Entertainment

The Last Blu-ray Disc

The Last Blu-ray Disc

I had a bit of an epiphany this week. In case you haven’t heard, the long-awaited 4K HDR home video release of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is upon us. It’s available now on Kaleidescape and iTunes. It hits UHD Blu-ray and Vudu on July 6. 

 

The choice of where and how to purchase this one weighed way more heavily on me than any movie-buying decision should, if I’m being honest about it. Ultimately, I decided on the UHD disc for a handful of reasons. For one thing, the disc comes with a MoviesAnywhere code, so I’ll have access to a high-quality digital stream no matter where I am. 

 

But perhaps more importantly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of those movies I occasionally need access to no matter the circumstances. I’m not saying it’s my favorite film or anything. I’m not saying I think it’s even the best of its decade. I’m merely saying that there is a handful of movies—this being one of them—I turn to for a pick-me-up when nothing else is doing the

trick. The unique, quirky jubilance of this ironically ironic comic-book adaptation just makes me happy in a way few other movies do.

 

And sometimes I need that fix even when the internet is down (especially when the internet is down!). Or when I’m sick in bed, three rooms removed from my Kaleidescape system. And the only way to fill that specific need is with a good old disc-shaped polycarbonate sandwich.

 

But something occurred to me as I was adding Scott Pilgrim to my Amazon shopping cart: I think this may be the last of that sort of movie ] I don’t already own in physical form. I 

bought the big 27-disc Star Wars UHD Blu-ray collection when it came out, and I swore that would be my last movie disc purchase. Then The Lord of the Rings came along and proved me wrong. I have The Wizard of Oz on 4K disc. The Big Lebowski too.

 

If I bothered to sit down and make a list of all the movies I could potentially find myself needing to watch even in the throes of an internet outage or a period of convalescence, I’m starting to think Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the only bullet-point on the list that doesn’t already exist in disc form on the shelves of my media room.

 

And, hey, I reserve the right to change my mind. It’s entirely possible some filmmaker will come along in the next few years and make a movie that scratches a similar itch, as unlikely as that seems given that I’m approaching the age where people stop liking new things. For now, though, I’m feeling pretty confident July 6, 2021 will mark the end of an era for me. That date will (probably) be the final time I purchase a movie on disc.

 

It’s weird. That’s realization feels simultaneously momentous and inconsequential.

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.

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The Cineluxe Hour

EPISODE 20 | THE STATE OF THE STREAMING ART

Demo Scenes: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Demo Scene: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
(Chapter 1, 0:00–14:12)

If you’re a fan of old movies, you’ve probably figured out by now that 4K HDR can be a hit-or-miss affair for films actually shot on, you know, film. Without access to the original camera negatives, HDR remasters of these old flicks can look dodgy and inconsistent—often worse than the old HD releases. Thankfully, though, the new Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, trilogy!—I said

what I said) is an example of older films being brought into the modern home video era with stunning success.

 

All of the films have been fully restored from the original negatives, with subtle applications of computer wizardry just to clean up things like bad compositing and wires and errant reflections. And each successive film looks better than the one before it.

 

Here’s the thing, though: If you’re looking to pop in some archeological action-adventure as a home cinema demo scene, finding a self-contained clip within the movies isn’t easy. Once the ball starts rolling (literally and figuratively), the action just keeps cranking along until the closing credits.

 

But one of the most spectacular demo scenes comes right at the beginning of the third movie, The Last Crusade. It’s basically a self-contained short film with an inviting beginning, rousing climax, and rip-roaring conclusion, all within a span of 14 minutes. It’s also some of the consistently best-looking and -sounding material in the entire franchise.

 

The scene opens in 1912, with a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) riding through the Utah desert with his Boy Scout troop, when he stumbles upon grave robbers and manages to abscond with the precious artifact they’ve stolen. There’s a thrilling chase on a circus train. There’s a pit of snakes. There’s a lion. Then there’s a flash-forward to 1938, where a grown Indiana (Harrison Ford) is yet again trying to get his paws on the same crucifix. 

You’ve seen the movie. You know how it goes. But here’s the thing: I don’t think you’ve ever seen it look (or sound) like this. Compared to the old Blu-ray release and digital HD version, this new 4K HDR remaster of The Last Crusade doesn’t look like an oversaturated cartoon. The color palette is more subdued, but also richer, more nuanced, more natural. Still, it’s punctuated by splashes of color far beyond the capabilities of Blu-ray. Indy’s scarf, the rich saturated colors of the illumination his father is studying—these hyper-color elements give the imagery the punctation it needs to look vibrant and dimensional without looking like a toddler got ahold of the Hue and Saturation knobs of your projector.

Demo Scene: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The new Atmos mix is also simply fantastic, especially in the 1938 sequences, where Indy has been captured on a vessel at sea in the midst of a raging storm. The crashing waves, the whooshing wind—all of it is given extra dimension by the new mix. It feels like you’re in the movie. Hell, it kind of feels like you’re in a theme-park ride, but that works for this franchise. The fact that they managed to add a third dimension to this aging mix without adding new sound effects is astounding. It doesn’t sound like a modern film—that would be stupid. But it does kind of sound like Atmos would have sounded like if it had been around in the 1980s. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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.

Ep. 20: The State of the Streaming Art

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Mike, Dennis, and John look at how far the streaming world has come from the Game of Thrones disaster two years ago, with HBO Max now offering reference-quality video—a standard more and more services are now able to meet. They also consider whether the affordable day & date model the studios adopted during the pandemic is likely to last, the problem of subscription overload, and wonder why Hollywood even bothered with the Oscars this year.

 

Highlights

 

  1:39   a brief description of the progression from Game of Thrones‘ lousy video to the reference-quality images in              Those Who Wish Me Dead

  2:38   streaming codecs can now handle chaotic images, like of a forest fire, without distortion

  4:24   the paucity of 4K HDR titles on HBO Max

  5:14   the increasing number of streaming services capable of reference-quality playback

  5:53   how even HD now looks better on Netflix and Disney+

  7:16   Amazon and The Criterion Channel need to improve their HD playback

10:11   how streaming quality is determined by the quality of both the service and the hardware

10:30   Roku vs. Nvidia Shield vs. Apple TV vs. TV apps

11:20   John expresses concerns about streaming’s audio quality

13:04   Dennis discusses Dolby Labs’ tests that show streaming is capable of reference-quality audio

14:04   Apple TV+ vs. Disney+ vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Amazon vs. Hulu vs. The Criterion Channel

16:12   will streaming soon become the only home-video format?

19:12   the increasing problem of too many subscriptions

21:31   Sony distributing its films on Netflix and elsewhere instead of setting up its own channel

25:05   will streaming continue to do day & date or will big movies go back to debuting in theaters first?

29:21   will the strength of streaming coming out of the pandemic doom movie theaters?

33:20   was there any real value in doing the Oscars during the year of a pandemic?

34:33   the Oscars don’t adequately take streaming into account, especially streaming series

39:30   John talks about the promise of Sony’s new Bravia Core streaming service 

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Michael GaughnThe 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.

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.

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.

HBO Atones for Its Streaming Sins

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins

It may seem like eons ago (and hey, maybe we can blame the pandemic and its time-warping effect for that), but it’s only been a little over two years now since the entirety of the entertainment press was consumed with discussions about HBO’s inability to effectively stream its most popular show in anything approaching acceptable quality. Reliance on older, inefficient streaming codecs combined with insufficient server capacity made the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” an unwatchable nightmare of lackluster contrasts, blocky artifacts, and excessive banding for many viewers—especially those

tuning in on HBO Go or HBO Now, the company’s streaming apps du jour. And that’s all the ammunition the “Streaming sucks!” crowd needed to continue their crusade against the future of video content delivery.

 

Fast-forward to 2021, and both Go and Now have been shelved in favor of HBO Max, a newer platform that’s home to all manner of WarnerMedia content, not merely its premium-cable offerings. But perhaps the most significant side effect of all this app shuffling is that HBO seems to have finally gotten its act together in terms of streaming video quality.

 

This really hit home for me when I was watching the theater-at-home release of Those Who Wish Me Dead. Not to dig too deeply into the substance of the movie (what little there is), but the TL;DR version is that it involves a political hit-job and manhunt that’s all an overly elaborate setup for a heart-pounding chase sequence in the middle of an out-of-control wildfire in the Montana wilderness.

 

Right near the action-packed climax, a stray thought struck me and I couldn’t let it go: This movie must be absolute nightmare fuel for a video encoder. Even with the benefit of 4K Dolby Vision, there’s so much going on in the picture that maintaining the intense contrasts of a fire raging through a forest at night and rendering all of the detail from the soot and sparks blowing in the air couldn’t have been easy. What’s more, many scenes were shot with relatively shallow depth of field, which can be tricky for even the best video codecs to handle consistently. 

 

As soon as I glommed onto all that, the question for me wasn’t whether there were compression artifacts. It was how close I would have to get to the screen to see them. So I stood up and walked about half the distance from my seat to my screen. The image still looked incredible. So I took another step and halved the distance again. I still couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of video compression.

 

To make a long story short, in complete defiance of Zeno, I eventually ended up with my nose practically on the screen, and I still couldn’t see the glitches and misplaced pixels and posterization that result from HEVC (the video codec used for 4K HDR video material) reaching its breaking point.

 

Mind you, HBO Max still doesn’t have a lot in the way of Dolby Vision content to stream. Most of its offerings are in HD (despite the fact that 4K HDR masters exist, many of which have been released on UHD Blu-ray), and by and 

large the service still relies on the same AVC video codec that caused all the problems with Game of Thrones. True, it’s operating at around 2.5 to 3 times the bitrate of HBO Go and HBO Now, proving that WarnerMedia has decided to invest a bit more in server storage. The result, though, is that much of what you’ll find on HBO Max looks very good, but not quite reference quality.

 

But Those Who Wish Me Dead proves that HBO Max is at least capable of delivering a practically flawless home cinema experience. The company whose name was, just a few years ago, synonymous with the nadir of video quality has now proven it can deliver a level of visual excellence matched by perhaps 200 cinema screens worldwide, at last count.

 

That’s assuming, of course, you have an AV system capable of delivering on such quality. Most people don’t. It’s also assuming you’re doing your streaming via a high-quality source device. Most people don’t. 

 

But still, my recent experiences with HBO Max—for all my complaints about their abysmal user interface and lackluster search tools—proves the company that was once the laughingstock of the streaming world now at least has the potential to deliver video quality that’s a massive step up from the average screen at your local multiplex. And if nothing else, that shows just how far streaming has come, even in the past two years alone.

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 75-Inch Revolution

The 75-Inch Revolution

I’m going to mention some things here that are probably pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the past couple of years wandering the Himalayas with their sherpa. But beyond those more commonplace facts lies a larger truth—that in just the past couple of years home entertainment has changed in ways that go well beyond even the unbridled crowing of the most rah-rah marketing hype.

 

No matter where you live, it’s impossible to ignore that the new entry level for TVs is 75 inches. Even if that screen size is way too big for many people’s homes, it’s still the size they hunger for. And sets like that have become readily affordable, making 42-inch sets seem as quaint as 19-inch screens seemed at the dawn of the HDTV era.

 

Here’s the more important point: Many of those models can provide reference-quality image reproduction, even toward the lower end of the price spectrum. This has never happened before. We are rapidly reaching a point where a good chunk of the 

An unprecedented number
of people now have video
displays that can beat the
previous gold standard of
the movie theater

American populace has sets that can create a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. And with relative ease. And for a relatively small investment.

 

But . . .

 

Just because somebody’s set is capable of that kind of performance doesn’t mean they have it set up to take 

advantage of that, or they even know their set can do that. And it doesn’t mean they have it placed properly in the room or even have it in an appropriate room—chances are, they don’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of their system is up to snuff—again, it’s probably not.

 

But one thing that’s more than likely true is that many of them also have at least one signal source that’s capable of besting their local movie theater. That has also never happened before. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are reaching the point where only trained viewers can perceive differences from reference-quality playback. And even that gap is closing rapidly.

 

So, an unprecedented number of people now have displays that can beat the increasingly irrelevant gold standard of the movie theater. And an unprecedented number now have access to content delivery that also exceeds that standard.

Again, that doesn’t mean they have their systems set up to take advantage of that, but the potential is there nonetheless.

 

So what does this all mean, and what does it portend?

 

First off, to take aim squarely at the gorilla in the room: Why the hell do we continue to think we need movie theaters? If 

Just because reference quality
has gone mass market
doesn’t mean there’s nothing
left for the luxury market
to call its own

your system can do it better, and you don’t have to drive there, and your investment in every evening of movie-watching doesn’t have to hover near $100 (at a minimum), and first-run content is showing up day & date on streaming, and you don’t have to watch ads if you don’t want to, and you can instantly switch to another film if your first choice sucks, and you’ve got the option of taking anybody who talks during the movie and locking them up in the basement, why would you think of theaters as anything other than the quaint, and mostly unpleasant, relics they are?

 

Second, things will inevitably get better from here. As more people become aware of what their systems can do, it can only lead to better viewing environments, better gear for those environments, and even better content being pumped into those environments. If there’s a downside to any of this, I’m not seeing it. (The whole “movies have to be a communal experience” argument is usually promulgated by Hollywood types who haven’t sullied themselves with The Great Unwashed in years, if ever.)

 

But just because reference quality has gone mass market doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the luxury market to call its own. The list is long, but just to tick off a few things: Video walls will remain hugely expensive for the foreseeable future, but represent all but unexplored territory in the home environment. It takes a custom-designed, -built, and -tuned room to consistently have a reference-quality experience. Nobody’s figured out how to commodify that, and chances are no one ever will. And good luck trying to integrate a full-blown Atmos system into a typical middle-American living room without having it look like a CIA black site.

 

You get the point. It’s great that better-than-movie-theater is becoming as common as Kleenex. But not all rooms or systems—or viewers—are created equal. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe 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.

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

I seem to have misplaced that well-worn piece of cardboard with the pinhole in it that I usually keep by my side. But from my very oblique vantage point, it looks like Joel Hodgson is once again suckering the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 addicts to pony up money to create another round of episodes nobody needs except those pathetic and ridiculous lost souls who are content to spend the rest of their lives hermetically sealed in an echo chamber. If Hodgson has proved nothing else, it’s that people will greedily lap up large, fetid piles of horse dung as long as they’ve got the MST3K logo stamped on them.

 

Of course, he’s far from alone. Sometimes the entire culture feels like an exercise in keeping franchises on life support that should have been left to die a quiet death a long, long time ago. 

 

For those of you who don’t know, a few years back, Hodgson & associates staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign until that time to get a season of new MST3K episodes made. The shows, which ultimately landed on Netflix, were awful—terribly cast, lazily made, fundamentally unappealing. But the greatest sin of all was that, for all the money thrown at them, they just weren’t funny. Netflix fulfilled its obligation but, even though they’ll apparently re-up for just about any series this side of video of my uncle taking a nap, they decided to take a pass on another season.

 

But that apparently wasn’t good enough for the MST3K cult, which is now throwing a few million dollars more at creating another set of episodes that only they’ll watch. Of course anybody should be free to put out whatever kind of stiflingly unfunny self-congratulatory twaddle they want as long as there’s an audience for it, no matter how wretched and small. But MST3K once had some worth, and it’s kind of sad to watch Hodgson and friends and hangers-on continue to beat this particular pantomime horse well past the point of death and into dust.

 

Stop. Now. Please.

 

For those of you who really don’t know, MST3K was one of the few truly innovative TV series, a kind of stealth operation originally broadcast out of a UHF station in far-flung Minnesota. At its best, it brought a self-awareness of the mechanics and culture of TV- and moviemaking that had been absent from TV until then. And in the Hodgson era, it had a kind of dopey warmth that made it endearing.

 

The show only became successful because its initial small group of fans started sending around VHS tapes of the episodes, building a kind of clandestine viewership that, as mainstream TV began to fracture, developed a clout that would have been unimaginable in the era of the big networks. Unfortunately, that nerdy zeal, which had been one of the show’s strengths, has since become its curse.

 

To be really blunt, and cut straight to the chase, American culture has become fundamentally bankrupt, and it’s not hard to put a name on the cause: Narcissism. The best way to keep people from coming together for the common good is to appeal to their most selfish instincts, to create the illusion they’re being catered to in ways that inflate their sense of self-importance. I would be hardpressed to name an aspect of the contemporary world that doesn’t in some way exploit that inherently repressive divide-and-conquer strategy. And we all fall victim to it because we’ve all been trained to endlessly love ourselves, and no one else.

 

But it’s all just a stultifying exercise in exploitation. We think we’re being entertained but we’re ultimately just being played—a catch that always comes with the territory whenever you’re talking about franchises, which exist primarily to perpetuate their own existence and will do whatever they have to to survive. Actually pleasing any viewers runs a distant second.

 

Nerd culture, which stands quivering on the foundation of franchises, has been the death knell of entertainment. The tail of stunted emotional development now wags the dog of the larger culture, which no longer displays any nuance, maturity, or meaningful creativity but goes out of its way to pander in an effort (largely successful) to foster blind addiction. The frightening cycle of dependency embodied in MST3K is just the larger culture writ very, very small.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been, and never will be, any better than it was in its earliest days when it was funny and new, and funny because it was new. It has since become another cornerstone of pop culture that exists solely to divert those terrified of the new, to be not funny but familiar. We need to begin breaking our addiction to the tried and true and deadening sometime. This would seem like the perfect place to start.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe 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.

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Throughout March and April, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier positively dominated the pop-culture conversation. You might have noticed that we at Cineluxe weren’t part of that conversation, but that doesn’t really have much to do with the series itself. It’s a fine show—far from Marvel’s best work, but also far from its worst. The series deals with a lot of big ideas, and although it doesn’t give them all the thorough examination they deserve, it’s still a pretty solid continuation of the Captain America films just without the benefit of Steve Rogers, who hung up the shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame. 

 

So, why the radio silence? Because a discussion of what did and didn’t work about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in and of itself would sort of miss the point. Anyone who tells you they could really wrap their heads around the show before it was available to view in its entirety is lying. The biggest thing holding the series back was that it simply doesn’t hold up as weekly 

appointment television.

 

I’ve riffed on this subject in the past, about how Disney+ represented something of a revival of “water cooler” TV—how its weekly release schedule gave new shows some breathing room, and gave audiences an opportunity to discuss new episodes one at a time in chat rooms, message boards, and around the dinner table. 

 

That really worked to the advantage of the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, and it was practically baked into the premise of WandaVision. Of course, it wasn’t merely a creative decision to release those shows one episode at a

time over the course of a couple of months; it was a necessity, given that neither’s season finale was finished cooking when the first episode hit the table.

 

Forget the reasons for this anti-binging release strategy, though. The fact is that it works—except when it doesn’t. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the perfect example of how a “this is the way we do things” mentality and a dogged adherence to tradition (no matter how new that tradition may be) can hurt a property.

 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, at the end of the day, a pretty good five-hour-plus movie. And given its length, it’s nice to have it broken up into six chapters so you can consume it at your own pace over the course of a night or two or an entire week—whichever fits your schedule. But given that it’s effectively one cinematic experience chopped into six roughly equal parts, doling it out over a month and a half of real-world time reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: It feels thin . . . sort of stretched . . . like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

 

When Disney+ launched, the weekly release schedules were part of its still-forming identity. At this point, though, its identity is pretty well established. It surpassed 100 million subscribers sometime last month. Soon enough, its subscriber base will eclipse that of Netflix (although I hesitate to predict when, since analysts keep moving the goalposts and Disney+ continues to defy their wildest expectations for growth). 

 

At this point, you have to acknowledge that Disney+ is, if not the leader in streaming, at least a leader. Good leaders adapt, though. They have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. And while the appointment-TV approach certainly works for most of the service’s properties so far, we now have at least one example of every-Friday releases negatively impacting a show’s effectiveness.

 

There was literally no good creative reason to tease out The Falcon and the Winter Soldier over the course of six weeks. Six days, maybe? That could have worked. And the entertainment-industry headlines would have written themselves: “Disney+ Brings Back the Mini-Series with Special Falcon & Winter Soldier Event.”  

 

Disney+ has broken nearly every rule of the streaming marketplace. Surely it can break this rule when it makes sense, even if the rule is its own.

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.

Comfort Viewing Revisited: “Adventure Time”

Comfort Viewing Revisited: "Adventure Time"

Things are starting to feel different, aren’t they? At least here in the U.S., there’s seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel—and while we’re all hoping that light isn’t a train, all evidence indicates that we’re moving from pandemic to endemic. It’s a weird feeling, this mix of hope and hesitancy, this overwhelming feeling that it’s time for things to return to normal, mixed with the realization that our old notion of “normal” is a mythical land to which we’ll never truly be able to return.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote at length about comfort viewing—about my and my wife’s desire, bordering on need, to dive into the consoling arms of Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, that trilogy of films speaks to a longing for the mundane, for a desire to return to the way things were. Back in April 2020, the world kinda felt like the geopolitical landscape of Middle-earth, on the brink of a conflict against a nebulous foe with the power to change the course of history forever. 

 

Fast-forward a year, and circumstances seem less dire, but that hardly negates the need for the occasional comfort viewing. And I wish I could tell you I knew ahead of time the perfect fable for our current reality, but the truth is that my wife and I

stumbled upon it almost by accident.

 

Sensing that the year-long lull in entertainment is waning—that production is ramping up on all manner of new movies and TV shows and that films that have been sitting in the vault for months and months are finally emerging—the missus and I decided that now would be the perfect time for one more massive binge-watch of a TV series we’ve been meaning to revisit. We settled, after some discussion, on Adventure Time, a show I positively obsessed over in its original run from 2010 to 2018 but one my wife struggled to get into because of the erratic airing schedule and what she perceived as random weirdness.

 

In her defense, the series does start off very randomly and very weirdly. For the first few seasons, every episode is like a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot set in the Land of Ooo, an island nation populated by adorable mutants made of candy and fire and ice and slime. Its heroes—Finn the Human (the last of his kind, as far as he knows) and his brother Jake the Dog (a shape-shifting bully breed whose non-shape-shifting parents adopted Finn as an infant)—explore the world slaying monsters, delving into dungeons, honing their skills, 

collecting loot, and just generally acting like the goobers they are. In short, it’s just a really good action-adventure-comedy cartoon with its own style and vocabulary.

 

When I originally watched Adventure Time, I couldn’t put my finger on when things changed and it started to develop a consistent mythology and take itself more seriously. But watching it straight through for the second time on HBO Max (where, by the way, it looks way better than it did on Cartoon Network), it’s pretty clear things take a turn sometime in the third season. Here the dots start to connect less ambiguously and it becomes undeniable that the Land of Ooo doesn’t merely resemble the remnants of our world in many ways, it literally is the remnants of our world, one thousand years in the future, after a global nuclear conflict laid waste to civilization sometime after Cheers went off the air but before high-definition displays rose to prominence. (Those may seem like the weirdest of touchstones, but such are the calculations one has to

make when attempting to piece together the 66-million-year timeline of Adventure Time.)

 

The show’s haphazard mythology and piecemeal philosophy are actually what make it such a wonderful parable for this moment we’re living through. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, which was the meticulous creation of one man—a sort of rejection of Nietzsche wrapped up in an attempt to construct the kind of English mythology Tolkien presumed would 

have existed had the Normans not come along and Frenched everything up—Adventure Time was never the work of a single mind. True, series creator Pendleton Ward heavily shaped the direction of the show until sometime during the fifth season, when he stepped down as showrunner. But neither he nor his successor, Adam Muto, held too tight a leash. Writers and storyboard artists were free to explore whatever territory they saw fit, and as the series went on, it became increasingly more philosophical and poignant. And weirder.

 

The philosophy that emerges from that assemblage of diverse thinkers is understandably a little hard to pin down. But in broad strokes, it could be summarized as follows: People change. The world changes. A lot—unavoidably. And that’s scary. But we can persevere by joining with one another to share our art, play, and laugh at silly things while also doing the hard work of keeping civilization working.

 

The first real coalescing of that philosophy comes in the seventh-season episode “Everything Stays,” in which Marceline the Vampire Queen, in coming to terms with her own mortality, reflects on her thousand-and-three years of life and remembers a song sung to her by her mother in the days just before the civilization-ending Mushroom War. The lyrics to that song really say it all:

 

Let’s go in the garden
You’ll find something waiting
right there where you left it
lying upside down.

When you finally find it
you’ll see how it’s faded
the underside is lighter
when you turn it around.

Everything stays
right where you left it
everything stays
but it still changes
Ever so slightly
daily and nightly
in little ways
when everything stays

 

True, there’s a lot of wiggle room for interpretation in those words, as there is for everything about Adventure Time, especially in the second half of its run. It helps to know that those lyrics were inspired by a formative event in the life of series storyboard artist and songwriter Rebecca Sugar, who lost her favorite stuffed bunny in a garden when she was a child, only to find it some months later, sun-bleached and damaged by the elements. It was still the bunny she loved, but it wasn’t. It was different, and yet she loved it no less.

 

Taken in the context of the series, those lyrics also tie into larger themes of ongoing transformation and upheaval. In the mythology of Adventure Time, the world is visited once every thousand years by a catalyst comet—an agent of change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but inevitable either way. 

 

As my wife and I started to get to the part of the story where the catalyst comets start to come into play, I couldn’t help but think how apt a metaphor all of this is for our current moment. We’re coming to the end of one pandemic. We don’t really know what waits for us on the other side, but we know it won’t be like things were before. And we know that global pandemics of this sort are destined to become the rule rather than the exception if we don’t stop packing our populations so tightly and encroaching on the natural world with seeming impunity. But we’ll make it through the next one just like we made it through this one—hopefully with a little more wisdom and a lot more planning, but probably not. 

 

All of the above is a bit of a reductive view of the series. It’s about so much more than that. It’s about growing up, getting old, dying; parenting; and self-identity and self-actualization (the latter a concept Tolkien apparently found repugnant). In many ways, the later seasons almost read like a thought experiment plucked straight from the pages of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. As many others have noted, Adventure Time is also in many ways a rumination on bad fathers and the damage they do. 

 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the show’s creators exploring a lot of the same territory as Sartre and Camus, toying with existentialist notions without ever fully embracing Existentialism, acknowledging the absurdity of life without truly committing to Absurdism. In many ways, Adventure Time lands in a place Camus would have eventually reached if that tragic car accident hadn’t cut short his fascinating metaphysical evolution. 

 

In the midst of all that, it also manages to be a fascinating critique of American foreign and domestic policy (certainly a topic on a lot of people’s minds in recent years), a deconstruction of the notion of libertarian free will that avoids the trappings of fatalism, and a meditation on the merits of utilitarianism—all wrapped up in a zany cartoon that is, if not overtly aimed at children, at least kid-friendly. 

 

But when you get right down to it, all of that is really secondary to the driving ethos of the show, which is summed up beautifully by the finale (one of only two truly perfect series enders in modern television history, alongside The Good Place). In one of the show’s darkest moments, when the evil deity GOLB is unleashing unknowable chaos upon the Land of Ooo, one of the series’ main characters—BMO, a sentient portable game machine/media player with a penchant for creating elaborate film noire fantasies to entertain him/herself—accidentally stumbles upon the one weapon that can stave off such discord: Harmony. The world is literally saved by a sing-along. 

 

If there was some amazing force outside of time
to take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we can see it all, all, all

It would look like:
Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And there we are, again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then

 

The Lord of the Rings is a comforting lie—one of the best ever told, in fact. It’s everything myth should be, and will always be the balm I reach for during the darkest hours.

 

The funny thing is, I didn’t return to Adventure Time looking for comfort, but I found it nonetheless. For all its stretchy half-alien mutant canines and bubblegum people and interdimensional weirdness, this show is the reassuring truth I didn’t know I needed right now, and in some weird ways it’s helping me come to terms with this new world ahead of us. Because if there’s one underlying message of this sweeping, chaotic, and singularly beautiful tale—aside from the fact that art is a weapon against darkness—it’s that even if things seem OK for now, they’ve gotten bad before and they’ll get bad again . . . not in exactly the same way, but close enough that there are lessons to be learned. 

 

And perhaps its most salient lesson is this: No matter how donked up the world gets—and it will indeed get donked up, over and over again—we all have the strength to persevere, so long as we open ourselves up to a bit of weirdness and embrace a lot of uncertainty. 

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.

Reviews: Oscar-Winning Films 2021

If we learned anything from this year’s Oscars, it’s that during a time of plague, everybody is Miss Congeniality—everyone, that is, except Aaron Sorkin. The awards were a pretty accurate reflection of the past year, with a bunch of films of middling interest rising to the top because there was nothing better out there to keep them down. That’s not to say there weren’t some intriguing films, but extraordinary ones . . ? Here’s hoping the movies follow the rest of society and rebound in a big way this year.

CLICK ON THE MOVIE TITLE OR IMAGE TO GO TO THE REVIEW

Nomadland (2020)

Picture, Director, Actress

Judas and the Black Messiah

Supporting Actor, Original Song

Minari (2020)

Supporting Actress

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Visual Effects

The Father (2020)

Actor, Adapted Screenplay

Mank (2020)

Cinematography, Production Design

Soul (2020)

Animated Feature Film, Original Score

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Feature Documentary

Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies

Atmos Music

click the image to enlarge

I recently came across an interview with Elliot Scheiner, a 5.1 surround mixing pioneer. He had some things to say about music in Dolby Atmos that caught my eye. For example:

There’s no way that anybody would consider 11 speakers so that leaves the listener with a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar or Echo smart speaker. . . .

 

Dolby Atmos is great in a theater. You get a perfect picture of what Atmos is. They can’t convince me, just yet, that it’s great for music.

 

[Interviewer:] Yeah, it’s not accessible to most people yet in a way they can actually enjoy.


You’re right.

Reading this was yet another reminder of the general lack of awareness about the many home theater and media room installations that already have everything in place for playing music in Atmos. If you have 11 speakers (or 15, or maybe even more) plus subwoofers in an Atmos layout, why wouldn’t you want to listen to music that is specifically mixed for your setup?

 

The good news is that not all recording engineers feel as lukewarm about music in Atmos as Elliot Scheiner. Take for example Stefan Bock and his team at MSM Studio Group, who began mixing in 5.1 in 1994 and in Auro 3D in 2012. Stefan embraced Atmos in 2015 and has never looked back. He is also the developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which was introduced in 2009 and remains pretty much the only game in town for lossless playback of musical recordings in immersive formats such as Atmos, Auro 3D, and DTS:X. Out of a total of roughly 250 to 300 Pure Audio Blu-ray titles, there are currently around 75 that include an Atmos mix, usually alongside high-resolution 5.1 and stereo mixes, and that number continues to grow.

 

When I contacted Stefan for this article, one of the first things he said to me was: “In my opinion, immersive 3D audio formats can be bigger for music than they have been for movies.” Now that I have had a chance to listen closely to some music that was recorded and mixed specifically for a 3D playback environment (as opposed to albums remixed in Atmos from existing recordings), I think Stefan may be on to something. 

 

For starters, the added height channels in Atmos can definitely help to recreate spatial effects of reverberant and reflective spaces such as concert halls and churches with more fidelity than either stereo or 5.1 mixes. Atmos’ object-based audio, which frees artists and mixing engineers from being tied to specific surround channels, is also stimulating new approaches to music and therefore new listening experiences for consumers. Finally, there is the indefinable subjective response triggered when listening to a high-quality immersive music recording. Can Atmos do for music what Technicolor did for movies? The potential is there, but many hurdles must still be overcome before that potential can become reality. 

 

DIVING IN

For anyone who wants to experience how good 3D music can sound in their home, there are plenty of Pure Audio Blu-ray titles available in a variety of musical genres. To hear how a great Atmos recording can create a truly immersive soundstage where you can locate every instrument around you with jaw-dropping immediacy, listen to Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazzolla (the track “Jeanne Y Paul” was a particular highlight for me) or The Gordian Knot by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. To place yourself in the midst of an incredibly lush-sounding string ensemble, try Reflections by the Trondheim Soloists (shown in the photos and video below)For a crystal-clear and intimate performance by a jazz trio playing in a church, listen 

Stage layout and microphone array for recording a performance by the Trondheim Soloists on
2L’s immersive album Reflections.
(Session photos and diagram by Morten Lindberg, recording
producer and balance, mix, and mastering engineer.)

to the Hoff Ensemble’s Polarity. To experience the spaciousness of a cathedral, try either The Choir of King’s College Cambridge on 1615 Gabrieli in Venice or Konstantin Reymaier’s The New Organ. To appreciate how object-based mixing can add to electronic music, check out Yello’s Point. If you are looking for video to go along with your music, try either John Williams Live in Vienna for a rousing concert recorded with superb attention to detail or Max Cooper’s Emergence for a combination of electronic music and science-inspired animation that seems made for a home theater.

 

Although it was easy to play Pure Audio Blu-ray discs through my theater system, I did need to raise the levels of my surround and height channels to match the front LCR channel levels at my listening position to get a more balanced immersive effect. This kind of adjustment may be particularly relevant for those who are starting from a calibration set up for playing music in stereo or if the surrounds and heights have been de-emphasized since they are typically used only for effects in movies. If you want to go one step further and you have a Trinnov Altitude audio processor with the latest software installed, you can

open the Atmos Object Viewer while you’re listening to get real-time feedback on the approach taken to object-based mixing for any given recording.

 

While Atmos has been available as a music format for several years, the pace of new releases has so far been sluggish. This may be about to change, however, as more music 

labels, including Universal and Warner, have jumped on the Atmos bandwagon, bringing welcome reinforcements to the original trailblazers, such as Grammy-winning Norwegian immersive music pioneer 2L. As a result, the number of Atmos music studios is increasing, with Universal’s Capitol and Abbey Road studios joining independent immersive mastering specialists such as MSM Studio Group and the newly rebuilt Coast Mastering. Although it is still in the early days and the quality of the end product varies, with more recording-studio infrastructure coming online it is becoming easier for artists and labels to start building Atmos mixes into their release plans.

 

DISCS ARE THE BEST OPTION—FOR NOW

What if you want playback options other than physical media for listening to music in Atmos? Unfortunately, the pickings here are still very slim, and those options that do exist are likely to disappoint anyone who has invested in a high-end audio system.

 

For example, Tidal Atmos relies on the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec with a bitrate of 768 kbps. In contrast, Pure Audio Blu-ray employs the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec for Atmos, which I measured routinely delivering bitrates more than 10x higher when playing music from discs. The difference in sound quality between streaming and physical media is therefore much more pronounced for music in Atmos than for stereo recordings, which both Tidal and Qobuz can stream in high-res formats. Listening to Tidal Atmos tracks in my theater through an Apple TV felt like a tease. Once I raised the volume level 

(substantially higher than what is normally required for playing stereo tracks on Tidal), I could definitely hear the immersive mix, but I missed the vivid envelopment and the way I can pick out the crisp sound of each instrument when listening to a Pure Audio Blu-ray recording.

 

If there are currently no options for lossless streaming of Atmos music,

are there any straightforward solutions for downloading and playing lossless Atmos music files? For 2D surround music in 5.1, for example, it is relatively simple to download a FLAC file, add it to a Roon music library, and then use a Roon Ready processor such as the Trinnov Altitude to play it through a theater audio system. You can also use the processor decoders to upmix from 5.1 to Atmos or Auro 3D, but this doesn’t sound the same as playing a native 3D mix.

 

Downloading and playing Atmos music is a different story. First of all, Atmos content cannot be stored in a FLAC file because FLAC can’t carry the metadata with the location coordinates for the sound objects that are a core feature of Atmos mixes. There are a few Atmos albums downloadable in the MP4 file format, but these also use the same low-bitrate codec as Tidal Atmos so can’t match the sound quality of Pure Audio Blu-ray. Until a service like Roon supplies an elegant solution for lossless playback of Atmos music files through home AV systems, downloads are likely going to have only limited appeal.  

 

Sadly, Atmos support isn’t a priority for Roon, as evidenced by a reference in a Roon Knowledge Base article on multichannel support to “video/movie specific schemes that aren’t very relevant in an audio-only environment like Roon.” When I queried Roon about their plans, they confirmed that they’re likely to be more of a follower than a leader when it comes to enabling Atmos playback through Roon Ready devices. It’s therefore going to be up to another content-delivery platform to come up with a user-friendly solution for downloading and playing Atmos music. 

 

Since, for the time being, there are no viable options for either streaming or downloading lossless Atmos music, Pure Audio Blu-ray is in a privileged position for anyone who wants to experience how good an immersive 3D music mix can sound in a home theater or media room. Until Pure Audio brings a US distributor on board, the most reliable way to get your hands on these recordings is to go through the European Pure Audio Recordings online store. Some Pure Audio Blu-ray titles are also available on Amazon, but they may be mislabeled as Audio CDs.

 

Hopefully other Cineluxe readers will enjoy this novel listening experience as much as I have. After all, the more uptake there is for these types of recordings, the easier it will be to convince skeptics like Elliot Scheiner to take Dolby Atmos more seriously as a music format for the high-end home AV market.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.