Entertainment

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

For some probably very Freudian reason, I forgot to mention in my Annie Hall review that the HD version that recently became available on Kaleidescape makes a mess of the famous subtitle gag during Alvy and Annie’s first extended conversation together. That mistake can’t be attributed to Kaleidescape nor to whoever it is that turns out the lights over at MGM/UA these days. It’s been in every home release of the film I’ve seen. I’m pointing it out here in the hope that somebody will finally get it right when Hall (hopefully—and hopefully soon) makes its way to UHD. I’m also pointing it out as an example

of the kind of tone-deaf changes tech people with (presumably) good intentions but stunted creative instincts can introduce into a film.

 

Here’s the problem. Woody Allen carefully sets up the gag at nine minutes into Hall when Alvy refuses to go in to see Bergman’s Face to Face because Annie showed up at the theater after the movie started. (“Jesus, what did you do, come by way of the Panama Canal?”) He then suggests they go see Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity instead. When Annie says, “I’m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” Allen cuts to the beginning of the Ophuls film.

 

Anybody who knows Bergman’s movies knows they’re in for an almost continuous stream of subtitles while the actors chat and brood in Swedish. And in the days when people had to go to revival houses to see foreign films, Bergman became synonymous with subtitles, since no real cinéaste would even consider seeing a dubbed version of one of his films. Allen then reinforces that reference by showing 

the titling in the Ophuls’ movie, which looks typically rough and washed out, then hits the same note again later on with some subtitled footage when Alvy again drags Annie to The Sorrow and the Pity to avoid spending the evening with Paul Simon.

 

But when we get to the gag with Alvy and Annie talking on the terrace of her apartment, the subtitles are sharp and bright and, strangely, colorful (in yellow, no less). Far more video- than filmlike, they’re eons from anything you’d have seen in any art house of the time. By beefing them up for readability and the proclivities of the masses at home, some drone-like schmuck killed Allen’s gag—a transgression that’s persisted for decades.

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke
The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

Hairsplitting? A teapot tempest? Much ado . . ? The hell it is.

 

If this was a single transgression, that would be one thing, but the examples of tech guys deciding to “improve” films in post are legion, with their efforts ranging from “enhancing” titles to mucking around with the original color timing (now referred to as grading) to scrubbing away grain to that most heinous of crimes, colorization. And the potential to inflict grievous harm becomes more and more acute as the technology becomes more and more sophisticted. The problem—and it is a problem—comes down, I think, to the deeply mistaken notion that this is a tech problem when it’s actually a matter of taste. And, let’s be honest, most tech people—like people in most professions and, well, most people—lack meaningful taste, at least taste on par with the most accomplished filmmakers. It’s not unlike that well-meaning dope who’s running around Europe screwing up all those frescoes.

 

But that’s only part of the problem, because the current culture displays an unparalleled arrogance that shows a consistent contempt for the past arising from the mistaken belief that today represents some kind of signifiant leap forward, beyond being just a haphazard collection of often dubious technological improvements. This has led to the frequently cavalier treatment of older titles under the ignorant assumption that “we” somehow know better than “they” did. (It doesn’t help, of course, when contemporary filmmakers keep fiddling with their movies after release, resulting in things that are rarely a net improvement—but a great way to generate yet another revenue stream.)

 

Somebody needs to come up with the filmmaking equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and then get the vast and continually swelling hordes of techies to swear to it, on pain of death, before they’re allowed anywhere near any older films, classic or otherwise. I can tell you from experience that hardly any of these guys know how to tell a good joke—but they sure know how to ruin one.

—Michael Gaughn

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

Want to Dig Deeper into “The Mandalorian”? This is the Way

It’s difficult these days to have any meaningful discussion about Star Wars without obsessing over The Mandalorian. This lightning-in-a-bottle Disney+ series has the sort of universal appeal that none of the main saga films have enjoyed since The Empire Strikes Back. (And let’s not forget that TESB wasn’t so universally beloved until years after its initial release.)

 

There’s good reason for the series’ universal appeal, of course. As I said in my wrapup of the first season, The Mandalorian is a wonderful deconstruction of everything that made the original Star Wars such a smash hit. In breaking the galaxy far, far away down into its essential components (the gunslinger, the samurai, the strange-but-familiar environments, the wonderful sense of mystery, the thematic through-lines of honor, familial baggage, and redemption) and recombining them into a shape

we’ve never quite seen before, the series continues to be both stimulating and comfortable, both innovative and grounded in the past.

 

One thing I said about the series’ first season no longer rings true after the second batch of episodes, though. In my Season One overview, I made an offhand comment about the show’s “tenuous connections to the larger mythology,” despite the fact that that season ended with the appearance of one of the most legendary Star Wars weapons of all time: The Darksaber.

 

In Season Two, the connections to the legendarium become much less tenuous, much more overt, and much more central to the underlying themes and meaning of The Mandalorian. And it’s that last point that’s most important, because the simple truth is that you don’t really need to know the history of Mandalorian culture or its various factions to follow the plot of this past season. That history simply helps in unpacking what it all means.

And I can say that pretty confidently, because I talk to so many of my friends who are absolutely gaga over “new” characters introduced in Season Two who aren’t new at all. Characters like Bo-Katan Kryze, played to perfection by Katee Sackhoff not only in this live-action series but also in three seasons of The Clone Wars and one particularly memorable episode of Star Wars: Rebels. I was worried, when rumors of Bo-Katan’s return started circulating on the internet, that she would feel shoehorned into this series, that her presence would feel like fan-service of the worst sort. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. To misquote Voltaire, if Bo-Katan hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent her for Season Two to make a lick of sense.

 

This season also features the return of Ahsoka Tano—perhaps the single most beloved character ever created by George Lucas, but one that many fans of The Mandalorian had never heard of or only knew secondhand thanks to hyper-nerds like myself. Again, though, due to the way showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have woven her into this series, you don’t really need to know Ahsoka’s backstory to understand her mission in The Mandalorian. But I would argue that you do need to

know where she has come from and where she’s going if you want to truly understand why she’s on that mission.

 

The point I’m trying to not-so-subtly make here is that you can go into The Mandalorian having only seen the original Star Wars films and not really feel like you’re missing anything essential in terms of plot. You may get the sense that there’s a larger story unfolding that you’re not privy to, but that’s always the case with any good Star Wars story. But if you haven’t watched The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, you actually are missing out on a deeper level of understanding that’s just sitting there waiting for you to discover.

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: Rebels . . .

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

. . . and in The Mandalorian

I’ll give you just one example, although I feel the need to throw out an obligatory spoiler warning here for those of you who are making your way through Season Two slowly in an effort to ameliorate some of the pain caused by the long wait for Season Three.

 

In the epic finale of this season, there’s a moment in which Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, offers the Darksaber to Bo-Katan after being informed of its cultural significance. This moment (shown at the top of the page) almost perfectly mirrors a scene from “Heroes of Mandalore,” the Season Four premiere episode of Star Wars: Rebels. There, a Mandalorian named Sabine Wren offers Bo-Katan the blade and Bo-Katan accepts it, although not without some hesitation. In the season finale of The Mandalorian, she rejects it outright. And I won’t get into all of her political reasoning for doing so, as the episode spells all of this out. My point here is that the mirroring of these two scenes adds an extra level of tension to the finale and quietly tells a tale we haven’t seen unfold in any form to date.

 

The fact that Bo-Katan refuses to simply accept the Darksaber this time around, when we’ve seen her do so before under nearly identical circumstances, tells us something about the character that no amount of exposition could convey nearly as artfully. Namely, it tells us that she blames herself for the so-called Great Purge of Mandalore and the genocide of her people, an event we’ve only heard about in rumors and retellings.

 

I could go on and on, rambling about little nuggets of this sort you can glean from viewing The Mandalorian in the context of its animated forebears, and I’ve done so in private conversations with friends who love the live-action series but seem hesitant to watch “kids’ cartoons.” It honestly doesn’t help my case that The Clone Wars didn’t start off with a bang. Even as a devoted fan, I have to admit that the first season was childish and wildly uneven.

 

But by Season Two, The Clone Wars gets good. Really good. By Season Three, it’s honestly some of the best Star Wars ever made. And by Season Four it transforms into one of the best TV series of all time, subject matter be damned.

 

So, if you’ve tried getting into The Clone Wars and found it a tough pill to swallow, I recommend giving it another try—but this time around, skip the bulk of the first season. Watch “Rookies,” the fifth episode, then skip to the final four episodes in that first run: “Storm Over Ryloth,” “Innocents of Ryloth,” “Liberty on Ryloth,” and “Hostage Crisis.” Objectively, they’re nowhere near the quality of later seasons, but they’ll give you a good foundation for what’s to come, especially the second-season episodes that really lay the foundation for The Mandalorian, starting with Episode 12, “The Mandalore Plot.”

 

Star Wars: Rebels gets off to a similarly uneven start, and I wish I could give you a similar cheat sheet for which episodes are skippable. But you’ll just have to trust me on this one: By the time you get to the end of Season Four, it becomes clear that there wasn’t a throwaway moment in the entire 75-episode run. It’s simply one hell of a slow burn.

 

All seven seasons of The Clone Wars and all four seasons of Rebels are available to stream on Disney+, and it’s worth noting that the streaming provider presents the former with all of the content that was censored by Cartoon Network in the original broadcasts. Don’t go in expecting anything overtly gratuitous or vulgar, but I often advise my friends with young children that the series explores the implications of war in a way pre-teens aren’t quite mature enough to digest. So take that for what it’s worth.

 

Of course, we can’t know for sure how much of an impact the events of The Clone Wars and Rebels will have on future seasons of The Mandalorian, especially given that there’s no clear and obvious path forward for the series. Taken as a whole, the first two seasons of this wildly popular live-action show have told the tale of a man whose sense of self was predicated on a moral code that he never questioned—until forced to do so. It’s the story of a man whose ideology begins to conflict with his principles, and whose entire notion of who he is and what he stands for has been torn to shreds as a result of his own empathy and moral awakening. By the end of Season Two, Din Djarin has succeeded in his quest and as a result is left with nearly nothing—no purpose, no culture, no tradition to fall back on and believe in. As such, where his journey goes from here is nearly anyone’s guess.

 

But I have a sneaking suspicion that however this story ends up blossoming, the seeds will have been planted in The Clone Wars and Rebels.

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.

“Dr. Strangelove” and the Power of Blackness

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

I wasn’t going to review the latest release of Dr. Strangelove. After having basked in the 4K HDR editions of 2001 and The Shining, it didn’t feel right to underline that this newest upgrade isn’t all it could or should be. Reviews of older films should focus on the ones worth watching, not the ones to avoid. But, on a whim, I watched Strangelove again a few nights ago and experienced it in ways I never have before, and ultimately decided that, transfer quality be damned, it’s well worth encouraging others to go check it out.

 

Keep in mind, before we dive into this, that I’ve seen this movie countless times. I’ve studied various drafts of the screenplay and pored over every relevant comment from the cast and crew. I’ve even watched on archive print on a Moviola at the Library of Congress. But this last time around, the film, for whatever reason, revealed things that had always been hidden to me before.

 

The biggest revelation—and what will be the crux of my comments here—is that Strangelove is only superficially a comedy. At its heart, it’s a film noir—and, at the end of the day, might even represent the pinnacle of that genre.

 

For that conclusion to make sense, you have to be willing to roll with my definition of noir in “Who Killed Film Noir?”—that the crime element is just a pretext and that these movies are instead always about chumps—more specifically, male chumps—

guys who think they know the score only to find they really don’t have a clue, only to then have everyone and everything conspire against them, usually with fatal results. If you accept that definition, then noir fits Strangelove as snugly as the mad doctor’s Rotwang glove.

 

Yes, the film is heavy on noir atmospherics—dark recesses, menacing shadows, closeups that make it look like the subject is being interrogated under hot lights, etc.—but dwelling on that kind of misses the point, because Strangelove pulls just as many stylistic elements from crime dramas, war films, horror films, psychological thrillers, documentaries, and newsreels. The one genre it doesn’t look anything like is comedy, and that is central to what I’m positing here.

 

Strangelove is really comedy by other means. Its laughs—which are many and legitimate—spring almost solely from the extreme gruesomeness of the situation, from a kind of squeamishness and disbelief that ultimately reinforces the dominance of the Death Drive over the Pleasure Principle, and that people will blindly follow through on the inherent logic of their institutions and devices—all the while believing they’re exercising intelligence and will—even if it will result in their own annihilation.

 

This movie is satire first and comedy second. And it’s stunning, on reflection, what a serious film it is, that it trumps all of the more sophomoric movies that consider 

themselves satires by diving down deep into the same disturbing roots and unblinking take on humanity that motivated Swift. This is satire with some real meat, with more than a little gristle, on its bones—definitely not for the SNL crowd.

 

It’s also stunning to realize what a leap it is beyond the mess of Lolita. You can sense Kubrick trying to recover his creative integrity after the rout of his previous film, where the material, the censors, and, most importantly, the narrative tradition all got the better of him. Knowing most filmmakers far overrate the importance of story, which causes them to lean on it as a crutch, he had tried to subvert the conventions by notoriously moving Humbert’s murder of Quilty to the beginning of the film—a huge

miscalculation that only served to deflate the whole enterprise. He was way bolder with Strangelove, exposing the sheer contrivance of narrative by taking a clockwork-type suspense plot and twisting it around to serve ends no one would have thought it could ever possibly serve, and along the way exposing storytelling for what it mainly is: A manipulative mechanical device for efficiently getting you from Point A to Point Z, which in this case is the end of the world.

 

With Strangelove, Kubrick hit on the formula that would serve him well for the rest of his career of mimicking just enough genre conventions to entice and enthrall the groundlings and ensure the studio’s ROI, while having the movies actually function at levels that ultimately made hash of their seeming reasons to be. So Strangelove has just enough silly comedy and thriller elements to keep the masses in their seats but continuously moves up a creative chain, subsuming the more rudimentary elements along the way, until it ultimately arrives at noir—but noir in a way no one had ever seen it before.

 

To put it another way: Having been too conservative with Lolita, Kubrick 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHERE IN HELL IS MAJOR KONG?

Another thing that jumped out at me watching Strangelove this time around was the missile attack on the B-52, which is primarily an extremely believable documentary-style moment (especially for 1964) with nothing remotely funny about it. Of course, I’ve noticed this scene before—it’s kind of hard to ignore—but I realized this time how unique it is, since the list of comedies that can afford to go full-bore dramatic for a good chunk of the film without losing their momentum or completely throwing the audience is so short it probably doesn’t exist. One of Kubrick’s most brilliant set pieces, it convincingly places you inside the plane with the crew as they fight for their lives, so you identify with their efforts and then root for them to complete their mission—which has to create extremely conflicted emotions in all but the most cold-hearted since the crew’s ability to overcome is the thing that seals the fate of the world. The scene is also worth savoring for the way its chaotic handheld camerawork goes from documentary to abstract, turning it into a mini art film. Most movie scenes are too stage-bound or veer too close to radio—even today. This one is pure cinema.

M.G.

decided to completely trust his gut with Strangelove, and his gut told him to make a suspense thriller that was, incongruously, a comedy, but was actually, ultimately, a film noir. But that’s not the genius part. The genius part is that he made all three dovetail so seamlessly that the transitions from the cheap seats on up don’t feel so much perverse as inevitable.

 

Watch Strangelove through the lens of noir—noir stripped of most of its genre cliches in order to expose its white-hot core—and it becomes a different, much more nuanced and brilliant film. Noir wasn’t new to Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both overt takes on the genre, the latter unapologetically feeding from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. (Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another Kubrick favorite.)

 

But there’s another dimension to this that also deepens the experience of the film and that hadn’t been obvious to me until this most recent viewing, when I realized how heavily Kubrick tapped into his photo-journalistic beginnings. Fresh out of high school, he had been the youngest staff photographer ever at Look magazine, and it was his experiences there that supplied 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHY THIS ISN’T A REVIEW

I ultimately decided to not review this release of Strangelove because 4K HDR takes away as much as it brings to the experience, so while there’s no great harm in watching it that way, there’s no real benefit either.

 

One of the biggest problems is one common to many 4K upgrades of older films. Nobody has figured out how to accurately translate backdrops and matte paintings that looked convincing when run through a projector and shown on a big screen. Here, the opening painting of Burpleson Air Force Base and the later one of the Pentagon are so obvious that they pull you out of the film. Similarly, the model shots of the B-52, which were only borderline successful on film, look too clean and sterile and model-y now.

 

While someone could argue that the HDR increases the impact of the nuclear bomb blasts, I would have to counter that this isn’t an action or war film and that, since Kubrick relied on archival footage rather than effects shots, that’s not what he was after. Pumping the shots up that way is akin to adding cannon blasts to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—which I’m sure has been done, but not by anybody who deserved to live afterward. A more accurate example might be someone deciding to improve the impact of the Scherzo in the Ninth by doubling all the orchestral lines with synthesizers. I suspect that would make the work more compelling for those listeners with duller nerve endings but it would be an egregious violation of Beethoven’s original intent and a travesty of his work. Sure, anyone’s free to reinterpret Beethoven—or Bach or Stravinsky or Mahler—but don’t pretend you’re presenting the original piece. Leaning too heavily on HDR is like deciding this already virile composition needed an injection of testosterone.

 

And then there’s the kerfuffle over the aspect ratios. The best I can determine, Kubrick shot the film 1.33:1 and then matted it for 1.66:1. The original theatrical release was 1.85:1. But for the Criterion edition, he asked from some scenes to be shown full frame and some to be matted to 1.66, apparently in an effort to create a better viewing experience on pre-HD TVs. Yes, the ratios for home displays have since changed, and his similar tack with the release of The Shining was a disaster, but the point is that with Strangelove it worked, and I don’t get why this current release goes with a consistent 1.66.

 

But, again, this isn’t a review. It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t want to do one.

M.G.

the subject matter for his early documentary shorts and for Killer’s Kiss, which look like photo essays come to life.

 

He returns to those formative experiences and that style in Strangelove, with much of the film resembling his magazine work, most obviously in the faux documentary attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, but far more subtly and strikingly in the War Room. He went there mainly to underline that no matter how surreal, irrational, and immature a lot of the behavior and actions are in the film, they have very real consequences.

 

(But there are more layers to it than that, because Kubrick hired the controversial tabloid photographer Weegee—whose body of work essentially transformed sordid reality into noir—as his on-set photographer. That led to Peter Sellers, fascinated by Weegee’s edgy hardboiled patois, using his voice as the inspiration for Strangelove.

 

(And to complete my digression, It should be mentioned that Kubrick got to know fashion-turned-art photographer Diane Arbus well during his Look years, and later referenced her work explicitly in The Shining—which raises the point that his films are far more autobiographical and personal than the cliché take on him as cold, detached, clinical would allow.)

 

Rather than give a complete recitation of all the ways noir permeates and defines the film, I’ll just highlight a couple of key moments and you can work backward from there. Right before Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper sleepwalks off to the bathroom to commit suicide, Kubrick just holds on an uncomfortably close shot of his face, rimmed so tightly with shadows that it already resembles a death mask. As Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake sits next to Ripper, prattling on about the recall code, Kubrick just stays on the general. And although there are no obvious changes in Ripper’s expression, you 

can tell he’s realizing the full enormity of what he’s done right before disappearing completely into madness. But this is done with amazing restraint, with Kubrick resisting the temptation to go to the kind of crazy stare he would later cultivate with Jack in The Shining and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. You just sense the descent happening—almost imperceptibly, but undeniably. It might be the ultimate film noir moment.

 

That shot could have been Hayden as Johnny Clay in The Killing or as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle—it wouldn’t have looked out of place cut into either of those films. And Kubrick uses that commonality to create a through-line that traverses all 

of noir, pointing inevitably to Strangelove as its culmination.

 

Comedies usually rely on master shots instead of closeups, but Kubrick comes in similarly close on Strangelove to emphasize how much he’s caught up in, and boxed in by, his own calculations and obsessions, his own form of culturally sanctioned insanity. You’re placed just inches from a madman, and it’s as frightening as it is funny.

 

The most outrageous noir before Strangelove was Robert Aldrich’s beyond cheeky Kiss Me Deadly, which took the hugely popular Mike 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

Dix Handley

Hammer character and exposed him for the clueless goon he was. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Strangelove seems to riff on Deadly, seems to devour and digest and regurgitate it, taking the cocksure bumbling of an L.A. detective and projecting it onto the whole world, making chumps of us all.

 

Watching Strangelove today is hardly just an exercise in either nostalgia or film appreciation, something only tangentially relevant to our present. The basics of human nature haven’t changed since 1964—if anything, the blind, primal aspects have only become emboldened as the machines have taken over and we’ve become free to play. It’s not like the methods of the West have changed all that much either—except that they’ve been so successfully exported that a YouTube video from Adelaide looks identical to a YouTube video from Bhopal looks identical to one from Des Moines. And it’s not like the world doesn’t continue to bristle with nuclear arms. And it’s not like it’s become impossible for a madman to ascend to the highest levels of power.

 

Noir is who we are when we have the guts to face ourselves squarely in the mirror. And it says a lot that it’s been more than five decades since the last time any one’s bothered to take a good look.

Michael Gaughn

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

Ep. 12: What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies? (Christmas Edition)

The Cineluxe Hour logo

After a prolonged drought of episodes, we were able to knock out a couple back-to-back. So here, on the heels of our conversation with Paradise Theater’s Sam Cavitt and his client William Erb, comes our look at the strangest holiday movie season in memory.

 

So many momentous, and in some cases bizarre, events have played out with film releases since we recorded Episode 10: “What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies?” that some kind of followup seemed in order. What will happen on and around Christmas Day will likely have a huge impact on what happens with theatrical and home movie releases throughout 2021.

 

The episode opens with Dennis and Mike outlining the events, like the disastrous theatrical release of Tenet, that have led to the movie studios pinning their hopes on streaming—at least for the near future.

 

At 2:25, Dennis talks about Warner Bros.’ decision to finally release Wonder Woman 1984, and the implications of it appearing both in theaters and on the subscriber-challenged HBO Max at the same time.

 

At 9:35, we discuss Warner’s sudden and unexpected decision to use the WW84 release as the model for all of its big releases for the foreseeable future—and the resulting pushback from filmmakers.

 

14:30 brings a comparison of Warner Bros.’ fumbling efforts and Disney’s far more nimble and successful responses to the same challenges—which leads at 17:55 to considering the likely outcome of WW84 going up against Pixar’s Soul on Disney+ on Christmas Day.

 

19:55 brings a recounting of the horrors of trying to access HBO Max, and we wrap everything up beginning at 23:17 by handicapping WW84‘s likely box-office returns compared to what it probably would have made with a traditional release.

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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.

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

“The Lord of the Rings” in 4K: An Epic Transformation

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life than I was when I predicted early this year that the rumored 4K release of The Lord of the Rings might not look substantially better than its HD forebear. To be fair, that prognostication was based on the fact that the upgrade from standard definition to high definition did the trilogy no favors. And as we’ve seen with recent Ultra HD releases like The Blues Brothers and The Birds, 4K can be so revealing as to make less-than-perfect film elements

nigh unwatchable. As much as I love them, the LotR films never looked perfect to begin with.

 

Having now seen the new 4K HDR release of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King in their Extended Edition forms, though, I’m forced to eat pretty much every word I wrote in that editorial. And I do so gleefully, because I’ve frankly never seen a more effective and transformative film restoration in all my life.

 

What I didn’t know when I wrote that myopic diatribe is that in remastering The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson and his team at Weta returned to the original 35mm camera negative for all three films, as well as the VFX film-out elements (digital effects printed to film for compositing with the live-action shots). All effects completed entirely in the digital domain were also upscaled from 2K to 4K and touched up in places, though none were re-rendered or replaced.

 

The result of all that labor is that the films look substantially better now than they did in their original theatrical run. By a long shot. And I’ll give you one specific example of what I mean here, because it’s not merely detail for detail’s sake. In the extraordinary Appendices included with the SD and HD releases of the Extended Editions (although sadly not with the UHD Blu-ray discs, a point I’ll return to in a bit), costume designer Ngila Dickson goes into quite a bit of depth about the little nuances of haberdashery and millinery that were too fine to appear on the screen: The carefully 

considered mix of linens, silks, and embroidery included in Saruman’s robes, for example, just to give the all-white costume some contrast and to help Christopher Lee fully inhabit his character. (Shown in the photo at the top of the page.)

 

These details were lost on the big screen, and needless to say they were lost on DVD and Blu-ray as well. But in this gorgeous 4K restoration, we can finally see and appreciate those little costuming details. Far from being mere eye candy, 

discoveries like that simply make the world of Middle-earth feel more real, more tactile, more lived-in.

 

Further enhancing the verisimilitude is the fact that the trilogy’s visual effects are better integrated with the live-action photography. This really stood out in the “Last March of the Ents” from The Two Towers, a scene I referenced in my earlier 

article as one I didn’t think I wanted to see in more detail, due to the mismatch between the foreground and background elements. But in recompositing the effects shots and—perhaps more importantly—doing a new digital color grading for the entire trilogy (which, yes, removes that persistently funky green tint from Fellowship), Jackson and his team have made this sequence look like it always has in my imagination. Is it perfect? No. But it’s every bit as good as one could hope for from a relatively low-budget special-effects extravaganza from two decades ago.

 

Really, the only effects shots in the entire trilogy that still look distractingly dodgy in any significant way are the “Bridge of Khazad-dûm” sequences in the first film. The digital actors and other effects shots in these scenes require a bit of an apology, no doubt, but only in comparison to the other 12 hours’ worth of 4K imagery. Compared to what they’ve looked like in previous releases, I’m only seeing improvements.

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

Virtually every other VFX shot in the trilogy is an order of magnitude better than before—again, not because the computer elements have been re-rendered, but simply because more care has been put into ensuring that the foreground and background elements more closely match in terms of color temperature, lighting, and shadow depth. Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea (shown above), now looks less like a collection of models and matte paintings and more like a true refuge in the moorlands and foothills of the Misty Mountains—one that you could step into the image and visit for yourself, if only you could locate the Ford of Bruinen.

 

Needless to say, though, the best-looking shots in the trilogy are those that come straight from the camera with no effects other than perspective tricks orchestrated on set. The landscape cinematography is simply jaw-dropping and benefits from the new HDR grade as much as any of the wizardry or action. Not to sound like a broken record here, but what I love most about the application of HDR is that it’s not merely about enhanced visual spectacle. The superior shadow detail and vibrant 

specular highlights truly enhance the story being told.

 

One prime example comes in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas first meet the white wizard in the dankest depths of Fangorn Forest. The glow he emits is so startling as to catch our heroes off-guard, forcing them to shield their eyes and avoid looking at him directly. Much as I’ve loved that scene in every incarnation—theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.—this new HDR presentation is the first time I’ve truly felt what the characters are feeling, experienced what they’re experiencing, wincing as they wince and averting my eyes as they avert theirs.

 

I could go on and on about the visual splendor of these new transfers and how they defied my every expectation, but before I overstay my welcome, I should also point out what was perhaps the worst prediction I made in my previous post. Of the sound for these films, I said that “the thought of

WHERE TO SEE THE
EXTENDED EDITIONS IN 4K HDR

Because of the unexpected number of orders, snagging a copy of the UHD Blu-ray Disc boxed set is iffy at the moment, so your best alternative is definitely the Kaleidescape downloads, which include the must-see set of Appendices. Failing that, you could turn to either Apple TV or Vudu, which are the only two services streaming the extended editions in 4K HDR. Apple provides access to the Appendices as well. (I haven’t had a chance to compare any of the online versions to the UHD Blu-ray release, so I can’t really vouch for their quality.) 

—D.B.

this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel.”

 

Well, Jackson and his team did indeed pull many threads. All of them, in fact. And the resulting Atmos remix is simply better than anything my imagination could have conjured. If every Atmos mix sounded like this, I would be an unapologetic fan of the format. First things first, it seems pretty clear to me that in remixing the films, the team at Weta balanced the sound more for the needs of a 400 sq. ft. room than a 4,000 sq. ft. cinema auditorium. The soundscape here is still every bit as dynamic and impactful, but dialogue and sound effects are balanced better for the acoustical realities of a home cinema. No longer are the films a torture test for dialogue clarity. Every line muttered, uttered, or screamed is perfectly intelligible.

 

On the old 6.1-channel DTS-ES mix included with the SD and HD releases, for example, Gandalf’s admonishment of the Balrog while standing on the crumbling Bridge of Khazad-dûm was such a garbled mess by the time you added surround 

channels and subwoofers that even the most devoted Tolkien enthusiasts struggled to understand the words, though we know them by heart: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow!”

 

Mind you, those words might not mean anything to you unless you’re as big a 

geek as I. The point is, you can now hear every one of them without a hint of strain or struggle, despite the onslaught of rock and flame roaring out of every speaker around you (and overhead!).

 

As hinted at above, if I have one grumble with Warner’s new UHD Blu-ray release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s that they’ve left the amazing Appendices out of the package, assuming that if you’re interested in watching nearly an entire day’s worth of bonus features, you’ve had nearly 20 years to buy them in some form or another. That, in my opinion, is a massive oversight, especially given the renewed interest in the films over the past year and the fact that this 4K release will be the first time many younger fans buy them.

 

I discovered last night, though, that there is a way to access the bonus features without buying the older releases: The digital code that comes in the packaging supports Movies Anywhere, which means that if you redeem your digital copy on Vudu, you also own it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, and any other supported digital retailers you have connected to your Movies Anywhere account. And iTunes has, as of the UHD release, updated its streaming version to include all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices, all of the audio commentaries, and the rare documentaries made by Costa Botes during the original production. True, you need an Apple TV to enjoy them in your home cinema, but at least they’re available in some form.

 

As I understand it, those of you who buy the 4K Extended Editions via Kaleidescape—once they’re available on December 15—will also have access to all of these bonus features. If for whatever reason you’ve never watched the Appendices, now is the time to dive in. Simply put, they’re more relevant than ever, given that you can now see the fruits of the labor poured into these movies in a way that’s never been possible before, neither at home nor in cinemas.

 

I won’t sit here and tell you The Lord of the Rings is the most visually perfect 4K release on the market. But I will say this: It benefits from 4K and HDR (and Dolby Atmos) more than any film re-release I know of. And I’ve never been happier to be so wrong in all my life.

Dennis Burger

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

“White Christmas”: Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

White Christmas (1954)

Although it may seem almost too obvious to include the 1954 film version of White Christmas on a list of movies to view during the Christmas season, it is nonetheless recommended here, but not for the reason you might think. White Christmas isn’t just a holiday movie but one of the most expertly done films of the 1950s, directed by one of the great studio men of Hollywood’s Golden Age—none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce). Curtiz’ accomplishments are so associated with 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. classics, that it is often overlooked that he continued to turn out colorful and superb films in the 1950s. He was adept in any genre—adventures, melodramas, film noir,

spectacular epics, and even musicals. Just think of the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

By 1954, Curtiz was freelancing, and his expertise was appreciated by all the major film studios. His genius was subtle but nonetheless ever-present, as he gave each film he worked on the royal Curtiz storytelling treatment. It’s no doubt Paramount assigned White Christmas to him because of the importance of the project.

 

The song “White Christmas” was by then the best-selling record of all time. Some reports say the Bing Crosby version had sold 100 million copies by 1954, while covers by other artists hovered around 400 million. With such a recognizable title, a film version was almost certain to be a major hit; therefore all the stops were pulled out and an “A”-class movie resulted.

 

The perennial Christmas favorite was not written for this film but rather was part of an original Irving Berlin song score for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, a black & white wartime musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song for 1942, 

struck a universal chord among thousands of soldiers who profoundly related to its beautiful but slightly melancholy tune and its concise lyric of loneliness and an idyllic dream of home. Its popularity only grew in the post-World War II era. It even took on a nostalgic flavor for the sacrifices of “the greatest generation.” This feeling would be passed on to their children of the Baby Boomer age.

 

Paramount, which had produced Holiday Inn, re-teamed Crosby and Astaire after the war in another Irving Berlin tuner, Blue Skies. This time the great stars were crooning and toe tapping in glorious Technicolor. It was another enormous musical success and Paramount began planning a Technicolor version of Holiday Inn for Bing and Fred but this time with the title White Christmas.

 

It’s unclear if Paramount meant White Christmas to be a re-make or a sequel. But it definitely was to feature Crosby and Astaire with a new Irving Berlin score. Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were top writers at Paramount and very adept at identifying the zeitgeist of the 1950s. By the early ’50s, they consciously or subliminally knew that the song “White Christmas” had nostalgic wartime edge to it, so they refashioned the Holiday Inn story completely to be about the post-

war era. And unlike, Holiday Inn, it was to take place entirely during the Christmas season. The subtle artistry and genius of Irving Berlin complied beautifully by writing 10 new songs, several of which dealt head-on with post-war soldiers. There is even a subtle but clear political slant to the story.

 

The film’s main point of conflict is that a one-time 

great general has been “put out to pasture” and forgotten by his country. Many today may think of this is a reference to the Eisenhower era (Eisenhower was the U.S. President in 1954) but it’s actually a reference to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been “forced to retire” by President Truman as commanding general of the Korean War. By 1954, MacArthur was, in his own words, “fading away.” It seems clear that even though Irving Berlin loved Eisenhower (he wrote his theme song, “I Like Ike”), he supported MacArthur even more. This might have also been true of the writers Krasna, Panama, and Frank, and even Bing Crosby. They must have been good Republicans all. So, the film White Christmas is not only a perfect time capsule of the political and moral mainstream of the mid 1950s but unabashed American political propaganda.

 

What role Fred Astaire was to play in all this seems unclear, but by 1954 Astaire was having his own career zenith, having a field day playing singing and dancing romantic leads over at MGM, where it was the glory days of the MGM musical. Back in the ‘40s when Astaire had costarred with Crosby, he was cast as “the guy who didn’t get the girl,” a kind of “second banana.” By 1954, Fred always got the girl even if it was a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn or an 18-year-old Leslie Caron. Likewise, by 1954 Bing Crosby was at his super-stardom peak over at Paramount. Therefore, Astaire, probably sensing that this was a Bing Crosby vehicle, opted out of the project.

 

Paramount then looked to Hollywood’s best and brightest “second banana” at the time—none other than the incredibly talented Donald O’Connor, who had supported Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s 

Call Me Madam (1953) to spectacular effect. In Call Me Madam, O’Connor was also teamed with Vera-Ellen. The choreography was by Robert Alton. Vera-Ellen was Alton’s protégé, and was generally accepted as the best female dancer in Hollywood—which is quite a compliment considering the talent roster there. If you don’t believe me, just ask Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, if you happen to run into them.

 

Vera-Ellen and Donald 

O’Connor’s dance routines in Call Me Madam are considered by many, such as the musical film historian Miles Krueger, as the best partner dance numbers on film—even surpassing Fred and Ginger! If you pay close attention to their movements in that film you might easily agree. Alton was set to stage White Christmas and the reassembly of the fabulous threesome was all set.

 

Ultimately, however, that was not to be. O’Connor was simultaneously starring in a string of black & white programmer comedies, the Francis the Talking Mule series—a pre-cursor to the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. Unfortunately, according to a video interview with O’Connor, he caught a rare and serious infection from the mule, and it put him out of commission for the period during which White Christmas was being filmed. All the choreography had already been staged by Alton with Vera-Ellen and O’Connor in mind. The production had to scramble to find a substitute. The solution was a big surprise. It was Danny Kaye.

 

At this time, Kaye was a huge solo film star on his own. He was at least as big as Astaire and Crosby. It would be unheard of for him to play “second banana.” But Kaye was savvy as well as fun-loving. He knew the greatness of Irving Berlin’s songs 

and he loved Bing Crosby. In addition, he was an accomplished dancer but had rarely used that talent in his movie musicals (although it might be noted he danced spectacularly well with a chorus girl named Gwen Verdon a couple of years before in On the Riviera).

 

White Christmas offered Kaye a chance to hoof with his old friend Vera-Ellen, 

sing some new Irving Berlin songs, and see if he could tease and amuse the otherwise low-key Bing Crosby. On all three accounts, the results were historically fabulous, and a good case might be made that Kaye never looked so relaxed performing, clowning, and supporting Crosby. Since the pressure was off of him to carry the picture by himself, Kaye seems to have incredible fun and is at ease throughout, allowing his brand of comic genius to shine through. It adds a lightness and joy to his teaming with Crosby that is unique in film.

 

It might be noted here that a recovered and healthy Donald O’Connor appeared later on opposite Crosby in the 1956 re-make of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Their chemistry is rather terrible and the comedic results are insufferable. So thank God Danny Kaye ended up in White Christmas.

 

Rosemary Clooney, the fine and fiery leading lady of the picture, said Danny Kaye would try every day to make Crosby burst into laughter on the set. And by her accounts, he well succeeded. In fact, in one truly wonderful moment of the film, we can actually see Crosby uncontrollably crack up. It’s in their parody of the “Sisters” number. At first he looks very uncomfortable performing in girlie accoutrement. But not Kaye, who pulls out all the stops. By the end of the number, Kaye repeatedly slaps Crosby’s stomach with a blue feather peacock fan. Crosby seems stunned but then is riddled with laughter. It’s a wonderful

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

and rare moment. Film musicals are so carefully planned and meticulously staged that you almost never see any improvisational moments. It’s so fresh and delightful here, you’ll be giggling, too. Michael Curtiz knew what a gem of a take he had and bravo to him for yelling “Print it!”

 

Later in the film, there is another comic gem of a 

scene when Danny Kaye resists Vera-Ellen’s romantic advances. Not only is he brilliantly funny, but the scene takes on a very modern context. It’s now quite clear to most people that Kaye had a mile-wide gay streak. It’s hysterical to see him avoid Vera-Ellen and cower like a cornered gay rat while being attacked by a beautiful blonde who, by the way, was the uncredited prototype of the original Barbie Doll. But the quasi-gay content makes you wonder if in 1954 everyone subliminally knew what was going on and it was just as funny then as it is now. The truly remarkable question is “How did they get away with it?” All this and in glorious and hyper-clear Technicolor, too!

 

Speaking of clear, it’s important to remember that White Christmas was the first film to be photographed in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s answer to the widescreen process CinemaScope developed at 20th Century-Fox. VistaVision was the

the smartest and most economically effective widescreen process of that era. Instead of using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the picture like CinemaScope or using an expensive 70mm film negative like Todd-AO, VistaVision ran 35mm film horizontally through the camera, similar to a still camera. Therefore, the image was photographed on a negative area twice the size of a normal motion picture. The clarity and depth of vision were also doubled. The cinematographer could move and focus the picture in many more ways than were previously possible. Additionally, the print could be projected in a variety of formats. It could be cropped for widescreen or projected as a square “Academy ratio” image. Because of this, theaters didn’t have to have any kind of special equipment to exhibit a VistaVision film. In rare cases, VistaVision could even be blown up to 70mm and retain utmost clarity. White Christmas was a perfect introduction to the new process and Paramount used it for over 60 films during the next decade.

 

Strangely enough, however, early VistaVision didn’t employ stereophonic sound. It had “enhanced” monophonic “high-fidelity” sound but not true left or right separate channels. Presumably this was because the image was not as wide as Cinemascope or Todd-AO and there was no need for an 

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

actor’s voice to follow the image on screen. Therefore, you won’t find any prints, videos, or audio of White Christmas in true stereo. And that’s a shame since musically the film is so well scored and sung.

 

In fact, it’s the excellence of White Christmas as a musical the truly elevates it above other Yuletide cheer. The mostly original (10 of the 13 songs) score makes it a true original film musical—written directly for the screen. This is a rarity in Hollywood musicals and Irving Berlin’s last original film score. Add to that the superb choreography, a tight and witty screenplay, and of course the sublime vocal talents of Bing and Rosemary Clooney (just watch “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), and it’s up there with The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Funny Face, and the other top film musicals of the 1950s. And that makes it one of the best film musicals of all time—so much more than a pretty Christmas card.

Gerard Alessandrini

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

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

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

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

changes everything.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Who Killed Film Noir?

Who Killed Film Noir?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Michael Gaughn

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Movie Roundup

The Cineluxe Ultimate Holiday Roundup

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

 

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

 

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

Elf (2003)
ELF

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/Dolby TrueHD 5.1)

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

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)

Vudu (HD/5.1)

Klaus

AVAILABLE ON

Netflix (4K HDR/Dolby Digital+ 5.1)

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

AVAILABLE ON

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

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

Amazon (4K) / Fandango Now (4K)

 Google Play (4K) / Vudu (4K)

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

AVAILABLE ON

Netflix (HD)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

AVAILABLE ON

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

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

Amazon Prime (4K) / Fandango Now (4K)

Google Play (HD)

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

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

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

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

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

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

Google Play (HD/5.1) / Vudu (HD/5.1)

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

AVAILABLE ON

Kaleidescape (HD/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)

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

Vudu (HD/Dolby Digital+ stereo)

Fandango Now (HD) / Google Play (HD)