Opinion

Home Theater’s Second Golden Age

Home Theater's Second Golden Age

There might be nothing to anything I have to say here. It’s all based on anecdote and speculation. The data might not ultimately bear me out. But, based on what I’ve heard from some of the top designers, it would seem that home theaters—or home cinemas or private cinemas or private theaters or whatever you want to call them—are going through something that could very well be considered a renaissance. 

 

Since this is more a rumination than a report, and since nobody has a better view of this particular part of the home-entertainment world than Theo Kalomirakis, I’m going to use his experiences of the past few years as my leaping-off point, and as representative of what I’ve been hearing from other, similar corners.

 

As the ’08 Recession took hold, Theo saw requests for luxury theaters decline dramatically, a trend that persisted for the next few years before settling into a kind of steady state. It was such a tremendous change from home theater’s Golden Age in 

the ‘90s that he began to wonder if dedicated theater rooms were going to fall completely out of favor, to be replaced by multi-use interlopers like media rooms and great rooms.

 

Then came the pandemic, which bore curveballs for pretty much every aspect of society, of course, but held some huge surprises in reserve for luxury home entertainment. As the enormity of the crisis sank in and it became clear things would stay dire for the foreseeable future, most people assumed we would all be hunkered down for the duration, personally, socially, economically, and culturally. But a few months in, I started hearing the same refrain from top-tier designers and integrators: Business was booming.

 

Forced to focus on a single residence, unable to enjoy entertainment anywhere but at home, and with some unexpected time available to contemplate their domestic priorities, many of their affluent clients were suddenly feeling the need for a movie-watching space that was not only completely up to date but also provided a refuge from both the increased activity in the rest of the home and from the outside world. A media room or great room, no matter 

how lavish, just wasn’t going to cut it. The desire for versatility had been trumped by the need for both escape and focus. An open-plan room meant to serve a variety of masters just can’t address those fundamental needs, no matter how well designed and constructed.

 

Based on the number of commissions the best of the best have been receiving recently, the evidence is mounting that home theaters are entering some kind of second golden age. But these new rooms aren’t just retreads of their movie-palace forebears but tend to embrace a more contemporary aesthetic, are much higher performance, and tend to be more accommodating to uses beyond movie-watching but without in any way compromising that defining experience.

 

As encouraging as all this is, my guess—and it’s just a guess—is that this phenomena will continue to play out almost exclusively at the very top of the market. Better and bigger (and cheaper) video displays and far better soundbars and streaming sources have made it easier for most people to settle for good enough in spaces that would need some serious work before they could even begin to approach great. For the broader market, where expediency rules, media rooms tend to make more sense. And, to be honest, the experience most of these people are having just isn’t that bad compared to what they were getting for the same money just five to seven years ago.

 

Maybe there isn’t a new golden age emerging. Maybe this is just a blip, an anomaly that ultimately signifies nothing. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels like the core idea of a dedicated theater room still has legs and has returned to run another day by deriving strength from some completely unexpected places. If that’s true, it’s cause for celebration because it’s a chance to reinforce the singular importance of movies at a time when they’re in very real danger of becoming just another form of entertainment.

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.

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.

REVIEWS

Black Widow (2021)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Life in Color (2021)
Luca (2021)
Sweet Tooth (2021)
The Cineluxe Hour

EPISODE 20 | THE STATE OF THE STREAMING ART

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.

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another “WandaVision”

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another "WandaVision"

As I’ve said before (so much that regular readers are probably getting sick of hearing it), Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed everything for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the film that showed us how MCU movies could rise above the tropes and trappings of superhero cinema. And it’s the film that gave the movies that followed it the freedom to play around with genre in interesting ways. If Winter Soldier hadn’t worked and hadn’t connected with audiences, I don’t think we would have WandaVision today. I just don’t think Marvel would have had the courage to make it.

 

But WandaVision, in its own way, changes everything yet again. The precedent set by this series is that you can take the single most mainstream intellectual property in the world and get abstract with it. You can experiment. You can out-bizarre Twin Peaks and still hang onto your fanboy audience, many of whom latch onto the MCU for no other reason than the wish-

fulfillment/power-trip aspect of it all.

 

Well, you can hang onto a lot of them. I have to admit, geeky though I may be, I’ve pretty much divorced myself from geek culture since the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi—mostly due to the toxicity of it all, but also because the loudest contingent of fantasy/sci-fi fans on the internet no more understands the properties they love to wax neck-beardedly about than my American Staffordshire Terrier understands quantum chromodynamics.

 

The few discussions I’ve seen about WandaVision, now that it’s over, frustrate and infuriate me in equal measure, because here we have a story that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be human, in a way no film or TV series of any genre has in ages, and the only things the Comic-Con crowd wants to discuss are why Mephisto didn’t make an appearance or whether Agatha’s rabbit familiar, Señor Scratchy, is secretly her son Nicholas Scratch from the comic books.

 

All fun topics to talk about, mind you, as frivolous as they 

may be. But can we take a breather from the soap-opera discussions to focus on what made WandaVision legitimately good? Can we appreciate that the company known for making movies about dudes fighting robots in their pajamas had the courage to tell a story in which the primary antagonists are grief, pain, cognitive dissonance, and consequences? And not physical manifestations thereof, but the actual human emotions?

 

Can we maybe take a breather from geeking out over the big action set-pieces to appreciate the fact that the biggest knock-down, drag-out battle in the finale was won not with fists or laser eyes, but a philosophical argument centered on the Ship of TheseusCan we talk about the fact that, as weird as the first half of WandaVision was, it avoided the biggest sins of the aforementioned Twin Peaks by knowing when to back off the eccentricities, lest they lose their value?

 

Look, I’m not saying WandaVision was perfect. I found it more than a bit disappointing when the penultimate episode overexplained too many of the series’ earlier abstractions, assuming I suppose that some of its audience may not have been able to connect the dots for themselves. But such slip-ups are few and far between, which is surprising for a show that works on so many levels.

 

WandaVision is, obviously, a story about struggling with grief and the toll that struggle can take on those around us. It’s also a meditation on our weird relationship with media—how we influence it and how it influences us, both overtly and subliminally. It’s a clever examination of shifting cultural norms, and how what we accept as normal today is as much a manipulated affectation as any of the tropes of the past.

 

The series’ strengths lie in its uniqueness. And yes, you could point to previous films it resembles in the most obvious of ways, such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show. But such similarities are mostly superficial (except, of course, for the latter’s framing of tragedy disguised as comedy, which this show appropriates with devastating effectiveness). WandaVision is, for all its references and call-backs, its own thing. Which is why I’m worried it’s going to be used as a template, now that it has proven successful.

 

I’m already seeing fans start to beg for a second season, and Marvel’s suits are being coy in their responses. And that terrifies me. As a lifelong fan of these characters—one who’s smitten with how they’ve been interpreted for screens large and small—I obviously want to see their stories continued. I’m as invested as could be. But I want to see Paul Bettany and Lizzie Olsen portraying Vision and the Scarlet Witch in new stories, told in new ways, not awkwardly fumbling around with attempts at capturing lighting in a bottle.

 

WandaVision was perhaps the most satisfying and self-contained narrative I’ve seen unfold in ages. And now it’s over. It’s done. There’s no more of this story to tell. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to replicate it. And if you need evidence of that, just look at the number of new streaming services that have come out in the past year with meaningless “+” symbols stapled onto the end of their names.

 

Yes, yes, I know. A streaming service and a TV series are not the same thing. But Hollywood has a knack for aping what works without understanding why it works. When Disney+ launched back in 2019, that binary operator at the end of its name actually meant something. It was shorthand for “Disney + Pixar + Star Wars + Marvel + National Geographic.” What the hell does Apple TV+ connote? Much less Paramount+, the new name for the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access? Paramount + what, exactly?

 

And so, in keeping with that entertainment-industry tradition, it stands to reason that we’ll eventually see at least a few feeble attempts at replicating the self-referential, heartfelt-story-framed-as-classic-sitcom container in which WandaVision was delivered, with no thought given to what that device actually meant in the context of this story.

 

The most I can hope for is that Marvel doesn’t attempt to scrape this barrel again, and certainly not with these characters, because wishing for anything more than that would be like Charlie Brown, facing that football once more, hoping beyond hope that Lucy doesn’t yank it away at the last second.

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 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.

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.