Author:admin

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

There hasn’t been a lot of good news swirling about lately, so it was a real treat to open my email on Saturday morning and see a message from Kaleidescape announcing that Disney and Lucasfilm had decided to give fans a little bit of weekend fun by releasing the latest Star Wars movie a few days early. (It as originally scheduled for March 17; the disc release is scheduled for March 31.)

 

While the Mouse House offered no official announcement (at least that I could find) about the reasoning behind this early release, the company did make an announcement that Frozen 2 “will be available three months ahead of schedule on Disney+ in the U.S. . . . surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period,” an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

With more families staying at home, a bit of Star Wars could be just the thing to lift spirits.

 

Officially carrying the weighty title Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker, this film brings to a conclusion the space opera created by George Lucas back in 1977, and wraps the final trilogy of films which began in 2015 with The Force

Awakens and continued in 2017 with The Last Jedi.

 

Following the mixed fan reception of director Rian Johnson’s Jedi, which received a favorable critics’ rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a dismal, franchise-low audience score of just 43%, Star Wars looked to finish strong with Skywalker. But there was difficulty early on as initial writer and director Colin Trevorrow was quickly replaced due to “creative differences,” and J.J. Abrams was brought back in to helm the ship and finish the trilogy he began with Awakens.

 

To be fair, Abrams had an almost impossible task here—to conclude a saga that had taken on myth and meaning in people’s lives, with expectations far beyond what any movie could ever deliver. To its credit, Disney threw a ton of money at the film (an estimated $275 million), and J.J. tried to give fans the farewell they wanted, even bringing back a host of characters not seen in years, including Lando Calrissian (Billy De Williams), Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson), and Wicket (Warwick Davis), along with even more that are only heard. And while he reversed the tide of Last Jedi’s ratings, scoring an audience score of 86%, he also managed a franchise-low critic’s rating of just 51%.

 

Abrams also faced the major obstacles of losing Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia was supposed to be a central character in this final episode, and having to follow some of the story choices Johnson took with Last Jedi. The result is a movie that feels a bit disjointed at times, shoehorning and repurposing previously shot footage and dialogue of Fisher where it could, and feeling like it was rewriting Johnson’s film at others. The result left some with more questions than answers.

 

Like many of you, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the first film at a small theater in Carmel, California while my parents were out shopping when I was 7. I can remember that first Star Destroyer flying overhead and thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. When the movie was over, I walked out and met my parents outside, told them how amazing it was, and then turned around and went back in and watched it again.

 

For the record, I enjoyed Skywalker, but left the theater on opening night a bit conflicted. When my wife asked me what I thought of it, I said, “I liked it, but I’m not sure it is the movie I wanted. But I’m not sure what I wanted.”

 

No matter how great this film was, it was always going to be somewhat of a bittersweet experience for fans. We all watched the final credits knowing this was the end of 

something that had become important in our lives, and now there is no more Star Wars to look forward to. (At least in the manner that we’ve grown accustomed to. Disney and Lucasfilm will most certainly continue to mine that galaxy far, far away for stories for years to come.) For me, this is now the third time I’ve “lost” Star Wars, the first being when Return of the Jedi finished in 1983, the second when Episode III—Revenge of the Sith finished in 2005.

 

Now, I’m not going to presume my review or analysis of Skywalker is going to sway your decision to watch it, nor am I going to bother wasting time and space trying to recap the plot—especially since this is an almost two-and-a-half-hour film that concludes 42 years’ worth of storytelling. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve already seen the movie, and have already drawn your own conclusions, and have likely already pre-ordered the mega box set of all the films, scheduled for release at the end of the month. (Incidentally, the other eight films in the Star Wars saga were also released in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks at the same time as Skywalker.) But if you haven’t seen Skywalker by now, maybe you can be swayed to give this a viewing in your home theater. I assure you, it’s well worth the time, and I feel it improves on repeated viewings. (I far more enjoyed it on my second viewing this past January in Las Vegas on the only Sony Premium Digital Cinema in the country.)

 

OK, with that out of the way, lets get down to it: How does the 4K HDR release of Rise of Skywalker look and sound? Fortunately, this is a far less controversial question to answer, as the presentation is top-notch! The film even garnered three Academy Awards nominations, for John Williams’ original score, visual effects, and sound editing.

 

Shot on a combination of Kodak film stocks, Skywalker’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and uses HDR throughout to really pump colors and highlights, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that surrounds and immerses you in the action.

 

From the opening scenes, Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) unstable lightsaber sizzles on screen, glowing and seething with bright reds. The final battle on Exegol is like an HDR demo reel, with dark skies dotted with glowing engines of ships, and illuminating the room with frequent bright blue-white bursts of pupil-searing lightning strikes and laser bolts.

 

While space is never “pitch black” in Star Wars films, images remain clean and noise-free, and we get some true blacks in interiors. The scenes aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer (which reminded me of what an incredible job Disney did of transporting you into the Star Wars universe in its new Rise of the Resistance ride) look fantastic, with gleaming, glistening black decks, bright lighting illuminating hallways, and laser blasts and sparks.

 

The underground sand worm’s lair on Pasaana is another scene that could be a recipe for producing a video and compression nightmare, with dimly lit passageways illuminated by BB8’s glowing lights along with a couple of flashlights and the searing blue of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber. Blacks remain deep, with lots of shadow detail without any distracting banding or other artifacts.

 

Closeups reveal a terrific level of detail, showing every pore, strand of hair, stitch, texture, and bit of wear. Part of owning the film—and watching it repeatedly—is the you can revel in the attention to detail in nearly every shot, such as the creature design and the large interiors. The only scenes that appear “soft” are the ones with Leia. All of her shots are comprised of previously unused footage shot while filming Force Awakens. The previous background elements were removed digitally so she could be composited into the new shots.

 

Disney has received flack over the soundtracks on many of its top-level releases, but the Atmos audio included here is beyond reproach, with lots of dynamics and activity. Whether it is the snap and hum of lightsabers, the effects of Force energy, the waves crashing on the moon in the Endor system, the thrum of various engines, or explosions, bass is deep, powerful, and room-energizing when appropriate.

Surround and height speakers are used frequently to immerse you in the scenes and action. The speeder chase on Pasaana has laser blasts that shoot around the room and troopers launching and flying overhead. The scenes on Kijimi are filled with expansive street sounds to place you on location, with wind blowing, snow falling, and distant shouts and voices. The height speakers are also used to good effect during Rey and Ren’s Force chats, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) booming voice, and the voices of Jedi past that echo in Rey’s mind.

 

Sonically, my favorite scenes are aboard the remnants of the second Death Star. These scenes are among the most interesting from an audio standpoint, with loads of drips, creaks, and groans of wires twisting and metal straining as the giant ship constantly settles while Rey moves about in the cavernous interiors. The exterior shots are filled with the roar of wind and crash of waves and water splattering—all of it an ambient feast for the audio senses!

 

Beyond dialogue being clear and easily intelligible, the soundtrack also does a wonderful job presenting Williams’ score, what he says will be his final time working with Star Wars.

The Rise of Skywalker

Even if Rise of Skywalker isn’t your favorite film in the Star Wars saga, the movie is worth purchasing just for the extras, including the feature-length documentary The Skywalker Legacy, along with five other featurettes. Included with the Kaleidescape release as a digital exclusive is “The Maestro’s Finale,” which has John Williams looking back on his 40-plus-year career working with Star Wars.

 

While this might not be the conclusion to the Skywalker saga that some wanted, this is the one we’ve been given. And there is still a lot here to enjoy, especially in a home theater setting. Get a bowl of popcorn, turn down the lights, turn up the sound, sit back and enjoy, and I all but guarantee the Force will be with you.

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.

1917

1917 (2019)

Filmmakers don’t typically cover World War I with the frequency they do more recent wars. Perhaps it’s because with the age of the war there aren’t many first-hand accounts to draw from, or it doesn’t feature the cool tech of modern wars, or the political angle of Vietnam, or the clear-cut good-versus-evil themes of WWII. Whatever the reason, if director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is the last film we ever get covering the First Great War, the subject will have been well served.

 

This is a personal project for Mendes, who not only directed but also co-wrote and produced, being based in part on stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in the war as a 17-year-old. And it clearly resonated with both fans and critics alike,

raking in over $360 million worldwide and nabbing ten Academy Awards nominations, including Director and Picture, along with wins for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.

 

To me, 1917 is less about the actual story—which is rather simple—and far more about the way it is told and how it visually unfolds.

 

The film opens on April 6, 1917, where we are introduced to two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Den-Charles Chapman). Actually, “introduced” is really an 

overstatement; we just see them lying down and learn nothing of them before they’re called in to meet with General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who has some vital news that must be delivered by dawn to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).

 

Through aerial reconnaissance, the British army has discovered that instead of having the German army on the run, Mackenzie is about to lead his men into a massive German ambush, likely causing the massacre of two full battalions—upwards of 1,600 men. Making the message even more personal, Blake’s brother is among the men in the regiment scheduled to attack, so failure could mean a personal loss. The two soldiers are thus sent off with a message ordering Mackenzie to call off the attack, covering miles of hostile territory alone and in the full light of day.

 

Welcome to the opening minutes of 1917.

 

In the hands of a different director, this likely wouldn’t have been such a successful and powerful film, as Mendes does two things that combine to make it feel so much more real, immediate, and personal.

 

First, it’s shot in a manner that makes the movie feel like one (well, actually two) continuous takes. There are almost no interruptions to the two long scenes; no quick camera cuts or edits, no perspective changes, just a continued focus on our heroes. You get a sense of the planning needed for this as the cameras follow the two protagonists through what feels like miles of trenches, sliding around other soldiers and navigating twists and turns, or following them as they run through battle scenes.

 

Second, the shots are almost always framed tight—either head-on or from a close follow—rarely more than just a few feet from the two leads. You frequently see little in the distance or much off to the periphery as you are locked tight on them. This draws you naturally in to their situation, seeing their feelings and emotions, the wear of their uniforms, and the strain of the task at hand, making you care more about the mission. But it also serves to add to the tension and unease and fog of war of the journey, as you are given far less information about your surroundings, and end up reacting to events as they happen instead of being prepared for them.

 

As you’d expect, Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography looks beautiful. When the camera does pull back, we see the immense scope, with huge landscapes and wide vistas looking epic in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The lighting is also beautifully done—and greatly benefits from HDR. Whether it is the dark interior of a tent warmly lit in rich red-orange glows from lamps, the dark insides of bunkers illuminated by flashlight, or a French village lit up at night by overhead flares and a conflagration, blacks are deep, with lots of shadow detail. Skies during the daylight scenes—the first of the two shots—are a bright, overcast grey, free of any noise or banding and still revealing clouds and other details thanks to HDR.

 

Equally impressive is the attention to detail in the set dressing and production design (also nominated). Filmed in ArriRaw at 4.5K, with this transfer taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you appreciate all the little details on screen. In the opening scenes, you can see the layers of texture and materials on the soldiers’ uniforms and kit, with individual stitching, fray, and wear, and the aging on their leathers.

 

Going through the trenches, you can see all the work required to dig in a protected position and the nightmare of having to sleep in a constant state of mud and muck (later juxtaposed by the much more advanced German trenches). We follow right on the heels of the two soldiers as they slog through the muddy, gritty, terrifying textures of life as a WWI soldier, where the landscape is frequently littered with rotting, fly-covered carcasses, rats running in and out of decomposing bodies, various bits of limbs protruding from dust-covered landscapes, and rusted-out helmets pocked with bullet holes. You could nearly get a case of trench foot from the wet-muddy realism of it. And all of these shots without break in a single, long take!

 

The only video issue I noticed was a pretty severe bit of judder at around 42:40 (immediately preceding “The Dogfight” scene). The camera shoots through the gaps between some vertical wooden fence slats while slowly tracking to the right. Whether it is the shutter speed used, the speed of the camera panning, or just an inherent issue with the limitations of filming at 24 frames per second, on my two displays (a JVC 4K projector and Sony 4K TV), the wooden posts broke down into a ghosted mess during these few seconds. At first I thought there might be an issue with the Kaleidescape encode, but I had fellow reviewer Dennis Burger check the same scene on a 4K version of the movie streamed from Vudu, and he had the same experience. (Another Kaleidescape user at the Owner’s Forum commented that he didn’t notice any issues with that scene, so it is likely display dependent.)

 

Given the film’s Academy Award for sound mixing and nomination for sound editing, I was excited to hear the audio mix; and while the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack included with the Kaleidescape download is certainly dynamic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t (again!) call out NBC Universal for not providing Kaleidescape with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos track.

 

Even still, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did an admirable job of extracting ambient cues from scenes, adding the swirl of wind through leaves and trees in a forest canopy, the roar of plunging water, or the sounds of a bunker caving in around 

you, with its wooden supports splintering and dust and debris filling the room. Another scene has a biplane roaring overhead and disappear out through the front of the room, and in another you hear flares launched up overhead, where they sizzle and burn.

 

This is a war film, so there is a fair bit of shooting and explosions, and rifle shots have an appropriately loud and sharp crack, with the sounds of ejected and spent brass shell casings tinkling and bouncing on the floor. One explosion was so loud and sudden that it literally had me jump in my seat!

 

Further, the movie is well served by Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated original score, which seems to always add the right level of sweeping scale, tension, and urgency to the film. It reminded me in some ways of the frantic, haunting music Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, always reminding you that our characters are in a race against the clock, and the clock is ticking.

 

Dialogue is mostly easy to understand throughout, and when it wasn’t, it was more due to the occasionally thick accents of the actors than to any poor quality of the mix.

1917 (2019)

If I have one last nit to pick, it is again with NBC Universal. As is another of their maddening policies, they don’t provide Kaleidescape with any of the film’s extras or supplemental features, and 1917 is a movie that demands a making-of documentary viewing to see how they pulled off the incredible cinematography and camera work. Hopefully this policy will change in the future.

 

For me, recommending 1917 is a total no-brainer. It is not only one of the most unique and engaging films I’ve seen in a while, it looks fantastic in a home theater—the bigger the screen the better. It’s an intense viewing experience, but one that is well worth it.

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.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

I cannot tell you how faithful Greta Gerwig’s new big-screen adaptation of Little Women is to Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. I’ve never read the book. Nor can I tell you how it compares with previous adaptations, including the beloved 1994 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Daines, et al. I’ve never seen any of them. What drew me to this film wasn’t the source material or any respect for its cultural significance. What lured me in was Gerwig herself, whose brilliant directorial debut—2017’s Lady Bird—earned her enough creative currency in my book that I’ll watch anything she helms going forward.

 

Still, my wife snickered when I told her we’d be watching the film.

 

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

 

“You’re way more of an Emily Brontë than a Louisa May Alcott, that’s all.”

 

I frankly have no clue what that means. But I do know this: If I honestly cared about organizing some personal ranking of the best films of 2019, Little Women would leave me scrambling to rearrange it yet again.

 

I think I can safely say that Gerwig’s film is structured very differently from Alcott’s book, if only because a novel written in such a temporally idiosyncratic way would read like James Joyce on a bad acid trip. The film follows seven years in the life of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen—but rather than following their maturation from adolescence into womanhood chronologically, Gerwig instead groups scenes thematically, jumping forward and backward in time with seemingly no rhyme or reason until you catch onto the fact that rhyme and reason are exactly what influenced the grouping of moments in time, rather than the straightforward passage thereof.

By taking this approach, Gerwig has constructed more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative, and it reminds me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in its pace and momentum; definitely not in its tone or effect) than perhaps any other film I’ve seen in recent decades. Much like that film, Little Women assumes the intelligence of its audience, and trusts the viewer to locate themselves in time and space by way of context. Only one subtitle early in the film calls out the drastic time shifts, and from there on out Gerwig seems to assume you’ll either keep up or give up and enjoy the ride.

 

Far more than merely a cinematic conceit, these near-constant temporal shifts allow the viewer to do something I honestly wasn’t quite sure I would be able to do at the beginning of the film: Truly understand the unique personality of each of the story’s numerous characters. By clumping the tale’s visual, thematic, and narrative echoes together rather than sprinkling them throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime, Gerwig invites us to ruminate more on meaning than exposition, more on character than narrative.

 

Again, I’m at a loss to compare the themes of the film to the themes of the book, but the story as Gerwig tells it is really about the creative impulse. The drive to make art. The struggle to be taken seriously not just as a woman in Civil War-era America, but as an artist in an inartistic world. In many ways, the film ends up being as much a commentary on the story as an adaptation of it, best I can tell. And while it also grapples with issues of class, gender, and societal norms—all with surprising nuance and complexity—it’s really that artistic impulse that centers the film and gives distinct personality to each of its characters.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Little Women is that it isn’t afraid to get a little weird at times. But it’s not a weirdness driven by affectation. Instead, it’s a weirdness driven by the needs of the story. As much as Gerwig’s film deviates from the structure of any comprehensible book to craft a uniquely cinematic work, it’s still in many ways a celebration of the written word. And in paying homage to the inimitable structure of written language, it relies on tropes that would normally drag a film down or cheapen it—like narration, for example. Rather than taking the safe approach or trying to bury that narration in the tried-and-true ways, Gerwig hangs a lantern on it at times and has her characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, even when they’re not speaking to the viewer.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but in Gerwig’s hands it does. And the cumulative effect is a film that’s as playful as it is heady, as sentimental as it is rebellious, as joyful as it is solemn in places. The one place where Gerwig doesn’t take bold risks is with the look of the film. I could have told you without looking that Little Women was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T stock, which gives the cinematography a decidedly warm cast, with a yellowish tint to whites

and a flush ruddiness to skin tones. But the overall look of the film is intentionally muted, and even the 4K/HDR presentation on Kaleidescape doesn’t make much obvious use of its expanded dynamic range and color gamut.

 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely film. Just not one that will be used as videophile demo material. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, on the other hand, is unapologetically adventurous. Shockingly so for a period film of this sort. The height channels are used judiciously but effectively to provide a vertical boost in scenes that need it—large parlors, big theaters, the grimy city streets of 19th century New York—but they probably get used most to expand Alexandre Desplat’s score (his best since The Shape of Water, in my opinion) into the z-axis.

 

Sadly, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is delivered sans extras for now, which is unsurprising given that it’s a Sony release. Expect those bonus goodies to drop right around the time the film is released to disc (Blu-ray and DVD only, no UHD) in April. One supplement in particular I’m eager to see is an exploration of Orchard House, the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women.

Little Women (2019)

While I wait, I think I might actually give Alcott’s book a try based purely on the strength of this film alone, and despite my wife’s objections. As the credits rolled, I looked at her and playfully scolded her: “Why have you never pestered me to read that book?!”

 

She pondered for a few moments and replied: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the book. It’s one of my favorites. But the book wasn’t that good. It’s entertainment. That film was art.”

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.

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell (2019)

Since 2006’s dual film release of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood has increasingly turned his directorial eye towards films covering actual events. Another theme common among his recent films is focusing on American heroes, where lone individuals make a major impact on their surroundings, such as decorated Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in American Sniper, quick-thinking pilot “Sully” Sullenberger in Sully, or the group of Americans that averted a terrorist attack on a Paris train in The 15:17 to Paris. To that list we can add Eastwood’s most recent film, Richard Jewell.

 

I imagine that anyone reading this was alive during the events this film covers, namely the bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympic Games. The film principally focuses on the events following the July 27 incident, when Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovered a suspicious-looking backpack under a bench in the Park, which turned out to be filled with pipe bombs. The bombs exploded shortly thereafter, but only killing one person in the blast due to Jewell’s intervention. (A second person, a reporter, died of a heart attack running towards the explosion to cover the event.)

 

Initially hailed as a hero for finding the bomb and preventing further casualties, the tide of public opinion quickly turned against Jewell after an article by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying that he was a person-of-interest in the FBI’s investigation, with the headline, “F.B.I. Suspect Hero Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” When other outlets like CNN and the AP ran with the story, followed by round-the-clock FBI surveillance and some other unseemly tactics, Jewell was all but convicted in the public’s eye. While he was eventually cleared of any involvement in the incident, the trial by media had a grave impact on his life.

 

Eastwood has become increasingly outspoken in his political views, going back to his infamous “empty chair speech” to then President Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and Jewell isn’t completely devoid of any political messaging. He often seems to be using the film to express concerns about the media and big government conspiring to lead an agenda.

 

Eastwood also manages to throw in a few jabs about the rights of gun ownership. In one exchange between Jewell and his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Bryant says, “You belong to any extremist groups, Richard? [The] NRA?” causing Jewell to reply, “Is the NRA a fringe group?”

 

During another scene when they are preparing for the FBI to come and search Jewell’s home, Bryant asks if Jewell has any weapons. After Jewell places a large stockpile of weapons on his bed, including several assault-style automatic rifles, Bryant says, “Oh, good Lord. What are you expecting? A zombie invasion or something?”

 

“No, I wasn’t expecting zombies,” Jewell replied. “I expect deer. I hunt.”

 

As a principally dialogue-driven piece, Eastwood keeps most conversations framed tight and close, allowing us to really see and connect with the actors, which works because he has such a stellar cast here. In addition to those already mentioned, Kathy Bates received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her role as Jewell’s mom, Bobi.

 

The film begins in 1986, establishing the relationship between Jewell and Bryant, and also sowing the seeds of Jewell’s love and obsession with being involved in law enforcement. Repeatedly, we see Jewell as a mostly failed loner, living at home with his mother and desperately wanting to find some sort of a career in law enforcement. When given a security job at a university, he goes well beyond his authority and is ultimately forced to resign after repeated complaints, which leads to his taking a position as a security guard in connection with the Olympics, where he is shown regularly looking to befriend or ingratiate himself with actual law-enforcement officers.

 

Eastwood leaves overt politics aside for the most part and just goes about telling Jewell’s story in a mostly accurate and linear fashion. This makes it easy to follow and watch as the FBI and media go about ticking the boxes to investigate and criminalize Jewell, even going so far as to trick him into coming to the FBI offices and trying to get him to sign a waiver of his rights under the guise of filming a training video to help future officers. According to History vs Hollywood, the film is surprisingly accurate save for one major point between story-hungry journalist Scruggs and FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) in an offer to trade sex for information, which Scruggs’ associates say never would have happened. (The actual Scruggs died in 2001.)

 

The only scenes that felt staged were the recreations in Centennial Park, where the crowds just felt light and forced, and the shots were framed to minimize how few people were actually there. These scenes just seemed to be missing the excitement and energy that would have existed in these pre-Olympics gatherings.

Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and this shows in the pristine detail in closeups of actors’ faces, which just snap into ultra-sharp focus and clarity. You can see every line, wrinkle, pore, and stray hair, adding to the feeling of being right there coupled with Eastwood’s tight framing. Near the end of the movie there is a brick building with sharp lines from the edges of the mortar and bricks that could have been pulled from a test pattern.

 

Night scenes are appropriately dark and noise-free, with lights getting some punch from HDR. Following the explosion, the smoke-filled skies are lit by different sources, which would be a bandwidth torture test nightmare for streaming services, but the image on the Kaleidescape download remained free of any noise or banding.

 

Audio is served up via a DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix that is serviceable but doesn’t do too much to immerse you in the action. There are a few dynamic scenes, such as Jewell at a gun range or the bombs exploding with nails spraying around the room, but for the most part surround info is limited to some minor ambience, such 

Richard Jewell (2019)

as arcade sounds in an early scene or shutter clicks of ever-present cameras. One scene in a club has some jazz playing in the background (possibly arranged by Eastwood, who is known to play for his films) that has nice texture, with detailed brush strokes on cymbals and a piano playing. Fortunately dialogue, the most important element here, is clear and intelligible.

 

The 131-minute film received mostly favorable reviews, garnering 75% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 96% audience rating. However, due to its less than stellar performance at the box office, it doesn’t appear that Jewell will be getting a 4K UltraHD Blu-ray release, so if you are interested in seeing it in its highest-quality presentation, downloading from Kaleidescape is your best bet.

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.

15 Great “Antique” Movie Musicals

15 Great "Antique" Musicals

Although there are very many interesting and even mind-blowing movie musicals from 1927 through the 1930s (think of Busby Berkley), most are quite antique now and the stories often unbelievable and silly. But they are fascinating from an historic point of view, and the ones I’ve listed here are hugely entertaining and well worth seeking out.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

This is the first original musical written directly for the screen. The terrific songs are by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, the great songwriting team of the 1920s. In fact, they had so many hits (like “The Best Things in Life are Free” and “Birth of the Blues”), they were the envy of the Gershwins. They left Broadway and relocated to Hollywood, where they wrote a string of hits for this movie and its lovely star, Janet Gaynor. Included in that score was a tribute to the new medium entitled “If I Had a Talking Picture of You.” It should be noted that the Fox company wanted a new full-length musical to show off its sound process, which was different from VitaPhone, used over at Warner Brothers and MGM, which used large, cumbersome records. Fox had a different idea—they put their sound right on the film in a track! That way it never went out of sync. Eventually, of course, Fox sound became the standard—and it was this funny and delightful musical that proved it was the way to go.
available on DVD-R

15 Great "Antique" Musicals
The Show of Shows (1929)

This is Warner’s big, big, BIG answer to MGM’s smash Hollywood Revue. And what was Warner Brothers’ answer to MGM’s new hit song “Singin’ in the Rain?” What else? “Singin’ in the Bathtub”! But my favorite segment is Rin-Tin-Tin and Myrna Loy (in Asian face) being serenaded by a very Jewish-looking Nick Luas dressed as a Chinese chef singing “Li-Po-Li . . . I’ve stolen all your rice cakes,” And all in early Technicolor yet!
available from the Warner Archive Collection

 

Whoopee! (1930)

This was Eddie Cantor’s biggest Broadway smash, and in 1929, Florenz Ziegfeld, its producer, brought the entire stage production to Hollywood to be filmed in (two-strip) Technicolor. It’s a wonderful record of how and what Broadway musicals were in the 1920s. Eddie Cantor and, more importantly, Busby Berkeley stayed in Hollywood, where their careers flourished. Lucky for us!
available from the Warner Archive Collection

The King of Jazz (1930)

This is a two-color Technicolor super spectacle from Universal Pictures in 1930. They pulled out all the stops trying to catch up with MGM and Warner Bros. in the musical-revue genre. Unfortunately, the movie took so long to finish, it came out a few months after the stock market crashed and it never achieved the popularity of other Roaring Twenties movie-musical extravaganzas. But it is 

Rhapsody in Blue, with a section of the Technicolor footage restored

absolutely a must-see for its innovative cinematography, musical staging, and George Gershwin himself performing Rhapsody in Blue—albeit in two-tone Technicolor teal.
available from The Criterion Collection

 

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Jeanette MacDonald and the young Maurice Chevalier made several very sophisticated musicals together, and they are all quite charming and clever. Love Me Tonight is one of the very best because its rather progressive cinematic techniques broke new ground for the musical movie. The opening number, “Isn’t It Romantic?” goes from location to location as the tune travels in the air. It starts with Chevalier as the leading man and ends up with Jeanette as the leading lady. It’s a wonderful setup for the upcoming romantic story. The concept and editing paved the way for many more cinematic screen musicals. The original score is by the great Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics). It has the wit and infectiousness of the best of Broadway, yet it’s all Hollywood.
available from Kino Video

 

42nd Street (1933)

This is the  original backstage Broadway musical, which spawned a whole generation of imitators. Wildly campy but wildly fun thanks to Busby Berkeley. But wait! There’s a pretty good dramatic story at its core: Warner Baxter (at his best) plays the nerve-frayed and dying stage director of the show. The film was a phenomenon in its day and brought back the movie musical as a popular genre. Staging director Busby continued his show-biz fantasy spectacles in Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, ’35, and ’37, and many other Warner Brothers musicals, The numbers are all worth seeing, at least in part.
available on Blu-ray, for streaming on Amazon Prime, and for download on Kaleidescape

Evergreen (1934)

This film is rarely shown now but, in its day, it was very popular, especially in the U.K. It’s still critically popular due to its strong plot, engaging performances, and catchy Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart song score. (“Dancing on the Ceiling” included.) It’s the British equivalent of an Astaire/Rogers or Busby Berkeley film. Director Victor Saville did a classy and brisk job here. Everyone is at their 1934 best.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Naughty Marietta (1935)

It’s amazing how fresh & funny this Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta feels tday, especially considering it’s adapted from Victor Herbert’s great Broadway blockbuster of . . .1905! Frank Morgan and Elsa Lancaster help keep it fresh and witty.
available from the Warner Archive Collection

 

Born to Dance (1936)

It’s tapper Eleanor Powell’s best. It also has a great score by Cole Porter written especially for Eleanor and . . . Jimmy Stewart! It’s all “Easy to Love”! Also, note: It’s a little-known fact that Eleanor Powell conceived and choreographed all her own dance numbers!
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

Swing Time (1936)

Directed by George Stevens (Shane, A Place in the Sun, Giant), Swing Time is certainly one of the best Astaire/Rogers musicals. Fred and Ginger are at their most magical, and the score by the great Jerome Kern (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) has a touch of gravitas some of their other vehicles don’t have. The songs start out light and buoyant, like the fabulous number “Pick Yourself Up,” but as the somewhat cohesive plot 

continues, it becomes lovely and heartfelt with “A Fine Romance” and the Academy Award-winning “The Way You Look Tonight.”
available from The Criterion Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Shall We Dance (1937)

I believe Shall We Dance, one of the best Astaire/Rogers classics, to be the earliest film where story and music combine effectively. A great Gershwin score, good story, and Fred and Ginger at their classiest.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Maytime (1937)

It may be hard for serious film lovers to admit, but many of the films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy are great pieces of cinema. MGM put all their glamor and “A-film” know-how and money into the MacDonald/Eddy pictures. Of course, the singing and musical aspects of these films seem like they are from another planet, let alone another century, today, but in Maytime the drama is on equal footing with the music. It’s believable and interesting thanks to the careful direction by Robert Z. Leonard and the dramatic performance of John Barrymore. Rose-Marie and Naughty Marietta may be the singing couple’s most famous films, but Maytime is the best one
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

The Great Waltz (1938)

Now this one is from another century—the 19th Century, that is! But Johann Strauss Jr. wrote the most infectious and popular music of the 1880s. This film serves his music well, with thrilling arrangements by Dimitri Tiomkin. The magnificent Academy Award-winning black-and-white photography alone makes this definitely worth seeing.
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

And, finally, two of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies:
Strike Up the Band (1940)

The youthful high-school band story is believable even today. Great songs, wonderful production numbers, and Mickey and Judy at their most lovable!
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Babes on Broadway (1941)

But this is my favorite Mickey & Judy movie. It’s 

got the song “I like New York in June / How About You?” And a spectacular (if hysterically offensive) finale to end all finales.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Anyone looking to dive deeper into the history of these early gems will find a wealth of anecdote and information in Richard Barrios’ superb A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Gerard Alessandrini

RELATED POSTS

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.

Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level

After the emotional trauma Dennis Burger experienced from his review of Uncut Gems, we thought that it might be a nice palate cleanser to look at some lighter fare for the next review. Fortunately, Jumanji: The Next Level arrived on an early digital release at the Kaleidescape Store two weeks ahead of its physical media release on March 17.

 

For those interested in waiting for the disc release, Sony has confirmed it will be IMAX Enhanced, meaning it will contain an enhanced DTS-X IMAX soundtrack as well as feature a picture remastered using IMAX’s propriety post-production and Digital Media Restoration (DMR) techniques. (For more on IMAX Enhanced, you can read this post I wrote for another site.) While Kaleidescape is rumored to be in talks with IMAX about being an Enhanced partner —and would be the perfect and logical outlet for this premium content—the Kaleidescape version doesn’t include this feature.

 

It’s really no surprise that 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle received the sequel greenlight. As star Jack Black, returning to portray game character Professor Shelly Oberon, quips in one of the special features, “After the first film made $900 million, I wasn’t really surprised when they called us back to do another.”

 

For those unfamiliar with Jumanji, these latest films are a reboot of the 1995 original, which starred Robin Williams. Jumanji is a game (of the board variety in the original, and modernized as a video game here) where players are magically and literally sucked into the game, forced to play as one of several avatars with different skill sets, and have to work together to solve problems and survive in order to complete a quest before they can exit the game back to the real world. Each character has three lives, allowing them to die repeatedly in a variety of usually humorous ways.

 

Along with Black, the rest of the Jungle quintet returns to reprise their roles, including Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Kevin Hart as Mouse Finbar, Nick Jonas as Seaplane McDonough, and Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. Jake Kasdan returns as director. Joining the crew is new character, thief extraordinaire Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. We also get a new villain in the form of Jurgen the Brutal, played by Game of Thrones’ The Hound, Rory McCann.

 

Level picks up about three years after the events of Jungle with our four real-world cast members Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) having moved on with their lives. Everyone except for Spencer is thriving, and when they plan a reunion, depressed Spencer decides he’d be happiest returning to Jumanji, picking up life again as hero Bravestone. Worried about their friend, the others decide to re-enter the game to help him survive, thus kicking off our adventure.

 

Instead of rehashing the first film with a different adventure, the writers really mix things up when the game glitches, causing the avatars to be inhabited by different players. This gives the adventurers completely different personalities and allows the actors to really have fun with their roles. This time around fearless leader Bravestone is inhabited by Spencer’s uncle, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and zoologist Finbar is controlled by Eddie’s ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover). And football star Fridge is forced to play as the physically limited archaeologist Oberon, whose list of “weaknesses” now include Endurance, Heat, Sun, and Sand. We also have a new game feature that allows characters to switch avatars at certain points, once again mixing up the acting styles.

 

On top of the new adventure—to end a massive drought impacting Jumanji by recovering a magical necklace known as the Falcon Jewel, stolen by Jurgen —this new “casting” makes the film feel fresh, and provides lots of opportunities for hilarity. Kevin Hart does a fantastic job adopting Glover’s slow, measured speaking style; a huge contrast to his typically frantic manner. “Did I just kill Eddie . . . by talking too slow . . . like he always said I would?” Johnson also leans into the role of being inhabited by curmudgeonly old DeVito, thrust into an entirely foreign situation, and Black brings the laughs acting like Fridge, a black athlete furious that he’s forced to return to Jumanji in an even worse character this time around. “I’ve been training four hours a day for six months. How is this guy a character in an adventure game?!

 

At just over two hours, Level has enough time to develop a quest that feels of videogame epic length, with enough time to travel to a variety of new environments, such as a Lawrence of Arabia-esque desert, a Moroccan-type village, and a snow-topped castle. But it never felt too long or like it was wearing out its gags, keeping me interested throughout.

 

Sony Pictures consistently delivers terrific home video releases, and Level continues that high standard. Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, images consistently look terrific, with closeups that bristle with detail and razor-sharp focus. Black wears a tweed vest that has a fine plaid print with each check clearly visible. You can also see the cracks and texture in the backgrounds and costumes, and count individual strands of hair on actors’ heads.

Blacks are deep, clean, and noise-free, and there are many nighttime and indoor scenes that benefit from the film’s use of HDR. The night scenes in the Moroccan village of the Oasis look especially good, with brilliant neon lights along the streets, as well as warm interiors lit by candles and lamps, giving the film a natural and organic look. Interiors of the castle Fortress feature dark rooms lit by shafts of bright light or sun rays streaming through windows, and the snowy mountainside looks appropriately bright without crushing any detail.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active, looking for nearly every opportunity to immerse you in sound. Beyond the big action scenes, there are lots of little environmental sounds like wind blowing, birds chirping, and insects buzzing. One of the film’s recurring sonic elements is the sound of deceased players re-entering the game, with a chime that sounds overhead and has them dropping back into the game from the ceiling. Bass is also solid and weighty, either from explosions or Bravestone’s superhuman punches or the jungle drums that resonate from all around to indicate danger.

 

As is typical of Dolby Atmos soundtracks, dialogue is centered and easily intelligible throughout.

Jumanji: The Next Level

While watching Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoying and understanding Next Level, it is certainly suggested as it is an entertaining film in its own right. Beyond a bit of swearing and some non-bloody videogame violence, Jumanji: Next Level makes a great family night at the movies, offering a plot that will keep everyone engaged and entertained, while looking and sounding great in a luxury home environment.

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 Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3–1960 to 2019

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

In Part 1, I offered my definition of a movie musical and in Part 2 presented my choices for the best musicals from the height of the Hollywood Studio Era (1939 to 1959). Here, I will talk about my favorites from 1960 on—a period that includes the decline of the studio system, when movies in general, and musicals in particular, were going through tremendous change.

The 1960s

West Side Story (1961)

Dazzling on every level. The music is well beyond musical comedy into the realm of semi-classical. The photography, editing, and sound are perfection. It set the bar very high for all future Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. On a large screen, Natalie Wood’s performance is particularly fine and subtly beautiful. And of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography is unsurpassed on film.

 

The Music Man (1962)

This may be the most faithful and successful transfer of a Broadway musical to the screen. It’s so close to the stage version in every way, it makes you feel like you are watching a stage show—front and center! Yet it never feels static and has a distinct cinematic feel all its own. And It’s so fun and spinetingling right to the last frame. Robert Preston is superb as the phony Professor Harold Hill.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It might seem strange to see this Elvis vehicle on the same list as West Side Story, but great talent is great talent, and Elvis Presley together with the one star who matched his charisma— Ann-Margret—is quite an atomic blast. Over the years, the film seems less trendy (or silly) than it used to. It’s all done with great fun and excellent production values, and the energy of the film and its eclectic score make it a wonderfully campy and a very enjoyable 85 minutes.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Director Richard Lester completely threw out all musical movie conventions to totally re-invent the form. It’s a perfect vehicle for The Beatles and spoke to a whole new generation. The free-for-all style of the film laid the ground for many rock and edgy film musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s including Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both helmed by Lester), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and of course the whole MTV network.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Mary Poppins (1964)

Don’t forget this is an original film musical! Yet Mary Poppins is written (songs by the Sherman Brothers) with the sophistication of a Broadway show. It’s as if Walt Disney said to the boys, “I want my own My Fair Lady!” And in many ways, it is! Especially since it also stars Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Fair Lady. But the magnificent addition to its Broadway musical-like structure is all the fantasy photography. Technology might be even better today, but without great writing and good plot structure, musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and Cats, just don’t come anywhere near the high bar of “Walt Disney’s masterpiece” Mary Poppins.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the most elegant yet entertaining movies ever made. Absolutely perfectly done on every level. And made all the more powerful by the masterful 1956 stage musical on which it was  based. Warner Bros. knew they had a good one and they were determined to do it right. And director George Cukor did just that. Rex Harrison is magnificent, of course, but Audrey Hepburn adds that sparkling drop of cinematic magic to make this a true film, and not just an excellent stage-to-screen transfer.

 

The Sound of Music (1965)

If Singin’ in the Rain isn’t the greatest film musical of all time, then this is. Sound of Music is certainly the world’s favorite film musical, and deservedly so. Based on a true story, it has a humanness to it that makes the softer elements of the story moving. It’s directed with great restraint and taste by Robert Wise, and Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria is perhaps the best-loved female screen-musical performance ever. Sorry Judy, Liza, Emma, Rene, and Barbra . . .

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)

Michel Legrand’s unique jazz and romantic score is the principle reason this incredibly original film works. The jazz riffs are easily acceptable as a substitute for dialogue. It never slows the story or feels static. The wistful romantic music embraces the heartbreaking story. The color cinematography

is breathtaking. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are perfectly cast as the young lovers. It’s all brilliantly written and directed by Jacques Demy. This film is a worldwide treasure.

 

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s first song in the film is “I’m the Greatest Star,” and by all accounts that she is! In this William Wyler film, she has never been better. The film looks, sounds, and plays perfectly to showcase Streisand’s enormous talents. Under Wyler’s direction, Funny Girl was realistic and dark enough to ride the cultural revolutionary wave of the late 1960s. At that time, audiences took this dramatic Fanny Brice bio-pic very seriously. And since Wyler and Streisand did such a good job, you can take Funny Girl as seriously today as you could in 1968.

 

Oliver! (1968)

At the exact time as Funny Girl was released, the stage hit Oliver! arrived on screens. And it easily won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. This may come as a surprise to some because there still is a lot of prejudice against a film whose title sounds like a kiddie flick. But they should remember this is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the film was directed by the great Sir Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) and photographed by the great Oswald Morris. This musical of Oliver Twist, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, has all the elements and dark characters of the novel and yet so much more. It’s witty, even outright funny at times, and yet it can turn scary and disturbing on a dime. The big musical numbers are spectacular and soaring (Academy Award-winning choreography by Onna White) yet they fit right into the storyline so you never feel like the action stops. It’s amazing on how many levels this film works.

The 1970s

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the 1967 Broadway smash is superb but hardly an adaptation at all. It’s very altered from the stage version and hardly feels like it was ever on the stage. Ergo, this film runs like an original film musical. This very adult and realistic version hit the mark in the 1970s when films looked more realistic than ever. It did include most of the songs from the Kander and Ebb Broadway score, but several important new songs by the same writers were added. Liza Minelli’s star performance sends the film into the stratosphere of entertainment perfection. Viewing this film today, it looks like it was made last week! Bravo, Bob!

 

Fiddler on the Roof (1973)

This is a very realistic film version of the 1964 stage smash hit. Rather than cast comedian Zero Mostel as Tevye, the lead, or some of the other famous actors who played supporting roles on Broadway (Bette Midler, Julia Migenes Johnson, and Christopher Walken), director Norman Jewison chose to cast all unknowns so that the characters appear very real. The Israeli actor Topol heads the movie, and it’s a loving but dramatic telling of the Sholom Aleichem stories. Fine musical adaptation by John Williams of the Bock and Harnick score elevates the movie yet matches the earthy Oswald Morris cinematography. It’s a great story about family, tradition, and persecution, and a moving experience in any decade.

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

In a way, this film follows the Richard Lester style of freewheeling camera work used in Hard Day’s Night, yet Rocky Horror Picture Show is as unique and wonderful as it can be. Based on the moderately successful West End and Broadway stage favorite, it works so much better as a film where it can be cinematically outrageous. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf are all hysterically excellent and play the “horror-comedy” tone just right. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous cult film of all time, and stayed in release longer than any other musical film!

The 1980s

Victor/Victoria (1982)

This film has grown to enormous stature today! Blake Edwards’ intelligently adapted screenplay explores the fine line between masculine and feminine posturing. Julie Andrews and indeed all the performances seem three-dimensional, yet incredibly entertaining. The gorgeous Henry Mancini (music)/ Leslie Bricusse (lyrics)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

score has just enough songs to qualify it as a musical, but they always support the characters and story. The production is also visually classy with a beautiful Art Deco look. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe it didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The 2000s

Chicago (2002)

This film was a terrific surprise in its day, when it seemed musical films were a thing of the past. But it’s so well done and entertaining, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its success may have a lot to do with the excellence of the original stage show by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, which is still running on Broadway today!

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Dreamgirls (2006)

This is a very ambitious and thoroughly successful film adaptation of the legendary Broadway show. Not since Cabaret 30 years earlier had a film been transferred with such freshness and cinematic energy. Dreamgirls feels like an original for the screen. Each member of the cast is superb, especially Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award, and Eddie Murphy in a stellar supporting performance. On top of all this, the music and singing are superb.

 

La La Land (2016)

Just when we thought it couldn’t be done ever again, along came this original film musical. It has an all-new song score with pulsating and exciting music by Justin Hurwitz. It’s all very stylishly directed by Damien Chazelle and attractively performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s also a great tribute to movie musicals of the past like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon yet it feels modern and fresh and youthful.

and let’s not forget . . .

Well, that’s 37 of the best. But for those who enjoy neat and nice round numbers, as do I, here are three more “best” movie musicals that co-incidentally all have the same name.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
A Star is Born (1954)

This is Judy Garland’s ultimate showcase. Judy shows off all her triple-threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to the “nth” degree. Unfortunately, she has so much talent and so much to give, it took three full hours to fit it all in. Ergo, the film has suffered from destructive editing over the years. In 1983, an effort to restore the original version required inserting black-and-white stills. Today, the creaky technology from 1983 destroys the pace and believability of the story. It’s time for a proper restoration. But what is always superb about this version is that it’s a realistic portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s, thanks to screenwriter Moss Hart and director George Cukor, both of whom knew how it really was.

 

A Star is Born (1976)

This is Barbra Streisand’s ultimate showcase. Barbra shows off all her triple talents (acting, singing, writing) to the “nth” degree. It’s a solid retelling of the story, this time set in the world of rock. Kris Krisofferson is also quite good in his bathtub scenes. Nowadays, this is a terrific time capsule of the 1970s but it’s also “Evergreen.”

 

A Star is Born (2018)

This is Lady Ga Ga’s ultimate showcase (so far). Lady Ga Ga shows off all her triple threat talents (acting, singing, song writing) to the “nth” degree. But Bradley Cooper also wants his share of showoff time, and as producing-director, he makes sure he gets it. Set in the modern-day pop world once again, the love story pays off, being the core of another very good film musical.

 

To round things out, in Part 4, I’ll take you on a tour of some classic “antique”—but still hugely enjoyable—movie musicals from the 1920s and ’30s.

Gerard Alessandrini

RELATED POSTS

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.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2–1939 to 1959

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

Compiling a list of 40 top film musicals was quite difficult because there are so many sub genres. My personal favorites tend to be the movies where the story is more three-dimensional. Many musical movies are fun but often silly. I prefer the ones that have a strong story line and are perhaps even dramatic. Think of Fiddler on the Roof or Dreamgirls. The Rodgers and 

Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe musicals always have mostly three-dimensional characters and true-to-life situations at hand. Of course, these types of musicals originated on Broadway, where the play is the thing. My other favorite type of musical is the kind created and written expressly for the screen and is therefore much more cinematic. Think of Mary Poppins and La La Land.

 

Also, in selecting my favorites, I always defer to talent, especially when it’s singing or dancing that you can’t see anywhere else. When an audience paid money to see Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, or Ann Miller, it was worth it because nobody else in the world could do what they did.

 

My list of favorites may seem to have a lot obvious choices, but when you are discussing the greatest of all time you’re bound to come up with the well-known, well appreciated, and well loved!

 

I haven’t included any animated film musicals because there are so many beloved Disney films and they are very varied as to how “musical” they are. Some have a complete score, some have just a song or two. The discussion of what the best animated film musicals are should be on an entirely different list. I love them but I consider them a different genre than live-action movie musicals.

 

Here is my list of 40 of the best film musicals of all time, in chronological order. Because there are so many of them, 

and so much to say about them, the list is divided into two installments: From 1939 to 1959 here and, in Part 3, from 1960 to the present.

For those interested in digging a little deeper and discovering something new but classic to watch, I will be following my “best of” list with a selection of terrific but antique musicals from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I start my list with this obvious classic because technically and dramatically it’s perhaps the first truly excellent example of an integrated musical with a strong story line. The decades of success for generation after generation prove how perfect this film is. It’s also a technological masterpiece for its time, and edited within an inch of its life. (Although kudos to Arthur Freed for convincing his MGM bosses not to cut “Over the Rainbow.”)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939-1959

The 1940s

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

The last great black-and-white musical. James Cagney’s performance and George M. Cohan’s rousing songs make this the most exhilarating movie musical ever. Cagney rightfully won a Best Actor Academy Award for his spirited performance.

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

This period masterpiece just gets better and better with time. Color, music, and performance (thank you, Judy) make this film timeless. It’s Vincente Minnelli’s first masterpiece musical and another triumph for Judy Garland, solidifying her place as one of the most talented and biggest stars in Hollywood.

 

The Pirate (1948)

Not wildly successful in its day, nonetheless, today Vincente Minnelli’s petite pirate-movie masterpiece looks mind blowingly weird and wonderful. Judy and Gene look like they are having the time of their lives, and they certainly tear up the screen in this one! Wow!

 

Easter Parade (1948)

What a great assemblage of once-in-a-century talent: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Irving Berlin. Once again proof of Judy Garland’s magical movie-star powers. Fred has never looked more at ease than in this film—and that’s saying a lot!

The 1950s

An American in Paris (1951)

It’s the MGM Musical factory in full force! Gene Kelly, George Gershwin, and Vincente Minnelli, with oodles of money to spend. An American in Paris is even a better star vehicle for Gene Kelly than his Singin’ in the Rain. And the more realistic love story propels the high-art ballet finale into the emotionally heartwarming.

 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

What can you say? It’s the best movie musical ever—plain and simple! And don’t forget it’s also one of the funniest movies ever made, thanks to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s flamboyant screenplay and a genius comic performance by Jean Hagen.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

This one holds up better than its leading ladies’ undergarment foundation! It certainly has stood the test of time for fun and wit. Not only Marilyn Monroe but every cast member—most notably Jane Russell, who nearly steals the picture—is superb. And who would have thought the great adventure director Howard Hawks knew as much about movie musicals as Vincente Minnelli?

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

A very special Minnelli, Comden, and Green backstage classic. This film is visually stunning and superbly elegant. The songs are sophisticated and the dances are the crown jewels of movie musicals. The film is also high comedy, and is often 

“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon

dry and ironic. It’s 1950s ultra-stylish MGM and it’s musical-comedy caviar—not to everyone’s taste but still the best.

 

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

This freewheeling adaptation of the perennial Broadway smash has the freshness and vigor of an original MGM musical. George Sidney could not have done a better job transferring the all-time great Cole Porter score to the screen, Add Ann Miller and Bob Fosse, and the joie de vivre leaps off the screen—literally! It’s in 3D!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Stanley Donen’s second solo sojourn into directing, and it is an all-time joyous romp. So fresh and robust, your heart will leap and your jaw will drop at the lusty choreography. Howard Keel and Jane Powell are at their best.

 

White Christmas (1954)

It’s no question this film was designed to be pure entertainment, and with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen on hand, it’s musical comedy perfection any time of the year. It’s all splendidly directed by Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz. Who would have thought the great dramatic director Curtiz knew as much about movie musicals as Howard Hawks— sorry, I meant Vincente Minelli!

 

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

This is a truly excellent dramatic musical. The songs are all performed in realistic situations so the dark story can be faithfully told. It’s the true story of Ruth Etting, a 1920s and ‘30s singing star, and her gangster boyfriend who pushes her to the top until their relationship explodes. Doris Day and James Cagney couldn’t have dreamed of having better or more appropriate roles to play, and they go above and beyond expectations. It’s an expensive and stylish Joe Pasternak* musical and still very powerful today. (* Up to this point, Pasternak ran one of the three musical movie units at MGM, producing more saccharine and operetta-like films for the likes of Mario Lanza, Katheryn Grayson, and Jane Powell. Love Me or Leave Me was quite a change of pace for him!)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959
Oklahoma! (1955)

Repeated viewings of this Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic will reveal it might just be one of the best movie musicals ever made. Technically perfect in every way, the cast and the singing are exactly right. Fred Zinnemann’s (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) masterful direction leads the superb cast. Who would have thought Gloria Grahame (as Ado Annie) was a genius comedienne? Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are arguably the best natural singers ever cast in a musical film. Their voices extended so effortlessly from their speaking voices, they were perfect for book musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s. (Carousel was their next lovely film musical.)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

This widescreen film version of Oklahoma! looks magnificent on a big TV screen, but it still can’t compare to seeing it on a big screen in a theatre, as it was designed to be enjoyed in 30 frames per second Todd-AO 70mm with nine-track stereo! What is especially powerful on the big screen, and what you can’t really experience at home, is the magnificent Agnes DeMille choreography.

 

The King and I (1956)

Simply one of the most beautiful and dramatically powerful films ever made. At the center are the fascinating performances of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Again, the story, music, and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein propel the film to a different and higher level above most 1950s film musicals.

High Society (1956)

Over the years, I have become more enamored with this somewhat static but very entertaining musicalization of The Philadelphia Story. And a fine musical it is, with classy songs by the perfect man to do it—Cole Porter. With eight new songs directly for the screen, Cole solidified his position as the unofficial in-house song writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This film is much better on the big VistaVision screen, where you can see the subtlety of Grace Kelly’s wicked “stuck-up heiress” performance. But any film that also stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong is an instant classic.

 

Funny Face (1957)

It’s the ultimate mid-century high-fashion celebration. Today it can be enjoyed for being the stylish time capsule it is. Perhaps it’s even Audrey Hepburn’s best movie. It’s certainly her best light-hearted movie. And that’s saying a lot. The combination of her gamine perfection and Fred Astaire’s and Kay Thompson’s “Pizzazz!” are “S’Wonderful!”

 

South Pacific (1958)

With an unforgettable song score by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics and book), this expansive film version was destined to be a box-office blockbuster. It was the third highest-grossing film of the 1950s (after The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days). It also remained enormously popular on subsequent re-releases, and on TV and then video. This is due to the fine and still timely racial story, sensitively told by director and co-book writer Joshua Logan.

Maybe the best example of the vigorous use of color filters in South Pacific

But this movie is also infamous for the color filters cinematographer Leon Shamroy employed—perhaps too vigorously. However, I recently attended a Fathom Events presentation where I got to see the film on a big, wide screen. The clarity and the perfect balances of the color in that showing made the filters much more tolerable and dramatically interesting. Along with the gorgeous musical adaptation (by Alfred Newman) in multi stereophonic sound, South Pacific seemed better than ever. 

Gigi (1958)

This original screen musical written by Lerner and Loewe is one of my personal favorites. First of all, Loewe’s score is some of the best film music written in the 20th Century. When the main title music starts playing the gorgeous melody of “Gigi,” I think it had the Academy Award for Best Picture all wrapped up then and 

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

there. Add to that a realistic French cast, actual Parisian locations, and a rather adult feminist story. Collette’s Gigi is the hero here, and she is smarter, cleverer, and saner than all the men and adults in 1900 Paris. The result is a very thought-provoking yet visually gorgeous film. Released in May 1958, it’s a prime example of how sophisticated film musicals had become within a few short years.

 

Black Orpheus (1959)

A daring and beautiful Technicolor musical retelling of the Greek myth, Orpheus in the Underworld, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1959. It pulsates with tension and exciting Brazilian rhythms. The music score is by the great Antônio Carlos Jobim and includes several songs that became quite popular here in the U.S. with English lyrics. Remember “A Day In the Life of a Fool?” (PS—the new Broadway hit musical Hades Town is based on the same story.)

 

 

In Part 3, I will be offering up my choices for the best movie musicals from 1960 to the present.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Checking Out Disney’s New Star Wars Land

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

Since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, fans of all ages have imagined themselves being part of the action in some way. Whether it was piloting an X-wing fighter, wielding a lightsaber, or just hanging out with the scum and villainy in a space cantina, Star Wars created a galaxy fans wished they could inhabit. And while there have been a host of video games to help bridge this gap, there hasn’t really been a living, breathing world fans could truly immerse themselves in.

 

When Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, there was a lot of speculation over how they might incorporate Star Wars into the Disney theme parks. While the parks already had a Star Wars attraction in the form of the Star Tours

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE

simulator ride, this offered the chance for something even bigger; and in 2015, Disney announced it would open Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando.

 

This entirely new land is set in the Black Spire Outpost on the fictional planet of Batuu. It encompasses 14 acres

at both parks and features shops, dining, and attractions, delivering an experience of the Star Wars universe unlike anything fans have ever experienced before.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Galaxy’s Edge in Orlando this past week, and thought I’d share my thoughts on the new land, and specifically the Rise of the Resistance attraction, which is perhaps the most complex ride system ever created, thrusting fans right into the middle of a scene from a Star Wars film.

 

Galaxy’s Edge is part of the Disney Hollywood Studios section of Disney World, but is cleverly set off from it so you are never pulled out of the feeling that you’re in a different world. You enter through a cavernous tunnel area that transports you from 

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

the main section of the park. Once inside, tall mountain spires, fabricated canyons, and well-placed trees cleverly conceal other areas of the park so you are never reminded you’re in Hollywood Studios.

 

There is a variety of appropriate artifacts all around the land, including a full-scale TIE Echelon sitting on a stage where Kylo Ren occasionally appears. You’ll also find a full-sized Wampa and other Easter eggs and artifacts while browsing inside stores. The Galaxy’s Edge cast members also wear costumes appropriate to their jobs; whether it’s ride attendants in Resistance garb, First Order soldiers, or store clerks, everyone looks the part. Stormtroopers patrol 

the area looking for Resistance members, regularly stopping and “harassing” guests. (They walked by my youngest daughter, pointed at her and said, “We have our eyes on you!”)

 

One of the land’s most iconic features is a full-scale Millennium Falcon that sits outside the Smuggler’s Run attraction. You can walk right up to and almost all around the Falcon and see the careful attention to detail in every aspect of the ship. The

Smuggler’s ride queue lets you feel like you’re walking inside the actual Falcon, including being able to sit at the Dejarik holographic chess board where Chewie and R2 played.

 

The actual ride takes place inside the cockpit, where guests can be either pilots, gunners, or engineers on a mission to recover Coaxium shipments to help Resistance fighters. Advanced 4K video at 120 frames per second in a variety of video panels 

combined with motion and interactive controls provides a convincing illusion that you’re actually aboard the famed Corellian freighter; and the ride’s length and outcome is determined by how well the crew does their jobs.

 

Galaxy’s Edge takes on a completely different look at night, as the Disney Imagineers use a variety of concealed lights to light up the mountains, canyons, and attractions.

 

The land’s biggest attraction is the brand-new Rise of the Resistance, an 18-minute ride containing 65 Audio-Animatronic figures and requiring the largest concrete pour in the history of Disney Parks and more than five million lines of code to

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

control aspects of the ride. This is a multi-part experience that uses an amazing combination of video projection and screens, visual effects, synchronized lighting, animatronics, trackless vehicle, and amazing size and scale to place you aboard a First Order Star Destroyer in a way fans never thought possible.

 

You enter the ride near a large turret/cannon, and then the queue is hidden from First Order eyes as you wind around inside a mountain. There are loads of cool set dressing throughout the queue, including 

discarded tools, cages of weapons and uniforms, and ventilation pipes. (NOTE: Ride spoilers follow. If you’re planning to visit Galaxy’s Edge and don’t want to have the ride experience spoiled, stop here . . .)

In the first section of the attraction, you see BB-8 and a hologram transmission from Rey telling you that the Resistance is moving to another base and it is imperative we don’t reveal its location to the First Order. From here, you transition to a transporter to head off to the new base.

 

On the way to the transport, you pass a replica of Poe’s X-Wing fighter, set back in a cavern that can only be seen from the Rise ride.

 

On the transport you stand just feet away from Lieutenant Bek, a Mon Calamari animatronic pilot that talks and moves convincingly. The front of the ship is a cockpit filled with video screens showing your space flight, and if you look out the back of the transport, you can watch your ship taking off from Black Spire Outpost, including leaving the Falcon behind. The transport soon comes under attack, rumbling and quaking appropriately as it’s hit by TIE fighters and then ultimately grabbed by a First Order Star Destroyer’s tractor beam, which pulls in and captures the ship.

When the transport door opens, you’re greeted by First Order officers who command the group to get out of the transport (our first group was lingering for a bit, causing one of the officers to shout, “I said ‘get out!’”) and lead you into the largest-scale scene from any attraction: Dozens of stormtroopers standing at attention on the deck of a Star Destroyer with a huge screen staring out into space.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

It is massive set dressing, and both times I went through the ride this moment literally brought a hush over the riders as they stared gob smacked at the sheer size and scope of this scene. Everything about the area is designed to make you feel like you are literally stepping right on onto the set of a Star Wars film, and it succeeds in every way. This holding area is packed with detail, but unfortunately you aren’t given as long to linger here as you’d hope . . . and the ride part hasn’t even actually

begun yet!

 

You then walk down detailed hallways and corridors of the Destroyer, harassed by First Order guards speaking in clipped accents who play their parts wonderfully. One guard singled out a guest wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m with the Resistance” saying, “Why are you wearing that shirt? Do you think it is going to help you? Do you think that shirt will save you from the blasters of these highly trained stormtroopers?!” You can tell they are enjoying their rolls and are leaning into creating a fantastic experience.

 

From here, you are led into a holding cell where you’re going to be 

interrogated, with General Hux and Kylo coming out to threaten you. But the Resistance comes to your rescue, cutting a large hole through a steel door that glows a convincing red, and you are quickly moved into a trackless vehicle helmed by an R5 droid to make your escape.

 

The car races around the inside of the Destroyer, where you come under fire from a variety of stormtroopers, their blasters leaving sparks and scorch marks on different parts of the ride. At one point, your vehicle drives into a huge room where you’re confronted with two full-sized AT-AT walkers, again placing you in the immense scale of the attraction, with a lift taking you right up to face the walkers.

The vehicle drives on, taking you through various parts of the ship, including another massive room where you have to slide past three giant turbo lasers blasting at X-Wing fighters that are visible attacking outside of massive video-screen windows. The lighting, sound, and visual effects all do a fantastic job of creating an incredibly believable scene.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

You soon find yourself aboard the bridge of the ship, where full-sized animatronics of Kylo and Hux are watching the battle unfold out of the windows. Kylo spots you, and your vehicle drives away, but he then attacks, jumping towards you with his fiery red saber piercing the ceiling overhead and cutting out a large hole in an incredible effect.

 

With Galaxy’s Edge, the Disney Imagineers have raised the bar on what an immersive experience can be. The entire Rise of the Resistance ride is an overwhelming feast for the senses, delivering an experience unlike any other Star Wars medium to date. The ride has so much going on at any second, I dare say you could go through it ten times back-to-back and still not see every detail. I can’t recommend it enough.

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.

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

I can’t remember the last time any film left me feeling so conflicted as Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems. Conflicted because, on the one hand, it’s as distinctive an artistic expression as I’ve seen on film in who knows how long—meticulously scripted, inventively shot, masterfully edited, with performances that are award-worthy down to the level of the most minor secondary roles.

 

On the other hand, I can’t remember any film in recent memory that filled me with such anxiety as this one did, from the opening scene straight through to the closing credits. The film stars Adam Sandler, who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as Howard Ratner, a jewelry store proprietor and compulsive gambler who’s always one side-hustle away from either striking it rich or getting fitted for cement shoes. His fortunes seem to change when he comes into possession of a rare black opal that quickly becomes the obsession of basketball player Kevin Garnett (played equally effectively by basketball player 

Kevin Garnett). Rather than selling the stone to Garnett for a ridiculous sum of money, Ratner decides to scam him by way of an auction, and, well . . . so it goes for the rest of the film.

 

In some ways, I suppose you could call Uncut Gems a morality play, but the morality espoused seems to be pure nihilism. There isn’t a sympathetic character in the film. No 

one to root for. No opportunity for a satisfying resolution that isn’t morally bankrupt. And I’m not saying that makes it a bad film; I’m merely saying it was one that I couldn’t enjoy.

 

Which is a shame, because the Safdies draw inspiration from some of my guilty pleasures, especially the late-80s/early-90s output of Michael Mann, whose style they manage to evoke without aping, both visually and aurally. Shot on the same Kodak Vision3 500T 35mm film stock that gave Marriage Story its distinctively cinematic look, Uncut Gems is the perfect marriage of photochemical chaos and cutting-edge digital precision. It’s all unapologetically crushed blacks and cranked primary hues, and in one scene in particular—at a glitzy nightclub performance by The Weeknd—the 4K HDR presentation (sourced from a 4K digital intermediate) uses its enhanced dynamic range to effectively recreate the blacklight illumination and the DayGlo neon colors that result.

 

Even the soundtrack is a captivating mix of retro and bleeding edge, thanks in part to a score by Daniel Lopatin that breaks all the rules of both composition and mixing. The music at times evokes the Michael Mann aesthetic, with 80s-tastic droning synths and a pulse-pounding tempo that pushes the visuals forward. At other times, it veers into Blade Runner territory,

and at other times still ventures into what can only be described as artistic porn-music territory.

 

The one consistent aspect of the soundtrack—and indeed the sound mix as a whole—is that supervising sound editor Warren Shaw acts as if he’s the first person to ever work in surround sound, much less Dolby Atmos. The mix exhibits a level of aggression I would normally find irritating and distracting, but here it simply works. Dialogue is forced into the left or right channels at times when it would traditionally be locked into the center. Score music often uses the surrounds as the primary channels instead of the fronts. If it weren’t all so skillfully mixed, it would come across as pure chaos, and to be frank I find myself loving it all in spite of myself.

 

In the end, though, I have to put Uncut Gems into that growing pile of films that I appreciate but just can’t enjoy. For all the visual and auditory allusions to Michael Mann, the film ends up playing as more of a horror movie in which the lumbering antagonist isn’t a machete-wielding psychopath, but rather karma itself. It could have just as easily been titled A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Person Has a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.

 

And here’s the thing: I’m not quite sure if the Safdies have created a window

Uncut Gems

or a mirror. Am I supposed to feel any sympathy or empathy for Sandler’s awful character? If so, Uncut Gems fails in that respect, because I can’t. Am I supposed to root for his comeuppance? I hope not, because that feels just as gross.

 

And yet, for all the anxiety, for all the conflicted feelings, for all the desire to bleach my eyeballs after the credits rolled, I have to admit I was absolutely captivated by the sheer talent on the screen and behind the scenes here. And I don’t really like the way that realization makes me feel about myself.   

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.