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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.

So Maybe “Wonder Woman 1984” Isn’t Doomed After All

So Maybe "Wonder Woman 1984" Isn't Doomed After All

In my defense, one can only make projections based on data one has access to. And given what we all knew at the time, I still stand by my claim that if something didn’t change, Wonder Woman 1984‘s cinema-and-streaming release would have been a spectacular failure. But then something happened. Something pretty huge. Earlier this week, the movie’s director Patty Jenkins announced on Twitter that it would debut on HBO Max in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. And that, in my opinion, 

changes everything.

 

First things first, it means I and millions of other American nerds will be able to watch WW84on Day One in better-than-movie-theater quality from the comforts of our cootie-free homes. Second, I think the simple knowledge that HBO Max is capable of 4K HDR streaming is going to spark a level of interest in the streaming service that hasn’t existed before now. True, HBO Max is still a nightmare to sign up for and log into, especially if you already have a satellite subscription or mobile data plan that gives you free access to the service. But that’s merely one major stumbling block when there used to be two. (For what it’s worth, word around the streaming campfire is that WarnerMedia and Roku are finally on the verge of settling their ongoing squabble, meaning HBO Max should soon be available on the largest streaming ecosystem in the world.)

 

Simply put, if we don’t see HBO Max subscriptions skyrocket over the next month in response to this announcement, I’ll eat my Wonder Woman Underoos. (Yes, I own them. Yes, I wear them. No, I don’t care what you think about that.)

 

Another thing that gives me some small measure of reason to believe WarnerMedia may finally be emerging from the cloud of bad decisions that has plagued it throughout 2020 is the company’s announcement this week that all of its 2021 blockbusters will be debuting on HBO Max (and in cinemas) day-and-date going forward. That means The Matrix 4. That means The Many Saints of Newark and The Suicide Squad. And most importantly, that means Denis 

Villeneuve’s Dune, originally my most anticipated film of 2020, and now one of the few I actually care about coming in the next year. All of these films will be hitting HBO Max on the same day they hit whatever American cinemas happen to be open at the time.

 

Warner is describing this as a “unique one-year plan,” and that’s fine. What’s crucial here is that instead of being reactionary, as it has since this pandemic began, the company is finally being decisive and proactive. This, combined with WW84‘s worldwide release in countries that aren’t currently plague-plagued (a week before Christmas, interestingly enough), gives me hope the movie won’t flop spectacularly as I previously thought it would.

 

If nothing else, I can say I’ll be tuning in to check out WW84 on HBO Max (after I watch Soul on Disney+, mind you) when I had absolutely no interest in doing so this time last week. And I can’t be alone in that.

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: The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)

If nothing else, the 4K HDR release of The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition demonstrates just how far home video has come in the past 20 years. And if you’re not familiar with the provenance of the longer cut of the film, perhaps a little backstory is in order here.

 

Director John Landis originally intended The Blues Brothers to be a three-hour roadshow with an intermission. Studio heads balked after a test screening and forced him to cut the movie down to 148 minutes, then again to 133 minutes for the final theatrical release. When Universal destroyed most of the elements for the original film in 1985, it was believed that only the 

133-minute cut and its negative survived—until, that is, the son of a theater owner was caught trying to sell a print of the 148-minute cut on eBay in the early ’90s. And it is from this print that all deleted scenes and alternate cuts for the extended cut were sourced.

 

Back in the era of DVD, the discrepancies between the quality of the original camera negative and that of the lost-and-recovered print weren’t that blatant. Sure, you could tell some scenes were a bit grainier, a little less detailed, a little more washed out, but it was hardly a distraction. In the HD era, the disparity started to become substantially more apparent.

 

Fast-forward to this year’s UHD release of The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition, and I honestly find it nigh unwatchable, if only because the portions of the film scanned from the original camera negative are so utterly gorgeous they make the preview-print footage look that much worse by comparison. After the opening credits pass 

BLUES BROTHERS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR release underlines the visual inconsistencies that plague the extended cut, making the more consistently entertaining theatrical cut (included with the Kaleidescape download) a way better way to go.

 

PICTURE     

The images are consistently excellent throughout the theatrical version, with HDR significantly improving the shadow depth.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is immaculate, enhancing the film’s original four-track soundtrack.

by, The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition is simply a chaotic audiovisual rollercoaster, with one scene looking sharp, detailed, well-balanced, and properly saturated, with exactly the right amount of organic film grain—and the next looking like a blown-out, overly contrasty mess of crushed blacks, faded highlights, and about twice as much grain as it should have. It’s honestly such a distraction that I had trouble sitting through the extended cut, despite the absolutely fabulous DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download of the film.

 

Thankfully, though, purchasing the extended edition on Kaleidescape also comes with the theatrical cut, fully restored in UHD HDR as well, so I decided to give it a watch, despite not having seen the shorter edit in over a quarter-century. And what I took away from that viewing surprised me.

 

When you get right down to it, the 

studio was right. The shorter cut of The Blues Brothers is a better movie. Simply put, it’s better paced, more consistently funny, and the focus is more consistently where it belongs—on the musical numbers.

 

Not only that, but the original theatrical cut is a better home cinema experience from beginning to end. Again, the opening and closing titles—which had to be sourced from what I believe is the interpositive, not the negative—don’t quite measure up to the quality of the rest of the transfer. But that aside, I never would have imagined The Blues Brothers could look this good while still looking true to itself.

 

And it isn’t merely the enhanced detail brought about by the 4K scan that benefits the look of the movie. HDR also allows enhancements to shadow depth, bringing details out of the darkness that have simply never appeared in home video

presentations before.

 

Granted, the real star of the show here is still the immaculate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix, which doesn’t suffer from the tonal and fidelity inconsistencies that plague so many films of the era. Sure, the pre-recorded musical numbers shine brighter here, with deeper bass and better transparency than the rest of the mix, but dialogue and sound effects are still clear and well-presented, and the occasional surround sound effect doesn’t sound at all out of place. A lot of that probably comes down to the fact that the film was originally mixed in four-track stereo, with discrete left, center, and right channels and a mono surround channel, making it a little easier to conform to our modern surround-sound channel layout. But whatever the reason, The Blues Brothers sounds absolutely as wonderful here as you would hope.

 

At any rate, in a weird way I think I’m sort of grateful the 4K release of the extended cut of The Blues Brothers revealed what a mishmash that version of the movie is, visually speaking. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have returned to the theatrical cut and discovered for myself just how much better it is. I’ve spent the past few decades treating the longer cut as the film proper, viewing the theatrical cut as a sort of historical artifact, when in fact I think we should view these 

The Blues Brothers (1980)

different cuts from exactly the opposite perspective. The extended edition is really just an incredibly long bonus feature, and one that quite frankly overstays its welcome.

 

In some hypothetical parallel universe in which the original elements for the movie still existed and we could enjoy the full three-hour roadshow version, it’s entirely possible it would be the superior edit. But we don’t live in that universe. So if the only version of The Blues Brothers you know is the compromised, intermediate extended cut (it was, after all, the only version available on DVD for the longest time), I encourage you to give the shorter theatrical cut another shot. Especially in its newly restored 4K HDR form, it’s simply the best version of the movie that actually exists.

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: The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Proving that nothing has power like a great story, Hollywood routinely returns to classic literature to resurrect and retell new versions of beloved stories. Here at Cineluxe we’ve recently reviewed the latest versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to those we’ll add Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

Counting this version, the Copperfield novel (which carries the cumbersome full title of The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) has been made and remade into movies and TV series more than a dozen times since 1911, including two animated versions.

Dickens admitted Copperfield was his favorite work, writing, “Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The story was originally published serially over 18 months and totaled more than 600 pages. Any time a work of that length is translated to a film-sized chunk—even one with Copperfield’s two-hour runtime—heavy edits are required. However, judging from Dickens’ verbose writing style—partly the nature of serialized writing, which was often paid by the word—much could be trimmed while still retaining the heart of the story.

 

The titular role of David Copperfield is played with terrific sincerity by Dev Patel. We follow the character’s life and tragedies from birth up through marriage, as he moves throughout England and slowly climbs his way up in society. (“You can’t take something from someone who has nothing!”)

COPPERFIELD AT A GLANCE

This latest filming of Dickens’ favorite novel condenses the book’s 600-plus pages into a two-hour runtime full of colorful characters and witty dialogue.

 

PICTURE     

Images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout, with HDR deployed lightly to enhance the natural look of the visuals.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sticks mainly to the front channels, but the surrounds are used occasionally to add ambience to naturalistic effects.

Patel is joined by a terrific supporting cast that really leans into playing the over-the-top side characters who wind in and out of Copperfield’s life. These include Hugh Laurie as the delightfully eccentric Mr. Dick, who is convinced that the thoughts of King Charles I are stuck in his head since Charles was beheaded; Benedict Wong as the alcohol-obsessed Mr. Wickfield (who “takes his wine with an enviable degree of enjoyment”); Ben Whishaw as the sniveling and class-obsessed Uriah Heep; as well as Tilda Swinson as David’s great aunt, the donkey-hating Betsey Trotwood; Peter Capaldi as the eternally yet optimistically in debt Mr. Micawber; Morfydd Clark, who plays both David’s mother Clara; and his first love interest, the eternally childish Dora Spenlow, who likes to carry around and speak via her puppy, Jip.

 

One of the film’s storytelling techniques is that Copperfield regularly recalls and mimics and then writes down quotes and snippets of conversations he has or overhears with these peculiar acquaintances, keeping these scraps of papers in a box he carries with him and later uses to turn into stories that he ultimately sells to make his way. 

 

While I’ve yet to read the novel, the dialogue is so witty, sharp, and biting I wonder how much was lifted from Dickens’ text and how much is original. Lines like “I see my father’s gravestone shadowed by trees bending towards one another in the wind like giants whispering secrets” certainly feel true to Dickens’ flowery writing style.

While there is frequent humor, it is often subtle and restrained. Lines like Mr. Dick’s comment, “[Does she mean] to visit violence on the boy? Yes. She’s a remarkable woman. Very kind,” are typical of the type of humor to expect.

 

Details on the resolution of the transfer aren’t clear, but images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout. We are especially able to appreciate the bright outdoor scenes that offer countryside views for miles. The rocky beaches of Yarmouth show every stone in clear, individually outlined detail, and you can practically feel the texture of the bricks, stones, plaster, and wood that comprise the construction of various buildings.

 

The film uses a light touch with its HDR grading, which is used to create images that look consistently natural, with lots of rich, deep shadows and bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows. Deep, clean blacks are present when called on, such as at the bottle factory Copperfield works at in his youth.

 

The Kaleidescape transfer includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does a fine job presenting the film’s dialogue. While most of the audio is kept in the front of the room, the surrounds are used occasionally to add some convincing and scene-appropriate ambient effects, such as street and

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

city sounds, noises on the factory floor, life at the beach, or the creaks and groans and strains of ropes aboard a boat. The musical score also mixes up nicely into the overhead speakers to expand the soundstage, as do sounds from an intense thunderstorm near the film’s conclusion.

 

Several of the actors speak with pretty thick accents, making some of the dialogue tricky to understand at times, though these moments are usually brief and can certainly be rectified by turning subtitles on.

 

While the film meanders along a bit slowly, it is a fine and interesting journey to take. The movie inspired me to download the novel to my iPhone, and if a film can move you to read a book, that is a version of success on its own, I’d say. So, while I can’t compare how closely writer and director Armando Iannucci’s vision hews to the original, it certainly feels both true to the book’s spirit, story, and quirky characters while being fresh, inventive, modern, and unique in its approach.

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.