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Review: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: The New Mutants

The New Mutants (2020)

While we have beaten the proverbial Tenet theatrical-release horse to death here, when all the dust settled, it was actually not the first major film to “restart” theatrical exhibition here in the States. Nope. While Tenet debuted on September 3, it was 20th Century/Marvel Entertainment’s The New Mutants, which opened on August 27 that actually holds that “honor.”

 

And much like Tenet, the box office returns for Mutants were pretty disastrous by normal metrics, bringing in just over $7 million its opening weekend, and going on to gross just under $24 million in the US. Of course, these aren’t normal times, 

and Mutants is now seeing something of a second life in streaming, where it topped the charts of both Fandango Now and Vudu for both number of rentals and revenue. The movie is also available for download from Kaleidescape in 4K HDR with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack.

 

Unless you’re fairly deep into the X-Men comics franchise, Mutants likely didn’t show up on your radar. It had been languishing in production purgatory after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox (the film was originally scheduled to be released in 2018), literally couldn’t have been released at a worse time, received almost no advertising support, and didn’t fit into the shoebox of the typical X-Men superhero series, resulting in a hybrid teens-with-powers/horror-ish film that feels targeted at the YA market and doesn’t really feel that connected to the rest of the franchise. It also didn’t help that the film received franchise-low Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 33% and 56%.

MUTANTS AT A GLANCE

Vaguely related to the X-Men franchise, this diverting teens-with-superpowers entry checks off all the usual genre boxes without breaking any new ground.

 

PICTURE     

Shot at 8K, the film reveals terrific levels of detail, with so much depth and definition to the images that they look 3D.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is dynamic and active, providing immense bass energy when needed.

In retrospect, Disney likely should have released Mutants straight to Disney+, where it could have gotten more mileage promoting the film as another exclusive to drive subscriptions. But, to paraphrase the Anton Chigurh line from No Country for Old Men, this film has been traveling for years to get here, and now it’s here, and we’ve got to call it: Is The New Mutants worth seeing?

 

In short, mostly yes. While it isn’t a great or really even memorable film—my wife commented, “Well, that was pretty meh” as the end credits started—it moves quickly through its 94-minute runtime, features a talented cast—including Anya Taylor-Joy, who is quickly becoming a major star (and who is absolutely wonderful to watch as Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit mini-series, btw)—and, perhaps most important to Cineluxe readers, looks and sounds great in a home theater.

 

The film opens as an F5 tornado is ripping through a Native American reservation, with Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) narrowly escaping with her life as the sole survivor. She awakens at a hospital, chained to a bed, with no idea how she got there, where she is greeted by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes informs her that this is a special hospital, and that Moonstar is a mutant who needs to remain there until she learns what her abilities are and how to control them.

 

Moonstar quickly meets the hospital’s other “patients”: Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Robert da Costa (Henry Zaga), and Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy).

 

As the characters get to know each other, we get the usual bit of teen interpersonal drama and learn they are all mutants who were brought there by Dr. Reyes after some horrible—and fatal—tragedy in their lives. The stories—and the characters’ powers—reveal themselves as Moonstar gets to know the other patients and tries to figure out what her own powers are and what she needs to do in order to leave the hospital. While this is happening, the characters start experiencing ultra-realistic hallucinations related to their personal tragedies.

 

Is it a hospital, a prison, or a cage? Who is the superior Dr. Reyes keeps referring to? And just what are Moonstar’s powers?

 

These are the key questions the movie hangs on and wants to keep you guessing at, but unfortunately, they just aren’t deep enough to make the film fully successful.

 

As a “casual” X-Men fan (I’ve watched all of the movies, but don’t read any of the comics or graphic novels), the only real connections I found between the X-universe and Mutants was a brief mention of the X-Men (the teens feel they are being groomed to eventually go and join them) and a vision Moonstar had where she saw a facility that looked exactly like scenes in Logan where X-23 was created. While there’s nothing wrong with a series branching out and going its own, new way, when you have such a rich universe to pull from as X-Men, it is a bit surprising that it didn’t have any more tie-ins.

 

Also, this film seems overly ripe for an end-credits scene that would tease . . . something. (Director Josh Boone originally planned for this to be the first of a trilogy of films.) The ending just screams “There’s more to come,” but there isn’t.

 

Prior to viewing the movie, I had no idea what it was about, and after watching the trailer, I expected it to be a horror film going for scares about being trapped in this asylum. In fact, its genre is even listed as “horror.” But it just isn’t scary. It tries to be, with some flashback/hallucinations and a moshed-up Slenderman/Venom-looking group of baddies called the “Smiling Men” (voiced by Marilyn Manson), but it never generates the tension, suspense, or startle moments to make it succeed as a horror film. Also, you never really get to care enough about any of the characters or feel they are ever in any real peril to be concerned something might happen to them. And when you take that element away, I’m afraid what’s left just isn’t strong enough.

 

Another issue I had was that the actors are all given over-the-top accents that seem to vary in consistency throughout the film. Maybe they felt the audience needed to be hammered over the head with thick Russian, Scottish, Cuban, and Deep South accents to believe the characters’ backstories.

 

Finally, I am just so sick of Hollywood’s insistence on pushing a gay agenda. Of the five main characters, two happen to be gay. Of course, we are then given that prerequisite long moment as they stare into each other’s eyes before having that first, closeup kiss. This same-sex relationship does nothing to serve the story or develop the characters and feels solely there to check a “Does the movie have a gay character?” box. According to recent studies, about 4.5% of society identifies as gay or bisexual, and I don’t understand why this has to be such a trend throughout movies, TV, and streaming series.

 

Having said all that, I didn’t dislike the movie, and was never bored watching.

 

Where Mutants is worth praising is in its technical specifications. Captured in DXL Raw at 8K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images look fantastic. Shots reveal terrific levels of detail in the costumes, showing

texture and detail of the fabric, the stitching, and the weave of the material. The images are so clean and clear, they make the fabric nearly tactile.

 

Some of the edges of the structures in the outer courtyard area of the hospital have so much depth and definition, they are almost 3D looking. You also get tight and jaggie-free lines in the brick and mortar of the buildings and the shingles and tiles on the ceilings.

 

Beyond just giving the film an overall more realistic color palette, the added dynamic range of Mutants’ HDR grade also brings more pop to things like lightbulbs, fluorescent lights, white T-shirts, or the glowing reds, blues, and oranges of the mutants’ powers in action. One scene really demonstrating the benefits of HDR is during Guthrie’s hallucination. Here we are transported into a dark mine shaft illuminated by the bright lamps atop miners’ helmets, but deep shadows and detail are retained amidst the piercing beams of the lights, with nothing looking washed out and no noise or banding.

 

Sonically the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active with some immense bass energy when called for. From the film’s opening tornado, the room comes alive with howling winds swirling all around along with explosions that will shake your 

The New Mutants (2020)

couch. Height speakers are frequently used for things like PA announcements, thunder and rain sounds, or to add ambience to expand the sonic space. Take something that is as seemingly “sonically simple” as the scene when the mutants all gather in an attic. Listen to this scene for a bit and then pause the movie, and you’ll notice the myriad of small sounds that suddenly vanish. This is a wonderful bit of layering to make a “quiet” room actually sound quiet.

 

Ultimately, The New Mutants is kind of like a cinematic fast-food meal—the story is mostly entertaining—albeit somewhat predictable—and mostly satisfying while watching, but nothing you’ll rave about afterwards.

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.

Who Killed Film Noir?

Who Killed Film Noir?

Film noir is dead. We, in our addiction to re-iteration and our blind political zeal, have managed to kill off what was probably the greatest—or at least arguably the most influential—American art form. But, before getting into all that, let me first define my terms.

 

Let’s start with what film noir isn’t. While many people confuse crime movies with noir, very few fit under that umbrella. In fact, most crime films, as exuberant expressions of unbridled strength and will, are the antithesis of noir.

 

The definition of noir can perhaps be summed up most succinctly via the title of a quintessential roman noir: You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. Translated: Film noir is always and without exception a celebration—and a lament—of the chump. Its heroes always think they know the score, only to find that virtually everything around them is actively or blindly conspiring to do them in.

 

Noir is about total paranoia. It’s also about emasculation—more specifically, about the emasculation of white males. And, as such, it’s the antithesis of the myth of the American Dream. And, as such, it’s the thing that keeps us honest—real.

 

Or at least it did until the same regressive, Puritanical forces that have recently gutted so many other vital aspects of American culture got their hands on it. The rabid ignorati, in their bratty petulance, seem to have an unerring instinct for taking down the things we all need to remain balanced, (relatively) sane, and whole.

 

Of everything we’ve lost over the past few years, the demise of noir may prove to be the one we most greatly come to regret.

 

Noir could not be allowed to live, you see, because it was deemed irredeemably misogynistic. But let’s pause for a second to define misogyny.

 

If misogyny hinges on always seeing women as inferior, servile, on denigrating them in an effort to assert the superiority of the male, then that tag can never be hung on film noir. The female characters in noir tend to be sharper—certainly more dominant—than the males—to a degree that tends to put the male protagonists literally to shame.

 

And it also needs to be said that the characters in noir, both male and female, tend to display far more shades of gender identity than the characters in any other film genre, past or present. That this isn’t done within the narrow, sterile lanes of the current rulebook makes noir’s take on gender more relevant, not less.

 

But what about that great bugaboo the femme fatale? The whole point of noir is that everything is trying to do in the male protagonist—close relations, colleagues, strangers, institutions, objects, environments—everything. So why would the female the lead feels most strongly drawn to be excluded? Wouldn’t it be logical that, given his desire to feel whole, but fearing the ferocious power of sexuality unbound, he would come to see her as his greatest threat?

 

Again, to watch noir you have to understand that everything is a paranoid perception. There are no exceptions.

 

Given all that, explain to me how noir isn’t an evisceration of traditional notions of white male power, how it somehow empowers and emboldens the oppressor.

 

And just so this whole exercise doesn’t come across as an expression of my own paranoia, let’s talk some specifics. Who perpetrated this crime? Who has noir’s blood on their hands?

 

The list is long but I think the most telling example is the freshly recruited World War II bomber crew of hosts over at Turner Classic Movies. Carefully selected to address faddish ethnic and gender stereotypes but apparently not for their understanding of film, they recite dogma, smile, then wait for someone off camera to throw them a treat rather than offer any unbiased insights into the movies they’re presenting.

 

Essentially, TCM has become a school for political re-education, looking to so drastically rewrite history that it becomes impossible to see older films on their own terms but only through the lens of the current, borderline meaningless, standards. And given that film noir remains the most subversive of genres, it should come as no surprise that it’s the body of films they have most firmly fixed in their sights.

 

TCM guts noir by turning it into propaganda. Its mannequin-like hosts will tell you all that really matters about noir is its female leads, who are all wonderfully strong, independent, and assertive—in other words, role models. The day anybody goes to noir for positive life lessons is the day the trumpet sounds, the moon turns to blood, and we break the Seventh Seal.

 

But it’s hard to say who are the guiltier criminals here—the commentators or the so-called creators, the latter largely a herd of film-school replicants safely skating atop genres they don’t understand because they’re too damned scared to look beneath the surface, cranking out bright, nasty objects without life or soul.

 

I would posit that the labyrinthine and woefully misguided rules about what can and can’t be presented, how what can be presented has to be presented, and who’s deemed acceptable to represent and present have made it impossible to create anything resembling true noir. (I originally wrote “honest” noir, but what value would the genre have if it wasn’t inherently dishonest, the shabby, disreputable home of iconoclasts, tricksters, and other miscreants who no longer have a place in the contemporary world?) The only form that could possibly survive the current puerile gauntlet is faux noir—and who needs that?

 

We seem fated to a near future—and likely further—of makers and their Pavlovian subjects who believe embracing “dark” somehow wards off true darkness, little ornamental rituals of pain somehow inoculate them against true pain, and rigidly codifying and policing behavior can protect them from any and all transgressions—i.e., reality. Self-pitying masochism provides no basis for legitimate expression. Noir has nothing to offer any tribe that silly and shallow.

 

At a time when the paucity of new releases has led to more and more people being exposed to older films for the first time, it’s never been more important to approach classic movies with due respect for the way they were originally created and perceived. How anybody could look around at the fine mess we’ve made of current society and think we’ve advanced in any meaningful way, let alone in a way that would allow us to damn the past, would be laughable if it wan’t so grisly. No other film genre is as challenging or insightful as noir. Considering it with an open mind can provide a new, healthier perspective on the present. Approach it with blinkers on and you might as well go watch a Teletubbies marathon instead.

—Michael Gaughn

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

Warner Bros. Is Setting “Wonder Woman 1984” Up for Failure

Warner Bros. Is Setting "Wonder Woman 1984" Up for Failure

In case you missed the news late last week, Warner Bros. has announced that Wonder Woman 1984—its biggest film of the year—is finally locked in for a December 25 release after months of will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth. Interestingly—and completely in line with the studio’s inability to take a firm stance on anything this year—the movie is being released both in commercial cinemas and on HBO Max on the same day.

 

If you didn’t know any better, you might think this is a good move. It makes the comic-book blockbuster free-to-stream for anyone who subscribes to Warner’s premium over-the-top service; and on the surface, it seems like a more charitable release

than was given to Tenet, which was foisted on commercial cinemas at a time when most of them were closed.

 

There’s just one problem: WarnerMedia simply hasn’t done the work required to make HBO Max a viable release platform for any first-run movie, much less one with this much potential. I covered most of the reasons why in my last rant about the service: The esoteric and labyrinthine signup process, the confusing nomenclature, the fact that on the eve of 2021 a major studio’s premier streaming platform is still living in 2015 by failing to offer 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio.

 

The thing is, conditions are actually much worse on the ground than I made them look in that column. According to Variety, as of late September, HBO Max only had a reported 9 million subscribers, give or take, as compared with 73 million subscribers for Disney+. That’s pitiful, but this is devastating: According to the story, 70 percent of HBO subscribers—who have access to HBO Max as part of their pay subscription—haven’t even bothered to claim their free HBO Max accounts.

 

Mind you, I’m sure Warner believes WW84 will give HBO Max a huge boost, and its cat-petting executives are probably counting dollar signs as they fall asleep, in anticipation of a huge influx of new subscriptions. But if you can’t get 70 percent of HBO subscribers to take an HBO Max login—for free—then how do you expect to con people into paying $15 for a service that’s only available in HD? And heaven help those poor souls who decide to sign up for a 7-day free trial right before the launch of the new Wonder Woman movie, only to discover how difficult it is to access the service. (Remember, it’s still not available on Roku, by far the most popular streaming platform in the world.)

 

Simply put, if you thought Warner Bros. set Tenet up to fail in the U.S. by overhyping it and then releasing it in the midst of a pandemic, imagine how much worse things are going to be for WW84. On the day Tenet hit cinemas, we in the Colonies saw approximately 47,000 confirmed new SARS-

CoV-2 infections. IHME’s conservative model currently predicts we’ll see between ~365,000 and ~543,000 new infections on Christmas Day alone, if current trends continue.

 

The best-case scenario here is that people will be ten times less likely to go see WW84 in cinemas. But guess what the entertainment headlines will be the next day if that scenario plays out? “Wonder Woman 1984 Bombs at the Box Office!” Logic be damned, the takeaway for most people seeing those headlines will be that the movie just isn’t worth watching, and its fate will be all but sealed.

 

I would imagine Warner’s response to that will be, “But look how many new HBO Max subscriptions we picked up!” And I suppose that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. But given that Pixar is releasing Soul the same day to the much-more-popular Disney+, I’m betting that cartoon’s viewership numbers will be the far bigger headline in the streaming news.

 

So, what could Warner have done differently? Any number of things. The ideal option would have been to build HBO Max from the ground up to support decent audio and video quality and not make it so damned difficult to access. Barring that, I think a much better option would have been to release the movie to high-quality digital platforms like Vudu and Kaleidescape on Christmas Day for $20 or $30 or $40—in glorious 4K HDR—and announce that it would be hitting HBO Max for free three or four weeks later. And for goodness’ sake, skip the theatrical exhibition altogether.

 

That would have allowed those of us who actually value reference-quality audiovisual home cinema presentations to enjoy the movie Day One, plague-free; it would have netted Warner Bros. far more in profits; and it would have also made them look like the good guys for following up with a free-to-stream option so quickly thereafter.

 

Instead, I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb here in predicting the studio’s half-ass-it-and-they-will-come approach to WW84‘s release is ultimately going to be the thing that keeps it from performing to its full potential.

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: Zappa

Zappa (2020)

On November 27, Magnolia Pictures will release Zappa, a documentary about the life of Frank Zappa (1940–1993), one of the few rock musicians to deserve the appellation of “genius.” (Need evidence? Listen to “Peaches En Regalia” or “The Black Page.”) Though rooted in R&B and doo-wop, the influence of Edgard Varèse and other composers. and the anything-goes experimental ethos of the ’60s, singer/composer/guitarist/conductor/satirist/political activist Zappa’s music is unmistakably unique, as is his idiosyncratic and inimitable guitar playing.

 

Frank Zappa was, as the movie points out, far more complicated than the typical categorization of him as a brilliant and demanding musical tyrant who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who delighted in skewering any number of aspects of American culture. Though all of this is true, Zappa was much more nuanced and multifaceted, and this two-hour-plus documentary 

does an admirable job of bringing Frank Zappa, the man, to light. In the movie, Zappa says, contrary to his portrayal as a curmudgeon, “If you could get a laugh out of something, that was good. And if you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good.”

 

As director/producer Alex Winter stated, “I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual.” (In addition to Zappa’s music, the documentary features a score by composer/producer John Frizzell.)

 

Zappa fans will be thrilled by this movie, which will be available on most of the major streaming services. I can state this with complete confidence since I am a fan, having seen Zappa and/or the Mothers of Invention in concert about 25 times back in the day and having immersed myself in his work for most of my life. (Zappa was a workaholic 

ZAPPA AT A GLANCE

Alex Winter’s documentary on the life of the iconoclastic musician offers a rounded portrait by focusing mainly on interviews and biographical material and going light on performance footage.

 

PICTURE     

Video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material.

 

SOUND     

The audio is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

and released 62 albums during his life; 53 posthumous albums have been issued.) His wife Gail and son/producer Ahmet granted Winter, producer Glen Zipper, and the creative team access to Zappa’s vast vault, which contains hundreds of audio and video tapes and film reels, much of them unreleased. The inclusion of this archival material (wait until you see the scenes that show it) gives Zappa a depth, richness, and authority that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The home movies of Zappa’s childhood and teen years alone are worth the price of admission.

 

Zappa features an abundance of interviews with Frank Zappa, along with Gail Zappa and other key figures in his life, including former band members Ruth Underwood (whose mallet percussion playing is a key element of much of Zappa’s work), “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Ray White, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and Scott Thunes. (When an interviewer asks Zappa, “You were always a renegade against the music business. Why?” Zappa replies, “Because most of what the music business does is not music.”)

 

The film progresses in chronological order, beginning with Zappa’s early childhood (and a fascination with chemistry, explosives, and gas masks, influenced by his father Francis’s occupation as a chemist and mathematician at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland). Zappa had health problems as a child, which prompted the family to move to California in 1952. California would permeate his musical sensibility throughout his life (and yield his biggest hit, “Valley Girl,” featuring daughter Moon on vocals).

 

Zappa began composing at an early age, and in the early 1960s was able to purchase a recording studio, Studio Z, where he began his lifelong habit of working constantly on his music. A 1965 incident at Studio Z shaped his distrust of authority. In what turned out to be a sting, he was asked to produce an “erotic” audio tape, for which he was arrested, charged with conspiracy to produce pornography, and briefly put in jail. Zappa covers this in fascinating detail, and the film continues this 

Zappa (2020)

level of thoroughness throughout, from the early days of the Mothers of Invention to Zappa’s prolific solo career and his last concert conducting The Yellow Shark with the Orchestra Modern in 1992.

 

The documentary focuses more on historical events and interviews with Frank and Gail Zappa and others than it does on live concert material. Although there’s plenty of musical content—how could there not be?—this is not a concert film, 

and the movie doesn’t include an abundance of Zappa songs. (If you want those, there are plenty of live concert Blu-ray and DVD discs out there.) Rest assured though, the musical brilliance, exactitude, and sheer creative power of Zappa’s music permeates the film, and the footage of Zappa, various incarnations of the Mothers of Invention, and Zappa’s rehearsing and performances of later orchestral work provides a riveting look at what it was like to be there.

 

In particular, the material shot at the landmark Garrick Theater performances in New York in 1967 reveal how Zappa and the Mothers came to realize the importance and impact of performing rather than merely playing. (Zappa commented, “If we hadn’t left Los Angeles, we would have just evaporated after the first album.”) Perhaps this fueled Zappa’s later pioneering work with projects like the 1971 and 1977 musical films 200 Motels and Baby Snakes. As an artist himself (he had a brief early career as a greeting-card illustrator), Zappa was well aware of the importance and impact of visuals, as evidenced by his longtime affiliations with album-cover artist Cal Schenkel and animator Bruce Bickford. (It took 13 months of negotiations with the Beatles to ensure there would be no legal trouble from Schenkel’s parody re-creation of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover in the inner sleeve of the Mothers’ album We’re Only in It for the Money.)

 

The video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material. After all, excepting some of the interviews, the footage was shot from the 1960s through the 1990s, before the advent of digital filmmaking and HDTV. I’m glad the documentary’s creators didn’t go overboard with enhancing or “improving” the look of the film, which in my opinion would have been intrusive and would have detracted from the historical look and feel. And the movie would have suffered without the inclusion of the roughly-shot home movies and some of the concert material. The sound quality is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

 

Unlike many music-related documentaries, Zappa doesn’t rush through the later period of Zappa’s life. It’s well-paced, covering everything from his adoption of the Synclavier, an early (and extremely expensive) digital synthesizer; his efforts against musical censorship, including his testifying before Congress in 1985 against the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC); his importance to Czechoslovakia (he was an artistic hero to the country and in 1990 was designated Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism)—and his illness and the events leading up to his death from prostate cancer.

 

In fact, a significant portion of Zappa is devoted to his diagnosis and losing battle with the disease. Zappa faces his illness with typical candor and humor, and  by plunging with even greater commitment to his work, even as it takes its physical toll. In one scene where he’s rehearsing with the Ensemble Modern, the previously unflappable Zappa struggles to maintain his energy level and concentration—and it’s heartbreaking.

 

As the film was concluding, I became more and more aware of my one major criticism and dissatisfaction—there wasn’t nearly enough of Zappa playing his guitar. This was an egregious blind spot, since Zappa was one of the most brilliant and unfairly underrated guitar players of all time.

 

But I think Alex Winter may have done this deliberately.

 

In the closing credits, Zappa plays a version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” For the most part, the song is a long guitar solo, originally heard on the album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III. The song serves as main character Joe’s farewell to his musical career, and it’s one of the most moving pieces of music Zappa, or anyone, has ever produced.

 

As the closing piece to Zappa, as the guitar playing in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” goes on and on, every note is a reminder of the impact of Zappa’s life, every phrase getting emotionally deeper and deeper in complete defiance of the idea that he was an uncaring and aloof person. By holding back on any extended Zappa guitar soloing until the end, the film magnifies the impact of his music and life, to the point where feeling his loss is simply devastating.

Frank Doris

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

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Movie Roundup

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Roundup

As with our roundup of Halloween films, the goal here was to select movies that, if you decide to enjoy an evening of holiday fare, will create a consistent mood of good cheer. Each of these films is meant to evoke the Christmas spirit without wandering into the more cynical and gratuitous offerings that have encroached upon what should be a time of affirmation and celebration. 

 

Sadly, far fewer Christmas than Halloween movies are available in 4K, but we’ve ensured that everything here will look and sound great on a quality system no matter the format. 

 

To read the original review for each film. click on the image or its title.

Elf (2003)
ELF

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/Dolby TrueHD 5.1)

Amazon Prime (HD/5.1) / Apple TV (HD/5.1) 

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)

Vudu (HD/5.1)

Klaus

AVAILABLE ON

Netflix (4K HDR/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (4K HDR/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Disney+ (4K HDR) / Apple TV (4K Dolby Vision)

Amazon (4K) / Fandango Now (4K)

 Google Play (4K) / Vudu (4K)

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)
PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL

AVAILABLE ON

Netflix (HD)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (4K HDR/DTS-HD Master Audio stereo)

Apple TV (4K Dolby Vision) / Vudu (4K HDR10)

Amazon Prime (4K) / Fandango Now (4K)

Google Play (HD)

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Amazon (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Apple TV (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Vudu (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Fandango Now (HD/5.1) / Google Play (HD/5.1)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Amazon Prime (HD/5.1) / Apple TV (HD/5.1) /

Disney+ (HD/5.1) / Fandango Now (HD/5.1)

Google Play (HD/5.1) / Vudu (HD/5.1)

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

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

Amazon (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Apple TV (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1) / Netflix (HD/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Vudu (HD/Dolby Digital+ stereo)

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)

Review: Love Actually

Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually is probably the most misunderstood of all Richard Curtis’s directorial efforts. That’s not to say it’s his best (that would be About Time by a country mile), nor is it his worst (I’m looking at you, Pirate Radio/The Boat That Rocked, in all your edits and incarnations), but it seems to me that most people are so concerned with fitting Love Actually into their own preconceived boxes that almost no one engages with what it actually is. On the one hand, you have viewers who embrace it as the perfect romantic comedy, when in fact it’s mostly a subversion of that genre’s most saccharine trappings. On the other hand, you have the pecksniffian morality police who never resist the opportunity to tell you how much this movie fails to

perfectly live up to their woke sensibilities and how you’re a bad person if you actually enjoy it because most of its characters make bad choices.

 

I have no interest in finding common ground with either of those two camps, because I think they both miss the point. Love Actually is hardly a rom-com. (Even the trailer gets this wrong.) It’s a comedy about love, and that’s something altogether different. It’s been accused of being a movie that has no idea what love is about, but I think it’s far more accurate to call it the story of people trying to figure out what love is and sometimes failing to do so.

 

The all-star ensemble cast is huge, and its characters run the gamut from Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to Portuguese housekeeper, but what they all have in common is that they’re imperfectly awkward human beings doing their best to find or hold onto or comprehend love in its many forms, from childhood infatuation to forbidden obsession to meaningful intellectual connection, from 

ACTUALLY AT A GLANCE

This non-rom-com comedy about the various forms of love is definitely a Christmas film, despite what the naysayers say, and something to be enjoyed at the holidays with loved ones.

 

PICTURE     

The HD presentation is bright and colorful enough, and wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 4K HDR upgrade due to the inherent softness of the images.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix keeps dialogue intelligible and conveys the music soundtrack with spot-on fidelity.

platonic love to the complicated but undeniable bond between siblings and the developing ties between stepson and stepfather. Truth be told, only a handful of the relationships in the movie have anything to do with romance. But they’re all, in their own way, about love.

 

It strikes me as plainly obvious that Curtis isn’t trying to convey any lessons here, nor is he making moral judgments (which is why I think it so offends some viewers). Love Actually is simply intended to be relatable and empathetic, both in its warmest moments and in its most fumbling, insecure, and idiotic. And it succeeds in that respect wonderfully, which makes it one of my favorite Christmas movies, whether or not it’s objectively one of the best.

 

And yes, it is a Christmas movie, despite arguments to the contrary. Any number of angry keyboard warriors have tried and failed to point out that the story here could have just as easily been told at or around Valentine’s Day. I think they’re confusing

it with any number of half-hearted knockoffs that have followed in the 17 years since Love Actually debuted.

 

Of course, it’s a Christmas movie! And not merely because of the setting or the fantastic live rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” performed at the end by little Olivia Olson (who would grow up to play Marceline the Vampire Queen on Adventure Time, FYI). It simply isn’t a traditional Christmas movie—of which Curtis is well aware, as evidenced by cheeky 

references to lobsters at the Nativity and so forth. Instead, it’s a story that does its best to grapple with a more modern notion of Christmas, one where the traditional extended family structure isn’t necessarily the only norm anymore.

 

It’s also a post-9/11 movie and, legend has it, a reinforcement of and response to an essay the author Ian McEwan published shortly after that dark day. But above all else, Love Actually is simply a sweet and sentimental, awkwardly charming good time, and one of those rare movies that’s actually best enjoyed in good company. It’s neither a masterpiece nor an affront to moral standards, but I can’t imagine letting a Christmas season pass without watching it with friends, family, or loved ones. That plants it firmly in “must own” territory, whether I would place it on my list of All-Time Top 50 Best Films or not. (And for what it’s worth, there are quite a few of those I have no interest in ever seeing again.)

 

If you don’t own it already, I would argue that Kaleidescape’s presentation is the way to go, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Kaleidescape has the UK cut of the film. The only differences between the UK and US edits are in the music, but I prefer the former by a good bit. To the best of my knowledge, Universal only released the UK cut on Blu-ray in 2009, and has replaced 

it with the US version in subsequent rereleases, of which there have been a few (the most recent being earlier this year).

 

Not that any of these has made a substantial difference in terms of the visuals. The movie is presented in HD only, but that’s totally fine. Keen-eyed viewers will notice an overall softness to the image, but before you think this would be rectified by a 4K redux, look a little closer. Viewing the HD release at cinematic proportions, you can notice a fine grain structure that indicates plenty sufficient detail in the transfer, meaning the softness is inherent to the cinematography. To my eye, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of additional crispness or nuance to be extracted from the negative.

 

Colors are bright and vibrant enough for this sort of flick, so I lean toward thinking that HDR wouldn’t do it a whole heck of a lot of good, either. Long story short, if you’re holding out for a 4K remaster of Love Actually, I just can’t imagine one is on the horizon. And that’s OK, since this likely isn’t a movie you dig into for the audiovisual experience. Granted, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a great job of keeping dialogue clear and intelligible, and the fidelity of the soundtrack music is spot-freaking-on. In the end, that’s exactly what you would hope for.

Love Actually (2003)

Extras are sparse here. There’s the forgettable audio commentary track, and that’s really it. The deleted scenes from the Blu-ray are missing, but you can find those on YouTube if you’re interested. What really matters is that the movie itself is presented in delightfully distraction-free quality, with a full-bandwidth soundtrack and no compression issues to be seen.

 

If, for whatever reason, you’ve never seen Love Actually and you need a little silly and adorkable escapism this holiday season, this one is well worth the price of a download. Will it change your life? No. But if you don’t find yourself guffawing through tears by the time the end credits roll, you’ve got the heart of a Grinch.

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 Speed Cubers

The Speed Cubers (2020)

The Netflix-original documentary The Speed Cubers seems like exactly the sort of film whose very existence hinges upon the streaming provider’s ability to target the most niche of special interests. It is, after all, a film set at the 2019 World Cube Association World Championship—WCA being the governing body that organizes and regulates tournaments to see who can most quickly solve twisty puzzles (the most popular of which is the Rubik’s Cube, more commonly known these days as “The 3×3”).

Given the concept, it also seems like exactly the sort of film that you could easily nope out of if you have no interest in mechanical puzzles or how quickly they’re solved by kids you’ve never heard of. But if that’s the way you’re leaning, I implore you to give this all-too-brief 40-minute film a chance anyway. Because beneath the super-nerdy veneer, The Speed Cubers is ultimately about what all good documentaries are about: The human spirit.

 

The humans at the center of this story are Feliks Zemdegs, widely regarded as the best speed cuber of all time, and Max Park, the young hotshot who has in recent years broken many of the world records previously held by Zemdegs. To most outsiders, the two could be described as the Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt of the cubing world. As The Speed Cubers reveals, though, their relationship doesn’t quite fit into such a tidy box.

 

For the profoundly autistic Park, Zemdegs is simultaneously hero, role model, friend, and fierce competitor. When Max

CUBERS AT A GLANCE

Watching other people watch other people play with Rubik’s cubes might not sound like compelling documentary fodder but this Netflix original goes beneath the gameplay to show the deep bonds that form among competitors.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K presentation is solid enough, but comes sans HDR—which might be for the best given how much the documentary relies on cellphone and home-video footage.

 

SOUND     

The front-heavy 5.1 mix does a good job of presenting the dialogue and creates an appropriate frame for Dan Vidmar’s unobtrusive but effective score.

refuses to brush his teeth, his parents merely need to remind him that Feliks always brushes his own. When Zemdegs joins the Park family for dinner, it’s Feliks, not the Parks, who encourages Max to eat his vegetables, without a hint of condescension.

 

It may sound a little one-sided, but what the film reveals is a beautiful give-and-take—a lovely friendly rivalry quite unlike

anything I’ve ever seen captured on camera.

 

I hate to say much more than that, lest I spoil any of the surprises in this wonderful little haiku of a film. And yes, there are twists and turns along the way, though none of them is contrived. There are also laughs aplenty and even a few tears, so have some tissues ready if you’re a sympathetic crier.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing

about The Speed Cubers, though, is just how well it’s made. Cinematographer Chris Olson—whose own short film Why We Cube was previously the best documentary on the subject of twisty-puzzle competitions—shows amazing restraint in serving as the viewer’s eyes into this world, turning what could have easily been a voyeuristic exposé into a tender tribute instead. It’s a shame his work is only presented in 4K, without the benefit of HDR, but given how much of the film relies on home-video and cellphone footage of Max and Feliks in their younger years, it’s debatable whether it would have benefited from an HDR grading overall. Thankfully, Netflix’ presentation is artifact-free, save from that found in archival footage.

 

Similar restraint is shown by music composer Dan Vidmar—better known by the stage name Shy Girls in the alt-R&B music scene—whose score honestly didn’t capture my attention at all until my second viewing. That’s the mark of good film music, in my opinion. What you notice when you specifically listen for the score is that Vidmar has a knack for accentuating both action and emotion without Mickey Mousing either.

 

Don’t go in expecting the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 sound mix to fill your surround speakers or stress your subs. The front-heavy mix does its job of presenting the dialogue and music in a perfectly straightforward manner, exactly as it should in a documentary.

 

Really, the only thing you could complain about here is that The Speed Cubers is over far too quickly, leaving you wanting to know more, even if you previously had no interest in the ostensible subject matter of the film. If you’re hungry for more, most of the biggest names in the online cubing community have made their own supplements for the film, the best being Ming Dao Ting’s in-depth interview with director Sue Kim and cinematographer Chris Olson, which runs longer than The Speed Cubers itself. Search YouTube and you’ll find hours of additional commentary where that came from.

 

But if all you’re interested in is the documentary itself, what you’ll find in The Speed Cubers is one of the sweetest, tenderest, most life-affirming short films I’ve seen in ages. And I think we could all use a bit of that in our lives right now.

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.

A Different World

A Different World

The steady drip of announcements and events that could very well signal the demise of chain movie theaters continues unabated. On the heels of Mulan going straight to Disney+, the Tenet fiasco, and the latest Bond film being held until next April, we’ve now learned that Pixar’s Soul is going to follow the same path as Mulan, earning a Christmas release on Disney+; Dune is being pushed from Christmas to October 2021; and The Batman is being banished to the incredibly distant date of March 2022. And there’s speculation Wonder Woman 1984 could be going straight to HBO Max, which would be a huge change of strategy for Warner Bros., shifting from pretty much forcing theaters to reopen so they could lose their shirts on Tenet to dumping this once-prized ode to gym memberships onto a struggling streaming service’s anemic subscriber base.

 

In another major sign of just how much things have changed, there are reports MGM tried to shop the Bond film around to Netflix et al. in lieu of a theatrical release only to find there were no takers. Is it really conceivable the latest 007 could end up 

so tarnished it could find itself in the streaming equivalent of the bargain bin?

 

It’s time for the studios to relent and take everything else they were going to hang onto until, when, Doomsday? and send it straight to the home market—something they should have done six months ago. It’s not just about the economics. In a world that bears little resemblance to the one that existed at the beginning of this year, do they really expect these movies to resonate with audiences today—let alone half a year, a year, or a year and a half down a very uncertain road? We now live in an in many ways worse and in some ways better world, but undeniably one with only a few tenuous connections to its previous incarnation.

 

The whole sad and in some ways silly tale of Tenet and the movie theaters is just another example of the kind of bass ackwards thinking that’s pretty much determined how everything has played out during the pandemic. To state what ought to be obvious (but there’s little evidence to suggest that’s so): We need to rethink our priorities. The economy isn’t some independent organism that must be fed at all costs, but a man-made and -controlled (when we want to be responsible for it) mechanism meant to serve the needs of people. In other words, it’s nothing but an artificial construct, a tool, a means to an end. Hell, at this point, I’d be happy to see us go back to the barter system—even potlatch—if it would spare us the spectacle of more human sacrifice on the mass scale.

 

Tenet has, rightly, become the poster child for everything that’s hopelessly balled up about the present moment. Something never felt right about that whole exercise in denial—even beyond the manifest irresponsibility of urging theaters to reopen in the middle of a pandemic, and Nolan’s Olympian hubris of thinking his ridiculously expensive little trifle was worth risking even a single person’s life.

 

Tenet tanked not just because releasing it was a brain-dead business decision but because it had been built up so much by Nolan, Warner Bros., and IMAX as something that had to be seen in a movie theater, that, viewed in the context of a global crisis, it ultimately felt trivial.

 

We’ve come—I believe, stupidly—to make huge emotional investments in movies, and especially franchises, when they’re almost inevitably the products of children of privilege indulging their extremely stunted emotional development.

 

Movies, honoring the hipster mantra, have become little more than diversions, distractions, one-note confections able to induce enough of a sugar high to get you to crave the next one but never able to supply enough nourishment to be in any meaningful way satisfying, elaborate yet ultimately crude devices that qualify as entertainment only in the most primitive way, and never as art.

 

I might really be dreaming here, but I’m hoping the current 

upheaval proves to be the ultimate Kryptonite or Death Star or whatever and finally frees us from the tyranny of the superhero movie. No matter how pretentious directors want to get about them, at the end of the day, they’re inherently adolescent, silly, and, worst of all, fascist (Goebbels would have loved Gal Gadot), exhibiting all the overheated excess of a form of entertainment on the verge of collapse. (Which helps to explain why they tend to lean so heavily on kitschy Late Romantic retreads for their soundtracks. Mahler, R. Strauss, and Wagner were harbingers of the imminent demise of tonality.)

 

The studios are willing to commit so much money to producing superhero movies and push them so ferociously not because they’re more entertaining than other genres, let alone because they’re more edifying and profound, but because they more readily lend themselves to merchandising and video games and they help keep the populace in an uncritical state of arrested development. At the end of the day, it’s an economic and marketing decision and never a creative one—not even close.

 

Now, I realize that decades of indoctrination have led to a culture of fantasy über alles, but I’d like to hang onto a slim hope that recent events will shake us from our stupor and get us to realize that almost every mainstream genre we’ve succumbed to since the Reagan era—and this would include action films and other heedless celebrations of war—are ultimately forms of oppression.

 

Just to be clear: The last thing I’d want to see is a world awash in earnest little dramas without flair, socially-conscious efforts that ultimately just reinforce rampant intolerance, and ambitious epics that show no understanding of the rudiments of cinema—in other words, Oscar fodder. If we’re going to reinvent the movies, let’s really strip them down and rebuild them from the ground up. And just to show that this isn’t just some vague and abstract wish, let alone an exercise in nostalgia, I’m hoping to toss out a few suggestions for reimagining in a future column.

Michael Gaughn

 

Disclaimer: My views are my own. They represent neither the general position of this website nor the opinions of any of its other contributors, who I’m pretty sure don’t much agree with me about any of this.

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

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1968 (as I mentioned in my review of Rosemary’s Baby) was the year Hollywood, no longer able to lure people into theaters, blew everything up and started all over again. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most radical product of that very radical year—not only because it flouted all the conventions of mainstream storytelling but because it went full-court Brecht to subvert the audience’s addiction to identifying with the protagonist, refused to use dialogue to Mickey Mouse viewers through the action, openly pissed on the convention of the traditional Hollywood music score, and stubbornly refused to be wedged it into any identifiable genre.

2001 is utterly sui generis—no film had looked anything like it before; no film has looked anything like it since. It exists in its own, somewhat rarefied, universe.

 

Kubrick would never do anything that overtly adventurous again. Sure, Clockwork Orange was more outrageous, but kind of in the same way as Dr. Strangelove; and “outrageous” isn’t the same thing as “adventurous.”

 

But neither adventurousness nor outrageousness on their own, or even together, are enough to make a film great. (The path from 1968 to the present is littered with the corpses of films that managed to do both, but little else.) 2001 is great because it sets an impossibly high bar and almost achieves it. Adventurousness and outrageousness are symptomatic of that ambition, but neither is essential to realizing it.

 

Which is why—to again return to an earlier review—I have to give The Shining the edge as Kubrick’s most 

2001 AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique and still radical big-budget experimental film is almost as compelling as its original Cinerama presentation in this 4K HDR release.

 

PICTURE     

So well done that the film is on par with The Shining as a reference-quality download. HDR in particular helps enhance the impact of space travel, celestial bodies, and Bowman’s hallucinatory hotel room.

 

SOUND     

A faithful reproduction of a deliberately pared-down soundtrack that was always meant to complement and comment on the action, not mimic it.

accomplished work. Almost everything he does big and bold in 2001 he achieves quietly and more deftly in that later film. 2001 is the product of an artist so giddy he can’t help but show off; The Shining is the work of a master so confident in his abilities that he can just quietly drop clues and then wait as the rest of us scurry to catch up.

 

But why even go into all this? Because both 2001 and The Shining hinge on the experience of pulling you deep inside the film—not in a superficial, escapist way but so you begin to have the sensation of actually occupying the same physical space as the characters.

 

That the 4K HDR presentations of both films are reference-quality seriously ups the “you are there” ante—but with a crucial difference. And there’s the rub. The Shining is almost one-to-one true to the movie Kubrick created. When you watch it at home on a high-quality system, you’re seeing what he wanted you to see. 2001 in 4K HDR is just as extraordinary—but as a title card in the closing credits reminds you, this was originally a Cinerama presentation. And, unlike most of the other filmmakers who dabbled in Cinerama, Kubrick didn’t deploy it as a gimmick (Grand Prix, anyone?) but made it absolutely central to creating that sensation of taking an epic voyage into space.

 

So, is 2001, viewed in 4K HDR, in any meaningful way inferior to The Shining? On the technical level of the transfer, no, they’re both excellent—almost flawless. But since you can’t do Cinerama at home (at least not without a hell of a jerry-rigged

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setup that would have to verge on absurd), The Shining is truer to the original film.

 

All of the above is really just an exercise in praise by faint damning. The Kaleidescape download of 2001 is one of a handful of films so well served by the 4K HDR treatment that it has to be part of the foundation of any serious film collection. If there’s a single significant hiccup in this presentation, I didn’t see it.

 

Cinerama quibbles aside, to get lost in 2001 today, you have to get beyond ticking off what has and hasn’t come to pass and look past all that Swinging ‘60s clothing and furniture and get on the wavelength of the film Kubrick actually created, which exists in an elaborate and self-consistent world that merely uses the trappings of reality to achieve escape velocity.

 

The 4K resolution can’t reveal every detail of the original 70mm print, but it shows so much more than any previous home video incarnation that it’s shocking to realize to what 

extent Kubrick created outside his era, how unencumbered he was by the stylistic ticks of that time (or even of the future). On the level of film technique and film grammar, 2001 still holds.

 

What really takes the experience to a new, truer level is the HDR. Yes, many of the special effects now even more obviously look like still photos traveling across painted backgrounds. But shots of actual physical objects in motion, like the space station, The Discovery, and most of the extravehicular footage of the pod, are stunning. The brightness of objects in space is one of the things 2001 got basically right and the HDR makes them look so crisp and cold they’re almost tactile.

 

Three scenes in particular will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, beginning with the shot of the scientists walking down the ramp into the lunar excavation, where Kubrick shoots directly into a large worklight, with the light so intense you almost have to look away. Next, the beginning of the final act, where the floating monolith guides Bowman into the Stargate, is especially compelling because of the convincing luminosity of Jupiter and its moons. And, finally, the virtual hotel room where Bowman goes through his transformation, which Kubrick created to mimic the look of early video, is more convincing with the white and other light tones pumped just enough to glow without becoming bloated or diffused.

 

As for the audio, talking about the soundtrack of 2001 has always been kind of a ticklish business because this is essentially a silent movie. Kubrick rediscovered and then reinvented the core grammar of silent film, much of which had been glossed over and obliterated by the tyranny of the microphone during the Studio Era, and used it to not just drive this film but all of his subsequent efforts. It’s not that the audio is superfluous; it’s just not redundant with the visuals, the way it had been since the introduction of sound—and continues to be.

(Curiously, another product of 1968—Blake Edwards’ The Party, which, like 2001, was much maligned at the time and is now revered—is also basically a silent film. Edwards, on a parallel track with Kubrick, dipped back into silent comedy to bring a sense of grace and redemption that had been missing from movie comedies since the Chaplin era.)

 

So, things like The Blue Danube, the heavy breathing, and the various warning sounds all sound perfectly fine. But this is a film of stripped-down and barren environments, without warfare or roaring engines, so there’s, thankfully, little audio-demo fodder to be found.

 

As for the extras—all I can say is “beware.” I’ve already sufficiently dumped on the team that created (although that seems far too kind a word) the promotional videos disguised as mini-docs included with Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Their efforts here are equally awful. Unfortunately, the other videos are just as irritating and, for the most part, pointless. 

 

The trailer included here isn’t the one from the film’s initial release or even its 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

legendary initial re-release but a decidedly contemporary stab that feels like a cliché film-school exercise (people are going to look back 20 years from now at our addiction to dips to black and laugh their asses off) and indulges in exactly the kind of manipulative melodrama Kubrick despised.

 

The only extra worth going out of your way for is a 76-minute audio-only interview Jeremy Bernstein did with Kubrick in 1966. You get to hear the director walk through his whole career to that point, beginning as a failed high school student who became the youngest photographer ever at Look magazine and then went on to learn filmmaking, in a world without film schools, by making his own features. Not only is it better than anything any writer has ever done on Kubrick, it confirms, beyond a doubt, that Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Lolita is basically an extended Kubrick impression—which puts that deeply flawed film in a whole new light.

Michael Gaughn

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