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Review: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)

I used to be a huge David Lynch fan. His films were a welcome relief from the increasingly juvenile and shrill mainstream fare of the ‘80s and ‘90s without the pretentiousness and unearned seriousness of typical Oscar fodder. And they were, for the most part, fun to watch, even exhilarating.

 

But I also had my doubts. Something about his work never quite aligned the way it should. Each movie was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, seeming to deliver as you watched it but quickly dissipating after the lights came up, scattering as quickly as the dreams he has always tried to ape.

 

And there were always efforts along the way that were just plain indigestible—the mercilessly vicious Wild at Heart, the pointlessly incoherent Lost Highway, and the just plain pointless Inland Empire.

On the other hand, I’ve always liked the much derided Fire Walk with Me, for some reason, and have a soft spot for The Straight Story. Mulholland Dr. might be the one film of his people will still look at 50 years from now, thanks mainly to Naomi Watts’ performance—although they might jump ship once they realize it means having to put up with Justin Theroux for two hours.

 

What sealed all of my doubts about Lynch and morphed those doubts into a kind of disgust was the misguided and inept Twin Peaks reboot. As with most reboots, it gave hardcore fans, who are by definition uncritical, exactly what they wanted. But for anyone who appreciates unique experiences and the passé notion of quality, it was all half-baked, nasty, and relentlessly ugly.

 

The point of this potted history was to bring us to the film that really set the whole “Lynch” thing in motion, Blue Velvet. Until then, he only had a glorified student film that 

VELVET AT A GLANCE

The film that opened the floodgates of “dark” cinema and made Lynch’s career remains a compelling experience—but of what?

 

PICTURE     

Velvet looks surprisingly good in HD—even the legendary murkiness of Dorothy Vallens’ hell-in-a-handbasket apartment—which bodes well for a UHD release.

 

SOUND     

Alan Splet’s brilliant sound design seems to have a life of its own and, even though originally mixed for stereo, feels perfectly at home in surround.

became a glorified cult film, a dull portrait of a historical freak, and a completely disjointed and uninteresting sci-fi epic under his belt. Velvet not only finally established his career but also launched all of those mannered, fetishistic tropes that defined the Lynch brand—the arch little faux Dali jokes, the ambiguous images and actions and gestures and phrases and stylistic splashes that were meant to be dreamlike but ultimately meant even less than dreams, the politically motivated retrograde embrace of the 1950s, the dipping into his record collection to parasitically create unearned emotional effects, and the raw sadism we were supposed to accept because it was the unfiltered upwelling of the unconscious or something. Beyond, and because of, all that, it ultimately helped launch the most corrosive trends in the history of the movies, resulting in our current atrocity-based cinema. But I’ll get to that.

 

It’s probably been a decade since I last watched Blue Velvet so I was able to approach it with somewhat fresh eyes, and it still works. It’s still a compelling piece of filmmaking that leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something—although my sense of what that something is has changed considerably over the years.

 

It still works partly because is it has a rudimentary plot with something resembling emotional hooks. Of course, it’s a pretty lousy excuse for a story and daring somebody to retell it accurately is an all but guaranteed way to win a party bet, but it at least acts as a kind of dog fence for reining in Lynch’s various indulgences, lending something resembling form, unlike the inchoate and dull randomness of most of his other work. 

 

But what really struck me this time is just how much Dennis Hopper makes this film. He is Blue Velvet. Kyle McLachlan is a far from riveting screen presence and Laura Dern’s gangly awkwardness can make their scenes together uncomfortable to sit through. But once Hopper appears, everything clicks neatly into place and the film leaps from being a stylistic exercise to something worth watching.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Hopper always struck me as a one-note actor—when he wasn’t raging, he wasn’t anything. But he perfectly channels all of that here, convincingly making pure rage equal pure evil and making you wonder if all the treacly stuff at the beginning and end isn’t just insincere pretext. Most people would assume Lynch meant McLachlan to be his onscreen surrogate, especially after all the Agent Cooper crap in the original Twin Peaks. But I seriously have to wonder, especially in light of the rest of his career, if Lynch didn’t really feel most at-one with Hopper’s Frank Booth. McLachlan is kind of a nullifying presence but Hopper is the wellhead of all energy.

 

Fredrick Elmes’ hugely influential and at times sublime cinematography is still effective—but the film’s low budget was a little more obvious this time around and runs the risk of being even more blatant when Blue Velvet eventually makes the leap from HD to UHD. There’s what looks like dirt on the lens during the famous opening pan down from the improbably blue sky and an obvious screen-door effect from, I’m guessing, a lens filter during the early shot where Jeffrey approaches the field where he discovers the severed ear. Also, the heavy reliance on wide-angle lenses causes curvature at the edges of the frame that becomes distracting and then annoying, and ultimately dates the film.

 

Alan Splet’s equally influential sound design is still intriguing, but since it’s not always clear what it’s in the service of, it’s almost like listening to an abstract exercise in musique concrète. Blue Velvet deserves credit, though, for being one of the 

first films to make a convincing case for using surround sound for something other than the usual bludgeoning mayhem (even though it was originally released in stereo).

 

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is, let’s say, interesting, mainly a Schoenberg pastiche (you get the sense Lynch was using Verklärte Nacht for a temp track) interspersed with some not very convincing cop-drama cues. It has the saving grace of having been done with an actual orchestra, unlike the more watery synth-driven stuff Badalementi tended to lean on in Lynch’s later films.

 

There is no denying that Blue Velvet contains some brilliant filmmaking, that parts of it have a purity of execution that’s invigorating and rare. And if that was all that was relevant to judging a film, Lynch could be considered one of the great directors. But there’s something at the heart of this movie that’s just depraved, something that Lynch’s frequent flashing of his TM Get Out of Jail Free card just can’t absolve. Blue Velvet remains disturbing because it’s disturbed—there’s just no other way to slice it.

 

And that presents the biggest rub. Lynch helped make amoral depravity fashionable. It’s not like he didn’t have a lot of help, but he, with this film, pretty 

Blue Velvet (1986)

much single-handedly created its art-house wing. And he threw open the doors for every other callow entitled type who could hide their fundamental immaturity behind dazzling exercises in style. Without Lynch, there is no Fincher—or PTA or Spike Jonze or Aronofsky or any of the other aesthetically or morally half-born types we now bank our notions of serious filmmaking on.

 

Of course, that raises the question of whether these directors—or rather the machines that have their names attached to them—actually influence the culture or just reflect it. This isn’t the place to go into that. And what I feel is the correct answer is far from trendy. All I can say in closing is that the perception of Blue Velvet, and of Lynch, would be far different if this film had remained an exception, if hadn’t been a harbinger, if it hadn’t become the rule.

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: Baumgartner Restoration

Baumgartner Restoration

I certainly don’t mean to diminish the larger economic or societal impacts of COVID-19, nor do I mean any disrespect to the two-plus million people whose lives have been lost so far. But as an entertainment writer, one of the most fascinating things about this pandemic is the way it has changed our viewing habits. And sure, you can chalk some of that up to the relative lack of new movies, but that alone isn’t enough to explain why a 20-year-old fantasy trilogy became one of the most persistent 

pop-cultural phenomena of 2020 or why its 4K re-release has so defied all studio expectations in terms of sales that it’s still nearly impossible to find at retail. People need comfort viewing right now, perhaps more than ever.

 

That said, you can’t exactly spend all your free time watching a 12-plus-hour fantasy epic over and over again. At least I can’t. Sometimes I need a shorter break from the real world—something that allows me to quick-charge my batteries so I can face reality again with renewed strength.

 

As of late, my favorite pick-me-up is a wonderful little YouTube show I’ve mentioned in passing from time to time over the past few years: Baumgartner Restoration. If you’re not familiar with the show, it falls firmly into a genre of YouTube series about fixing old stuff, most of which are hosted by amateurs with specific passions for Matchbox Cars or antique tools or vintage Star Wars collectibles.

RESTORATION AT A GLANCE

This YouTube series goes beyond providing an opportunity to watch the restoration of rarely seen works of art to become an exercise in mindfulness.

 

PICTURE

The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

SOUND

Although the audio is primarily meant to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, it still deserves to be heard on the best possible system.

Unlike the legions of YouTubers scrubbing rust off of old can openers with WD-40, though, Julian Baumgartner—the host of Baumgartner Restoration—Is the second-generation owner of the oldest private fine-art conservation studio in Chicago. And there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence because the real appeal of the show isn’t simply that it’s a restoration series. A big draw for me, as an art lover, is that the private nature of Baumgartner’s business means he gets to restore—and we the 

viewers get to see—all manner of gorgeous paintings that will never hang in a museum, and as such perhaps never otherwise make into the public consciousness. And that includes works by artists as well known as Norman Rockwell.

 

Another draw is that Baumgartner doesn’t merely restore damaged or time-worn paintings on his channel, he also meticulously narrates every step of the process, revealing why, for instance, he might use one type of 

solvent to remove a varnish on this particular painting when he used a completely different type of solvent on another. In a quirky kind of way, it’s a lesson in critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific thought. He takes nothing for granted, treats every problem as a learning experience, and most importantly he values his failures as learning experiences every bit as much as he values his successes.

 

I should back up for just a second here, because everything I said in the preceding paragraph only applies to the episodes Baumgartner narrates. Many times, he’ll actually upload two completely different versions of his restoration videos—one accompanied by narration and another completely devoid of explanation. The latter, which he labels “ASMR Videos“—a reference to autonomous sensory meridian response, a term for the pleasure some people derive from listening to soft, tactile sounds—carry soundtracks that consist of little more than the sounds of scraping, wiping, painting, and varnishing, along with the occasional light classical-music accompaniment.

 

And from the description alone, you might assume these are the videos I pull up when I’m having trouble going to sleep. Far from it, in fact. I find Baumgartner’s ASMR videos reinvigorating in the most peaceful way possible. It’s like I’m really,

seriously hyper-mindful of how calm I am while watching them, if that makes a lick of sense.

 

Whether you opt for the narrated or unnarrated videos, by the way, do what you can to watch the series on the biggest and best screen in the house instead of your laptop or—heaven forbid—your smartphone. Baumgartner Restoration is beautifully (although practically and functionally) shot, with a focus on the

art and the work Julian does to it. The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

Via a good streaming device, like the Roku Ultra, the series is delivered virtually artifact-free, with good contrast and great color reproduction. I only wish it were delivered in HDR10 (or, at a minimum, HLG high dynamic range), not necessarily for the increases in peak brightness but more to bring out the subtle chromatic variations in the artwork.

 

The audio, like the video, is more utilitarian than artful in its mixing and presentation, since the goal here is to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, and that’s about it. That said, there’s still a good case to be made for listening via a good sound system since there is quite a bit of dynamic variation in the soundtrack, quiet as it is, and you’ll certainly miss out on a lot of subtlety when listening through cheap computer speakers or—again, heaven forbid—the tiny speakers in your mobile device.

 

More than anything else, what makes Baumgartner Restoration such a beloved and indeed necessary show for me, especially right now, is that Julian has the sort of calming demeanor we haven’t really seen much of since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired its final episode in 2001. At a time when life feels like a firehose of strife, hatred, turmoil, and uncertainty, dipping into an episode of Baumgartner Restoration for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes at a time feels like taking a break to sip from a babbling brook of serenity and Zen. Yes, it’s moderately educational. Yes, it’s somewhat edifying, getting to see these works of art that I likely wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. But if I’m being entirely honest, those are more side benefits than anything else. They’re icing. The real cake, at least for me, is that Baumgartner Restoration is an oasis of calm in a world that seems increasingly anything but.

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: WandaVision

WandaVision

Since the 2014 release of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has built up an increasing stockpile of trust with superhero-movie fans by pretty consistently cranking out entertaining action romps that span the genre spectrum from intense ’70s-style espionage thrillers to intergalactic comedies to dramatic epics and everything in between. With WandaVision, the studio is spending that trust on an offbeat experiment that will, in retrospect, be seen as either as massive success or an 

embarrassing failure. And two episodes into its nine-episode run, it’s nearly impossible to tell which of those outcomes is more likely.

 

The Disney+ limited series represents a few firsts for Marvel Studios. It’s their first episodic short-form production (earlier, tenuously connected TV shows like the pointless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were produced by Marvel Television, a separate subsidiary studio). It’s their first foray into the so-

WANDAVISION AT A GLANCE

Marvel Studios’ attempt to run old sitcoms through the superhero mill in this limited-run Disney+ series might turn out to be a huge success—or a massive failure.

called Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and reportedly serves as the first in a trilogy of connected stories that will continue in Jon Watts’ upcoming Spider-Man sequel and conclude with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s also the first MCU product of any sort released since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

 

But perhaps most importantly, it’s the first time Marvel Studios has placed anywhere near this much trust in the intelligence and patience of its audience. And I say that because anyone who tells you they fully understand what’s going on here either has insider information or they’re lying their asses off.

 

WandaVision is, in one sense, a portrayal of the supposedly idyllic home life of Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two star-crossed lovers whose first big-screen appearance was in the otherwise forgettable Avengers: Age of Ultron (one of the studio’s few truly bad movies post-Winter Soldier). The problem, of course, is that we saw the Vision die an awful death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War—first at the hands of Wanda herself then through some temporal trickery at the hands of Phase Three’s big bad, Thanos.

 

So the fact that he’s seemingly alive and mostly well in WandaVision is our first clue that something is amiss here. But it’s far from the last and hardly the biggest. A much more blatant clue that not all is as it seems is that the series is produced in the style of classic sitcoms, starting with a pitch-perfect homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (Van Dyke himself was a consultant and influenced a number of creative decisions, including the choice to shoot with vintage lenses and lighting and to produce the first episode in front of a live studio audience), then bleeding into time-capsule recreations of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and—if the series’ trailer is any indication—going forward in time as the story unfolds, paying loving homage to newer and newer half-hour TV shows until . . .

 

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Where is this all going? What’s the point of this classic-TV homage?

 

Fans of the comics that inspired the series—most notably the fantastic The Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series from the ’80s, the heartbreaking House of M from the early aughts, and the brilliant-but-batsh— -insane Vision standalone series from 2015-2016—certainly have a clue as to what’s going on here. Or at least we think we do.

 

From my perspective, it seems blatantly obvious that WandaVision is a story about what happens when someone with the ability to manipulate the very fabric of reality becomes so stricken with grief that they form a new reality around them. And there are clues sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that this is exactly what’s going on. Wanda, unable to process the horror of losing her one true love—indeed, of being forced to kill him herself—has snapped. Unable to cope with the real world, she creates her own world to occupy, a world whose picket fences and goofball antics are all informed by the classic sitcoms she saw in her youth. It’s important to remember that Wanda grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe, and as such never had the idyllic suburban life she’s attempting to fabricate. So any sort of normal life is, for her, purely fantasy.

 

So it makes sense that when reality begins to intrude upon that fantasy, she rejects it, once again reforming the world around her into something she can once again cope with. We see this at one point when Wanda simple exclaims, “No!” and literally rewinds the tape on her sitcom life, only to reshape it into something a little more colorful and a little more congruous with her 

unexpected pregnancy.

 

It all sounds a little trite, but series creator/writer Jac Schaeffer and Episode 1 & 2 director Matt Shakman so fully and sincerely commit to the classic Dick Van Dyke Show/ Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie tone, style, presentation, and aesthetic for so much of the running time—without a hint of spoof or parody—that you can’t help but be drawn into it. When the series ventures more toward Twilight Zone territory, as it does when

Wanda’s grasp on her faux-reality begins to slip, it’s as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the characters.

 

Of course, that’s simply my take after two episodes. It’s entirely possible MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has constructed a trap for us comic-book fans, leading us astray with red herrings before yanking the rug out from under our collective feet, leaving us exactly as disoriented as I would imagine most casual viewers are after having sat through the first two episode of this weird experiment. Maybe this isn’t all Wanda’s delusion. Maybe she isn’t shaping reality around her. Maybe it’s—who knows?—aliens tinkering with her brain. Or maybe it’s a Truman Show sort of thing.

 

All I can say for sure is that, two episodes in, I’m utterly intrigued by WandaVision and can’t wait for it all to unfold. My first inclination was to think that perhaps Disney+ should have broken with tradition and dumped all nine episodes into our laps at once. The more I think about, though, the more I realize the weeklong break between episodes is an absolute necessity, giving me time to re-watch, to ponder, to reflect, and indeed to discuss what’s happened thus far before diving into the next chapter in this slow-burn psychological mystery.

 

Again, by the time all nine episodes are available, it could all end up being one big exercise in pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, à la Tenet. Or it could be one of the most brilliant TV series to come along in years. And the wait to find out which it is consumes me like an itch I just can’t quite reach. But for now, I find myself in a Schrödinger’s Cat superposition of fascination and skepticism. It’s difficult for me to imagine any corporate machine pulling off an act of truly artistic surrealism of the sort WandaVision seems to be. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that they’re pulling it off so far.

 

And that’s largely due to not only the success of the aesthetic and stylistic conceit but also the delightful performances across the board. You could easily splice stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany into old footage of classic TV shows and anyone who didn’t know the actors already wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Kathryn Hahn is also an absolute tour de force in the role of Agnes, the nosy next-door neighbor who definitely has a major part to play in this mystery. (Indeed, most comic-book fans will have likely figured out who she is by the end of the second episode, but I won’t spoil that surprise.)

 

But world-class acting alone isn’t enough to sustain a series that’s attempting to take as big a bite as this one is. So, more than anything, I hope WandaVision doesn’t end up choking. Because if the MCU is to remain interesting, it absolutely must keep taking artistic risks like this.

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: Chinatown

Chinatown (1974)

Let me get the obligatory reviewer equivocation out of the way right up front: Yes, you should watch Chinatown in 4K HDR. No, this isn’t the transfer this film deserves.

 

Chinatown is, of course, one of the great films of the ’70s and, given that it was made by a bunch of smug movie-industry types, represents something much greater than the sum of the various talents involved. Call it The Casablanca Effect—a film that rises well above the norm more due to the spirit of the age and the chance gathering of forces than any concerted effort of creative will. Hollywood is designed to ensure that truly great movies can’t get made, and it’s only been the very rare—and

now extinct—iconoclasts who’ve ever figured out how to game the system and create anything resembling art. Nobody involved in Chinatown fits the iconoclast MO.

 

The film has its rough spots. Jack Nicholson never seems entirely comfortable in the lead role and sometimes comes across like a kid playing dress-up. The opening with him and Burt Young is stilted and forced. And some of the secondary casting is questionable, draining the air from some of the scenes.

 

But this is probably Roman Polanski’s best work (although a convincing case could be made for Rosemary’s Baby) and Robert Towne never came near topping his justly famous screenplay, which successfully updates Raymond Chandler without veering into parody or fawning pastiche.

 

But pointing out individual contributors detracts from the 

CHINATOWN AT A GLANCE

One of the great films of the ’70s, and well worth watching in 4K HDR despite some glaring problems with the transfer.

 

PICTURE     

The film’s evocation of pre-World War II LA is still compelling despite crushed blacks, inconsistent skin tones, and an overall flatness.

 

SOUND     

What you would expect from mid-’70s audio—in other words, serviceable. But Jerry Goldsmith’s near miraculous score is still a wonder to behold.

more important point that Chinatown, as a kind of spontaneously generated entity with a life of its own, perfectly sums up the mid ‘70s by leaning so heavily on the 1930s. Robert Altman took a similar tack at around the same time with his far more auteuristic riff on Chandler, The Long Goodbye. Those films, considered together, reflect a culture toying with the notion that a retreat into the past might be the best response to the turmoil of the ‘60s. They—and to some degree the first two Godfather films—anticipate the emergence of retro and the Reagan era.

 

But for those without a sociological/political bent, Chinatown still makes for a ripping good yarn. Yes, it cakewalks a lot of the detective-story clichés but takes them dead serious in the service of a tale that’s seemingly about unbridled greed but proves to be about mass complicity in the exercise in cultural corruption that is LA.

 

Again, if you don’t like to dive that deep, preferring to swim near the surface instead, Chinatown is a mannered but convincing exercise in atmospherics, combining a soundstage-bound Studio Era vibe with a stylized-vérité evocation of pre-World War II

Chinatown (1974)

Southern California.

 

Given the slow film stock of the time, it’s astonishing how well Polanski and cinematographer John Alonzo capture the lingering LA sunsets and how effectively they weave them into the fabric of the film. They consistently nail the LA light at various times of day, not by striving for accuracy but by capturing the romantic tinge that was key to the various booster efforts of the time, especially the citrus industry’s legendary orange-crate art.

 

And that brings me to the reason why I said Chinatown deserves a better transfer. For such a beautiful film, it looks inexplicably dull in 4K HDR. It’s hard to say where the fault lies but this movie should not look this flat.

The biggest problem is with the black levels. You’d rightly expect more nuance in an HDR transfer but the film here looks like it’s trying to ape Gordon Willis’s shadow-driven aesthetic in The Godfather—something Paramount wanted at the time of production but that Polanski fought hard to avoid. Looking at this release with its crushed blacks, and with scenes like the ones in Mulwray’s office so dim they become murky, you’d get the sense the studio prevailed.

 

Skin tones are wildly inconsistent, with many of the scenes in the first half looking almost monochrome or, at best, like hand-tinted postcards. In an early scene where Nicholson and Faye Dunaway sit outside talking, Dunaway looks like she was dipped in bronze. Given that there are occasional scenes where skin tones look more natural—and certain closeups, like

the one of Dunaway in mourning apparel as she lunches with Nicholson, that look stunning—you have to suspect the problem isn’t with the original film. I don’t remember this having been an issue before, and although it could be inherent in the original materials, it’s hard to believe Polanski, Alonzo, or the studio would have signed off on something this all over the map for the theatrical release.

 

All of that said, I again have to emphasize that Chinatown is so engrossing that it’s possible to look beyond all the flatness, blackness, and visual inconsistencies and get caught up in the experience. While I was thrown the first time I watched this new transfer, I found myself a lot less distracted during subsequent viewings.

 

On the audio side, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is something of a miracle—not least because he conjured it up in less than two weeks after Paramount rejected Phillip Lambro’s stab at the music. Rather than go wall to wall, which is tempting in any film that leans so heavily on the Studio Era aesthetic, Goldsmith alternates between Mancini-like splashes of the lush main-title theme and very angular, astringent, mainly percussive cues that lend a distinctly ‘70s edginess and anxiety to the proceedings.

 

Chinatown is a film set almost a hundred years in the past that’s really about an

Chinatown (1974)

era now almost 50 years in the past but is rooted so firmly in the constants of human behavior that it feels surprisingly relevant and fresh. Polanski provides a mix of seriousness and perverse humor no other director could have brought to the material, with the blindly creative forces of the larger culture then raising his contributions to a level where few Hollywood efforts are ever allowed to go.

 

Allow me a moment’s more equivocation on my way out the door: Chinatown is a movie that needs to be seen, and re-seen, and while this isn’t the transfer the film deserves, this is the best it has ever looked at home.

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.

Want to Dig Deeper into “The Mandalorian”? This is the Way

It’s difficult these days to have any meaningful discussion about Star Wars without obsessing over The Mandalorian. This lightning-in-a-bottle Disney+ series has the sort of universal appeal that none of the main saga films have enjoyed since The Empire Strikes Back. (And let’s not forget that TESB wasn’t so universally beloved until years after its initial release.)

 

There’s good reason for the series’ universal appeal, of course. As I said in my wrapup of the first season, The Mandalorian is a wonderful deconstruction of everything that made the original Star Wars such a smash hit. In breaking the galaxy far, far away down into its essential components (the gunslinger, the samurai, the strange-but-familiar environments, the wonderful sense of mystery, the thematic through-lines of honor, familial baggage, and redemption) and recombining them into a shape

we’ve never quite seen before, the series continues to be both stimulating and comfortable, both innovative and grounded in the past.

 

One thing I said about the series’ first season no longer rings true after the second batch of episodes, though. In my Season One overview, I made an offhand comment about the show’s “tenuous connections to the larger mythology,” despite the fact that that season ended with the appearance of one of the most legendary Star Wars weapons of all time: The Darksaber.

 

In Season Two, the connections to the legendarium become much less tenuous, much more overt, and much more central to the underlying themes and meaning of The Mandalorian. And it’s that last point that’s most important, because the simple truth is that you don’t really need to know the history of Mandalorian culture or its various factions to follow the plot of this past season. That history simply helps in unpacking what it all means.

And I can say that pretty confidently, because I talk to so many of my friends who are absolutely gaga over “new” characters introduced in Season Two who aren’t new at all. Characters like Bo-Katan Kryze, played to perfection by Katee Sackhoff not only in this live-action series but also in three seasons of The Clone Wars and one particularly memorable episode of Star Wars: Rebels. I was worried, when rumors of Bo-Katan’s return started circulating on the internet, that she would feel shoehorned into this series, that her presence would feel like fan-service of the worst sort. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. To misquote Voltaire, if Bo-Katan hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent her for Season Two to make a lick of sense.

 

This season also features the return of Ahsoka Tano—perhaps the single most beloved character ever created by George Lucas, but one that many fans of The Mandalorian had never heard of or only knew secondhand thanks to hyper-nerds like myself. Again, though, due to the way showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have woven her into this series, you don’t really need to know Ahsoka’s backstory to understand her mission in The Mandalorian. But I would argue that you do need to

know where she has come from and where she’s going if you want to truly understand why she’s on that mission.

 

The point I’m trying to not-so-subtly make here is that you can go into The Mandalorian having only seen the original Star Wars films and not really feel like you’re missing anything essential in terms of plot. You may get the sense that there’s a larger story unfolding that you’re not privy to, but that’s always the case with any good Star Wars story. But if you haven’t watched The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, you actually are missing out on a deeper level of understanding that’s just sitting there waiting for you to discover.

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: Rebels . . .

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

. . . and in The Mandalorian

I’ll give you just one example, although I feel the need to throw out an obligatory spoiler warning here for those of you who are making your way through Season Two slowly in an effort to ameliorate some of the pain caused by the long wait for Season Three.

 

In the epic finale of this season, there’s a moment in which Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, offers the Darksaber to Bo-Katan after being informed of its cultural significance. This moment (shown at the top of the page) almost perfectly mirrors a scene from “Heroes of Mandalore,” the Season Four premiere episode of Star Wars: Rebels. There, a Mandalorian named Sabine Wren offers Bo-Katan the blade and Bo-Katan accepts it, although not without some hesitation. In the season finale of The Mandalorian, she rejects it outright. And I won’t get into all of her political reasoning for doing so, as the episode spells all of this out. My point here is that the mirroring of these two scenes adds an extra level of tension to the finale and quietly tells a tale we haven’t seen unfold in any form to date.

 

The fact that Bo-Katan refuses to simply accept the Darksaber this time around, when we’ve seen her do so before under nearly identical circumstances, tells us something about the character that no amount of exposition could convey nearly as artfully. Namely, it tells us that she blames herself for the so-called Great Purge of Mandalore and the genocide of her people, an event we’ve only heard about in rumors and retellings.

 

I could go on and on, rambling about little nuggets of this sort you can glean from viewing The Mandalorian in the context of its animated forebears, and I’ve done so in private conversations with friends who love the live-action series but seem hesitant to watch “kids’ cartoons.” It honestly doesn’t help my case that The Clone Wars didn’t start off with a bang. Even as a devoted fan, I have to admit that the first season was childish and wildly uneven.

 

But by Season Two, The Clone Wars gets good. Really good. By Season Three, it’s honestly some of the best Star Wars ever made. And by Season Four it transforms into one of the best TV series of all time, subject matter be damned.

 

So, if you’ve tried getting into The Clone Wars and found it a tough pill to swallow, I recommend giving it another try—but this time around, skip the bulk of the first season. Watch “Rookies,” the fifth episode, then skip to the final four episodes in that first run: “Storm Over Ryloth,” “Innocents of Ryloth,” “Liberty on Ryloth,” and “Hostage Crisis.” Objectively, they’re nowhere near the quality of later seasons, but they’ll give you a good foundation for what’s to come, especially the second-season episodes that really lay the foundation for The Mandalorian, starting with Episode 12, “The Mandalore Plot.”

 

Star Wars: Rebels gets off to a similarly uneven start, and I wish I could give you a similar cheat sheet for which episodes are skippable. But you’ll just have to trust me on this one: By the time you get to the end of Season Four, it becomes clear that there wasn’t a throwaway moment in the entire 75-episode run. It’s simply one hell of a slow burn.

 

All seven seasons of The Clone Wars and all four seasons of Rebels are available to stream on Disney+, and it’s worth noting that the streaming provider presents the former with all of the content that was censored by Cartoon Network in the original broadcasts. Don’t go in expecting anything overtly gratuitous or vulgar, but I often advise my friends with young children that the series explores the implications of war in a way pre-teens aren’t quite mature enough to digest. So take that for what it’s worth.

 

Of course, we can’t know for sure how much of an impact the events of The Clone Wars and Rebels will have on future seasons of The Mandalorian, especially given that there’s no clear and obvious path forward for the series. Taken as a whole, the first two seasons of this wildly popular live-action show have told the tale of a man whose sense of self was predicated on a moral code that he never questioned—until forced to do so. It’s the story of a man whose ideology begins to conflict with his principles, and whose entire notion of who he is and what he stands for has been torn to shreds as a result of his own empathy and moral awakening. By the end of Season Two, Din Djarin has succeeded in his quest and as a result is left with nearly nothing—no purpose, no culture, no tradition to fall back on and believe in. As such, where his journey goes from here is nearly anyone’s guess.

 

But I have a sneaking suspicion that however this story ends up blossoming, the seeds will have been planted in The Clone Wars and Rebels.

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: Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers (2020)

A few readers have pointed out to me recently that I tend to like things. And although I halfheartedly defend myself against such accusations by pointing out that I’m inclined to simply ignore films and TV series I dislike rather than excoriate them, there’s simply no denying that if I’m going to dedicate any amount of my precious time to a nugget of video entertainment, I’m far more likely to focus my attention and energies on the things I appreciate about it than the things that don’t resonate with me. Every so often, though, a film like Wolfwalkers comes along and forces me to look at everything else with a more critical 

eye. So if my expectations seem to be calibrated a little higher than normal for the next little while, don’t blame it on a lack of caffeine or a generally cantankerous mood—blame it instead on this near-perfect work of art and the impact it had on me.

 

Wolfwalkers, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is the latest effort from Irish filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the third in a series of films based loosely on Irish folklore. Narratively, it bears only the most tangential connection to the previous two films in the cycle—2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea—but there’s enough shared DNA between the three, both thematically and stylistically, to make their common heritage undeniable.

 

The most obvious thing that sets Wolfwalkers apart is its maturity, not only in the story itself but also in the way it’s told. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that it’s a “grownup” animated film, à la Pixar’s Soul. This is

WOLFWALKERS AT A GLANCE

Tucked away on Apple TV+, this decidedly un-Disney but still family-friendly take on Irish legend is a visual feast.

 

PICTURE     

An incredible home cinema experience from beginning to end, with the rich color palette and nuanced tonal scale beautifully presented.

 

SOUND     

The highly kinetic Dolby Atmos mix works wonderfully with the visuals to enhance the film’s hypnotic effect, but does get a bit too busy from time to time.

undeniably a family film, made for the young as well as the young at heart. Unlike Kells and Sea, though—which, as wonderful as they are, occasionally resort to the sort of pandering for which Disney is known—Wolfwalkers is perhaps the most un-Disney family-friendly animated film I’ve seen since The Red Turtle.

 

As such, even when the film flirts with predictability—which it only occasionally does—there’s still a sense that you’re not quite sure where it’s headed. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen in recent years I could truly give myself over to fully and experience from moment to moment. I have to admit, though, I’m not sure if that’s wholly due to the story itself or if it’s the animation that encourages such ever-present mindfulness.

 

Whatever the case, Wolfwalkers is a sight to behold, with literally every frame looking like a fully realized painting intended for framing and public exhibition. That’s rare for animation—especially 2D, hand-drawn animation. As a big fan of cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, my brain is almost programmed to appreciate background and character animation as two completely distinct disciplines. Think of the work legendary background artist Maurice Noble did at his peak on shorts like “Robin Hood Daffy” and later Road Runner shorts. Those backgrounds are rife with funky abstractions and purely stylistic elements, and only really work together with the character animation when everything is in motion.

 

Funky abstractions and purely stylistic elements abound in Wolfwalkers, but by contrast it’s really difficult to separate background from foreground. There’s never that sense that the characters are being drawn atop a static stage. Every single image in the film creates the illusion that everything from the main characters to the background crowds to the architecture and set dressing sprang from the same pen as one composition. And the effect is simply hypnotizing.

 

There’s also the fact that Wolfwalkers relies on two very different styles of animation—one a blocky, inky, linocut aesthetic heavily influenced by Romanesque wall paintings; the other a very sketchy and organic mix of chaotic pencil sketching and watercolors. Those disparate looks are used most obviously to draw a very clear distinction between the town of Kilkenny and its people on the one hand, and the inhabitants of the surrounding woods on the other. The contrasting style are used somewhat less obviously, though, to convey the moods and inclinations of the characters—especially those whose motivations change throughout the film and whose allegiances shift more toward the natural world.

Wolfwalkers (2020)

If it weren’t obvious from the preceding paragraph, there’s an overt emphasis on environmentalist themes in Wolfwalkers, drawn both from the folklore that inspired the film as well as the filmmakers’ proclivities. There’s also a strong anti-authoritarian bent to the story, a sense of genuine rebelliousness and individualism rarely seen in American animated films. I’d be lying if I said both themes weren’t way up my own personal alley. But I don’t settle down to watch a cartoon with the intention of being proselytized to, even when (especially when) I’m already a full-fledged member of the choir. So perhaps my favorite thing about Wolfwalkers is that it balances these themes without ever feeling preachy.

 

Really, my only hesitation when it comes to Wolfwalkers is the vehicle by which it’s being delivered, at least here in the U.S. The film is an Apple TV+ exclusive, which certainly limits its audience. Worse than that, though, it means it’s presented with no supplemental material—no making-of documentaries, no director’s commentary, nothing of the like. And more so than any film I’ve seen recently, this one positively begs for supplemental material. I want to see the behind-the-scenes process of the animators at work. I want to hear from the writers and directors about their inspiration, their motivation, and more importantly the justifications for so many of the unorthodox choices they made. I’m starving for more information, and aside from a few random clips on YouTube, there’s little to be found.

 

One thing I absolutely cannot complain about, though, is the quality of the presentation. Viewed via the Apple TV+ app on my Roku Ultra in Dolby Vision with Dolby Atmos audio, Wolfwalkers is an incredible home cinema experience from beginning to end. Any imperfections to be seen in the video are all consequences of the hand-drawn animation and not a result of streaming. And though it may be true that the contrasting blocky and sketchy animation styles don’t really lend themselves to the sort of fine detail that pixel-counters look for, the rich color palette shines through beautifully here, as does the nuanced tonal scale.

 

The Dolby Atmos mix does get a bit too busy from time to time, but that’s probably just me. And even I have to admit that the highly kinetic mix works wonderfully in conjunction with the visuals to enhance the film’s hypnotic effect.

 

More than anything else, I’m just sad that so few people will have easy access to this beautifully made but poorly marketed gem. If you’re among the 90 percent of Apple customers who haven’t bothered to sign up for a free year of Apple TV+, Wolfwalkers is absolutely reason enough to do so. It’s just a shame that even those potential numbers wouldn’t be enough to give Wolfwalkers the audience it deserves.

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.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

LED light panels and a PTZ camera concealed behind side panels and a NUC mini-computer
hidden 
beneath the screen allow the Minema home theater to be transformed into a state-of-the-art
video- and teleconferencing space

As a supplement to the “Inside the Minema” podcast episode, I thought it might be helpful to share some details of the conferencing system configuration in my home cinema (dubbed the “Minema” for Mini+Cinema), together with some lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for Cineluxe readers who may have similar objectives for making the most of their entertainment spaces, particularly given the increased demand for conferencing capabilities in the home as a result of the pandemic. There are no doubt other ways of achieving the same objectives, but I hope this overview can help inform discussions clients will have with their integrators about their own installations.

 

DESIGN APPROACH

One of the things I like about the overall design for the Minema is that none of the conference-room functionality is visible when you walk into the room. The conferencing equipment (e.g., the camera, mini-PC, and microphone) is either stored inside purpose-built cabinetry on the screen wall or mounted on the ceiling behind acoustically transparent fabric. LED lighting for videoconferencing is also hidden behind hinged doors on both sides of the screen. Other conference-room features, such as connectivity for laptops (projector display, ethernet, power), are built into small discreet cabinets tucked behind the seating armrests.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

click on the image to enlarge

VIDEO- AND TELECONFERENCING SYSTEM

The schematic above depicts the core elements of my videoconferencing and teleconferencing system. Here are some of the key design decisions reflected in the final layout:

 

Camera Location

In order to avoid problematic camera angles from above or below the screen, the camera is positioned in cabinetry to the right of the screen to get it more in line with the face height of anyone sitting in the theater seats. It is installed on a small custom-built shelf with an articulating arm so it can be stowed away when not in use. I use my Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor to shrink the projected video image onto the bottom right corner of the screen to make it easier for meeting

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

participants to look in the camera’s direction while watching the conferencing image on the screen. The Logitech Rally PTZ (pan/tilt/ zoom) camera is easy to control and the resolution is excellent even when zooming in on the faces of meeting participants in the center seats.

 

Use of Ceiling Microphone

The Shure MXA910 ceiling-array microphone (shown at left) came highly recommended by several conference-room integrators. I’ve found that it picks up everyone’s voices well regardless of where

they’re sitting, but by definition any ceiling microphone will struggle to compete with the quality of a headset microphone or other microphones that can be placed closer to someone when they’re speaking. The ceiling microphone is great for its wide coverage and its invisibility, so this was a compromise I was willing to make. 

 

One unintended benefit from an early design decision to use Wisdom line-source speakers for all seven horizontal channels in the Minema is that I have very little acoustic treatment in the ceiling. This left plenty of room in the area above the seats for the microphone (which is surprisingly large) and a WiFi access point. 

 

Location of Mini-PC (for videoconferencing codecs)

Although my conference-room integrator initially proposed putting an Intel NUC in the equipment rack, we ended up moving it to the screen wall to make for a much shorter cable run to the 4K camera, which requires a USB 3.1 connection. 

I primarily use the NUC with Zoom Rooms Conference Room software to host my meetings, which has the advantage that I can use the companion Zoom Rooms controller iOS app on the iPad Mini I use as the main Crestron controller for the theater. If I need to join a meeting hosted on another conferencing platform, it’s simple to exit the Zoom Rooms software on the NUC to do so.

 

The NUC is getting a lot of use beyond just conferencing since my personal computers are MacBooks and I need a Windows device to connect to some critical AV equipment (Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor, Biamp TesiraForté conferencing DSP, etc.). I’ve also found it very

handy to have a computer permanently connected to my theater AV system because so much movie and performing-arts content has migrated to the internet since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

Adding Teleconferencing

The Biamp TesiraForté DSP comes standard with VoIP and analog telephony ports, which made it possible to add a telephone line to my conferencing system. I now often use the Minema effectively as a giant speakerphone. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

1) It may not be easy to find integrators with conference-room expertise who are willing to work on a residential project

In 2019, when I was in the design phase for my installation, I found it extremely difficult to hire an integrator with conferencing expertise for a residential project. Hopefully the situation is different today since there are so many more people working from home, but the only way I was able to get a commercial integrator to agree to help me was by tapping some former work contacts. Once the commercial integrator came on board, they collaborated closely with my AV integrator to add the conferencing piece into the overall theater AV system.

 

These are the key capabilities the commercial integrator brought to the table:

 

Specifying the conferencing equipment (audio DSP, camera, microphone, mini-PC)

Providing guidelines for conference-room acoustic performance (easy to surpass with the original theater design specs) and lighting levels

Developing a signal-flow diagram for the conferencing system

Programming the audio DSP

“Tuning” the beamforming ceiling microphone

 

2) Typical commercial conference-room equipment specs may not work in a home theater setting

It didn’t take long after installing the conferencing system for me to realize I would need to swap out the NUC that was originally specified. Since the NUC is always on, I could hear its fan noise in the background when I was watching a movie or listening to music. Replacing it with a fanless model that is completely 

silent solved that problem. I also needed to tweak the NUC BIOS settings to turn off the front LED, which was visible through the fabric covers on the screen-wall cabinetry.

 

When I opened the box containing the Shure ceiling microphone, I realized I had another problem because it was bright white, not optimal for mounting behind black acoustically transparent ceiling fabric. Fortunately, Shure makes the same microphone in black, so that was an easy fix. 

 

One minor change that made a big difference was swapping out the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that were originally provided for a Logitech K830 illuminated living-room keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Using a mouse is simple when you’re sitting at a conference-room table but not so easy from theater seating. 

 

3) A commercial conferencing DSP may not be certified by some popular VoIP service providers

Although I am currently using the Biamp DSP with a Zoom Phone license, this has been challenging to set up since the Biamp isn’t a Zoom Phone-certified device. Biamp has certifications from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Mitel, and Skype for Business. I can use my Zoom Phone license seamlessly with the Zoom Rooms software, but since this would restrict me to using the VoIP line only when the NUC is selected as my video source, this isn’t an optimal solution either. Using the Biamp with an analog phone line may in some cases therefore be the simplest option for adding teleconferencing. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was very fortunate that my project was completed in February 2020, immediately before the lockdown. When I was in the planning stages, I couldn’t have anticipated how much we would use the conferencing functionality in the Minema. Now I can’t imagine living without it.

William Erb

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.

Review: Get Shorty (1995)

Get Shorty (1995)

UHD has put anybody who reviews home releases in a really odd position. Most catalog titles are still in HD, with many having Blu-ray-quality transfers. But it’s become impossible to watch any of these films without speculating on how they’d look in 4K HDR—which is something of a gamble because some older titles haven’t survived the process well, looking decidedly uneven. But then there are unquestionably stunning gems, like Vertigo, The Shining, and the other titles gathered in “4K HDR Essentials,” that have you salivating for more.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s note-perfect Hollywood satire Get Shorty is one of those films that has me shamelessly drooling. You can definitely appreciate its deft, droll visual style in its current HD incarnation, but you can also sense how much more delicious it would be with a 4K HDR buff and shine.

 

As I’ve said before, Sonnenfeld is the master of the puckish fairy tale, and here he gets to graft his bone-dry style of humor onto Elmore Leonard’s Damon Runyon-meets-Goodfellas mobster yarn, resulting in a film that plays as well 25 years on as it did on the day of its release.

 

Shorty is worth watching for its flawless casting alone. I’m not a Travolta fan, but he doesn’t miss a beat here, giving his small-time hood a boyish innocence and enthusiasm 

SHORTY AT A GLANCE

Flawless casting and some very deft & droll direction help ensure this ultimate Hollywood satire still lands 25 years on.

 

PICTURE     

The spot-on evocation of LA & the movie business is well presented in Blu-ray-quality HD—but cries out for 4K.

 

SOUND     

People say witty things and the occasional gun goes off, all to the beat of Booker T. & the M.G.’s., in a clear and suitably restrained 5.1 mix.

that never feels forced. Hackman is miles from Lex Luthor, turning in a nuanced comic performance that gets big laughs by way of a fully realized character instead of a cartoon. This has to be DeVito’s best work. And a both menacing and charming Delroy Lindo and a flat-out funny Dennis Farina play the mobsters who just can’t get a break.

 

The performances stand out all the way down the cast line. Nobody is here just to be the butt of a joke. Even the bit parts are fleshed out and compelling. Special kudos go to David Paymer for his story-within-the-story turn as the dry cleaner who fakes his death in a plane crash and flees to L.A. with 300 grand in mob money, sweating all the way.

 

Sonnenfeld doesn’t get enough credit as an actor’s director, but the scene where Travolta shows DeVito how to play a shylock is so well done it deserves to be ranked with the best. It’s almost impossible to convincingly portray an actor acting,

let alone actor/director interaction, but all involved are so perfectly in sync that you’re laughing not just at the jokes and the situation but at the sheer virtuosity of the execution.

 

What Shorty gets right, above everything else, though, is LA and the many ways the movie business overlaps with LA life. It unerringly and evocatively captures the

feel of Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Hills, and all the trendy little West Hollywood restaurants that sit practically in the middle of traffic. Maybe the film’s second-best scene—although this might just come from having suffered through this too many times myself—is DeVito going way off-menu to order an elaborate omelet for the table then taking off before it arrives, leaving the other guests to figure out what to do with it.

Shorty works as a satire because it doesn’t spring from the often hypocritical vitriol that drives almost every other similar effort, instead using the quiet accumulation of spot-on touches to make its point, making it far more akin to Raymond Chandler’sThe Little Sister than to more overwrought works like The Day of the Locust and SOB. (And don’t even mention Tarantino, who’s way too much of a raging Neanderthal to even begin to grasp anything as subtle as irony.)

 

This approach is seamlessly translated into the movie’s visual plan, where the camera moves are restrained (for a Sonnenfeld film) and the lighting is for the most part true to the locales—which I suspect was in part a deliberate strategy to heighten the impact of the film’s stylized, proscenium-warping finale. And it’s exactly because Shorty dances right up to the edge of caricature and gross exaggeration without crossing over that I think it would benefit immensely from a tasteful application of 4K HDR. Some judicious enhancement would make it that much more engaging without turning it into gratuitous eye candy. (The operative word here, of course, is “judicious.”)

 

No problems with the sound. This is a dialogue-driven film only occasionally 

Get Shorty (1995)

punctuated by bursts of action, and the lines (“E.g., i.e., f— you,” “You think we go to see your movies, Harry? I’ve seen better film on teeth.” “My favorite color—putty”) are all crisp and clear, as are the gunshots. It’s usually a little too obvious when temp tracks make their way into the final film but Sonnenfeld does such a great job of deploying Booker T. & the M.G.’s that it’s hard to make much of a stink. The cues are nicely placed in the foreground without ever being in your face.

 

It’s one thing to call Get Shorty the best film in the thinly populated mobsters-come-to-Hollywood genre, it’s another to say nobody’s ever done a better job of skewering the movie business—a windmill many have tried to tilt only to wind up on their asses. Shorty never gets ahead of itself, never tries to be bigger than it needs to be, relying on craft and wit instead of angst and sour grapes to score its points—which is why it continues to be a compact and unassuming but undeniable and undiminished gem of a film.

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: Blade

Blade (1998)

In my somewhat controversial review of Wonder Woman 1984 (controversial in that I actually enjoyed that silly and overly fantastical romp, a fact that seems to infuriate some people), I mused about whether you could really enjoy the movie if you weren’t raised on and invested in not only the tropes of the 1980s but also the storytelling style of comic books and superhero movies of that era. With the subject of today’s review—1998’s Blade—there’s nothing to speculate about. If you don’t outright love everything about the late ’90s, this standalone, pre-MCU Marvel comic adaptation probably isn’t for you.

 

In fact, if we were to retroactively create a time capsule for the late ’90s in hopes of explaining that era to future generations, I think I would pass over The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Pi, Gods and Monsters, Go, and any number of other vastly superior contemporary films in favor of Blade. To varying degrees, those films have all stood the test of time. Blade, on the other hand, is little more than an artfully arranged pile of action-movie clichés of its day: Every gun is a pistol-grip machine 

gun, every line of dialogue is an oh-so-gritty catchphrase, every character wears black leather or rave-culture clubwear, every artist on the soundtrack either has or is a DJ, and for inexplicable reasons every no-name goon is proficient in some form of Asian martial art.

 

But what can I say? It all just works. Yes, if it’s been a while since you saw the movie, it comes off more like a satirical Key & Peele sketch sans punchline than it does the sort of serious-action-movie-meets-Fatboy-Slim-music-video director Stephen Norrington thought he was making. But in a weird way, that’s part of the Blade‘s lasting appeal. It’s pure B-movie schlock on an A- budget.

 

I’m relieved that I’m not the sort of reviewer who regularly summarizes plots, as it would be difficult to do so in this case without sounding like a stroke victim. The long and short of it is this, though: The titular hero is a sword-toting half-vampire vigilante who hates him some bloodsuckers 

BLADE AT A GLANCE

The digital enhancement in this pre-MCU slice & dice vampire romp is a little too heavy-handed but it’s still a big step up from HD.

 

PICTURE     

Edge enhancement and grain scrubbing unnecessarily obscure the movie’s film-stock origins, but HDR brings a richer and more nuanced palette to the effort.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix is appropriately relentless, delivering a full-throated surround sound assault.

because they killed his momma right before he was born. Along with his mentor/quartermaster “Whistler” (played to hammy perfection by Kris Kristofferson, who chews up the scenery like a Hungry Hungry Hippo), Blade uncovers a plot to awaken the blood god “La Magra” and trigger the Vampire Apocalypse, which of course can only be stopped by an over-the-top mix of capoeira, jujutsu, kung fu, and ninjutsu. And then he goes to Russia—because of reasons.

 

If that’s not your bag, the new UHD/HDR release isn’t going to do anything to change your mind. If you are a fan of the movie, though, you’ll be happy to hear that this new transfer is a pretty significant step up from previous releases in several respects. It isn’t perfect, however.

 

Unexpectedly for a movie shot on 35mm relatively recently, the 4K resolution brings out a lot of the sharpness and detail missing from the numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Unfortunately, whoever mastered the movie this time around didn’t trust the viewer to appreciate the fact that film equals grain, and as such, a lot of the movie’s texture has been scrubbed clean by digital noise reduction that sometimes goes too far. To compensate, the transfer has been artificially sharpened by a process known as edge enhancement, which leads to ringing edges on high-contrast areas of the image. You can really see this any time there are baked-in subtitles (like in the meeting of the council of vampire elders). And I’m not sure if it’s the edge enhancement or simply the increased resolution, but for whatever reason the film’s mid-budget, low-pixel-count CGI effects also look goofier than ever before.

 

On the other hand, HDR is used to especially good effect, although if you’re looking for a demo-movie to push your video system to extremes of brightness, this one doesn’t fit the bill. Instead, it’s the wider color gamut of HDR10 that really adds something to this presentation as compared with previous releases. There’s simply a richer and more nuanced palette to work with, and there’s a purity of tone that’s missing from past transfers. In A/Bing between this new release and the most recent 

1080 transfer (again, there have been a few), I also noticed that while there are some enhancements at the lower end of the value scale, the biggest benefit for the new HDR grade is a whole lot less clipping in highlights and brighter scenes. In other words, there are simply more shades of “almost white” to work with, which makes previously washed-out shots look a lot more dimensional and resolved, even if they’re not particularly intense.

 

So, long story short: If you’re looking for a substantial upgrade over previous home video releases of Blade, this one is unquestionably it. But if you’re looking for a perfect remaster of the movie, the egregious artificial smoothing and sharpening keeps this transfer from being everything it could be.

 

As for the Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix included with the Kaleidescape download of Blade? I really only have one word to describe it: Relentless. Of course, that’s always been true of the movie’s soundtrack. In fact, the original DVD release of Blade, way back in 1998, was one of my favorite demo discs at a time when I was still assembling my first halfway decent home theater system. I learned quite quickly, though, that the little Sony satellite speakers that had served me well as surround channels in the LaserDisc era were no match for this movie’s full-throated surround-sound assault. They died an uglier death than any of Blade’s 

Blade (1998)

onscreen adversaries. And I brought that DVD along with me when auditioning replacement speakers at my local Circuit City, just to make sure they would survive the onslaught.

 

The Atmos remix doesn’t substantially tinker with that experience, other than to extend it upward. This is still a hard-hitting, techno-heavy, effects-driven sound mix that only shows its age by virtue of its ostentatiousness.

 

So, yeah, in the end, the UHD/HDR release of Blade has its virtues as well as its flaws. Hopefully by the time Warner Bros. gets around to releasing the superior sequel in 4K, they’ll have learned from the mistakes of this one and give us a straight scan of the 35mm negative, free of the unnecessary digital manipulation. But, again, if you’re a Blade fan, don’t let the occasional visual distraction turn you off of this release. It’s still an appreciable step up from the HD transfer.

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: Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977)

It’s impossible to talk about a Woody Allen movie without having to first weigh in on the ongoing efforts to vilify Allen and obliterate all traces of his career. He’s been spattered with so much bile by Hollywood types like Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who’ve blindly bought into the Me Too herd mentality that there are fewer and fewer people even willing to approach his films let alone consider them objectively.

I’m hoping to do an appreciation of his career where I can go into all this a little more. What I would ask for the moment is that you try to ignore that grating cacophony of squeaky wheels and appreciate the works of one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s for what they are.

 

Annie Hall is known as a romantic comedy—a perception that had a lot to do with it snagging a Best Picture Oscar. The problem is, it’s not really a romantic comedy—at least not for me.

 

That I’ve never found Diane Keaton to be very attractive, or a very good actress, has helped me develop a different—and I think more accurate—take on the film. Annie Hall is actually a very ambitious, incisive, and candid attempt to capture the essence of a particular culture at a particular

ANNIE AT A GLANCE

Pigeonholed as a romantic comedy, Annie Hall is actually an ambitious attempt to find hope in the darkness of mid-’70s New York.

 

PICTURE     

Some of master cinematographer Gordon Willis’s most subtle work, it looks flat—but not unwatchable—in HD.

 

SOUND     

This is a Woody Allen movie. There’s not a lot of music, there aren’t any surround effects. People just talk, with intelligence and wit. And you can hear them just fine.

moment in time via its embodiment in a particular personality—and that personality is not Keaton.

 

There had to be a reason why Allen suddenly shifted away from all of those gag-driven early movies that served as his film school and allowed him to build the fan base he was able to ride for the next four decades. And there has to be a reason why he suddenly went from being a good-enough comedy director to a fully fledged and inspired filmmaker.

 

And I think the answer lies in this exchange from the film:

 

“The failure of the country to get behind New York City is anti-Semitism.”

 

“But, Max, the city is terribly run.”

 

“But we’re not discussing politics or economics. This is foreskin. . . . Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks at New York like we’re Left-Wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”

 

New York City had pretty much imploded in the wake of the social upheaval of the ‘60s and was in a wretched state by the mid ‘70s. Very much like the way it’s portrayed in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it had become a kind of repository for all of the

country’s sins. This was probably the city’s darkest period, years before the unfettered avarice of the ’80s turned Manhattan into a playground for billionaires and Brooklyn into a day-care center for their kids.

 

Allen’s identification with the city was so strong that this all had to have sent him reeling. Knowing that it was the prime source of his inspiration—and of his creativity in general—he needed to work out what it meant to be a popular entertainer trying to create within a metropolis that the rest of the country was treating like it had the plague.

 

That’s what Annie Hall is really about—Diane Keaton was just his Trojan Horse, a way to open some doors and to make sure the studio got its money back.

 

The movie comes very close to being a drama. Just slightly shift the emphasis of almost every one of the scenes and it becomes a sobering look at people desperately trying to define themselves at a time when there were very few reliable guideposts to lean on. Had Allen approached the film that way—although he wasn’t yet that good of a filmmaker—Annie Hall would have been wrenching instead of hilarious.

 

Consider how Allen treats his own character—which is the same as saying, how he treats himself. This is not a very flattering portrayal—miles away from the narcissism he’s too often accused of. Alvy Singer displays a lot of bluster, and uses his jokes as his armor, but you can tell the guy is hopelessly lost—which Allen expresses through the movie’s loose, improvisational structure, trying on different styles and techniques and attitudes to see what will stick.

 

But that shouldn’t be mistaken as Allen himself flailing from behind the camera. Just consider the famous scene of him and Keaton on line at The New Yorker, where Allen humiliates the pontificator by dragging a seemingly 

embalmed Marshal McLuhan into the shot. It’s a nuanced and logistically complex near-3-minute single-take piece of bravura comedy filmmaking that only a self-assured and truly inspired director could have pulled off. And that’s just one example among many.

 

True, this isn’t the film Allen set out to make, and a lot of Annie Hall did come together in the editing room. But the list of genius directors who’ve confided that the real filmmaking happens in the editing is long. And they’re not wrong.

Annie Hall (1977)

Allen started out with a film that was true to his intentions but was all cake and no icing, and he sweetened it just enough to make it palatable for his audience, which was expecting another Sleeper. In the end, he found himself named King of the Romantic Comedy with a couple of Oscars left at his door—an experience he likely wasn’t expecting and that probably scared the bejeezus out of him.

 

Annie Hall was Allen’s Rhapsody in Blue—a loosely structured, jazz-inflected work that announced that he had ambitions that went beyond being a successful pop performer. And, as with Gershwin, he was never able to do anything quite that fluid and 

intuitive again, instead trying on different genres defined by others with decidedly mixed results.

 

But Hall holds up. A surprising number of the jokes and gags still land, his approach to the material and the scenes remains fertile unexplored territory for other filmmakers, and the way he took the careening wreck of New York City and turned it into the most vital and romantic place on Earth still clicks. The City owes him a statue—but then some group of Yahoos would come along and demand that it be taken down.

 

Talking about seeing the film in HD is difficult. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is known for being dark and bold, but it’s very subtle, almost documentary-like here. In HD, it feels flatter than it should—not unwatchable, just flat. And then there’s the weird dilemma of having to separate the shots where he deliberately and beautifully exploited grain—like the famous shot of Annie and Alvy standing on a pier at twilight with the East River bridges arrayed behind them—from the ones that are overrun with grain because the elements for the transfer probably weren’t the best.

 

As for the sound—come on, this is a Woody Allen movie. One of Allen’s greatest

Annie Hall (1977)

strengths as a filmmaker is the ability to make his material compelling without relying on CGI, aggressive editing, explosions, or other gratuitous effects. This is moviemaking stripped down to its essence, and it can be cleansing to get caught up in a piece of cinema that doesn’t depend on its ability to mercilessly abuse you.

 

Forget that this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Forget about the Oscars. Forget about the well-heeled mob of Hollywood conformists bleating for Allen’s blood. Approach Annie Hall as an adventurous and innovative and unusually honest piece of filmmaking and you’ll get the chance to experience—or re-experience—one of the best American films of the final quarter of the last century, the movie that helped start the wave that brought New York back from the dead, for better or worse.

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.