Reviews

The High Note

The High Note

New movie releases have been pretty slim pickings lately—and are likely to be that way for the foreseeable future—so when a new film from a major studio (NBCUniversal, in this case) becomes available, it’s worth giving it a watch to see if we can recommend it.

 

The High Note was scheduled for a wide theatrical release on May 8, and actually did have a limited run in about 60 select theaters and drive-ins across the country while simultaneously being released as a premium video-on-demand (PVOD) title. 

It is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape at the very reasonable price of $19.99.

 

The film is directed by Nisha Gantra, who specializes in directing episodes of comedic TV series such as The Last Man on Earth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Fresh Off the Boat, and is the first writing credit for Flora Greeson. The film’s big draw is its cast, with Dakota Johnson in the starring role as worked-to-death personal assistant Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross—daughter of iconic singer Diana Ross and best known for her role as Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish—as R&B singing legend Grace Davis. Ice Cube plays Grace’s manager, Jack, with Bill Pullman in little more than a cameo as Maggie’s father, Max. There’s also another
brief cameo by the musician Diplo in his big-screen debut as producer Richie Williams.

 

After years of doing all of Grace’s grunt work, music-loving Maggie is looking for more, and wants to break into the 

HIGH NOTE AT A GLANCE

This teen-targeted tale of an aging R&B diva’s ambitious assistant might not move the rom-com needle forward, but it does feature some spectacular-sounding musical performances. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer has natural-looking, lifelike images but often appears soft, perhaps to benefit the film’s aging stars. 

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack takes full advantage of the music-driven scenes, kicking up the SPLs and waking up your subwoofers.

music industry by producing Grace’s next record, a live greatest-hits album. Of course, she doesn’t tell Grace this, instead spending her free time in the studio working on putting a new spin on Grace’s classics. Jack thinks Grace’s career is winding down, and—along with the record label—is pushing her to take a residency in Las Vegas where they can capitalize on her history of 11 Grammy wins to cater to a large fan base, stop touring, and enjoy an easy life with guaranteed easy money rolling in.

 

Along the way, Grace has a classic meet-cute with David Cliff (Kevin Harrison Jr.) at a grocery store where they discuss music while shopping, and she walks outside to discover Cliff is an aspiring musician who has tons of talent, but needs a producer to get him to the next level. Maggie convinces him that she is a professional producer and offers to work with him to make an album, and they happen to fall in love along the way.

 

The movie spends much of its time with the “drama” of Maggie trying to serve two masters—being available for Grace’s every whim at all hours of the day while also making time to work with David in and out of the studio. Ultimately, things come to a head, with Maggie’s world falling apart in a single evening where she loses both her job with Grace and her relationship with David, and then runs home to her DJ dad. Everything then suddenly comes back together in classic Hollywood fashion for a nice happy ending.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 6.5 K resolution, The High Note transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, but I never felt it was giving me that ultra-level of detail of many modern 4K transfers. In fact, many shots had a soft, film-like quality as if the

camera was slightly defocused to be a bit kinder to the older actors. There are some moments of sharp detail like the seat stitching in Grace’s McLaren or the texture and weave in clothing, but up until I read the technical specs I was convinced this had been sourced from a 2K DI.

 

Of course, high dynamic range often plays a bigger part in picture quality than resolution, and images here have a really natural, lifelike quality. Many interior shots are lit by rich, warm lighting that reminded me of the glow of analog tube amplifiers or natural, Southern California sunlight. Nighttime scenes are nice and dark, punctuated by bright highlights from car headlights, billboards, and glowing neon signs. The pre-sunset skies in Hollywood are also filled with color and detail with no banding or noise.

 

This movie is about the music industry, and the Dolby Atmos TrueHD soundtrack is really where it shines. Every time music kicks in, it does so with a lot of volume and impact, letting you really appreciate the energy of the live performance. From the opening moments when Maggie is in the studio working on Grace’s album, you get a huge soundstage that fills the room, with hard-hitting kick drums and a bass line you feel in your chest, with cheering crowd noise all around you. There are several scenes of live music, and they all sound great, kicking up the SPLs   

The High Note

and waking up your subwoofers, with the actors turning in believable performances. There is one nice audio moment where David is listening on a pair of headphones to a mix Maggie did of one his songs. You still get a full soundstage here but with a much different mix, letting you experience what the character is hearing. Dialogue was also clear and intelligible throughout.

 

While The High Note doesn’t tread any new rom-com ground or challenge you in any way, and you’ll likely see its “big” plot twist coming from miles away, it is an easy, entertaining film featuring solid performances and singing that is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 69 and Audience Score of 75. In a time when the news is filled with enough negative information, a nice, easy, upbeat film can be just the night at home you’re looking for.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Easy Rider

Easy Rider (1969)

The last time I sat down to watch Easy Rider was sometime in 1990. Sixties nostalgia was in full swing, since grunge hadn’t really exploded and given the burgeoning decade something resembling its own identity. I was in my late teens, and the film was barely in its twenties. And yet, it felt archaic to me. A time capsule, if you will. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t compelling. But I think I mostly saw Easy Rider as something akin to a 95-minute music video for some of the best tunes dominating 

classic rock radio at the time. And sure, I understood its lasting influence on American New Wave cinema. But it still struck me as little more than a nostalgia trip, and a disjointed one at that.

 

Fast-forward 30 more years, and Easy Rider feels relevant to me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before digging into Kaleidescape’s recent 4K HDR release. For me, Easy Rider isn’t just a hop into the Wayback Machine anymore. It’s a relatable portrait of a turbulent and divided America. Of senseless violence and othering. Of rage and misplaced resentment boiling over into identity politics and spilling out into interpersonal strife. Of the end of an era.

 

And sure, it’s not quite like looking out the window. The clothing looks more like costumes. Some of the characters feel more like caricatures. But, despite all of that, Easy Rider still feels like it has something to say about our present moment in history, for perhaps the first time since its release in 1969. (I’m reminded of a popular adage in geek 

EASY RIDER AT A GLANCE

Treated for years as a quaint cultural artifact, this iconic big-studio “indie” film takes on a new significance when viewed in the light of current events. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer stays true to the look of the movie’s film stock, faithfully presenting its often drab but sometimes vibrant color palette.

 

SOUND     

The legendary music soundtrack sounds amazing in both stereo and surround, but the dialogue remains tinny and flat, thanks to the original on-set audio recordings.

culture: “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” I’m also reminded of the oft-quoted observation by Marx: “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”)

 

Part of the film’s reinvigorated applicability may have something to do with its structure—a series of loosely connected vignettes that barely add up to a plot. According to legend, most of what was left on the cutting-room floor when the film was whittled down from 220 to 95 minutes could be considered story. And what we’re left with is more of a moment-to-moment experience than anything else. And I think—again, just speaking for myself—this forces a bit of reflection on what the film leaves unsaid: The racial tensions of the era, the conflict in Vietnam, the political infighting. Despite the fact that the film doesn’t mention any of the above, all of it looms large over Easy Rider. And since they’re not explicit here, it’s easy to impose some of our own sociopolitical strife in their place.

 

I think the new 4K HDR transfer also helps immensely, at least when it comes to getting immersed in the weirdness of Easy Rider. If you know the film well, you may be wondering what the enhanced resolution does for the imagery. The short answer is: Not much. In large part, really nothing. But the expanded dynamic range and enhanced color gamut bring the cinematography to life in ways that home video simply hasn’t been capable of doing until recently.

 

I’m reminded of my observations about the new 4K HDR release of The Wizard of Oz. In similar respects, Easy Rider benefits not only from more vibrancy and purity of colors, but also from the selective intensity of primary hues. In past transfers, the 

entire palette had to be boosted or muted, brightened or darkened universally. With HDR, dazzling Crayola-colored reds and blues comfortably share the screen with more subdued pastels and weather-worn pigmentations, and intense flashes of light comfortably share the frame with deep shadows that nonetheless contain nuance. Peter Fonda’s flag-adorned chopper practically glows against a backdrop that’s more often than not dull and dingy.

 

To put it simply, for the first time, the home video presentation of Easy Rider actually looks and feels like film, and thankfully the restoration efforts—while cleaning up dirt and scratches and other ravages of time—have done nothing to rob the footage of its wonderfully organic and grainy photochemical chaos.

 

Of course, the film’s sound mix is what it is. The iconic music tracks sound amazing, in both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and stereo mixes. The dialogue and other on-set audio still sound as if they were recorded with a couple of tin cans and some string, though, and there’s just not much to be done about that, short of egregious meddling.

 

The Kaleidescape download also comes with a couple of bonus goodies: An audio commentary with Dennis Hopper and an hour-long documentary from 1999 

Easy Rider (1969)

called Shaking the Cage. I would recommend skipping the former, since it provides a rather unbalanced perspective on the making of the film. Perhaps if Sony Pictures owned the second commentary track included with the Criterion Blu-ray release—featuring Hopper, Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis—it would be worth a listen.

 

Truth be told, you get everything you could want from a commentary and more from Shaking the Cage, which should be viewed as an essential companion piece—almost more like annotations for Easy Rider than a traditional making-of retrospective. It’s true, you don’t get much in the way of insight into the themes and mysteries of the film, but rarely have I seen a more unbridled examination of the personality conflicts, fights, compromises, and sheer pandemonium behind the making of any film. In some ways, it’s almost more entertaining than Easy Rider itself.

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 Bletchley Circle

It’s pretty easy to take a quick glance at The Bletchley Circle and think you’ve got it figured out. Combine two parts Rosemary & Thyme, one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Numbers, boil until completely devoid of flavor, add a dash of Masterpiece Theatre saccharine and a sprinkle of tut-tut-tea-time-pass-me-a-scone English inoffensiveness, and you’ve got the recipe for my impression of the series before I actually sat down to watch it. And to be frank, if not for my interest in the

Enigma and Lorenz ciphers used by Germany in World War II, and the Allied efforts to break those codes, I likely never would have watched the first episode.

 

But thank goodness I did, because that initial impression couldn’t have been more off-base. True, The Bletchley Circle does owe a debt to the aforementioned properties. And yes, it is unapologetically English. But rather than being just another formulaic murder-mystery series or, worse yet, another boring period drama, the first season actually manages to be a smart, well-scripted whodunnit that carves out its own identity.

 

Actually, to call it a whodunnit is a little misleading. Yes, on 

BLETCHLEY AT A GLANCE

This British murder-mystery series is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. 

 

PICTURE     

The Kaleidescape download is a step up from the streaming version, mainly in its shadow depth and detail. Its 1080p presentation holds up better on screens 65″ and up.

the surface the show follows four former Bletchley Park colleagues who reunite seven years after the end of the war to get to the bottom of a series of murders that have the police baffled. And yes, they use all the tools of the codebreaking trade to analyze patterns and hone in on the elusive killer. But that’s not really what the show is about, and if you watch murder mysteries in an attempt to identify the killer before the big reveal, or to experience that “Ah ha! I should have seen it all along” moment, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed.

 

What The Bletchley Circle is really about is the relationships between these four women, and their attempts to find their respective places in society after contributing to the war effort and then being forbidden to reveal—even to their husbands—the role they played. What it’s about is a peculiar moment in time when a country is struggling to find its own post-war identity. It’s about the age-old struggle between masculinity and femininity and the social norms surrounding such constructs. And what makes The Bletchley Circle work is that it grapples with all of this without being overtly political or in any way heavy-handed. In lesser hands than those of writer Guy Burt (probably best-known for his work on Showtime’s The Borgias), the series could have easily devolved into the sort of Woman Good/Man Bad culture-war orthodoxy that I sympathize with politically, but always find boring in works of fiction.

 

Thankfully, the struggles the quartet faces as a result of being highly intelligent and highly skilled women living in a world that only knowns how to place them in secretary-, cashier-, librarian-, or housewife-shaped boxes are handled with enough nuance that the series feels true to its time and place. It doesn’t feel like a wholesale re-evaluation of the past through the

lens of current mores.

 

If there’s a criticism to be leveled against the first season of the show—three perfectly paced 46-ish-minute episodes that feel more like a single movie with two built-in potty breaks—it’s that the four leads occasionally feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out characters. In fact, at times the young Lucy (played by Sophie Rundle of Peaky Blinders and Gentleman Jack fame) feels like little more than a vehicle for her eidetic memory, which comes in handy when the plot calls for the quick recollection of dates and figures.

 

But such blunders are few, and on the whole The Bletchley Circle is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. Is it worth owning? I’d say yes, but only the first season, which thankfully contains a satisfying story with a proper beginning, middle, and ending. Season Two ups the production-value ante a little, and adds some color to the otherwise beige palette of Season One. It also features a somewhat more on-point storyline that ties more directly into the ladies’ time at Bletchley Park. But some sloppy scripting and puzzling anachronisms keep it from being as satisfying as Season One. My recommendation would be to check out Season Two on Amazon Prime before spending $16.99 to own it.

The Bletchley Circle

Season One, on the other hand, is an easy no-brainer purchase for anyone who likes a good (and I do mean good) period drama or murder mystery. The video transfer available from Kaleidescape is a step up from the streaming version on Amazon, mostly in its handling of shadow depth and detail. The streaming version also suffers from a few chromatic aberrations that might not be noticeable if you’re watching on a 65-inch TV all the way across the living room, but which definitely mar the presentation when blown up to cinematic proportions. The Kaleidescape transfer nips such problems in the bud and looks great on the big screen, even if its resolution is limited to 1080p.

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.

INXS: Live Baby Live

INXS: Live Baby Live

We don’t often review concerts here at Cineluxe, mainly because not a lot of them come out featuring 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio. (We did review Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague, which while only in HD quality did feature an engaging Atmos soundtrack.) So, when INXS: Live Baby Live received a full 4K HDR restoration from Eagle Vision following a limited-

engagement theatrical run at the end of 2019, it seemed like a perfect candidate for review.

 

I graduated high school in the late ‘80s—the height of INXS’ popularity—and I’m a big fan of the band’s music. Their albums Listen Like Thieves, Kick, and X—from which this show draws much of its material – were in regular rotation in my car’s Sony Disc Jockey 10-disc CD changer. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see them perform live before lead singer Michael Hutchence committed suicide in November 1997, putting an end to the band.

 

This show was captured in July 13, 1991 with INXS performing in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 74,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium.

 

According to themusicuniverse.com, director David Mallet (who has also filmed the likes of Peter Gabriel, Queen, 

INXS AT A GLANCE

This 1991 concert gets a 4K HDR upgrade that puts you in the middle of the massive Wembley crowd—without having to deal with all the sweaty bodies. 

 

PICTURE     

The frenetic cutting might not be to everyone’s taste, and wider shots tend to look more HD than UHD, but the 4K excels in the closeups.

 

SOUND

The Atmos soundtrack is the real star of the show, with an evocative mix that sounds realistic and huge.

AC/DC, Elton John, U2, and Pink Floyd) used 17 cameras and a helicopter to capture this concert on 35mm film, which has been painstakingly restored from the original negatives over a six-month period to 4K Ultra HD. The show is presented in a more cinematic widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which was created “by going through the film shot by shot and repositioning every one to get the best out of the frame.” The new Dolby Atmos soundtrack was “created by the band’s Executive Music Producer Giles Martin and Sam Okell at Abbey Road Studios.”

 

INXS’ performance was part of a larger event called “Summer XS,” which also featured performances by Jesus Jones, Deborah Harry (aka “Blondie” and I hate that I might have to explain that to anyone!), and The Hothouse Flowers. This explains the relatively “short” 98-minute performance, but believe me, the concert certainly doesn’t feel short, and more than makes up for any lack of time with an abundance of energy.

 

I’ve only ever been to one live stadium show, Taylor Swift’s “Reputation Stadium Tour” back in 2018, but the contrast between these two performances was interesting. Where Swift used all manner of technology at her disposal, including giant-sized sets and props, multiple backup singers and dancers, elaborate video screens and pyrotechnics, INXS just took to the stage by themselves and proceeded to kill it for 98 straight minutes. There are no gimmicks or crutches here—no overdubs or vocal backing tracks, no guest performers or added members to fill out the band, just Hutchence and the other five band members at the height of their career pouring themselves into the songs, with Hutchence seeming to gain more vocal strength and energy as the show goes on.

 

You can see the packed house at Wembley falling under Hutchence spell, with 74,000 bodies writhing and moving in time to the beat, jumping, dancing, digging, and hanging onto his every note. It is as powerful a performance as you’re likely to see, reminiscent of Freddy Mercury’s hold over the crowd at the same venue just a few years before.

 

Watching the concert also made me appreciate just how much I prefer to be enjoying this show from the comfort of my home theater with a well-made martini in hand. If you look closely, it appears that several people are pulled out of the seething mass of bodies after passing out. Being able to enjoy this in peace and comfort rather than being trapped in the suffocating and claustrophobic scrum at the front rows at Wembley is a pleasure beyond words.

 

The set list features 22 songs, including most of the band’s biggest hits to that time, with the notable absences including “The One Thing,” “Listen Like Thieves,” and “This Time.” (The show precedes Welcome to Wherever You Are and doesn’t feature any tracks from that album.) Even still, there is plenty from start to finish that will have you rocking out, and I dare say if you don’t find your head bobbing and your toes tapping at multiple points along the way, you might want to check your pulse.

 

With so many camera angles and shots to choose from, I did notice that the view jumps around quite a bit, which you’ll either like or you won’t. The view changes almost every few seconds, whether to a different performer, perspective, angle, wide, or crowd shot. This can make for a dynamic viewing experience, but if you like a concert film that mostly stays back and keeps the band in frame, this editing might be a little frenetic for you.

 

Interestingly, my Marantz processor listed the video format as 4K/50Hz, which is unusual for US films. Kaleidescape explained that the film was natively filmed by Eagle Vision for their UK audience, so it is native 25 frames-per-second, not the 24 fps of US movies. However, Kaleidescape claims this shouldn’t pose any compatibility or weird motion issues, and I certainly didn’t notice any.

 

While it is a 4K HDR transfer, I’d say the video quality can be a mixed bag. Some lengthy shots (from the helicopter?) and pans of the crowd can be a mess, almost veering into VHS quality, whereas closeups of the band are sharp and detailed and 

mostly look terrific. On the whole, I’d say the concert is more HD-looking than UHD, and you likely won’t use this to show off how great your video system looks. Having said that, the video quality is definitely well beyond serviceable and puts you in the middle of the performance.

 

Image quality starts to really improve after about 30 minutes into the show when the sun has mostly set at Wembley, and you can far better appreciate the stage lighting, with the bright colors and lights getting some nice pop from HDR. HDR also helps with the shadow detail, as lights play across the performers as they walk in and out of bright spots. You also get some good color saturation from the stage lights or Kirk Pengilly’s incredibly saturated red suit. There is a bit of grain in some of the early sky shots and in stage lighting, but it is organic and inoffensive.

 

But make no mistake, the audio is the star of the show here, and you’ll want to get the full lossless True HD Atmos soundtrack from the 4K disc or Kaleidescape download to fully appreciate the performance. The presentation is huge. In fact, one of my listening notes says, “Doesn’t sound like a studio mix at all; sounds like a big, fat, giant stadium concert experience!” Audio is primarily spread across the front channels and mixed up into the front height speakers, creating a massive wall of sound, but there are tons of ambience, reverb, and crowd noise mixed into 

INXS: Live Baby Live

the side and rear surround speakers to immerse you in the experience and put you right in the middle of Wembley. You know, without all the sweating bodies.

 

Bass starts off big and huge during “Guns in the Sky” and has that deep, thump-you-in-the-chest quality of a stadium PA system, letting you easily feel it in your seat. The bass-heavy mix is also a great way to demo the benefits of your system’s room correction. Turning Audyssey off on my processor caused the bass to become kind of a flat, one-dimensional affair with little focus or impact, where re-engaging it just tightened the screws on the low frequencies and gave them way more punch and slam.

 

Featuring just a couple more F-Bombs than Hamilton (typically when Hutchence is engaging the crowd), Live Baby Live is 99% family-friendly, and a great way to introduce younger listeners to one of the great bands of the ‘80s. If you haven’t enjoyed a concert in your home theater, this makes for a fun evening that will have you rocking and singing along while taking you back nearly 30 years. Like a great album, this is a show you’ll likely find yourself returning to, and with Kaleidescape’s pre-bookmarked songs, it makes jumping straight to your favorites “What You Need”!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Greyhound

Greyhound

Apple TV+ snatched up Tom Hanks’ latest, Greyhound, as an exclusive for its relatively new streaming service after the film was moved from its original March 22 theatrical release date to May 8 and then to June 12. Apple has been looking for that “killer app” original programming to bolster and broaden its streaming offerings, and this Sony Pictures-produced World War II thriller is a strong choice. And at an estimated budget of $50.3 million, this is one of the biggest films to get a direct-to-streaming release thus far (unless you count the $75 million Disney paid for the worldwide rights to Hamilton).

Hanks is no stranger to starring in war films (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Forrest Gump) or movies where water plays an integral role (Cast Away, Captain Phillips, Sully), and here he combines the two, playing Ernest Krause, a captain in the U.S. Navy commanding a World War II-era Fletcher-class destroyer (call sign “Greyhound”) on his first mission, leading a convoy of 37 Allied ships crossing the Atlantic loaded with soldiers and supplies for the front lines.

 

P.T. Barnum is credited with saying, “Always leave them wanting more,” and that is what I thought when Greyhound’s end credits started rolling. The film’s actual run time (less credits) is a brisk 81 minutes, making it feel a bit more like an episode in a series than a standalone feature film. Fortunately, it uses nearly each of those minutes to full potential, zipping by with a very tight story that contains virtually no fat.

GREYHOUND AT A GLANCE

This movie isn’t big on character development, but it does give you a great sense of what it was like to command a ship under siege by U-boats during World War II. 

 

PICTURE     

HDR helps enhance the details in the film’s predominantly grey color palette while making it more vivid.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos mix helps capture the sense of a ship under attack, with sound waves from depth-charge explosions pressurizing your room and hitting you in the chest.

The movie begins by informing us of a treacherous area of the Atlantic beyond the range of Allied air cover known as the “Black Pit,” where German submarines—U-boats—hunt Allied convoys in lethal groups known as a “Wolfpack.” The multi-day crossing during the Battle of the Atlantic saw over 3,500 ships carrying millions of tons of cargo sunk, with over 72,000 souls lost. While the story is based on actual events, Greyhound is not a true story. Hanks actually penned the screenplay—his first feature-film writing credit since That Thing You Do! in 1996—based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd.

 

What is lost is any sort of character development. We learn nothing about anyone, and just get bits and pieces of information about Krause, who appears religious (he makes a point of praying several times) and whose sole motivation is to get as much of the convoy safely across the Atlantic as possible.

 

The one bit of backstory we do get before Krause ships off is that he wants to propose to his girlfriend Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) on a beach, but that relationship—or any other—is never developed. In retrospect, this opening scene, in which Evelyn and Krause exchange Christmas presents, seems to be in the film solely as an opportunity for Krause to explain that he has finally been given command of his first destroyer before he heads off to training and then into active duty.

 

Besides that brief scene, the film maintains a laser focus on the Greyhound, and features Hanks in nearly every shot. We see the other ships in the convoy, but they are usually shown in the distance either via Krause’s view through binoculars or from high aerial shots. Krause communicates with other ships over the radios, but we never see crew aboard any other ships. We see the periscope, decks, and conning of the Wolfpack subs that crest and slice through the waters like a hunting shark’s fin—and even hear the “Grey Wolf” sub taunting Krause and the Greyhound over the radio—but the enemy remains faceless.

 

The short running time and focusing nearly entirely on Krause allows you to fully appreciate the absolute weight of command as he is forced to make virtually every decision, skipping meals and sleep during the treacherous crossing, and making life-and-death choices—either for himself or others in the convoy—nearly every minute. In some ways, the tightness and claustrophobic nature of many of the interiors aboard the Greyhound are reminiscent of a submarine film, but here we see the flip side of the coin, hunting the unseen sub, and launching patterns of depth charges and watching them explode the surface of the water instead of being inside the sub as they explode all around.

 

The film delivers an accurate portrayal of operations aboard a warship, with lots of orders being given then repeated back, multiple announcements of bearings and headings, and lots of navigation change orders in the form of left/right full/hard/standard rudder.

 

The CGI effects and attention to detail are impressive throughout, and short of an opening shot where a circling plane just looked a tad off, nothing pulls you out of the film.

 

Filmed in DXL Raw at 8K resolution, Greyhound is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the image quality is sharp and detailed throughout. Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether the pores in actors’ faces, the pebbled texture on helmets, the thick, heavy wool of a peacoat, or the detail on the ship’s instrumentation.

 

Viewers with capable displays can enjoy a Dolby Vision presentation; however, I was limited to HDR10. While much of the film is grey and gloomy—the ships, the ocean, the skies, even the drab olive greens of the sailors’ uniforms—there are still plenty of benefits from the added dynamic range, which generally creates more depth and realism. Whether it is bright light streaming into darkened interiors through port holes, pops of light from the ship’s instruments or interior lighting, emergency distress flares piercing the black night sky, or the bright red flames rolling out of ships on fire, images have plenty of punch when called for.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos mix is fairly active with lots of atmospheric sounds to place you in the scene and aboard the ship. Whether inside the ship or on the deck, you hear waves crashing, the creaks and groans of the ship, the howl of the wind, the pings from the sonar room, PA announcements echoing through the overhead speakers, and off-camera voices.

 

Your subwoofer is also called on frequently to deliver some tactile bass, whether from waves rolling through the room, splashing up high on the front wall and overhead, and then crashing with bassy authority, or the ship’s engines thrumming with appropriate weight, or the deck guns engaging U-boats with a boom that you’ll feel in your seat. The biggest bass moments come from the explosion of depth charges, which will cause a good subwoofer to pressurize the air in the room and let you feel it in your chest.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and intelligible—however, there are some moments where it’s a tad muffled, but this is usually coming from or in the sonar room with much going on.

 

Greyhound does not require much of a commitment in the way of time, but will definitely be enjoyable for those who like Hanks and/or WWII dramas, and it is streaming now for free on Apple TV+ (subscription required).

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Stan & Ollie, the recent movie about Laurel and Hardy’s final years together, introduced or re-introduced many people to the incredibly influential comedy team that bridged the gap between formal theater and vaudeville and the silent and sound eras. That touching film helped spur new interest in the legendary comedy duo.

 

The fine new four-disc Blu-ray collection Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations uses restored versions of many of the team’s classic films and a bounty of extras to celebrate their work. These are perhaps as definitive versions as we will ever 

get to see. Painstakingly restored in 2K and 4K resolution, this is the best some of these films have looked since the time of their original release.

 

While I don’t claim to be the world’s leading authority on vintage film from the black & white era—though I do love a lot of early films!—the clarity found on Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations is unlike any versions of their movies I’ve seen to date. Sure, they display a certain amount of grain inherent to the early film equipment. But now you can clearly see the surprisingly wonderful sets and lighting supporting the never-ending gags, puns, and all manner of campy comebacks that have kept audiences laughing for decades. Click here, here, and here to see some side-by-

THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS
AT A GLANCE

Some of the comedy duo’s signature features & shorts receive 2K and 4K restorations in this four-disc Blu-ray set brimming with extras

 

PICTURE     

Purged of their jitter, blur, blotches, and scratches, this is probably the best these films have looked since they were originally released.

side before-and-after examples of the restorations—but they don’t quite convey the experience of just sitting down and letting yourself get immersed in the Laurel and Hardy universe.

 

This set includes some of their earliest films as a team, including a legendary reel that has not been seen in its complete form since its original presentation in 1927. Portions of their short “Battle of the Century” were lost over the years but after painstaking research most of it has been reassembled from original elements. This is apparently a world-premiere release, making its consumer-video debut after being effectively lost for 90 years!

 

The 2K and 4K transfers were done from restorations originally created for theatrical distribution by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat for the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress using the best surviving 35mm elements, including nitrate prints. So, unlike versions you may have seen on TV, YouTube, or earlier DVD collections, these are not blurry, jittery old movies. Most of the films sport a very distinct clear and steady look. I immediately noticed a stronger depth of field than I ever remembered seeing before. The Definitive Restorations allows you to better appreciate the detail captured, with lots of location shots around Hollywood and Los Angeles (and probably other locations) back in the day. The films used to just look flat (and scratchy!), but now you can fully experience the joyful cinematography underlying these gems. 

 

While there is no fancy packaging on this Blu-ray set, the bonus materials more than make up for the lack of any sort of booklet and box that would have driven up the price. There are audio commentaries for most of the films, which makes for a great education. While I’m still working my way through them, I found the one for “Battle of the Century” (1927) especially enlightening. It is very much like taking a film-history class, with commentaries by Laurel and Hardy experts Randy Skretvedt (Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind Movies) and Richard W. Bann. (Another Fine Mess: Laurel and Hardy’s Legacy).

 

The eight hours of extras include 2,500 rare photographs, studio documents, interviews with people who worked with Laurel and Hardy, trailers, and versions of some films with alternate soundtracks. You’ll even get to see a fully restored version of 

their one surviving color film, “The Tree in a Test Tube” (1942) (a very curious clip celebrating the glories of wood impacting everyday life, made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed by the U.S. Forest Service . . . for real!)

 

Some of my favorites in this set include the Academy Award-winning ridiculous-but-epic short about the two piano movers called “The Music Box” (1932). I loved “The Chimp” (1932), if only to be able to see Oliver Hardy show up on screen in a tutu! (Speaking of drag, that theme comes up numerous times in Laurel and 

Hardy films.) In “Twice Two” (1933), we get to see both Laurel and Hardy playing each other’s sisters, whom they each married in the story. Surprisingly convincing early special effects and clever editing make this mad romp all the more fascinating. The restoration allows the satin of Hardy’s dress to simply shimmer!

 

“Brats” (1930) is  a great short where Laurel and Hardy not only play themselves as adults, but also as their spoiled bratty children. The use of fantastic oversized stage props makes the film as fascinating to watch as it is funny. Be on the lookout for the animated mouse!

 

The full-length movie Way Out West (1937) looks especially crisp, and includes that classic scene of them dancing together in front of the saloon. There too you’ll see numerous clever early special effects. Be sure to watch for the recurring gag where Stan is able to light an imaginary cigarette lighter from his thumb. There is also a nifty moment where Hardy’s neck stretches like a rubber band as Laurel tries to pull him out of a hole in a piece of wooden floorboard.

 

My favorite film thus far is perhaps the rarest of the set, the aforementioned “Battle of the Century.” It is just completely over-the-top madcap fun! And even though it is technically still not complete (some scenes are missing, connected by surviving stills), it is worth putting those minor concerns aside to just take in the joy of the epic pie-fight sequence. (They reportedly used 3,000 real cream pies.) But don’t skip over the opening boxing match—the genesis of which has a fascinating history, as described in the bonus commentary. Be sure to look for the uncredited appearance of a pre-fame, 21-year-old Lou Costello, who is an extra in the crowd, a full 13 years before the first Abbott and Costello film debuted!

 

There are many other great bonus features, such as trailers for many of their films (including ones not in this package). And there is a fascinating audio-only section that allows you to hear 12 different music sequences that were backing for different movies/scenes. These were apparently taken off of one-of-a-kind transcription discs that were transferred over when discovered in 1980. 

 

There is much more I have yet to explore on this set, so I’m looking forward to continuing my journey. I also plan to order a film that isn’t included here but which I loved as a kid seeing it on TV reruns every holiday season: Babes in Toyland, based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta. Exploring Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations has been an extremely satisfying experience and is a great place to start collecting their movies.

Mark Smotroff

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

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

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.

Emma. (2020)

Emma (2020)

And, yes, before you think to ask, the title does include a period after “Emma”. According to Autumn de Wilde, making his big-screen directorial debut here, this is to signify the movie as a “period piece” set in the original era.

 

Emma. was one of the first films Universal decided to release on premium video on demand (along with The Invisible Man and The Hunt) due to the theatrical shutdown, bringing it to the home market as a $19.99 48-hour rental just 10 days after

its theatrical debut. The initial release was limited to just 1080p resolution, causing some to hold off.

 

Emma. is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape for that same $19.99 price, but with a 4K HDR transfer. (The film had a theatrical Dolby Digital sound mix, and it is provided with a DTS-HD Master 5.1-mix for home.)

 

As a movie lover, I’m always up to watch just about anything, but I’ll admit that Emma. was a bit outside the wheelhouse of films I usually take on for review. I didn’t remember anything of the story, and all the I could recall from the previous Emma (1996) was Gwyneth Paltrow holding a bow and arrow. (Spoiler: There is no archery in this version whatsoever!) Fortunately, my wife, Dana, is a huge Jane Austen fan and she was game for reviewing the film portion and offering a bit of perspective from an Austen-loving background:

EMMA AT A GLANCE

While this may look & sound better than the 1996 take on the Jane Austen classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s earlier portrayal of Emma was far more likable than Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance here. 

 

PICTURE     

Kaleidescape’s 4K download is true to the film’s pastel tones, but the digital intermediate seems soft compared to some recent 4K transfers.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job conveying the dialogue, atmospherics, and evocative classical score.

I discovered Jane Austin at 14. I first read Pride and Prejudice, followed in quick succession by Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Austen’s writing draws you into a world of grand houses, ladies and gentlemen, and the proper manners expected of such people. In spite of the sometimes pretentious and flowery speeches, the wit and humor is easily understood, and the banter between characters is a bit like looking in on a 200-year-old sitcom.

 

Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is actually one of my least favorites. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled snob, both self-centered and vacuous. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine from my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is well-read, intelligent, and caring. In Emma, Emma’s neighbor and friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) berates and corrects her, causing her to pout as if she were a child, whereas in Pride, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy banter back and forth, sharing interesting ideas and concepts more as equals.

 

So far, there have been two film versions of Emma, the previous being the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (There have also been at least three TV mini-series versions.)  [JS: And not to mention 1995’s Clueless, which is a very modern retelling of the story.] While the costumes and locations are similar in both films, I found the color scheme of the 1996 version more somber. While I initially thought Taylor-Joy was actually of English descent, it turns out she was born in Miami, Florida, was raised in Argentina until she was six, and then moved to London, where she spent the next eight years. While English was not her first language—she spoke only Spanish until she was six—her English accent here is solidly believable throughout.

 

Many scenes from this retelling have a grander scope, revealing more of the vast countryside views. [JS: While the theatrical resolution is listed as 1.85:1, the home release is actually 16:9, or 1.78:1.] Some of the framing, pacing, and closeups feel a bit Wes Anderson-esque, with title cards occasionally breaking up scenes, or the way some background characters moved in scenes. 

Emma (2020)

As with many of Austen’s works, there are numerous characters and names to keep track of. In the opening scenes, Emma’s governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) weds a local gentleman, and Emma is convinced she orchestrated their union and that matchmaking is her calling.  When a Miss Harriet Smith “Biddy” (Letty Thomas) enrolls in the local ladies’ school, Emma takes her under her wing and is determined to find a suitable husband for the young lady. Though Miss Smith’s parentage is unknown—meaning she is probably someone’s illegitimate daughter—Emma is convinced Miss Smith is actually the daughter of a gentleman, and thus suitable for a good match. However, in 19th-century England, no respectable gentleman would marry someone with Miss Smith’s unknown background. Yet this doesn’t stop Emma from setting her sights on the local rector Bartholomew (Angus Imrie) as the perfect choice for Miss Smith, even convincing Miss Smith to decline a marriage proposal from someone she is quite fond of.

 

The just-over two-hour film spends most of its time with Emma negotiating and arranging meetings between characters in beautiful settings and gorgeously detailed costumes and hoping to arrange her own chance encounter with Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). As the most well-off of Austen’s heroines, Emma sees herself as the perfect match for Churchhill as he is set to inherit one of the largest estates and salaries around.

 

As is typical of films, a lot of detail and storytelling from the book are omitted, but this version doesn’t provide as much backstory into Emma’s life or give us any sense of the history she has with the other characters as the ’96 film. For example, we know very little about Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) or why she is Emma’s chosen frenemy, and just a throwaway line tells you she has not family or fortune. Also, in the novel, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is an extreme hypochondriac, constantly worried about all manner of things such as what people are eating and if they will get sick, but here, while Nighy superbly supplies most of the comic relief, his fears of catching ill have been reduced to concerns over cold drafts and having a doctor on routine call.

 

Compared to Taylor-Joy’s portrayal, Paltrow played Emma with more compassion, not as if matchmaking is just some game for her amusement, but rather as if she actually cares for the people involved. Also, Paltrow comes across as kinder and less snobbish, where Taylor-Joy seems like she is above others and has the proverbial stick lodged up her corset from the get-go. Also, Mr. Knightley—who is some 17 years Emma’s senior—treats her more like a child or irritating little sister.

 

While this version is beautiful-looking from a cinematography standpoint, and you get to appreciate far more of the well-appointed and -dressed interiors of the fine Woodhouse estate compared to the ’96 film, much of which takes place outdoors, I actually preferred the previous version due to Paltrow’s more likable portrayal.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 4.5K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect Emma. to look good, and it does. However, I never felt I was getting that hyper-resolution of some modern true 4K DI’s. Closeups were certainly rich with 

texture and detail, especially on the many finely detailed costumes and delicate lace that Emma wears, and the resolution also helps you to appreciate the fabric, patterns, and detail of the many suits and dresses throughout, but I would have bet that it was taken from a 2K DI. Perhaps I’ve just gotten spoiled by some terrific transfers lately.

 

Many of the interior scenes throughout Woodhouse estate feature rooms painted in a host of pastel colors—powdery blues, mint greens, carnation pinks—that are well represented but not necessarily saturated or pushing the boundaries of the wider color gamut. Where the video quality really shines is during the interior scenes that are lit by an abundance of candles. Here we get rich, warm tones, lighting the room and characters with glowing skin and deep shadows that look very lifelike and true with the use of HDR. Of course, the flickering flames also benefit from the added dynamic range, as do scenes where sunlight is pouring in through open windows, or exterior scenes under what seems to be a perpetually overcast British sky that have some nice punch.

 

Sonically, Emma. doesn’t offer much to write about. As mentioned previously, we are given just a basic 5.1-channel track, and there a just a few moments of atmospheric audio, such as the occasional bird chirps or wind blowing, or the 

Emma (2020)

crunch of carriage wheels and the creaks and groans of a carriage as it moves along. Interior scenes are given the appropriate sense of audio space, being flat when appropriate, or lively and echoey, such as inside the church.

 

The soundtrack is actually quite nice, featuring many classical pieces that are spread well across the front channels and that upmix nicely into the height speakers. There are also a few choral pieces that offer some nice room-fill. Of course, the most important part to a dialogue-driven film like Emma. is being able to clearly understand what characters are saying, and it definitely accomplishes this, even giving them some nice movement across the front channels that tracks on-screen location.

 

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma available, this one certainly looks the best and is available in the highest quality via Kaleidescape. If you are into period films, or just need a mental palate-cleanser after the recent slate of action films that have been released, Emma. is easy on the eyes and offers a new presentation to a classic tale.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

I know people like the characters in The King of Staten Island exist but I don’t like paying to be reminded of that fact, especially over a grueling two hours and 17 minutes. I felt the same revulsion watching American Factory, another grisly reminder of the underclass spawned by successive generations of callous, punitive economics and an increasingly toxic pop culture. Yes, this is who we’ve become, but it’s nothing to be proud of.

 

I can’t imagine what kept Judd Apatow motivated through the protracted process of developing, writing, shooting, and doing post on something like this. When he sat down every morning, what did he see in this dung heap that gave him the energy to carry on?

 

The answer may lie with the Apatow house brand—which is something distinctly different from his style as a filmmaker, which I’ll get to it a minute. Imagine Freaks & Greeks grafted onto Buñuel’s Los olvidados, and you’ll have some idea of where he was trying to go with Staten Island. And that could have potentially been fertile ground. Problem is he couldn’t resist the

impulse to apply his patented warm and fuzzy formula in an effort to redeem his irredeemable characters, so what starts out like Trainspotting ends up a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life. The former rings true, but something nobody really needs to be exposed to; the latter is just nauseating.

 

His distinctive style has been apparent from his earliest directorial efforts. (Even a casual observer can see the clear through-line from the freeze-pop scene in Freaks & Geeks to Staten Island.) And his work has the potential of being tremendously expressive—if he can ever find the right material. The problem is, Freaks remains his strongest effort to date, aside from some occasional moments in 40 Year Old Virgin and This is 40. Whenever he’s tried to bring some discipline to his work and act more like a “filmmaker”—like with Knocked Up, the egregious Funny People, and here—he always goes seriously awry. But he’s definitely onto something, and might actually somehow someday get far enough out of his own way to latch onto a more promising subject.

STATEN ISLAND AT A GLANCE

Judd Apatow’s latest is two-plus hours of unpleasantness, a kind of Trainspotting-meets-It’s a Wonderful Life mashup yanked from theaters right before its release date and dumped onto the video market. 

 

PICTURE     

Faux documentary visuals done in the patented “independent film” style, neither helped nor hindered by the 4K HDR treatment.

 

SOUND

The clean-enough audio can’t really be held responsible for the pervasive, unpleasant Staten Island accents and fights a losing battle against the mumbled line delivery.

Staten Island was supposed to have had a limited theatrical run, mainly at drive-ins, but Universal at the last minute decided to send it straight to video. My guess is they couldn’t figure out who the audience was supposed to be and were afraid it would flop hard even at a time when people are starved for entertainment.

 

But premium video on demand wasn’t such a great alternative. I had to fork over two hard-earned sawbucks to watch this on Amazon—that’s a hefty amount to wager on a film that doesn’t give you much of a clue of what you’re in for. The bigger problem is that you can be halfway through the seemingly interminable slog of watching it and still not have a clue.

 

I know it’s heresy to bring this up at a time when every film sprawls and nobody has the creative discipline, or a strong enough sense of mercy, to cut anything to the length it actually deserves, but Staten Island could have easily been a nice, tight 90 minutes and still have been, for better or worse, the same film. At least I would have gotten 45 minutes of my life back.

 

I don’t have much to say about the acting except that, if you’ve ever seen an Apatow film, you’re seen all of these performances before. And there’s the recurring problem of nepotism. What has to happen to keep Apatow from casting his own family members? His daughter Maude is OK as Pete Davidson’s responsible, grounded, empathetic (insert morally laudable trait here: _____) sister, but is in no way exceptional and is a kind of poster child for the daughters of privilege swelling the acting ranks in New York and LA, people with only modest abilities but terrific connections.

 

There’s nothing exceptional happening on the technical side either. Staten Island is shot in the standard-issue faux documentary, “independent film” style that’s been dragging down serious films for at least a decade now. (Did I mention that this isn’t really a comedy?) Everything is well enough shot and assembled, but this could have been presented as a radio play with pretty much the same impact. Part of the almost $20 price of admission can be attributed to Staten Island being a 4K HDR release, but I couldn’t see where that really helped or hindered anything.

 

The audio is perfectly serviceable, and can’t be held accountable for the unpleasant accents and some of the actors’ inability to articulate their lines. There are the obligatory pop-music cues meant to create a false sense of energy, and some firearms are discharged during a robbery scene. I guess the gunshots sounded realistic. I’m kind of glad to say I have no way of knowing for sure.

 

Maybe this thing panders just enough to have an audience beyond self-pitying brats. God only knows Staten Island embodies the corrosive masochism that lies at the black heart of the culture. I just know that trying make our dance with Thanatos (no, not that Thanatos) more palatable by turning it into something that veers awful close to becoming a musical isn’t healthy for anybody. If you really feel like you need to piss away $20 online, go play some poker instead.

Michael Gaughn

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

Space Force

Space Force

It’s not hard to figure out how this all began. Netflix had an unexpected boon when Millennials didn’t discover The Office until after it had migrated over to the subscription service but then seized on and devoured it as if they’ve just summoned up manna. As all that was playing out, NBC announced it would be bringing The Office back under its wing as part of its new Peacock streaming service, eventually depriving Netflix of what is probably its steadiest flow of viewers.

 

While they would never publicly admit it, Netflix found itself desperate for a new series that looked, walked, and smelled enough like The Office to retain a sizable portion of that show’s audience.

 

Enter Office creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell with an itch to do a service comedy—an idea as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristophanes)—and as fresh as today’s headlines. Or at least that’s how they would have presented it at the 

pitch meeting—assuming they even had to do a pitch before Netflix handed them a blank check.

 

To cut right to the chase, Space Force is nothing but a mess, way overinflated in every possible way, the most hackneyed of sitcom premises puffed up with a stupidly large budget and a random mob of a cast. If this had been made for a fraction of the money and with a little less latitude, the constraints might have brought some badly needed discipline to the exercise, yielding something tighter, funnier, and more watchable. Maybe.

 

What we have instead is the Netflix equivalent of It’s a Mad, 

Mad, Mad, Mad World—a too-big-to-fail comedy that puts a gun to your head and tells you to laugh because it’s desperate to justify its existence. There are some laughs, occasionally (I have to admit to falling for the space chimp bit), but far too rarely. Space Force is the sitcom equivalent of spending an evening watching a room full of monkeys perched at typewriters and waiting for one of them to randomly tap out a joke.

 

To go with another animal analogy, it’s a great, big slobbering Labrador of a show, utterly superficial, with no ideas or convictions of its own, desperately trying to please everybody and willing to do anything to get a little attention. If you’ve heard that it’s a spoof or satire, you heard wrong. Space Force doesn’t bite—it licks your face instead. It doesn’t have the creative courage to skewer a damn thing.

 

But enough of the generalities; let’s talk specifics. You get the sense Carell loves The Great Santini and decided, for some reason, to bring it up to date. But it would be hard to name another actor more different from Carell, with his extremely limited acting range, than Robert Duvall. That cognitive dissonance might help explain why he can’t get a bead on his character but constantly shifts between playing a pint-sized general, Michael Scott, and an ambiguous third being who might actually be Carell himself.

 

The cast is big and, almost without exception, unexceptional, the most offensive member being Ben Schwartz as Carell’s media manager. His every moment on screen is the comedy equivalent of waterboarding. Carell’s character fires him in the first episode, which seemed logical and felt definitive, and led to the hope we were rid of him forever. But this is a cliché-laden sitcom after all, so he keeps arbitrarily popping back up throughout the series, like a horror-movie villain or a rodent, even though his shtick is predictable, his actions implausible, and he fails to generate any laughs.

 

The biggest offense—although you can’t really blame the completely bland, inoffensive actress saddled with playing her—is the pilot who starts out as Carell’s whirlybird chauffeur and somehow ends up commanding a lunar mission. She’s not a character or the product of a legitimate creative act but a fashionable amalgam, born of checking off a bunch of boxes meant to suck up to contemporary sensibilities. As far as you can get from three-dimensional, she’s a direct descendant of the personified virtues in a medieval morality play.

 

More specifically, she’s only there to be the token tough-but-caring black girl who rises to a level of great responsibility because she has a massive father complex.

 

If there’s any glimmer of light in this black hole of a series, it’s John Malkovich as the lead scientist. He’s ultimately nothing but a stereotypically affected straw man, Alice to Carell’s Ralph, Felix to his Oscar. It’s only Malkovich’s ability to make something out of nothing that causes his screen time to add up to anything resembling creative redemption.

 

Pardon a little inside baseball, but I watched Space Force straight through when it debuted and planned to publish this review then. But my reaction was so strong, I felt the need to buy some distance before going public with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the weeks that have since elapsed have only reinforced my original impressions.

 

If you’re big on Anointed vs. Underclass fictions that come down firmly for the Anointed, this show is for you. If you find succor in a day-care center view of the world, you’ll probably actually enjoy the image of a military mission jubilantly jumping around the lunar surface like a bunch of infants. I didn’t. Space Force shows how far we’ve devolved since Metropolis, and suggests the Fredersens of the world have irrevocably won.

Michael Gaughn

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