangle at the studio’s insistence, and returning popular characters from the Rings trilogy to appeal to fans and to more closely tie the two trilogies together. And, yes, the Hobbit trilogy relies far more heavily on CGI effects and trickery than the practical effects of the Rings films. And, yes, it pales in comparison to the spectacular achievement Jackson achieved with his Rings trilogy.

 

And yet, I so loved the world of Middle Earth that Jackson brought to the big screen that I am happy to let him take me on another journey—or three, as the case may be. And with the incredible box office success of the Hobbit films—out-earning Rings—it’s clear many others were also happy to be able to spend more time in Middle Earth.

 

Plus, if you have agreed to follow Jackson on the nearly eight-hour journey of completing The Hobbit trilogy, why would you not just go all-in and watch the nine hours of the Extended Editions, which flesh out scenes and add a 

JOURNEY AT A GLANCE

A bit of a forced exercise, The Hobbit trilogy still represents a satisfying return to Middle Earth for fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

 

PICTURE     

An Unexpected Journey translates well to 4K HDR, with crisp, detail-filled images and an HDR grade that adds warm and depth to candle and firelight scenes.

 

SOUND     

An incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to upgrade to Atmos.

bit more to the storytelling? Granted, these Extended Editions don’t add nearly as much as the Rings versions, where Two Towers got an extra 44 minutes and Return of the King a whopping 51 extra minutes. But still the added footage expands some scenes and gives us a more complete look at the characters and the story. With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson restored only 13 minutes to the theatrical release, giving us a run time of just over three hours.

 

Journey’s opening 10 minutes set up the quest the party is about to undertake. Sixty years ago, the Dwarves of Erebor lived in Lonely Mountain, led by Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas), the King under the Mountain. These dwarves were legendary miners and grew incredibly wealthy off gold and diamonds. However, those mountains of gold and riches attract the fire-breathing dragon

Smaug, who destroys the nearby town of Dale and drives the Dwarves from their mountain and takes their treasure.

 

Through signs and portents, Thrór’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), determines it is time to retake the mountain and reclaim the treasure for his people. From his people, Thorin forms a company of 13—an unlucky number—and Great Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arranges for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a simple stay-at-home Hobbit from Hobbiton, to join their company as the 14th member . . . and also as their burglar.

 

But this comes as a complete surprise to Bilbo, especially when 13 Dwarves arrive one night unannounced and eat and drink him out of house and home. Bilbo is reluctant at first—especially when hearing about Smaug—but ultimately the call of adventure is too much and he joins the quest.

 

Since we are in Middle Earth, there is constant danger and peril along the way. The company encounters Trolls, Orcs, Goblins, and Wargs intent on killing them—and eating them—before they get anywhere near the Lonely Mountain. The group also gets help from the Elves of Rivendell, including Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), some giant eagles, and another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).

 

Unexpected Journey also delivers the pivotal moment that sets up the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy: When Bilbo happens to discover a certain magical ring forged in the fires of Mount Doom and thought to be lost forever after it is accidentally dropped by Gollum (Andy Serkis).

 

While entertaining on its own, Journey definitely doesn’t feel complete and is clearly meant as just the beginning of the quest, ending with our characters in sight of their goal and giving a tease of the events that are to come in the (more exciting and entertaining, in my opinion) second part, The Desolation of Smaug

 

Shot digitally and using modern color-correction techniques, The Hobbit didn’t require the lengthy restoration of the 

Rings films, but it definitely still benefits from the enhanced 4K resolution, HDR grading, and new Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

The film looks fantastic, with reference-quality video throughout. Images are clean, sharp, detailed, and noise-free. Closeups reveal all of the fine detail you could ask for, from the wispy, single strands of hair in Gandalf’s beard to the scratches, wear, and engraving on swords and axes to the texture, layering, and detail in the costumes. You can really appreciate the beautifully smooth complexion and perfect texture of Elven skin (“All high cheekbones and creamy skin. Not enough facial hair,” according to Dwarf Kili) compared to all the other characters. And I never noticed the delicate blue and silver flecks in Gandalf’s grey robes or the fine detail and patterns in Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) silvery-white robes until now.

 

Beyond delivering bright highlights, the new HDR grading adds depth and realism to dark and lowlight scenes lit by candle- or firelight. Early on in Bilbo’s house, the interior glows in rich, warm, golden lighting and shadows from candles. We also get glorious, vibrant shades of green throughout the Shire, as well as gleaming piles of gold, bright white moonbeams, a rich palette of fiery reds, and the ethereal glow of the Arkenstone. Blacks are also deep, and we get terrific shadow depth and detail.

Journey also has an incredibly active and dynamic Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix that will put a smile on your face and reinforce why you decided to make that Atmos speaker upgrade. The height speakers are almost constantly in use playing some bit of ambient sound like birds singing and trees blowing, or filling the room with music or other sounds of Middle Earth.

 

The mixers seemed to take every opportunity to create an immersive experience, placing sounds overhead and all around the room whenever appropriate. During the opening, we are immersed in the mining operations of the Dwarves, with hammering and the pulleys moving gold whirring all about and up overhead. The surrounds and height speakers are also frequently engaged for dialogue, either to locate a character behind you or overhead, or to give a booming “Thou shall obey!” quality to Gandalf’s voice. Gollum’s home is filled with all kinds of reverb and echo, with water drips, and noises around. And you can hear spiders scuttling up overhead and just outside of Radagast’s house.

 

When action is called for, the mix gets kicked up another level. From the opening we hear Smaug swooping and flying around, the rustling of winds whipping 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

through the room, and Smaug spewing fire and carnage into every corner with couch-rattling bass. A fight between Stone Giants during a pouring thunderstorm also has boulders smashing around, with appropriately massive low end.

 

I don’t recall having any dialogue issues with An Unexpected Journey, so I can’t say that the new Atmos mix improves on this, but I can say that dialogue comes through loud and clear—even when not emanating from the center channel speaker.

 

They say that time heals all wounds, and maybe the eight years since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released is enough for you to give it another chance if you weren’t impressed the first time. Regardless of your initial theatrical impressions—or thoughts on the film itself—I can say it looks and sounds fantastic, and certainly completes and fills out Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, giving us the backstory of events that led to Frodo taking on his quest to destroy The One True Ring.

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.

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life is such a pervasive presence on broadcast TV during the holidays that one almost has to wonder if there’s actually any value in owning it. It has been in USA’s rotation since Thanksgiving and will air there and on NBC as well right up until Christmas Eve. If you care at all about this beloved Frank Capra classic, you have ample opportunity to view it for free, and if you don’t, it almost seems hard to escape this time of year. So why would you spend your hard-earned money to make it part of your permanent film library, when—let’s be honest with ourselves here—you’re just going to ignore it again until your next big tryptophan overdose in late 2021?

Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR download of It’s a Wonderful Life provides a pretty compelling answer to that question, actually. Because I promise you, whether you’ve seen the film once or you binge it like the sugary confection it is, you’ve never seen it looking as good as it does here.

 

Working with the best elements they could get their hands on, the Paramount Pictures Archive restored the film in 2019, which was no easy task given that only 13 of the film’s 14 original camera-negative reels survived, all with significant deterioration at the ends. The team also had two complete fine-grade nitrate prints from 1946 to work with, which they used to fill in the gaps.

 

The result is quite frankly astonishing—rich in detail and organic nuance, with a healthy level of very fine grain but none of the noise that often plagues nitrate films of this 

WONDERFUL LIFE AT A GLANCE

An impressive restoration and a 4K HDR upgrade turn this once-a-year holiday ritual into a movie collection must-have.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration, coupled with a subtle application of HDR, results in impossibly gorgeous imagery throughout.

 

SOUND     

The two-channel mono soundtrack’s limited dynamic range can be occasionally harsh and have an impact on dialogue intelligibility, but this is still the best the movie has ever sounded.

era, especially those sourced from multiple generations of assets. The movie has also been given a very subtle but effective HDR grade, the likes of which you certainly won’t see on broadcast TV.

 

Comparing it to the standard-dynamic-range HD release (sourced, I believe, from the same restoration), you won’t notice much by way of enhanced highlights, even from the neon lights that line the streets of Potterville toward the end of the film. But what you will notice is a broader and smoother range of midtones, as well as enhanced shadow detail and depth closer to the bottom end of the value scale.

 

This really stood out to me in one scene in particular, when George Bailey sits with his father at the dinner table discussing the future. In the HD transfer, George’s jacket is a medium gray, since taking the image much darker would have swallowed 

the folds and details in the fabric. In the 4K/HDR transfer, the jacket is very nearly black, and yet all of the subtle textures and contrasts that give it shape shine through, despite the overall darkening of the image here. The effect is to give the scene a greater sense of intimacy, to make it look and feel more like a family dinner than a brightly lit movie set. And you can see that sort of benefit from HDR throughout the film. Never does the image get much brighter than you’ve 

seen it before, but HDR allows it to get properly darker in places without losing any detail or crushing any blacks. It simply gives the film a more consistent look from beginning to end.

 

There are times, by the way, when I suspected I could see where the second-generation nitrate prints had been substituted for the original camera negative—the sort of thing you can normally pick out much more easily in HDR. A few shots here and there are ever-so-slightly plagued by diminished midtones and a loss of highlights. The occasional camera angle looks a little more dupe-y, a little less pristine.

Watching the excellent 13-minute documentary about the restoration process, though (included on the UHD Blu-ray but not available on Kaleidescape, sadly— but embedded in this review, above), I’m inclined to believe I was mistaken in blaming these very minor issues on the restoration. You can see in the doc, especially at right around the 7:45 mark, that the second-generation elements were so seamlessly integrated into the original camera negative that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart unless you know exactly where the splices are. So the occasional second or two of subpar imagery in the movie must be an artifact of the original production. And I’m even more inclined to believe that given that every shot of Donna Reed looks like the lens was slathered with five pounds of Vaseline before “Action!” was called, something that’s even more noticeable given the enhanced resolution.

 

This handful of visual booboos is hardly a distraction—nowhere near the level of something like The Blues Brothers Extended Edition—and they’re only worth nitpicking at all because the rest of the film simply looks so impossibly gorgeous. What can be distracting at times is that the dynamic range of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (labeled as stereo, but in actuality two-channel mono) is so 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

limited that, especially in louder scenes—like Harry Bailey’s graduation party—the sound can get a weensy bit harsh, and dialogue intelligibility suffers in spots. But this is still the best the film has ever sounded, so it’s hard to complain.

 

So, should you buy It’s a Wonderful Life in 4K? If you care at all about the film, I say yes. Absolutely. I’ll admit (whilst hiding behind some protective cover) that I’ve always been a bit “whatever” about this Christmas mainstay. But watching it in 4K with the benefit of HDR, once I got past the insufferable scenes with the kids in the drug store early in the film and the laughably bad outer-space sequences, I enjoyed it in a way I never have before.

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.

Review: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)

Much like Spartacus, My Fair Lady is a gem from Hollywood’s golden age of the early ‘60s that I had yet to see. Also like Spartacus, it’s available in a gorgeous new 4K HDR transfer that is available for streaming from sites like iTunes. But to truly experience the transfer in its full glory, the 89.8 gigabyte download from Kaleidescape is the best option.

 

A third trait My Fair Lady shares with Spartacus is that it was restored by Robert Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Godfather Parts I and II). Harris originally restored the film in 1994, but was then hired by CBS in 2015 to perform a full digital restoration to prepare the film for its 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release.

This was a lengthy restoration that took over six months and started by taking a new 8K scan of the original 65mm negative. Restoration involved a good bit of repair to scratches, tears, and splices, color correction, cleanup, and dust removal. All told, some 12 million glitches were said to have been digitally removed, and faded colors were returned to their original vibrancy using an archival print from the Motion Picture Academy as a reference.

 

Immediately following the film, a vibrant pink title card proclaims, “Paramount Pictures has made a High Dynamic Range version on [sic] this film based on the efforts of Robert Harris, Fotokem, Audio Mechanics and the many others who helped with the original restoration.” (The press release from 20th Century Fox on the extensive restoration is pretty interesting reading.)

LADY AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR transfer from a 65mm print breathes new life into Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical.

 

PICTURE     

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges—which is especially impressive given that this is a 56-year-old film.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be.

As mentioned, I had never seen this film before, and at first blush Lady seems like a lot to ask of a modern viewer. It’s not exactly like a 56-year-old movie based on a 64-year-old musical stage play set in early-1900s London that lasts just under three hours (170 minutes) is something you’d plan for your next movie night. Also, the plot of a priggish linguist taking on the challenge of teaching a poor Cockney street girl “the majesty and grandeur of the English language” to fit into polite society, doesn’t really grab modern eyeballs (though I do love Kaleidescape’s concise synopsis, “A London guttersnipe transforms herself into a proper lady under a language professor’s stern tutelage.”)

 

However, as intrigued as I was about the quality of the new 4K HDR transfer—especially after how impressed I was with Spartacus—it was really Audrey Hepburn starring as Eliza Doolittle that sealed the deal for me. Audrey is truly a timeless beauty, and it is just a treat to be able to watch and appreciate her—a testament to her charms, talents, and classic style that she is still such a draw so many years later. If there’s any question how much my wife and I adore Ms. Hepburn, our youngest daughter’s name is Audrey . . . 

 

A little digging reveals some pretty interesting things about Lady. With a production budget of $17 million dollars (nearly $143 million when adjusted for inflation), it was the most expensive film shot in the US at the time. Based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, it had been adapted into a stage musical in 1956 that played on Broadway and in London. That version had Rex Harrison cast as Professor Henry Higgins (which he reprised in the film) with Julie Andrews playing Eliza. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, though Audrey Hepburn was notably snubbed from receiving a Best Actress nomination, rumored because many wanted Andrews to have the lead (she wasn’t considered well-known enough to star in such a big film) and because nearly all of Hepburn’s singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. (Hepburn was told she would be 

RELATED REVIEW

Spartacus (1960)

able to do most of her singing, and worked on the vocals for some time, but 90% of her lyrics were dubbed according to Hepburn.) The film went on to win 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Cinematography. It also has extremely favorable critics and audience scores from Rotten Tomatoes, with 95% and 90% respectively.

 

As a musical with 25 numbers, including the Overture over opening credits and Finale (all lovingly pre-bookmarked for easy and instant access by Kaleidescape’s Movie Guide team), I was thinking this would be a near-three-hour song-fest with all of the dialogue sung, but that (pleasantly) isn’t 

the case. In fact, quite a bit of the movie is spoken, with characters breaking into song as the moment calls. I was also surprised how many of the songs I was familiar with, just not knowing they were from Lady. “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” were all tunes I’d heard, but now have them in context.

 

While I find myself still humming “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” even a couple of days after, my two favorite numbers were “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Show Me.” “Luck” is performed by Doolittle’s father, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), with some humorous lyrics extolling the benefits of how some luck can get you out of tricky situations like doing hard work, getting hooked by a lady, or helping out a neighbor in need. “Show Me” is performed by Eliza (dubbed by Nixon) about how a potential suitor needs to show his attentions with actions, not words.

 

One character that does take a bit of getting used to is the surly Professor Higgins. He is in love with himself and linguistics, and shows large measures of disdain to all around him but mostly Eliza whom he meets after overhearing her extremely Cockney accent as she is trying to sell flowers outside an opera. After a chance encounter with another linguist, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), we have the opening number “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” which basically establishes the premise/bet that Higgins believes he can teach anyone—even Doolittle!—to speak in such a way that not even the King could tell she didn’t belong, and that would be then the key to them having a better life.

 

But Higgins hurls a constant barrage of verbal assaults at Doolittle throughout the film, including calling her creature, baggage, garbage, guttersnipe, squashed cabbage leaf, deliciously low, horribly dirty, draggletailed, barbarous wretch, and more. Some of these are off-hand descriptions while others are shouted insults. His feelings are also pretty well summed up in the number, “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”. I would say that his character is incredibly misogynistic. However, someone online argued that he is actually a misanthrope (“a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society”), which actually seems more accurate.

 

That Higgins shows not the least bit of interest, compassion, concern, or care for Doolittle—even on a human level, let alone a romantic one—makes the ending feel that much more forced. But what is more classic Hollywood than the leads coming together at the end?

 

So, how’s it look? In a word, stunning.

 

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges. Cobblestones in the street are clearly outlined and detailed, as is the distressing and texture in cement columns. Early on, Higgins is wearing a hat with a very fine check plaid, and the tight lines are clearly defined and visible. In another scene, he is moving about his grand library and even though the camera is some distance away, you can just about read the fine print on the books’ spines. And near the end, Higgins sits in a white rattan chair that has incredible detail to its tight lines and pattern.

 

We also get terrific depth of field and focus. Shots such as at the Ascot Gavotte race or at the embassy dance show dozens of actors at once, all in crisp focus. You can also appreciate the costumes—especially Doolittle’s Ascot outfit and embassy gown—and other little attentions to detail and set dressing. It really demonstrates the benefits of being able to extract every bit of detail from the 8K scan of the original 65mm negative and Super Panavision 70 process. 

 

I was only occasionally aware of any film grain, and it certainly was never distracting, but at the same time it didn’t look like it had been scrubbed away, softening the picture.

 

They definitely took a light touch with the HDR grading, but we do get some nice bright whites, especially in men’s crisp tuxedo shirts and Doolittle’s race dress. Blacks are also nice, dark, and noise-free, whether in nighttime street scenes or in 

tuxedoes. The added contrast also provides more realistic and lifelike images throughout.

 

Don’t expect to use the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio mix as demo material to show off your sound system. But it keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be, and if there was any audio mixed into the surround speakers, I didn’t notice it. I did notice that the mixers used the front three channels to give characters some room to move, not locking voices just to the center channel, but letting them move left and right of center. This was also noticeable in the horse-race scene—the film’s most dynamic sonic moment—as the horses race from far right to far left. The orchestration is also given a lot of space to play in the front, with music having a nice tall soundstage helped a bit by some processor upmixing to the front height channels.

 

Dialogue was mostly intelligible throughout, but I did have some difficulty early on when Doolittle is speaking in her heavily accented voice. Whether this was just me having trouble with the dialect, the mix, the other crowd noises occurring at the same time, or some combination of all of the above, I can’t exactly say.

 

My only quibble with the audio is in the dubbing of Audrey’s lyrics. I know it was a

My Fair Lady (1964)

huge musical of the time and that audiences expected professional singing quality, but dammit if Gerard Butler can be the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera then Audrey could have sung for Eliza. We know she can sing from “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even taking the dub-snub away, it is the fact that the musical numbers have a noticeably different tone and quality to them, and the voice change just pulls you that much more out of the scene, but especially so in the numbers “Just You Wait” and “The Rain in Spain,” which has Hepburn singing some of the lines and Nixon clearly coming in and sounding vocally and tonally different.

 

I can’t imagine My Fair Lady looked or sounded any better even on the night of its premiere. This transfer has images that look great for a modern film, let alone one that is 56 years old, and it dazzles up on a home theater big screen. While the near three-hour runtime is a fairly serious commitment, I found it thoroughly entertaining and definitely see why this movie is considered such a classic. I dare say you’ll never see Audrey Hepburn looking ever so loverly as she does here. 

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.

“The Lord of the Rings” in 4K: An Epic Transformation

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life than I was when I predicted early this year that the rumored 4K release of The Lord of the Rings might not look substantially better than its HD forebear. To be fair, that prognostication was based on the fact that the upgrade from standard definition to high definition did the trilogy no favors. And as we’ve seen with recent Ultra HD releases like The Blues Brothers and The Birds, 4K can be so revealing as to make less-than-perfect film elements

nigh unwatchable. As much as I love them, the LotR films never looked perfect to begin with.

 

Having now seen the new 4K HDR release of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King in their Extended Edition forms, though, I’m forced to eat pretty much every word I wrote in that editorial. And I do so gleefully, because I’ve frankly never seen a more effective and transformative film restoration in all my life.

 

What I didn’t know when I wrote that myopic diatribe is that in remastering The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson and his team at Weta returned to the original 35mm camera negative for all three films, as well as the VFX film-out elements (digital effects printed to film for compositing with the live-action shots). All effects completed entirely in the digital domain were also upscaled from 2K to 4K and touched up in places, though none were re-rendered or replaced.

 

The result of all that labor is that the films look substantially better now than they did in their original theatrical run. By a long shot. And I’ll give you one specific example of what I mean here, because it’s not merely detail for detail’s sake. In the extraordinary Appendices included with the SD and HD releases of the Extended Editions (although sadly not with the UHD Blu-ray discs, a point I’ll return to in a bit), costume designer Ngila Dickson goes into quite a bit of depth about the little nuances of haberdashery and millinery that were too fine to appear on the screen: The carefully 

considered mix of linens, silks, and embroidery included in Saruman’s robes, for example, just to give the all-white costume some contrast and to help Christopher Lee fully inhabit his character. (Shown in the photo at the top of the page.)

 

These details were lost on the big screen, and needless to say they were lost on DVD and Blu-ray as well. But in this gorgeous 4K restoration, we can finally see and appreciate those little costuming details. Far from being mere eye candy, 

discoveries like that simply make the world of Middle-earth feel more real, more tactile, more lived-in.

 

Further enhancing the verisimilitude is the fact that the trilogy’s visual effects are better integrated with the live-action photography. This really stood out in the “Last March of the Ents” from The Two Towers, a scene I referenced in my earlier 

article as one I didn’t think I wanted to see in more detail, due to the mismatch between the foreground and background elements. But in recompositing the effects shots and—perhaps more importantly—doing a new digital color grading for the entire trilogy (which, yes, removes that persistently funky green tint from Fellowship), Jackson and his team have made this sequence look like it always has in my imagination. Is it perfect? No. But it’s every bit as good as one could hope for from a relatively low-budget special-effects extravaganza from two decades ago.

 

Really, the only effects shots in the entire trilogy that still look distractingly dodgy in any significant way are the “Bridge of Khazad-dûm” sequences in the first film. The digital actors and other effects shots in these scenes require a bit of an apology, no doubt, but only in comparison to the other 12 hours’ worth of 4K imagery. Compared to what they’ve looked like in previous releases, I’m only seeing improvements.

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

Virtually every other VFX shot in the trilogy is an order of magnitude better than before—again, not because the computer elements have been re-rendered, but simply because more care has been put into ensuring that the foreground and background elements more closely match in terms of color temperature, lighting, and shadow depth. Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea (shown above), now looks less like a collection of models and matte paintings and more like a true refuge in the moorlands and foothills of the Misty Mountains—one that you could step into the image and visit for yourself, if only you could locate the Ford of Bruinen.

 

Needless to say, though, the best-looking shots in the trilogy are those that come straight from the camera with no effects other than perspective tricks orchestrated on set. The landscape cinematography is simply jaw-dropping and benefits from the new HDR grade as much as any of the wizardry or action. Not to sound like a broken record here, but what I love most about the application of HDR is that it’s not merely about enhanced visual spectacle. The superior shadow detail and vibrant 

specular highlights truly enhance the story being told.

 

One prime example comes in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas first meet the white wizard in the dankest depths of Fangorn Forest. The glow he emits is so startling as to catch our heroes off-guard, forcing them to shield their eyes and avoid looking at him directly. Much as I’ve loved that scene in every incarnation—theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.—this new HDR presentation is the first time I’ve truly felt what the characters are feeling, experienced what they’re experiencing, wincing as they wince and averting my eyes as they avert theirs.

 

I could go on and on about the visual splendor of these new transfers and how they defied my every expectation, but before I overstay my welcome, I should also point out what was perhaps the worst prediction I made in my previous post. Of the sound for these films, I said that “the thought of

WHERE TO SEE THE
EXTENDED EDITIONS IN 4K HDR

Because of the unexpected number of orders, snagging a copy of the UHD Blu-ray Disc boxed set is iffy at the moment, so your best alternative is definitely the Kaleidescape downloads, which include the must-see set of Appendices. Failing that, you could turn to either Apple TV or Vudu, which are the only two services streaming the extended editions in 4K HDR. Apple provides access to the Appendices as well. (I haven’t had a chance to compare any of the online versions to the UHD Blu-ray release, so I can’t really vouch for their quality.) 

—D.B.

this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel.”

 

Well, Jackson and his team did indeed pull many threads. All of them, in fact. And the resulting Atmos remix is simply better than anything my imagination could have conjured. If every Atmos mix sounded like this, I would be an unapologetic fan of the format. First things first, it seems pretty clear to me that in remixing the films, the team at Weta balanced the sound more for the needs of a 400 sq. ft. room than a 4,000 sq. ft. cinema auditorium. The soundscape here is still every bit as dynamic and impactful, but dialogue and sound effects are balanced better for the acoustical realities of a home cinema. No longer are the films a torture test for dialogue clarity. Every line muttered, uttered, or screamed is perfectly intelligible.

 

On the old 6.1-channel DTS-ES mix included with the SD and HD releases, for example, Gandalf’s admonishment of the Balrog while standing on the crumbling Bridge of Khazad-dûm was such a garbled mess by the time you added surround 

channels and subwoofers that even the most devoted Tolkien enthusiasts struggled to understand the words, though we know them by heart: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow!”

 

Mind you, those words might not mean anything to you unless you’re as big a 

geek as I. The point is, you can now hear every one of them without a hint of strain or struggle, despite the onslaught of rock and flame roaring out of every speaker around you (and overhead!).

 

As hinted at above, if I have one grumble with Warner’s new UHD Blu-ray release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s that they’ve left the amazing Appendices out of the package, assuming that if you’re interested in watching nearly an entire day’s worth of bonus features, you’ve had nearly 20 years to buy them in some form or another. That, in my opinion, is a massive oversight, especially given the renewed interest in the films over the past year and the fact that this 4K release will be the first time many younger fans buy them.

 

I discovered last night, though, that there is a way to access the bonus features without buying the older releases: The digital code that comes in the packaging supports Movies Anywhere, which means that if you redeem your digital copy on Vudu, you also own it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, and any other supported digital retailers you have connected to your Movies Anywhere account. And iTunes has, as of the UHD release, updated its streaming version to include all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices, all of the audio commentaries, and the rare documentaries made by Costa Botes during the original production. True, you need an Apple TV to enjoy them in your home cinema, but at least they’re available in some form.

 

As I understand it, those of you who buy the 4K Extended Editions via Kaleidescape—once they’re available on December 15—will also have access to all of these bonus features. If for whatever reason you’ve never watched the Appendices, now is the time to dive in. Simply put, they’re more relevant than ever, given that you can now see the fruits of the labor poured into these movies in a way that’s never been possible before, neither at home nor in cinemas.

 

I won’t sit here and tell you The Lord of the Rings is the most visually perfect 4K release on the market. But I will say this: It benefits from 4K and HDR (and Dolby Atmos) more than any film re-release I know of. And I’ve never been happier to be so wrong in all my life.

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.

“White Christmas”: Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

White Christmas (1954)

Although it may seem almost too obvious to include the 1954 film version of White Christmas on a list of movies to view during the Christmas season, it is nonetheless recommended here, but not for the reason you might think. White Christmas isn’t just a holiday movie but one of the most expertly done films of the 1950s, directed by one of the great studio men of Hollywood’s Golden Age—none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce). Curtiz’ accomplishments are so associated with 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. classics, that it is often overlooked that he continued to turn out colorful and superb films in the 1950s. He was adept in any genre—adventures, melodramas, film noir,

spectacular epics, and even musicals. Just think of the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

By 1954, Curtiz was freelancing, and his expertise was appreciated by all the major film studios. His genius was subtle but nonetheless ever-present, as he gave each film he worked on the royal Curtiz storytelling treatment. It’s no doubt Paramount assigned White Christmas to him because of the importance of the project.

 

The song “White Christmas” was by then the best-selling record of all time. Some reports say the Bing Crosby version had sold 100 million copies by 1954, while covers by other artists hovered around 400 million. With such a recognizable title, a film version was almost certain to be a major hit; therefore all the stops were pulled out and an “A”-class movie resulted.

 

The perennial Christmas favorite was not written for this film but rather was part of an original Irving Berlin song score for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, a black & white wartime musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song for 1942, 

struck a universal chord among thousands of soldiers who profoundly related to its beautiful but slightly melancholy tune and its concise lyric of loneliness and an idyllic dream of home. Its popularity only grew in the post-World War II era. It even took on a nostalgic flavor for the sacrifices of “the greatest generation.” This feeling would be passed on to their children of the Baby Boomer age.

 

Paramount, which had produced Holiday Inn, re-teamed Crosby and Astaire after the war in another Irving Berlin tuner, Blue Skies. This time the great stars were crooning and toe tapping in glorious Technicolor. It was another enormous musical success and Paramount began planning a Technicolor version of Holiday Inn for Bing and Fred but this time with the title White Christmas.

 

It’s unclear if Paramount meant White Christmas to be a re-make or a sequel. But it definitely was to feature Crosby and Astaire with a new Irving Berlin score. Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were top writers at Paramount and very adept at identifying the zeitgeist of the 1950s. By the early ’50s, they consciously or subliminally knew that the song “White Christmas” had nostalgic wartime edge to it, so they refashioned the Holiday Inn story completely to be about the post-

war era. And unlike, Holiday Inn, it was to take place entirely during the Christmas season. The subtle artistry and genius of Irving Berlin complied beautifully by writing 10 new songs, several of which dealt head-on with post-war soldiers. There is even a subtle but clear political slant to the story.

 

The film’s main point of conflict is that a one-time 

great general has been “put out to pasture” and forgotten by his country. Many today may think of this is a reference to the Eisenhower era (Eisenhower was the U.S. President in 1954) but it’s actually a reference to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been “forced to retire” by President Truman as commanding general of the Korean War. By 1954, MacArthur was, in his own words, “fading away.” It seems clear that even though Irving Berlin loved Eisenhower (he wrote his theme song, “I Like Ike”), he supported MacArthur even more. This might have also been true of the writers Krasna, Panama, and Frank, and even Bing Crosby. They must have been good Republicans all. So, the film White Christmas is not only a perfect time capsule of the political and moral mainstream of the mid 1950s but unabashed American political propaganda.

 

What role Fred Astaire was to play in all this seems unclear, but by 1954 Astaire was having his own career zenith, having a field day playing singing and dancing romantic leads over at MGM, where it was the glory days of the MGM musical. Back in the ‘40s when Astaire had costarred with Crosby, he was cast as “the guy who didn’t get the girl,” a kind of “second banana.” By 1954, Fred always got the girl even if it was a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn or an 18-year-old Leslie Caron. Likewise, by 1954 Bing Crosby was at his super-stardom peak over at Paramount. Therefore, Astaire, probably sensing that this was a Bing Crosby vehicle, opted out of the project.

 

Paramount then looked to Hollywood’s best and brightest “second banana” at the time—none other than the incredibly talented Donald O’Connor, who had supported Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s 

Call Me Madam (1953) to spectacular effect. In Call Me Madam, O’Connor was also teamed with Vera-Ellen. The choreography was by Robert Alton. Vera-Ellen was Alton’s protégé, and was generally accepted as the best female dancer in Hollywood—which is quite a compliment considering the talent roster there. If you don’t believe me, just ask Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, if you happen to run into them.

 

Vera-Ellen and Donald 

O’Connor’s dance routines in Call Me Madam are considered by many, such as the musical film historian Miles Krueger, as the best partner dance numbers on film—even surpassing Fred and Ginger! If you pay close attention to their movements in that film you might easily agree. Alton was set to stage White Christmas and the reassembly of the fabulous threesome was all set.

 

Ultimately, however, that was not to be. O’Connor was simultaneously starring in a string of black & white programmer comedies, the Francis the Talking Mule series—a pre-cursor to the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. Unfortunately, according to a video interview with O’Connor, he caught a rare and serious infection from the mule, and it put him out of commission for the period during which White Christmas was being filmed. All the choreography had already been staged by Alton with Vera-Ellen and O’Connor in mind. The production had to scramble to find a substitute. The solution was a big surprise. It was Danny Kaye.

 

At this time, Kaye was a huge solo film star on his own. He was at least as big as Astaire and Crosby. It would be unheard of for him to play “second banana.” But Kaye was savvy as well as fun-loving. He knew the greatness of Irving Berlin’s songs 

and he loved Bing Crosby. In addition, he was an accomplished dancer but had rarely used that talent in his movie musicals (although it might be noted he danced spectacularly well with a chorus girl named Gwen Verdon a couple of years before in On the Riviera).

 

White Christmas offered Kaye a chance to hoof with his old friend Vera-Ellen, 

sing some new Irving Berlin songs, and see if he could tease and amuse the otherwise low-key Bing Crosby. On all three accounts, the results were historically fabulous, and a good case might be made that Kaye never looked so relaxed performing, clowning, and supporting Crosby. Since the pressure was off of him to carry the picture by himself, Kaye seems to have incredible fun and is at ease throughout, allowing his brand of comic genius to shine through. It adds a lightness and joy to his teaming with Crosby that is unique in film.

 

It might be noted here that a recovered and healthy Donald O’Connor appeared later on opposite Crosby in the 1956 re-make of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Their chemistry is rather terrible and the comedic results are insufferable. So thank God Danny Kaye ended up in White Christmas.

 

Rosemary Clooney, the fine and fiery leading lady of the picture, said Danny Kaye would try every day to make Crosby burst into laughter on the set. And by her accounts, he well succeeded. In fact, in one truly wonderful moment of the film, we can actually see Crosby uncontrollably crack up. It’s in their parody of the “Sisters” number. At first he looks very uncomfortable performing in girlie accoutrement. But not Kaye, who pulls out all the stops. By the end of the number, Kaye repeatedly slaps Crosby’s stomach with a blue feather peacock fan. Crosby seems stunned but then is riddled with laughter. It’s a wonderful

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

and rare moment. Film musicals are so carefully planned and meticulously staged that you almost never see any improvisational moments. It’s so fresh and delightful here, you’ll be giggling, too. Michael Curtiz knew what a gem of a take he had and bravo to him for yelling “Print it!”

 

Later in the film, there is another comic gem of a 

scene when Danny Kaye resists Vera-Ellen’s romantic advances. Not only is he brilliantly funny, but the scene takes on a very modern context. It’s now quite clear to most people that Kaye had a mile-wide gay streak. It’s hysterical to see him avoid Vera-Ellen and cower like a cornered gay rat while being attacked by a beautiful blonde who, by the way, was the uncredited prototype of the original Barbie Doll. But the quasi-gay content makes you wonder if in 1954 everyone subliminally knew what was going on and it was just as funny then as it is now. The truly remarkable question is “How did they get away with it?” All this and in glorious and hyper-clear Technicolor, too!

 

Speaking of clear, it’s important to remember that White Christmas was the first film to be photographed in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s answer to the widescreen process CinemaScope developed at 20th Century-Fox. VistaVision was the

the smartest and most economically effective widescreen process of that era. Instead of using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the picture like CinemaScope or using an expensive 70mm film negative like Todd-AO, VistaVision ran 35mm film horizontally through the camera, similar to a still camera. Therefore, the image was photographed on a negative area twice the size of a normal motion picture. The clarity and depth of vision were also doubled. The cinematographer could move and focus the picture in many more ways than were previously possible. Additionally, the print could be projected in a variety of formats. It could be cropped for widescreen or projected as a square “Academy ratio” image. Because of this, theaters didn’t have to have any kind of special equipment to exhibit a VistaVision film. In rare cases, VistaVision could even be blown up to 70mm and retain utmost clarity. White Christmas was a perfect introduction to the new process and Paramount used it for over 60 films during the next decade.

 

Strangely enough, however, early VistaVision didn’t employ stereophonic sound. It had “enhanced” monophonic “high-fidelity” sound but not true left or right separate channels. Presumably this was because the image was not as wide as Cinemascope or Todd-AO and there was no need for an 

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

actor’s voice to follow the image on screen. Therefore, you won’t find any prints, videos, or audio of White Christmas in true stereo. And that’s a shame since musically the film is so well scored and sung.

 

In fact, it’s the excellence of White Christmas as a musical the truly elevates it above other Yuletide cheer. The mostly original (10 of the 13 songs) score makes it a true original film musical—written directly for the screen. This is a rarity in Hollywood musicals and Irving Berlin’s last original film score. Add to that the superb choreography, a tight and witty screenplay, and of course the sublime vocal talents of Bing and Rosemary Clooney (just watch “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), and it’s up there with The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Funny Face, and the other top film musicals of the 1950s. And that makes it one of the best film musicals of all time—so much more than a pretty Christmas card.

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.