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The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

If the recent movie version of Cats proved one thing, it’s that it’s very difficult to create a musical for the screen that audiences can take seriously. The media of film is essentially at its best when it is realistic. Even a science-fiction or fantasy film is most successful when it helps us suspend disbelief and convinces its viewers that it’s all really happening before their eyes.

 

A movie musical has a doubly difficult problem because characters must sing and dance. How do you tell the story effectively and seriously and yet watch actors burst into song? When this works, through the artistry of the creative team, it can be amazingly uplifting and even masterfully dramatic. In the case of master musical film directors such as Vincente Minelli or

Robert Wise it can even be seamless. But if it’s even slightly off, the result will be ridiculous and insufferable. For this reason, the film of the long-running show Cats became a world-famous joke.

 

If you look at the best and most successful film musicals, technology has more than quite a bit to do with the success of the musicalization. For example, do you ever think for one second that Julie Andrews isn’t singing on location in The Sound of Music? The skill of the sound and editing department make it look and sound like it’s really happening then and there in Salzburg. Of course, The Sound of Music was all pre-recorded and looped in, as was most every other film musical ever made. (A famous exception is Rex Harrison’s songs in My Fair Lady, which were all filmed live—even that is a technologically fantastic feat.)

 

Many contemporary musicals are not as artfully sound-mixed as the film classics of the 1950s and 60s. Often too much reverb is added, and intercutting destroys the believability. This is probably a sloppy leftover from the MTV music video generation. The best musical films from the MGM musical era have actually only three editorial cuts per song. Yet films like Singin’ In the Rain never feel static in any way. Careful pre-production planning and smooth camera work serve the movement of the performing actor, and if the actor and the song are superb (as they always were at MGM), we are swept away with movement and momentum.

 

The technical fine art of the musical movie reached its zenith in the 1960s. Because many of these films were shot in 70mm, the screens were bigger and the pictures clearer and the sound more stereophonic than ever.

 

With all the money film musicals cost in the 1960s, all 

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
It’s a fine line from the ridiculous . . . 
The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
. . . to the sublime 

technicians had to do their job to perfection. The 1961 film version of West Side Story set the bar. Interestingly enough, it was co-directed by Robert Wise who was, at one point, Hollywood’s best film editor (Citizen Kane). He was determined and skilled enough to make sure it was all in the realm of dramatic realism (or one might say heightened realism) and exciting to watch.

 

Marni Nixon, the great singer and voice-double expert, told me that the most difficult work she ever did in film was the post-dubbing of Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story. Huge and ultra-clear closeups of Natalie made it nearly impossible to match her lips to the semi-classical Leonard Bernstein music. Of course, the precise technological aspects of West Side Story paid off handsomely at the box office and at the Academy Awards.

 

Other film musicals from the 1960s like Camelot and Oliver! got it precisely and beautifully right, too. The industry men at the time knew the value of precision, and those films were sprinkled with multiple Oscars as well. Of course, the financial demise of the movie musical in the second half of the 20th century also meant a loss of technological skill. There have been only a handful of successful movie musicals since 1968. The few that have done it right, like Chicago and La La Land, are well-loved for pulling it off.

 

Editing, pre-recording, and sound mixing are so important to musicals that there are many film musicals that might have been included among the very best, had they been assembled with more care. When I was researching a book I recently wrote on the making of one of Hollywood’s finest original film musicals, Gigi, it became clear to me that a film’s excellence was all about the final cut.

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

Gigi is a musical expressly written for the screen and therefore without a pre-assembled Broadway musical structure to guide the creators. Early previews showed that the movie wasn’t hitting the bullseye in terms of the audience’s response. MGM, 

Arthur Freed (producer), Vincente Minnelli (director), Fredrick Loewe (composer), and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) had a lot at stake financially and artistically. After all, Gigi was Lerner and Loewe’s followup to their enormous stage hit My Fair Lady. They all desperately wanted to get it exactly right. They fine-tuned the editing and sound, trimming over 20 minutes, and shot retakes with better camera angles and more closeups. They even re-filmed a whole song, simply to adjust the tempo. The result was technological perfection for 1958.

 

Comparing Gigi to other film musicals, I began to realize that movies like Kismet, Carousel, Gypsy, Dr. Dolittle, and Star! suffer from poor or troublesome assemblage. Each of them had an excellent cast and thrilling musical moments, but in-between there is dead weight, poor editing choices, or poor soundstage sets. And, as in the case of South Pacific, misguided color cinematography.

 

The best film musicals, no matter what style or which decade, have state-of-the-art technology of the time. It’s their technologically superior aspects that make them work as live-action film musicals. Of course that cost extra money from the movie studios, and for many of these special properties, the studios were willing to put up the cash.

 

It’s difficult to come up with a list of “Best Movie Musicals” since the genre subdivides into “Original Musicals Created for the Screen,” “Broadway Stage Hits Adapted for the 

Screen,” and “Fantasy Film Musicals for Family Audiences.” I didn’t include animated film musicals because of the number of beloved ones that exist. And how do you compare Coco to Cabaret? You don’t, so I won’t.

 

In Part 2 and Part 3, I’ll go decade by decade to show the progress and decline of the live-action movie musical, and present you with my picks for the very best.

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.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Charlie's Angels (2019)

I was born in 1970, so that made me just a bit too young to be the target demographic for Aaron Spelling’s original Charlie’s Angels TV series, which ran from 1976-1981. (As a young boy, I was far more interested in the exploits of Lee Majors as USAF Colonel Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.) So, I didn’t come into this latest Angels movie with any real baggage of the original TV show, or any real expectations short of hoping it would be an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours in my home theater.

 

And I think that is the right level of expectation to set going into the film.

 

Unlike the 2000 and 2003 Angels films directed by McG, which relied heavily on star power in the form of Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz as the titular Angels, this movie tapped two far less known actresses to make up two-thirds of the Angel trio, with Elena Houghlin (Jasmine from Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake) as Elena Houghlin and TV actress Ella Balinska as Jane Kano. To bring some name recognition to the cast, we have Kristen Stewart as third Angel, Sabina Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film, as Rebekah Bosley.

 

The film also managed to grab Sir Patrick Stewart as John Bosley and Djimon Hounsou as Edgar Bosley. (The movie explains that “Bosley” is more akin to a rank in the Townsend Agency akin to Lieutenant, rather than an actual name. So, I learned that.)

 

Almost from the first frame, this movie establishes its agenda and might as well throw up on the screen in huge neon pink letters, “WOMEN GOOD! MEN BAD!” When in doubt, assume that any male character is going to be bad, and that any female character will be a martial arts and weapon-master badass.

 

The film opens with Sabina on a penthouse date in Rio De Janeiro, with the very first lines of dialogue being her telling her date, “I think women can do anything,” with the man condescendingly replying, “Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.”

 

Imagine the writers room erupting with an indignant, “Oh, no! He didn’t just say that!” and you’ve got a sense of this film’s message.

 

We learn scarcely little enough about Sabina (her name is Italian, but she’s not; she grew up rich and troubled, or did she?), Jane (former MI6 operative), or Rebekah (first Angel promoted to Bosley) to really know anything or care about them. All we really need to know is that they know how to fight, shoot, infiltrate, and get the upper-hand on any man they run across, all while looking beautiful, with perfect hair and clothing.

 

Originally this was intended as a reboot of the franchise, but instead it was decided it would be a continuation of the original TV series and McG-directed films. There is a brief scene near the beginning when John is retiring that we get a walk-down-memory-lane montage that briefly shows us the original Angels cast as well as Liu, Barrymore, and Diaz in an attempt to tie everything together. This is also where we learn that the Townsend Agency is worldwide, with branches—and Angels and Bosleys—arrayed around the globe to protect us from the shadows. Or something.

 

The film’s plot revolves around Calisto, the latest development of tech entrepreneur Alexander Brock’s (Sam Claflin) company that can bring cheap, limitless power to the planet. However, Calisto engineer and programmer Elena has discovered an exploit that can weaponize Calisto, turning it into an untraceable localized human-killing EMP device. After she brings this to the attention of her boss, Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon) and is rebuffed, she decides to tell an outsider, bringing in the Angels. The rest of the film is a global chase trying to recover all of the Calisto devices and keep them from being sold to a mysterious buyer.

 

The film’s soundtrack is driven by some major pop stars, including Ariana Grande (who co-produced the film’s soundtrack), Normani, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey and the movie doesn’t miss any opportunities to cue up these tracks. In fact, sometimes the film seems like it’s just looking for the opportunity to jump to the next scene where it can set up another room-filling bass-driven pop song in some new exotic location such as Rio, London, LA, Berlin, Hamburg, Istanbul, or Chamonix. 

 

As I said at the outset, going in with expectations low, and knowing this isn’t a movie you should over-analyze (like they just bring in Elena, this totally untrained civilian scientist, giving her access to an armory and top-secret gear, and effectively adopt her as a full-fledged member of their secret and highly trained team, immediately throwing her into harm’s way? But, she’s a woman, and—surprise!—also a master hacker, so of course she comes equipped with all these skills, so that makes total sense.)

 

Definitely watch through the first part of the end credits, which have some of the film’s most fun moments. Here we see Angels in a variety of training situations getting instruction from some cool cameos. We also get a reveal of who Charlie is.

 

While shot in a combination of 3.4 and 8K resolutions, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, however don’t let that deter you. Sony definitely knows how to make an excellent-looking home video transfer, and this doesn’t disappoint. 

Closeups reveal incredible levels of detail, showing the heavy application of makeup on some actress’ faces. We also get lots of textural detail in clothing and buildings, with images looking tack-sharp.

 

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, regardless the lighting condition. There is one underwater scene with shades of blue that would give bandwidth-limited streaming services a fit, but here there is no hint of banding or anything else untoward. Blacks are also deep and noise-free.

 

HDR is used effectively throughout, giving images plenty of depth and punch. There are several dark interior scenes where stray lights deliver lots of pop, to nighttime exteriors like the opening nighttime scenes showing streetlights right off the ocean in Rio. Explosions also have a lot of punch and glowing reds and oranges that benefit from the wider color gamut. The scenes in the Chamonix castle look especially good, with bright glowing tube lights and the Angels’ sequin dresses shimmering iridescently.

 

Sonically, the film is a bit reserved for a big action movie. Explosions and gunshots have the appropriate weight and impact, but most of the audio seems to be spread across the front channels. The surrounds are called into play during the big action and chase scenes, with things being thrown around the room and 

Charlie's Angels (2019)

debris flying overhead, and music is mixed dynamically up into the front height channels to expand the soundstage. But I didn’t notice the usual sorts of ambient room and city sounds that normally breathe life into more developed soundtracks.

 

If you’ve read my review up to this point, you’re probably sensing a lot of negativity, and might assume that I hated Charlie’s Angels, but that isn’t the case. While I didn’t think Angels was necessarily a good movie—Ocean’s Eight was a far better and smarter female-buddy caper film—it isn’t a total stinker either.

 

And while I’m not generally a fan of Kristin Stewart and her typically one-note emotional range, she is actually quirky and funny here, and the most interesting Angel in my opinion. Plus, at 52% on the Rotten Tomatoes meter and with a 78% audience score it definitely won’t be the worst thing you’ll see this year, and it has its big action and chase moments that certainly play well in a home theater.

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.

A Guide to Luxury Control Systems

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

In our ongoing series on the basic components of a luxury home media system, we’ve covered most of the big questions you need to ask and things you need to keep in mind when selecting your video display (TV or projector), sound system (both electronics and speakers), and the source components by which you access your entertainment. There’s one big category we haven’t covered yet, though. How do you plan on actually interacting with all of this gear? 

 

There are, of course, a number of DIY universal remote control solutions on the market, as well as basic smart-home systems you can pick up at your local Home Depot or Best Buy. And while some combination of those devices will give you control of

most of your home’s electronics, they’re not exactly the stuff of luxury (nor reliability).

 

That’s why you’ll want to invest in a professionally installed and programmed control and automation system, not only to provide you with a more reliable and elegant control experience, but also to integrate all of your home’s electronics, lighting, and comfort control into one unified system that works together.

 

What does this mean, exactly? Say, for example, you have a Kaleidescape movie server and you sit down to watch a film. With a good professional control system in place, you won’t have to worry about dimming the lights yourself or adjusting the thermostat to your preferred movie-watching temperature. A single press of a button can start the film, dim the lights, dial your Ecobee or Nest thermostat to 72 degrees, close the shades, and lock the front gate.

 

You’ll see that phrase a lot in any discussion of luxury home control, by the way: “A single press of a button.” The reality is, though, home control these days involves a lot less button-pressing than it used to. Sure, you may have a traditional wand-style hard-button remote on the end table in your home cinema or media room, as well as others of its sort near other TVs throughout the home. For channel-surfing, streaming video, or even pausing your Kaleidescape mid-movie, nothing beats a good hard-button clicker. But they’re not so great when it comes to operating lights, shades, climate control, or any number of other smart systems within the home.

 

For those, you’ll likely want to use a combination of dedicated touchscreens, mobile apps, and even voice control. Each approach—touchscreen, voice, hard-button control via remotes and keypads, and even motion-sensing—has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to fire up your AV system or initiate a lighting scene with a simple verbal command, but you wouldn’t want to use it to adjust volume in the home theater or turn on the hallway light on your trip to the fridge for a midnight snack when everyone else is asleep. The best control system is one that blends all of these methods of control to conform to your lifestyle and the way you use your home.

 

The good news is, all of today’s advanced control systems support all of these methods of control and more. Control4

Savant, and Crestron—the three biggest trendsetters in the home control and automation space—all support Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to one degree or another. All also support a more upscale digital voice assistant called Josh.ai, which was designed from the ground up to provide more intuitive voice control for luxury systems. All also offer compatibility with other, more specialized manufacturers in the luxury home control space, such as Lutron for lighting and shade control.

 

As for which of the three main control systems you should opt for, that’s really a discussion for you and your installer/dealer to have, based on your unique needs and preferences. Control4, the most economical of the three, is an easier-to-program, 

one-size-fits-all control solution that supports more third-party devices (especially off-the-shelf smart home devices) than the rest, but also has a lot of Amazon first-party control solutions, including my pick for best intercom/doorbell system on the market.

 

Control4 also offers a nice level of user personalization and customization. But for the most part, any Control4 system is going to look like any other from the standpoint of their user interfaces. In other words, the system uses a pre-made template that automatically adjusts itself depending on what other components it’s programed to control. So if you have your heart set on making your home control touchscreens 

look like exact recreations of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Control4 might not be the right solution for you.

 

Next up the ladder in terms of price and customization is Savant. While it still very much relies on a template-based interface, Savant offers a little more in terms of personalization, and it’s probably the safest bet if you want to know for certain that your touchscreens will be as pretty as possible. I also think Savant has the best hard-button remote control of any control system, which may be enticing if you do a lot of TV watching. It even has Siri built in, which is a big plus for Apple fans. Savant isn’t quite as easy to retrofit as is Control4, though, making it better suited to new construction.

 

At the top of the home control food chain is Crestron—by far the most expensive home-automation solution, but also the most customizable. Honestly, you’re only limited by the imagination and programming skills of your installer. You want that bridge of the Enterprise aesthetic? Totally doable, as long as you don’t mind paying for the custom programming. Have a palatial estate with 100 rooms or more? Crestron will thrive there, where Control4 and Savant might start to choke. 

 

Ultimately, though, no matter which control and automation solution you gravitate toward, the skill of your installer will make all the difference in terms of functionality, personalization, and reliability. So, it may be wise to ask if they have a show home or other demo space where you can see their work in action.

Dennis Burger

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

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

I’ll be honest with you: This was not an easy review to write. As a devotee of all things Terry Gilliam, I burned through multiple drafts that had me sounding like a drooling fanboy rather than a calm, introspective observer and commentator presenting a review of one of the most anticipated films of this or any century.

 

See? That’s what I’m talking about. I went into my initial screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with way too many expectations and background baggage to simply sit back and enjoy the film. Instead, it took no fewer than three viewings—and four drafts of this review—for me to appreciate and process Gilliam’s latest film without adding footnotes based on the long and harrowing story of a movie that materialized nearly 30 years after the director first went to work on a project that would become a textbook example of industry limbo.

 

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gilliam’s vision of the classic story is updated and twisted around without losing the plot . . . most of the time. In 1998, Gilliam secured the funding to make the film as he saw fit, with Johnny Depp starring as marketing executive (later film director) Toby Grummett and Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Though production commenced full swing in 2000, the series of early challenges that are laid bare in the documentary Lost in La Mancha were matched only by an equally disastrous series of setbacks that continued through early 2017, when production on the final version was announced.

 

Along the way, Gilliam directed no fewer than four full-length features (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Zero Theorem) and two shorts (The Legend of Hallowdega and The Wholly Family). Not too shabby for an artist who still had his sights and heart set on bringing Quixote to completion.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that he begins the film with a title card that proudly states: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making . . . and unmaking . . . a Terry Gilliam film.”

 

And it is indeed a Terry Gilliam film, with all the spectacle that comes with such a description, not to mention the darkness, humor, and general sense of foreboding that are his trademarks, ever since he showed in Time Bandits how easily fairly tales

can take unexpected and troubling turns without the promise of a happy ending.

 

Featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce taking over for Depp and Rochefort— let alone assorted other come-and-goers including Robert Duvall and Michael Palin—the film was ultimately, sort of let loose in May 2018 despite financier-producer Paulo Branco’s best efforts to

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

prevent its release. That was also the month Amazon Studios backed out of a deal to distribute Quixote in the U.S.

 

Jumping to the present, Quixote made few appearances in U.S. theaters but is now resting comfortably on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video. Not exactly the big-screen experience the typical Gilliam film deserves, but unlike his earliest solo efforts, especially Brazil, Quixote translates well to smaller screens. There is visual payback when viewing it on a big screen, yet the story and images are compelling on any reasonably-sized display.

 

Despite the well-publicized departures of the film’s former stars, Driver and Pryce are custom-tailored to their respective roles. Pryce’s depiction of Javier, a Spanish cobbler enlisted to appear in Grummett’s student production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is nothing short of sublime. We watch Javier move from being a shy hermit to a hero, at least in his own mind, as he gets to portray Quixote.

 

While in Spain years later to direct a TV commercial, Grummett discovers a copy of his old student flick, and sets out to the village where it was filmed. And, surprise, that’s where he encounters Javier, who not only still believes he is the real Quixote but that Grummett is Sancho Panza. Out of a sense of guilt for the man’s current state of mind combined with equal parts boredom with his current project and a sense of adventure, Grummett joins Javier on a journey that takes the two of them through encounters with the authorities, and a confrontation with a local who believes Grummett is responsible for his daughter leaving home to become an actress, only to find herself years later working as an escort.

 

As in many of Gilliam’s signature films, fantastical plot lines and troubling twists are held together with a sense of empathy for lead characters who are at once imperfect and wholly agreeable, in that order. Driver appears to revel in playing an over-the-top narcissist whose conscience drives him along on an adventure that is antithetical to anything Grummett, now a successful, lascivious director, ever had on his bucket list. He yells, he laughs, he even belts out the Eddie Cantor classic, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie),” complete with a dance routine.

 

Similar to some of Gilliam’s other 21st-century productions, especially The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Quixote revels in engrossing characters as the plot occasionally derails and characters lose some of their charm over the course of the film. Yet the life-or-death battles in the third act will reward viewers who stick with the flick until the end.

 

Gilliam is known for creating large, lavish sets with extensive use of otherworldly special effects to build upon otherwise familiar settings. (Think of his Vegas-on-LSD sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Though set in the modern era, many of Quixote’s more harrowing scenes convey a sense of imminent danger, even though there are no outward signs of its arrival until well into the denouement.

 

Considering the director’s talents as a visual storyteller who first gained worldwide fame as Monty Python’s resident animator, the settings are presented as boldly and as colorfully as the terrain allows, with imagery that pops off the screen. The soundtrack is more subdued, with a subtle mix that serves the purpose without calling attention to itself. 

 

In retrospect, it makes sense that Quixote received high praise at the Cannes Film Festival only to drizzle into limited availability in the streaming world, with barely a beep’s worth of promotion by Amazon. However, I disagree with Gilliam’s reference to “unmaking” in the title card. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph by any standard, and a worthwhile investment of two hours for fans of adventure and comedy that will leave the viewer on edge. It’s what Terry Gilliam does best.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Why Movie Sound Matters

Why Movie Sound Matters

Oscar season is a strange time for me. I love seeing films recognized and celebrated (especially those that might have been looked over in the past, like Parasite), but I get frustrated that awards viewers see categories like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing as opportune times to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

 

It’s great that both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have separate categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing because they are significantly different disciplines. Quantifying the quality of mixing and editing can be difficult, if not downright stupefying, for someone unfamiliar with the process.

 

It’s first important to understand that, in most cases, most of what you hear when watching a movie was added or modified by a team of sound professionals after the film was shot. And the sounds that are edited into a film need to appear to be coming from the source on screen. The production sound (what was recorded on set by the production sound mixer) is sometimes

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Ford v Ferrari

used in the film, but there are times a scene or entire film is recorded MOS—meaning without sound. In those cases, everything needs to be constructed after the film has been put together by the picture editor.

 

Ford v Ferrari wouldn’t have nearly the impact, especially for car aficionados, if the Ford GT40 Mark II or Ferrari 330 P3 didn’t sound right. But there’s no way the film crew would be able to use the original cars for filming the race sequences. “Those are all kits,” said Donald Sylvester, Oscar-winning sound editor for Ford v Ferrari, during a panel before the Academy Awards. “They probably have Mazda engines or something reliable.”

With only 105 GT40s ever made, the sound team needed to track down one of the remaining ones to record, which turned out to be a difficult, and likely expensive, project. Many owners didn’t want to let anyone anywhere near a car valued at millions of dollars, let alone close enough to record—and possibly damage—it. In the end, the sound crew ended up using a car in Ohio that had been built out of original GT40 parts, but wasn’t one of the original 105. Without that sonic authenticity, the storytelling of the movie would have suffered.

 

But just using the recording of a car engine isn’t enough. On a film I recently worked on, I built layers of sound to create a believable environment inside a car. Door locks and windows, the sound of an accelerator pedal being depressed, gear changes, the clunks from the suspension, turn signals, the noise of tires moving over pavement, and squeaks from the seat leather as the driver shifts position all add realism to the scene that would be missing with the engine sound alone. And those are just the sounds from the car itself and don’t include the other layers of what’s happening outside the car (such as individual cars driving by, birds chirping, the lawnmower of someone cutting the grass at a house being passed, or a distant police siren).

While those car sounds were collected out in the field and then edited together in a Pro Tools edit suite, sometimes sound for a film is created in a studio by foley artists. And very often the materials used to create the sound in the studio have no relation to what is supposedly producing the sound on screen. Classic examples 

of this include squeezing cornstarch in a leather pouch for footsteps in the snow, snapping apart celery for bone breaks, and a watermelon being stabbed or smashed for some gruesome horror-movie injuries. Great foley artists are exceptionally talented individuals, and if you have 14 minutes to spare, I highly recommend the award-winning short film The Secret World of Foley that came out a few years ago and documents the work of some of these artists (one of whom, Sue Harding, worked on 1917).

 

Many times when a sound editor does their best work, it’s imperceptible to the viewer. Take, for instance, difficulties that can crop up when editing dialogue. A set is very rarely a pristinely quiet environment. A production sound mixer can do their very best to record the dialogue as cleanly as possible, but the shuffling feet of crew members, humming of the on-set kitchen refrigerator, or an A/C unit that wasn’t turned off can all make their way on to the recorder. And even if a light gel was flapping throughout the scene, if it’s the take the director wants to use, the sound editor needs to make it sound like the extraneous 

flapping was never there. (That example is from my own work experience.) Even differences in room tone between takes that are put together for a smooth visual scene experience would easily take a viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. But if the dialogue editor does their job well, you’d never know there were any issues.

 

Then there’s the sound designer. Not every movie has a credited sound designer, unless it’s a film that 

includes things that don’t exist in our world and the sounds need to be created from scratch. This could be as low-key as what an iPhone app that exists only in the movie sounds like to the lightsaber sounds created by Ben Burtt or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which were given voice by Gary Rydstrom.

 

This is a more quantifiable aspect of sound editing. Obviously Rydstrom couldn’t go out into the field and capture the real sounds of dinosaurs, as Donald Sylvester did with the GT40, so it’s easier to recognize the work that went into creating the sound of a dinosaur and how it fits into our perception than it is which extraneous sounds were deftly removed from a noisy dialogue recording.

 

But everything described above only encompasses one of the two awards. Without sound mixing, all of that work wouldn’t matter. Now, this isn’t the production sound mixing I referred to earlier that’s done on set. (The nomenclature can be confusing, I know.) This is done by a re-recording mixer once all of the sound editing is done. In order for the editing to sound believable, all of the layers that have been painstakingly put together by the edit team need to be joined into one cohesive soundscape. Sound levels are adjusted and how the sound moves around in space to match the action on the screen is set.

This is an art in itself and requires a trained ear, creativity, and the use of plug-ins like reverb and compression. Subtle changes in dB levels can completely alter the audience experience. There’s a moment in Logan (shown above) where Charles Xavier has a seizure that causes him to practically paralyze those around him. The high-pitched sound that lasts throughout the seizure until Logan is able to administer Xavier’s medication slowly becomes more intense. It was a genius sound moment, and in the theater I could see audience members becoming more physically uncomfortable as the scene progressed, mirroring the emotions of the characters, until the massive relief once the seizure and high-pitched sound stopped.

 

Both sound editing and mixing complete the world on screen, draw audiences in, and create visceral reactions in those of us watching. At their best, all of this is done without distraction or without us realizing what’s causing it. To remain engrossed and invested in the film, the sound of the GT40 or the roar of the dinosaur must seem accurate enough that we believe it to our core. To feel incredible relief once that high-pitched squeal finally ends, it needs to sound absolutely right. The next time you finish a movie, think back to the moments that worked well and I guarantee you a major reason is because of excellent sound work, even if you didn’t perceive it at the time.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

 

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). 

The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles 

prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

 

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

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’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Train Your YouTube

How to Train Your YouTube

When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be 

covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.

 

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.

 

So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.

 

Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)

 

We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations, 

presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”

 

He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.

 

For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.

 

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.

 

But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.

 

My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of 

Baumgartner Restoration

What Makes This Song Great?

From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill

Biffa Plays Indie Games

channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.

 

It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.

 

My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.

 

In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.

Quantum OLED

So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.

 

Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.

 

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.

Midway (2019)

Midway (movie)

Maybe one of the most important things about a film concerning itself with historical events is that it do so truthfully and accurately. Sure, we’ll forgive some minor inconsistencies at the expense of storytelling, dramatic license, and time constriction, but you need to get the majority of things right. And in this respect director Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow, White House Down) retelling of Midway gets them right. (You can see a factcheck here at History vs Hollywood.)

 

Of course, the next thing a film needs to do to be successful is to be both engaging and entertaining, and I’d say Midway succeeds on these merits as well, an opinion echoed by its Rotten Tomatoes Audience score of 92%. This is not to say Midway isn’t without its flaws, attested by the critics’ less-than-enamored RT score of 42%.

 

The film opens four years before the events of Pearl Harbor with Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) ominously telling US intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) that Japan will attack if its oil supplies are threatened. Cut to December 7, 1941 and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which delivers the US Navy its biggest defeat in history.

 

Midway concerns itself with the events following that attack, and how the US regroups and looks to not only save itself but deliver a counterpunch to the Japanese navy, leading up to the attack known as the Battle of Midway.

 

With the modern-day might of the US Navy, we don’t often think about just how close to utter defeat the naval forces were following Pearl Harbor. On that day, more than 2,300 sailors were killed along and 1,000-plus wounded, 18 ships were damaged or sunk, and 180 planes were destroyed. To restore naval operations, Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, wearing a white wig nearly as distracting as his big white Joe Biden teeth from SNL sketches) is brought in to take control of the Pacific Fleet, described as “the most difficult job in the world.”

Midway (2019)

Following Pearl, the US had just three functional carriers, compared to Japan’s ten and zero functional battleships compared to Japan’s nine, with the Japanese also having more cruisers, bombers, and fighters; and much of their equipment was more modern. If the gamble at Midway didn’t pay off, the United States would have likely been sidelined for much of the war.

 

The movie does a good job of presenting these stakes, as well as compressing the timeline into an easy-to-follow narrative. If it is guilty of anything, it’s of trying to cram so many stars into so many roles that none of the characters are really fleshed out. It’s hard for viewers to really care for anyone when they have just a bit of screen time before another new and famous face is trotted out in the next scene.

 

And, honestly, there is more than enough drama in the true events of the war that we don’t need to be distracted by cutaway stories about USO parties or brief shots of homelife.

 

A perfect example is Mandy Moore cast as Ann Best, wife of hotshot pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who seems to be there just so they could have her name in the credits, and serves no real role in the film. Dennis Quaid is also underused as Admiral Halsey. Aaron Eckhart is given a small role as Jimmy Doolittle, a pilot awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a near-suicidal bombing mission on Tokyo who must bail out in China and evade capture from the Japanese army, which killed 250,000 Chinese civilians for aiding in the escape of Doolittle and the other American pilots who survived the raid (events covered in the 2017 film In Harm’s Way). Musician Nick Jonas is brought on to portray real-life hero Aviation Machinist Bruno Gaido, receiving enough dialogue and backstory to give his character a bit of depth.

 

It’s tough to build much suspense when retelling a story where most viewers already know the outcome, but Midway manages to give the action scenes enough tension that you can’t help but groan as bombs and torpedoes slide just past their targets, missing by scant feet. The film also blatantly telegraphs its heroes. We know early on that cocky pilot Dick Best is going to be playing a big role in the air campaign, and when we see him perform a ridiculous landing maneuver onto an aircraft carrier very early on, we know we are going to see this move again later in the film. When Nimitz instructs Layton to make sure the 

Midway (2019)

intelligence mistakes of Pearl aren’t repeated, you know the time will come when Layton will have to convince Nimitz to trust him. Or that the friction between Dick Best and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) will turn into a grudging respect.

 

Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, Midway is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not unusual for a film so heavily laden with CGI effects. Closeups feature 

lots of detail, but don’t seem to have that Nth degree of resolution of films with a true 4K DI. There is still plenty of detail to appreciate n clothing, from a crocheted top worn by Moore in one scene, to the wooly texture of Japanese officers’ uniforms, to the collar stitching on Americans’ shirts, to the leathery texture of the pilots’ seats.

 

Since none of the ships portrayed in the film still exist (at least not in their WWII-era state), they all had to be created, and the resolution does lay bare several instances of pretty blatant CGI, where things just look a bit video-gamey. The opening shot of an aircraft carrier with sailors doing PT on the deck just doesn’t ring true, especially if you focus on individual characters long enough. Nor does a scene at a graveyard in Pearl, which just looks . . .off. Any time there are so many computer-generated ships and planes on screen—which is often—there are bound to be a few instances where some shots aren’t perfect, but it is often the long shots that seem to suffer most.

 

HDR is used to good effect throughout, not just to enhance the brilliant red-orange fireballs that erupt from exploding ships and planes, burning with a vibrant fury and intensity, but also to bring an extra layer of depth and punch to interior shots aboard ships where sunlight in pouring in through port holes or walkways. The ocean gleams in shades of blue, with bright highlights as the sun glints off its surface, and exterior scenes are bright enough to make you squint into the sunny skies. Blacks remain deep and dark, and I didn’t notice any banding, which is a challenge with the varying shades of blue and grey

in the skies as planes fly in and out of different lighting and cloud cover.

 

Beyond the visuals, Midway offers a fun ride that sounds fantastic in a home theater. In fact, you might call it a 2-hour 18-minute Dolby Atmos spectacle masquerading as a war movie. The sound mix plays a dynamic role in nearly every scene, and if anyone has every wondered if their height speakers are working or if Atmos can add to the immersion of a movie, just show them any of the aerial attack scenes where the audio lends a wonderful third dimension to plane flyovers.

 

Planes rip along the side walls and into the back of the room, or roar past overhead, diving down on unsuspecting pilots, bullets shredding things around you. Flak shells explode left, right, above, and behind you, with bullets ricocheting all around the room.

 

Midway will also test your subwoofer’s mettle, with deep bass present throughout. Beyond the bombs and explosions, ships crash through waves with appropriate weight, and AAA guns thump you in your seat with repeated blasts. There is also the constant low, steady, bassy rumble as a background reminder that you’re aboard a warship, along with other ambient mechanical sounds to place you on

Midway (movie)

board, or the deep, throaty roar of the planes’ engines. There is also the carnage of the USS Arizona breaking up after explosions and then ripping itself apart with groans, creaks, and the rumble of crumpling steel.

 

Available for download now at the Kaleidescape Store ahead of its 4K disc release on February 18, Midway hits enough high points to overlook its flaws, and makes for a rollicking night in your home theater, with one of the most dynamic and immersive Dolby Atmos audio tracks I’ve heard in a while.

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.