Movies

Review: Zappa

Zappa (2020)

On November 27, Magnolia Pictures will release Zappa, a documentary about the life of Frank Zappa (1940–1993), one of the few rock musicians to deserve the appellation of “genius.” (Need evidence? Listen to “Peaches En Regalia” or “The Black Page.”) Though rooted in R&B and doo-wop, the influence of Edgard Varèse and other composers. and the anything-goes experimental ethos of the ’60s, singer/composer/guitarist/conductor/satirist/political activist Zappa’s music is unmistakably unique, as is his idiosyncratic and inimitable guitar playing.

 

Frank Zappa was, as the movie points out, far more complicated than the typical categorization of him as a brilliant and demanding musical tyrant who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who delighted in skewering any number of aspects of American culture. Though all of this is true, Zappa was much more nuanced and multifaceted, and this two-hour-plus documentary 

does an admirable job of bringing Frank Zappa, the man, to light. In the movie, Zappa says, contrary to his portrayal as a curmudgeon, “If you could get a laugh out of something, that was good. And if you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good.”

 

As director/producer Alex Winter stated, “I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual.” (In addition to Zappa’s music, the documentary features a score by composer/producer John Frizzell.)

 

Zappa fans will be thrilled by this movie, which will be available on most of the major streaming services. I can state this with complete confidence since I am a fan, having seen Zappa and/or the Mothers of Invention in concert about 25 times back in the day and having immersed myself in his work for most of my life. (Zappa was a workaholic 

ZAPPA AT A GLANCE

Alex Winter’s documentary on the life of the iconoclastic musician offers a rounded portrait by focusing mainly on interviews and biographical material and going light on performance footage.

 

PICTURE     

Video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material.

 

SOUND     

The audio is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

and released 62 albums during his life; 53 posthumous albums have been issued.) His wife Gail and son/producer Ahmet granted Winter, producer Glen Zipper, and the creative team access to Zappa’s vast vault, which contains hundreds of audio and video tapes and film reels, much of them unreleased. The inclusion of this archival material (wait until you see the scenes that show it) gives Zappa a depth, richness, and authority that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The home movies of Zappa’s childhood and teen years alone are worth the price of admission.

 

Zappa features an abundance of interviews with Frank Zappa, along with Gail Zappa and other key figures in his life, including former band members Ruth Underwood (whose mallet percussion playing is a key element of much of Zappa’s work), “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Ray White, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and Scott Thunes. (When an interviewer asks Zappa, “You were always a renegade against the music business. Why?” Zappa replies, “Because most of what the music business does is not music.”)

 

The film progresses in chronological order, beginning with Zappa’s early childhood (and a fascination with chemistry, explosives, and gas masks, influenced by his father Francis’s occupation as a chemist and mathematician at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland). Zappa had health problems as a child, which prompted the family to move to California in 1952. California would permeate his musical sensibility throughout his life (and yield his biggest hit, “Valley Girl,” featuring daughter Moon on vocals).

 

Zappa began composing at an early age, and in the early 1960s was able to purchase a recording studio, Studio Z, where he began his lifelong habit of working constantly on his music. A 1965 incident at Studio Z shaped his distrust of authority. In what turned out to be a sting, he was asked to produce an “erotic” audio tape, for which he was arrested, charged with conspiracy to produce pornography, and briefly put in jail. Zappa covers this in fascinating detail, and the film continues this 

Zappa (2020)

level of thoroughness throughout, from the early days of the Mothers of Invention to Zappa’s prolific solo career and his last concert conducting The Yellow Shark with the Orchestra Modern in 1992.

 

The documentary focuses more on historical events and interviews with Frank and Gail Zappa and others than it does on live concert material. Although there’s plenty of musical content—how could there not be?—this is not a concert film, 

and the movie doesn’t include an abundance of Zappa songs. (If you want those, there are plenty of live concert Blu-ray and DVD discs out there.) Rest assured though, the musical brilliance, exactitude, and sheer creative power of Zappa’s music permeates the film, and the footage of Zappa, various incarnations of the Mothers of Invention, and Zappa’s rehearsing and performances of later orchestral work provides a riveting look at what it was like to be there.

 

In particular, the material shot at the landmark Garrick Theater performances in New York in 1967 reveal how Zappa and the Mothers came to realize the importance and impact of performing rather than merely playing. (Zappa commented, “If we hadn’t left Los Angeles, we would have just evaporated after the first album.”) Perhaps this fueled Zappa’s later pioneering work with projects like the 1971 and 1977 musical films 200 Motels and Baby Snakes. As an artist himself (he had a brief early career as a greeting-card illustrator), Zappa was well aware of the importance and impact of visuals, as evidenced by his longtime affiliations with album-cover artist Cal Schenkel and animator Bruce Bickford. (It took 13 months of negotiations with the Beatles to ensure there would be no legal trouble from Schenkel’s parody re-creation of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover in the inner sleeve of the Mothers’ album We’re Only in It for the Money.)

 

The video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material. After all, excepting some of the interviews, the footage was shot from the 1960s through the 1990s, before the advent of digital filmmaking and HDTV. I’m glad the documentary’s creators didn’t go overboard with enhancing or “improving” the look of the film, which in my opinion would have been intrusive and would have detracted from the historical look and feel. And the movie would have suffered without the inclusion of the roughly-shot home movies and some of the concert material. The sound quality is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

 

Unlike many music-related documentaries, Zappa doesn’t rush through the later period of Zappa’s life. It’s well-paced, covering everything from his adoption of the Synclavier, an early (and extremely expensive) digital synthesizer; his efforts against musical censorship, including his testifying before Congress in 1985 against the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC); his importance to Czechoslovakia (he was an artistic hero to the country and in 1990 was designated Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism)—and his illness and the events leading up to his death from prostate cancer.

 

In fact, a significant portion of Zappa is devoted to his diagnosis and losing battle with the disease. Zappa faces his illness with typical candor and humor, and  by plunging with even greater commitment to his work, even as it takes its physical toll. In one scene where he’s rehearsing with the Ensemble Modern, the previously unflappable Zappa struggles to maintain his energy level and concentration—and it’s heartbreaking.

 

As the film was concluding, I became more and more aware of my one major criticism and dissatisfaction—there wasn’t nearly enough of Zappa playing his guitar. This was an egregious blind spot, since Zappa was one of the most brilliant and unfairly underrated guitar players of all time.

 

But I think Alex Winter may have done this deliberately.

 

In the closing credits, Zappa plays a version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” For the most part, the song is a long guitar solo, originally heard on the album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III. The song serves as main character Joe’s farewell to his musical career, and it’s one of the most moving pieces of music Zappa, or anyone, has ever produced.

 

As the closing piece to Zappa, as the guitar playing in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” goes on and on, every note is a reminder of the impact of Zappa’s life, every phrase getting emotionally deeper and deeper in complete defiance of the idea that he was an uncaring and aloof person. By holding back on any extended Zappa guitar soloing until the end, the film magnifies the impact of his music and life, to the point where feeling his loss is simply devastating.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: Love Actually

Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually is probably the most misunderstood of all Richard Curtis’s directorial efforts. That’s not to say it’s his best (that would be About Time by a country mile), nor is it his worst (I’m looking at you, Pirate Radio/The Boat That Rocked, in all your edits and incarnations), but it seems to me that most people are so concerned with fitting Love Actually into their own preconceived boxes that almost no one engages with what it actually is. On the one hand, you have viewers who embrace it as the perfect romantic comedy, when in fact it’s mostly a subversion of that genre’s most saccharine trappings. On the other hand, you have the pecksniffian morality police who never resist the opportunity to tell you how much this movie fails to

perfectly live up to their woke sensibilities and how you’re a bad person if you actually enjoy it because most of its characters make bad choices.

 

I have no interest in finding common ground with either of those two camps, because I think they both miss the point. Love Actually is hardly a rom-com. (Even the trailer gets this wrong.) It’s a comedy about love, and that’s something altogether different. It’s been accused of being a movie that has no idea what love is about, but I think it’s far more accurate to call it the story of people trying to figure out what love is and sometimes failing to do so.

 

The all-star ensemble cast is huge, and its characters run the gamut from Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to Portuguese housekeeper, but what they all have in common is that they’re imperfectly awkward human beings doing their best to find or hold onto or comprehend love in its many forms, from childhood infatuation to forbidden obsession to meaningful intellectual connection, from 

ACTUALLY AT A GLANCE

This non-rom-com comedy about the various forms of love is definitely a Christmas film, despite what the naysayers say, and something to be enjoyed at the holidays with loved ones.

 

PICTURE     

The HD presentation is bright and colorful enough, and wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 4K HDR upgrade due to the inherent softness of the images.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix keeps dialogue intelligible and conveys the music soundtrack with spot-on fidelity.

platonic love to the complicated but undeniable bond between siblings and the developing ties between stepson and stepfather. Truth be told, only a handful of the relationships in the movie have anything to do with romance. But they’re all, in their own way, about love.

 

It strikes me as plainly obvious that Curtis isn’t trying to convey any lessons here, nor is he making moral judgments (which is why I think it so offends some viewers). Love Actually is simply intended to be relatable and empathetic, both in its warmest moments and in its most fumbling, insecure, and idiotic. And it succeeds in that respect wonderfully, which makes it one of my favorite Christmas movies, whether or not it’s objectively one of the best.

 

And yes, it is a Christmas movie, despite arguments to the contrary. Any number of angry keyboard warriors have tried and failed to point out that the story here could have just as easily been told at or around Valentine’s Day. I think they’re confusing

it with any number of half-hearted knockoffs that have followed in the 17 years since Love Actually debuted.

 

Of course, it’s a Christmas movie! And not merely because of the setting or the fantastic live rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” performed at the end by little Olivia Olson (who would grow up to play Marceline the Vampire Queen on Adventure Time, FYI). It simply isn’t a traditional Christmas movie—of which Curtis is well aware, as evidenced by cheeky 

references to lobsters at the Nativity and so forth. Instead, it’s a story that does its best to grapple with a more modern notion of Christmas, one where the traditional extended family structure isn’t necessarily the only norm anymore.

 

It’s also a post-9/11 movie and, legend has it, a reinforcement of and response to an essay the author Ian McEwan published shortly after that dark day. But above all else, Love Actually is simply a sweet and sentimental, awkwardly charming good time, and one of those rare movies that’s actually best enjoyed in good company. It’s neither a masterpiece nor an affront to moral standards, but I can’t imagine letting a Christmas season pass without watching it with friends, family, or loved ones. That plants it firmly in “must own” territory, whether I would place it on my list of All-Time Top 50 Best Films or not. (And for what it’s worth, there are quite a few of those I have no interest in ever seeing again.)

 

If you don’t own it already, I would argue that Kaleidescape’s presentation is the way to go, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Kaleidescape has the UK cut of the film. The only differences between the UK and US edits are in the music, but I prefer the former by a good bit. To the best of my knowledge, Universal only released the UK cut on Blu-ray in 2009, and has replaced 

it with the US version in subsequent rereleases, of which there have been a few (the most recent being earlier this year).

 

Not that any of these has made a substantial difference in terms of the visuals. The movie is presented in HD only, but that’s totally fine. Keen-eyed viewers will notice an overall softness to the image, but before you think this would be rectified by a 4K redux, look a little closer. Viewing the HD release at cinematic proportions, you can notice a fine grain structure that indicates plenty sufficient detail in the transfer, meaning the softness is inherent to the cinematography. To my eye, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of additional crispness or nuance to be extracted from the negative.

 

Colors are bright and vibrant enough for this sort of flick, so I lean toward thinking that HDR wouldn’t do it a whole heck of a lot of good, either. Long story short, if you’re holding out for a 4K remaster of Love Actually, I just can’t imagine one is on the horizon. And that’s OK, since this likely isn’t a movie you dig into for the audiovisual experience. Granted, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a great job of keeping dialogue clear and intelligible, and the fidelity of the soundtrack music is spot-freaking-on. In the end, that’s exactly what you would hope for.

Love Actually (2003)

Extras are sparse here. There’s the forgettable audio commentary track, and that’s really it. The deleted scenes from the Blu-ray are missing, but you can find those on YouTube if you’re interested. What really matters is that the movie itself is presented in delightfully distraction-free quality, with a full-bandwidth soundtrack and no compression issues to be seen.

 

If, for whatever reason, you’ve never seen Love Actually and you need a little silly and adorkable escapism this holiday season, this one is well worth the price of a download. Will it change your life? No. But if you don’t find yourself guffawing through tears by the time the end credits roll, you’ve got the heart of a Grinch.

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.

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1968 (as I mentioned in my review of Rosemary’s Baby) was the year Hollywood, no longer able to lure people into theaters, blew everything up and started all over again. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most radical product of that very radical year—not only because it flouted all the conventions of mainstream storytelling but because it went full-court Brecht to subvert the audience’s addiction to identifying with the protagonist, refused to use dialogue to Mickey Mouse viewers through the action, openly pissed on the convention of the traditional Hollywood music score, and stubbornly refused to be wedged it into any identifiable genre.

2001 is utterly sui generis—no film had looked anything like it before; no film has looked anything like it since. It exists in its own, somewhat rarefied, universe.

 

Kubrick would never do anything that overtly adventurous again. Sure, Clockwork Orange was more outrageous, but kind of in the same way as Dr. Strangelove; and “outrageous” isn’t the same thing as “adventurous.”

 

But neither adventurousness nor outrageousness on their own, or even together, are enough to make a film great. (The path from 1968 to the present is littered with the corpses of films that managed to do both, but little else.) 2001 is great because it sets an impossibly high bar and almost achieves it. Adventurousness and outrageousness are symptomatic of that ambition, but neither is essential to realizing it.

 

Which is why—to again return to an earlier review—I have to give The Shining the edge as Kubrick’s most 

2001 AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique and still radical big-budget experimental film is almost as compelling as its original Cinerama presentation in this 4K HDR release.

 

PICTURE     

So well done that the film is on par with The Shining as a reference-quality download. HDR in particular helps enhance the impact of space travel, celestial bodies, and Bowman’s hallucinatory hotel room.

 

SOUND     

A faithful reproduction of a deliberately pared-down soundtrack that was always meant to complement and comment on the action, not mimic it.

accomplished work. Almost everything he does big and bold in 2001 he achieves quietly and more deftly in that later film. 2001 is the product of an artist so giddy he can’t help but show off; The Shining is the work of a master so confident in his abilities that he can just quietly drop clues and then wait as the rest of us scurry to catch up.

 

But why even go into all this? Because both 2001 and The Shining hinge on the experience of pulling you deep inside the film—not in a superficial, escapist way but so you begin to have the sensation of actually occupying the same physical space as the characters.

 

That the 4K HDR presentations of both films are reference-quality seriously ups the “you are there” ante—but with a crucial difference. And there’s the rub. The Shining is almost one-to-one true to the movie Kubrick created. When you watch it at home on a high-quality system, you’re seeing what he wanted you to see. 2001 in 4K HDR is just as extraordinary—but as a title card in the closing credits reminds you, this was originally a Cinerama presentation. And, unlike most of the other filmmakers who dabbled in Cinerama, Kubrick didn’t deploy it as a gimmick (Grand Prix, anyone?) but made it absolutely central to creating that sensation of taking an epic voyage into space.

 

So, is 2001, viewed in 4K HDR, in any meaningful way inferior to The Shining? On the technical level of the transfer, no, they’re both excellent—almost flawless. But since you can’t do Cinerama at home (at least not without a hell of a jerry-rigged

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setup that would have to verge on absurd), The Shining is truer to the original film.

 

All of the above is really just an exercise in praise by faint damning. The Kaleidescape download of 2001 is one of a handful of films so well served by the 4K HDR treatment that it has to be part of the foundation of any serious film collection. If there’s a single significant hiccup in this presentation, I didn’t see it.

 

Cinerama quibbles aside, to get lost in 2001 today, you have to get beyond ticking off what has and hasn’t come to pass and look past all that Swinging ‘60s clothing and furniture and get on the wavelength of the film Kubrick actually created, which exists in an elaborate and self-consistent world that merely uses the trappings of reality to achieve escape velocity.

 

The 4K resolution can’t reveal every detail of the original 70mm print, but it shows so much more than any previous home video incarnation that it’s shocking to realize to what 

extent Kubrick created outside his era, how unencumbered he was by the stylistic ticks of that time (or even of the future). On the level of film technique and film grammar, 2001 still holds.

 

What really takes the experience to a new, truer level is the HDR. Yes, many of the special effects now even more obviously look like still photos traveling across painted backgrounds. But shots of actual physical objects in motion, like the space station, The Discovery, and most of the extravehicular footage of the pod, are stunning. The brightness of objects in space is one of the things 2001 got basically right and the HDR makes them look so crisp and cold they’re almost tactile.

 

Three scenes in particular will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, beginning with the shot of the scientists walking down the ramp into the lunar excavation, where Kubrick shoots directly into a large worklight, with the light so intense you almost have to look away. Next, the beginning of the final act, where the floating monolith guides Bowman into the Stargate, is especially compelling because of the convincing luminosity of Jupiter and its moons. And, finally, the virtual hotel room where Bowman goes through his transformation, which Kubrick created to mimic the look of early video, is more convincing with the white and other light tones pumped just enough to glow without becoming bloated or diffused.

 

As for the audio, talking about the soundtrack of 2001 has always been kind of a ticklish business because this is essentially a silent movie. Kubrick rediscovered and then reinvented the core grammar of silent film, much of which had been glossed over and obliterated by the tyranny of the microphone during the Studio Era, and used it to not just drive this film but all of his subsequent efforts. It’s not that the audio is superfluous; it’s just not redundant with the visuals, the way it had been since the introduction of sound—and continues to be.

(Curiously, another product of 1968—Blake Edwards’ The Party, which, like 2001, was much maligned at the time and is now revered—is also basically a silent film. Edwards, on a parallel track with Kubrick, dipped back into silent comedy to bring a sense of grace and redemption that had been missing from movie comedies since the Chaplin era.)

 

So, things like The Blue Danube, the heavy breathing, and the various warning sounds all sound perfectly fine. But this is a film of stripped-down and barren environments, without warfare or roaring engines, so there’s, thankfully, little audio-demo fodder to be found.

 

As for the extras—all I can say is “beware.” I’ve already sufficiently dumped on the team that created (although that seems far too kind a word) the promotional videos disguised as mini-docs included with Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Their efforts here are equally awful. Unfortunately, the other videos are just as irritating and, for the most part, pointless. 

 

The trailer included here isn’t the one from the film’s initial release or even its 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

legendary initial re-release but a decidedly contemporary stab that feels like a cliché film-school exercise (people are going to look back 20 years from now at our addiction to dips to black and laugh their asses off) and indulges in exactly the kind of manipulative melodrama Kubrick despised.

 

The only extra worth going out of your way for is a 76-minute audio-only interview Jeremy Bernstein did with Kubrick in 1966. You get to hear the director walk through his whole career to that point, beginning as a failed high school student who became the youngest photographer ever at Look magazine and then went on to learn filmmaking, in a world without film schools, by making his own features. Not only is it better than anything any writer has ever done on Kubrick, it confirms, beyond a doubt, that Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Lolita is basically an extended Kubrick impression—which puts that deeply flawed film in a whole new light.

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.

Review: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta (2005)

It’s been a few years since I sat down with James McTeigue’s 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal anti-fascist comic book from the early-to-mid ‘80s—so long, in fact, that I worried, as I prepared to digest the new 4K HDR release of V for Vendetta via Kaleidescape, that it would feel a bit outdated. McTeigue’s film was, after all, made in response to the second Bush administration, and by that point the comic book, although a nearly unparalleled work of sequential art, was starting to feel like a bit of an artifact, rooted as it was in the Thatcher era.

 

That concern couldn’t have been more off-base, and I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I know that as an unabashed Moore devotee, I’m supposed to dismiss the film, and its script by the Wachowskis, as a 

toothless dilution of the anarchistic themes of the original. On the other hand, the years have been kinder to the movie than the comic, to the point where the adaptation is shockingly more poignant, relevant, ominous, prophetic, and indeed instructive than its inspiration. And I say that as someone who still holds the comic in the highest regard.

 

Whence the ambivalence on my part? It comes mostly from the fact that when V for Vendetta was released in 2005, it seemed a little cartoonish, over-the-top, and heavy-handed in its allegory. Fast-forward to 2020—roughly the year in which the film is set—and it almost feels as if it didn’t go far enough in envisioning the dystopian near-future. In a way, it’s as if it’s plotted a course for itself that’s exactly the opposite of Marx’s observation about the repetition of historical entities: What first appeared as farce now reads like tragedy.

 

Long story short, I’ve always liked the film, but I’ve never quite taken it as seriously as I now think it deserves to be

VENDETTA AT A GLANCE

This overtly political tale of resistance set in a dystopian 2020 was derided at the time of its release for not honoring its comic-book roots but feels uncomfortably relevant today.

 

PICTURE     

The visually dark movie doesn’t provide a lot of room for HDR to blossom, but the 4K presentation is satisfyingly faithful to its filmic look.

 

SOUND     

A demo-worthy Dolby Atmos soundtrack that helps address the clarity problems with the film’s dialogue while powerfully delivering its diverse soundtrack.

taken. And watching it now shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the rate of societal collapse over the 15 years since it was first released.

 

If you’re not familiar with V for Vendetta, it centers on a mysterious revolutionary known merely as V—”a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate”—and his attempt to inspire the oppressed subjects of a fascist regime to rise up and demand their liberty.

 

The Shakespeare-quoting, Count of Monte Cristo-loving V isn’t what you would call a hero by any measure, and his bone to pick with this regime is as much personal as philosophical. But that actually underscore’s the film’s central thesis: That while 

humans are flawed and individually weak, ideas have the power to change the world.

 

I could pick nits about the unnecessary changes the Wachowskis made in adapting the book to film, but one thing that can’t be denied is that McTeigue absolutely made the right call when he chose to embrace the cinematic form in his adaptation. Just as writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd built their comic

on a foundation of classic literature and illustration, then pushed it toward the cinematic, McTeigue builds his film on a foundation of classic cinema, then pushes it toward the comic-book form—and remember, this film came out a time before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made comic books cool in the eyes of the general public.

 

It isn’t just the reliance on classic Hollywood clips and stylistic references to earlier films that firmly root this adaptation in the cinematic tradition, though. McTeigue also made the brilliant choice of casting John Hurt—whom audiences will instantly associate with his turn as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984—as the Big Brother-like autocrat in this imagined future. This not only highlights the differences between the dystopian futures forecast by Orwell and Moore, but also serves as a subtle-but-effective warning about the oppressed becoming the oppressors.

 

Overall, V for Vendetta is an aesthetically dark film, which doesn’t leave much room for a high dynamic range grading that pushes contrasts to the extreme. But Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR download does add a lot of richness and detail to the shadows, and allows the occasional specular highlight more room to breathe without blowing out. As such, this ends up being one of the rare remasters where the increased resolution is just as impactful as the enhanced dynamic range.

 

Details and textures look simply spectacular in this new transfer, and although it’s unlikely V for Vendetta will make any videophile’s Top 10 list for best HDR releases of the year, cinephiles will go nuts over just how much more filmic this presentation is. The differences are subtle, but they add up to a much more faithful representation of the original camera

negative from which this new transfer was sourced. This may not be the title you pull out to push your projector to its limits, but it’s the most faithful home video transfer I could imagine for V for Vendetta.

 

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos remix, though? It’s definitely demo-worthy. V for Vendetta has always suffered somewhat in the intelligibility department by virtue of the fact that its main protagonist wears a rigid and resonant Guy Fawkes mask over the remains of his face, and anything less than flawless fidelity makes some of his vocalizations less than distinct.

 

V’s alliterative and magniloquent lines have simply never been delivered as clearly as they are in this remix, and the film’s soundtrack—which runs the gamut from Tchaikovsky to Stan Getz and João Gilberto—has never sounded this powerful, this beautifully resolved. I do think the overhead speakers are a bit overused at times, but that probably means most people will find the height effects perfectly appropriate. At any rate, given the choice between a slightly distracting at times Atmos mix and the muddled fidelity of the old, compressed 5.1 track, I’ll take the former any day.

 

I do wish the Kaleidescape download included the new bonus features added to 

V for Vendetta (2005)

the UHD Blu-ray release. All we get by way of extras are carry-overs from the original DVD release. But no matter. V for Vendetta stands on its own, without the need for supplementation.

 

At least, I think it does. Watching the film now, though, I can’t help but think that audiences still haven’t completely gotten the film. Yes, its iconography has been appropriated by hacker groups and the hashtag-resistance. But the moral of this story—that if you have principles and the courage of your convictions, you can win the support of the people—still struggles to break through the noise. If we don’t learn that lesson, our future will be even darker than the one portrayed herein.

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: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) & The Raven (1963)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

For special Halloween viewing, you can always depend on a Vincent Price/Roger Corman movie such as The Fall of the House of Usher, Tales of Terror, and The Pit and the Pendulum. They are dusted off every year for cable streaming and home video viewing. But this year, one Roger Corman film takes on an added dimension of horror.

 

The Masque of the Red Death, loosely based on the short story by—who else—Edgar Allan Poe, has a special modern application in 2020. The film itself is a heightened and slightly campy tale of a pandemic plague that sweeps medieval Italy. The city-state is cruelly ruled by an egotistical Satan-worshipping prince. The bombastic and obnoxious ruler is played with 

wild abandon by Vincent Price. He is loud and vicious and will listen to nothing or no one.

 

Recklessly deciding he knows best how to handle the “Red Death” plague, Vincent simply locks up his castle door and throws a big masked ball for his recklessly hedonistic upper-class friends. All must come in masked costume, but The Prince is convinced he needs no mask since the Devil himself will protect him and him alone from the gruesome pandemic. But (spoiler alert!) neither his power position or evil protector can keep him from catching The Red Death, 

RED DEATH & RAVEN AT
A GLANCE

It’s hard to beat a Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price mashup for Halloween thrills, both schlocky and legit, and Corman’s over-the-top take on Poe’s year-of-the-plague Red Death has 2020 written all over it.

and by the end of the movie not only does Vincent have blood poring out of his pores as he shrivels up and dies but so do all his upper-crust guests. Only three people are left alive in the entire Kingdom by the time the credits roll: An innocent young lover, a baby, and an old man.

 

Any other year, this over-the-top horror story might seem broadly campy, but in 2020, it is indeed as horrifying as Roger Corman may have intended it to be back in 1964. It may seem even more disturbing!

 

Many now consider this the best of the Corman/Price/Poe movies. It’s more literate than most of its predecessors and with its devious “Little People,” animalistic partygoers, and deviant sexual innuendos, it is genuinely macabre. Add to that the committed performances from Price and his fabulous leading lady Hazel Court, who always adds a good measure of superb British articulation and Hollywood glamour, and you have a horror movie that’s a cut above. The verbiage even has a touch of the tragic tone of a Shakespearean play.

 

The production quality is also a cut above other Corman creations. It’s filmed in vivid Pathécolor with an intensely multi-colored production design (perhaps to make up for the fact it’s not in the lush and more subtle Technicolor.) The movie is also quite authentic-looking—supposedly because Red Death was filmed on left-over sets from the historical epic film Becket, also released in 1964. Corman must be given an “A” for effort and “A+” for inventiveness for bringing a good-looking production in under budget. However, it is still a budget horror film from the 1960s, and its pacing and lack of a great music score (Bernard Herrmann was not in the budget) make it hard to take as an authentic film classic.

 

Yet, all entertainment changes from year to year, and right now this spooky tale might just put you in a real Halloween mood. And, beware—when you watch it with friends, don’t be a fool like Vincent Price—wear your mask to the Masque.

The Raven (1963)

While we are on the subject of Roger Corman and Vincent Price, let me recommend their 1963 entry, The Raven. This film had no intention to be authentically scary in any way. Peter Lorre plays the Raven in bird and human form in a highly comedic performance. And it has a fabulous supporting cast: Boris Karloff, a very sexy 

Hazel Court, and a very young JackNicholson—in tights, no less. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and wryly funny. Again, the garish Pathécolor livens up the dreary plaster-of-Paris castle walls. There’s also a good amount of animated sorcerer’s magic rays to add to the fun. Unlike The Masque of the Red Death, this film survives solely as camp. But Halloween is also a time for kitschy fun and macabre frolic.

 

As a nine-year-old boy, I loved the silly satirical suspense, and it had just enough scary moments to amuse but not disturb me. It even made me a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the film, I tried making a couple of Corman/Poe type “Grand Guignol” horror movies of my own with my Super 8 movie camera. But years later, I realized I must have loved Poe even more that I thought. When I grew up and moved to New York, my apartment on West 84th Street was built on the site where he wrote “The Raven.” In the 19th century, the address had been his family’s farmhouse! Now it’s “The Raven Court Apartments.” It still has a big black stone raven right outside. My apartment looked right over the statue. But just as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Quoth the Granite Raven ‘Nevermore.’”

Gerard Alessandrini

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

Review: Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)

Lazy commentators on Hitchcock will tell you Vertigo is his best film like that’s the beginning and end of the discussion. I’ll allow that it’s one of his best—it’s definitely his most psychologically probing and, in its strange way, intimate—but I would also argue that both Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt deserve to be placed on that same top tier.

 

What is inarguable is that this is by far the best of the first round of Hitchcock films to receive the 4K HDR treatment. Whereas the releases of Rear Window and The Birds are merciless in exposing the flaws in both the original productions and the current state of the film elements, Vertigo is practically seamless in its presentation, gliding from image to image without any 

jarring technical distractions (with one exception, which I’ll discuss below). If you’re a Hitchcock fan, this is the 4K title to start with.

 

But it’s not necessarily the best place to start if you’re new to Hitchcock. Vertigo lacks most of the puckish little gimmicks he used to lure in the masses and, if you take it on its own terms, it’s a pretty disturbing tale of a damaged and fundamentally weak man completely gutted by his belief in the cultural tropes of the saint and the whore. And it can get especially unnerving when you realize that that man isn’t really Jimmy Stewart—who delivers an amazingly fearless portrayal of a pathologically vulnerable ex-detective—but Hitchcock himself.

 

Also, Hitchcock takes his time with the pacing, which won’t sit well with the jolt-a-minute immediate gratification crowd. It’s a cliché to say Vertigo feels like a dream, but that doesn’t make the cliché any less true. And there’s

VERTIGO AT A GLANCE

An essential, impeccably presented and with the impact of the original film completely restored, putting it on a whole other level from the 4K HDR releases of Rear Window and The Birds.

 

PICTURE     

Almost flawless, with the HDR staying true to the film’s dreamlike imagery and sumptuous colors.

 

SOUND     

A fitting showcase for Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score, giving the timbres of the various orchestral instruments a vivid presence rare on a movie soundtrack.

something about the tactile crispness of the images and the sumptuousness of the colors in this release that just enhances that effect. (But, ironically, given how nightmarish Hitchcock’s imagery can be—Norman Lloyd falling from the Statue of Liberty, anyone?—Vertigo notoriously contains one of the worst dream sequences ever.)

 

Seriously aiding that sense of being seduced into and then trapped within a dreamworld is Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score, probably his best. It’s something to be savored, and is especially well presented here, sounding both epic and intimate in its Wagnerian longing, with the orchestra not just some indiscriminate wash of sound but an assembly of individuals where you can feel the bows being drawn across the strings, the metallic resonance of the French horns, and the reedy, wooden resonance of the clarinets. For just one example among too many to name, watch the scenes of Stewart’s car drifting up and down the hills of San Francisco where the muted strings, like a siren’s call, subtly limn his character’s failing grip on the objective world.

 

This is undoubtedly Robert Burks’ most accomplished work for Hitchcock, with one subtly, and sometimes strikingly, stunning image after another. Given that this is Hitchcock, there is some occasional overreaching, but you can’t really fault Burks for not being able to rise to an impossible challenge.

 

There’s one borderline moment where 4K HDR really comes through. The pivotal scene where Madeleine reborn emerges from the green mist in Judy’s shabby hotel room had always looked corny on previous home video releases, like she was stepping out of a time transporter in a ‘50s sci-fi film. But here, by hitting just the right note with the green tone—not just in this shot but in the ones leading up to it—and by now being able to just see through the haze, you can experience for the first time outside of a movie theater exactly what Hitchcock was aiming for—and it works. It’s not just a clever effects shot but a deeply 

subjective portrayal of a man, using another person to purge his demons, ecstatic as he senses himself on the verge of redemption.

 

Of course, a lot of the credit for the sublime beauty of this 4K release goes to the 1996 restoration by Robert Harris and James Katz, who refurbished the film on 70mm to mimic its original VistaVision presentation. (I’m usually wary of extras, but it would have been useful if the Kaleidescape download had included something that put this somewhat controversial restoration in perspective since it’s so crucial to the film’s impact here.)

 

There is one glaring flaw, which I feel obliged to point out because I can see it’s going to be an issue with 4K releases of catalog films until someone finds a fix. The photo-backdrop cityscapes out Barbara Bel Geddes’ and, to a lesser degree, Stewart’s apartment windows are unconvincing, and look so flat and static that they run the risk of pulling you out of the film. But that’s just not how they looked when Vertigo was shown in theaters.

 

This is the subject of an ongoing conversation between Gerard Alessandrini and me, and something he broached in his “When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1.” These backdrops don’t look fake today because people were more gullible back 

Vertigo (1958)

in the ’50s. (In some ways, Studio Era audiences were far more sophisticated than today’s adrenalin junkies.) The cinematographers and production designers knew what they were doing and factored in the impact of images projected on a screen when they created their sets. But they couldn’t have anticipated what modern technology would do to their efforts. It’s kind of like seeing La Gioconda for the first time and only noticing the cracks in the paint.

 

Vertigo ranks up with The Shining as the best 4K HDR release of a catalog title I’ve seen to date. You not only get the benefit of enjoying Hitchcock at his peak—you get to experience what greater resolution and a wider color gamut can do to restore the impact of an older film.

 

And, O yeah—Vertigo has a nice little Easter egg for Cineluxe readers and John Sciacca fans in particular. Jump to the 1:49:00 mark and you’ll get to see John’s grandfather selling Jimmy Stewart a pair of women’s shoes.

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.

Review: Back to the Future

Back to the Future

It’s a serendipitous coincidence that this review happened to go live on October 26. If you’ll recall, October 26, 1985 was the date when a certain mutt-dog named Einstein became the world’s first time traveler, followed moments later by Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), as he rockets back to 1955 in a tricked-out, plutonium-powered DeLorean (“The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine out of a car, why not do it with some style?”) in Back to the Future.

 

I was 15 when Future came out and I loved it. It was smart, it was funny, it was cool, it was sci-fi that didn’t take itself too seriously, and the story of Marty accidentally going back in time and having to figure out how to get back to his timeline—and 

the repercussions caused by interacting with his own parents—were unlike anything I had seen to that point.

 

Now for its 35th anniversary, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has given the iconic Back to the Future trilogy a full 4K HDR makeover with new Dolby Atmos soundtracks. While the films are only sold bundled together as a box set on physical media, Kaleidescape offers each one individually. As a bonus, if you already own Blu-ray versions of the films, Kaleidescape offers a terrific upgrade price of just $11.99 per movie, making it a no-brainer to go all-in on getting the entire trilogy.

 

Had you asked me who directed Future prior to watching this, I would have said Steven Spielberg. That’s probably because the top of the movie poster—and the opening title credit of the film—boldly proclaims “Steven Spielberg presents.” Robert Zemeckis is actually the writer and director, but when Future released, Zemeckis wasn’t well known, and in fact needed the backing of Spielberg’s 

THE FUTURE AT A GLANCE

The trio of films that made Robert Zemeckis a big director and Michael J. Fox a movie star receives the 35th-anniversary 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos treatment.

 

PICTURE     

The transfer stays true to the original film, with HDR adding some depth and pop to the time-travel sequences.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mixes does a great job of expanding the soundstage, precisely placing the surround effects and panning appropriate sounds, like rain, into the overhead channels.

Amblin Studios to get Future made. But Spielberg’s faith in Zemeckis proved true, and Future and its two sequels helped to launch and establish his career.

 

Speaking of sequels, Future II and III hold the distinction of being among the first films shot simultaneously, for a theatrical release just six months apart, a strategy later employed by Peter Jackson for both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, the Wachowskis for the two Matrix sequels, and the Russo brothers for Infinity War and Endgame.

 

Back to the Future became such a massive hit, and received such critical and audience acclaim, it’s hard to believe it was originally rejected by over 40 studios. Today, even 35 years later, things like “1.21 gigawatts,” the “Flux capacitor” (which even has its own product page at O’Reilly Auto Parts), “I’m your density,” and “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” remain part of the cultural lexicon.

 

The first film holds up remarkably well, with the storyline of Marty meeting his teenaged parents and finding out they aren’t exactly what he thought (especially his not-so-innocent mother) still ringing true. (Possibly even more so for me as I now have a teenager approaching Marty’s age.) The jokes and gags are still funny, especially the banter between Marty and eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and Doc misunderstanding Marty’s modern slang. I also feel like I notice some new Easter-egg piece of background set dressing that ties the past and present together each time I watch. There is also an especially timely Eddie Van Halen nod, as that is the tape Marty uses to blast George McFly (Crispin Glover) awake, convincing him that he is an alien and that he must ask his future wife Lorraine (Lea Thompson) to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.

 

I can’t say as much for the second film—the lowest-rated one of the trilogy—where the vision of life in the future of 2015 and the quality of the visual effects shots don’t hold up nearly as well. The film begins immediately after the events of the first film, but the “ending” was reshot to replace Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, with actress Elisabeth Shue after original actress Claudia Wells was unable to return due to an ailing mother. (She has such a minor role, it hardly matters.) Also, the subplot of Marty needing to save his future child (also played by Fox) from being dragged into criminal activity by trilogy bully Biff Tannen’s (Thomas F. Wilson) grandson just isn’t very compelling. However, the parts where Marty and Doc return to 1955 to stop Biff from getting the Sports Almanac and thus altering Marty’s “current” 1985, where we get to see events from the first film from another angle, are fun, and the movie concludes with a real cliffhanger.

 

The final film starts immediately after the events of the second film, with Marty needing to travel back to the wild west of 1885 to save Doc, who has become a blacksmith in order to fit in. Continuity with the earlier films is kept with Biff’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tanner, returning as series’ nemesis, plus it brings in a new element by introducing the lovely Mary Steenburgen as Doc’s love interest, Clara.

 

One thing that did standout on this viewing of the first film was the glossing over of what is pretty clearly Biff’s attempted rape of Marty’s mom, Lorraine. Sure, George arrived to stop things before they went too far—“Hey, you! Get your damn hands off her!”—but Lorraine’s “No!”’s obviously meant NO, and Biff was forcing himself on her in a position that definitely suggested rape was on the docket. I guess addressing and handling the aftermaths of such an event—which took place in the parking lot of a high school dance—were a bit too heavy for a comedy of the day, and if the film were to come out today, we’d have a different version of events, or perhaps a re-written future for Tanner.

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, these transfers are taken from new 4K digital intermediates with HDR grading. Zemeckis shot most scenes fairly tight and close on the action, so the 1.85 aspect ratio works well, as there are few big, long establishing shots that would benefit from a wider presentation. Right away you can see the image is cleaner and sharper. It hasn’t been washed of all grain, but what grain is there—usually found in daylight sky scenes—is natural and never distracting.

 

The added resolution is noticeable in an early scene in Doc’s house when his automated dog-feeding machine is opening a can of Kal Kan dog food. Pause it here, and you can practically read the micro-printing on the can’s label.

 

While it isn’t fair to expect a 35-year-old film to have the tack-sharp look of modern shot-on-digital transfers, there is still plenty of detail throughout, with images having sharp, defined edges and plenty of detail. Whether it is every strand of Doc’s crazy, poofy, wispy hair or the tight line structure of the window blinds outside Hill Valley High, or the detail in closeups such as the knitting in Lorraine’s sweater, the pattern and texture of Doc’s silver snakeskin-looking jacket, the check print on the sport coat Marty wears to the dance, or the metallic grain in the DeLorean’s stainless-steel body and tiny metallic circles on its front grille.

 

The cleaned-up transfer and added resolution show a bit of the heavy-handed application of makeup on the “older” characters, especially noticeable on the necks of “old” school enforcer Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan) and Doc Brown. However, this is only really noticeable in a couple of shots, and the aging techniques used on the actors still mostly work.

 

They didn’t get overly aggressive with the HDR pass, but it definitely adds punch to certain scenes, lending more depth and realism throughout.

 

The night scene at the mall during the initial time travel shows off the added benefits of HDR. With dark-black night skies and black pavement, the bright mall lights and signage and rows of brightly lit buttons and gauges inside the DeLorean really pop. Near the end, when Marty is preparing for his trip home, we’re again at night with neon lights and lit store windows in downtown punctuated with bright lightning flashes. The wider color gamut also benefits things like the glowing neon tubes in Doc’s jukebox. Also, I noticed that reds throughout look deep, vibrant, and very saturated, such as Biff’s shirt, Marvin Berry’s (Harry Waters Jr.) guitar, painted curbs, or Doc Brown’s chair back in the ‘50s.

 

Back to the Future won an Academy Award for Sound Effects (with additional nominations for Best Sound, Original Song—the still great “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as Original Screenplay) and the new Atmos mix does a great

job of expanding the soundstage and giving instruments more separation.

 

Right from the opening, you’ll notice some hard panning and precise localization of the many clocks ticking all around the room in Doc’s house. You can clearly pick out multiple different ticks and tocks happening across the front, the sides, rear, and overhead.

 

The mixers didn’t use the new Atmos technology to exaggerate the mix, but to expand appropriate sounds overhead. Things like the sounds of light rain pattering on the roof during a dinner scene or wind whistling overhead from the upcoming big lightning storm, to the sounds of the DeLorean cooling, ticking, and venting gases after time traveling. The mix definitely gets more aggressive and kicked up a level for the big finale.

 

Music plays a big role in the movie, and it is far more present and noticeable in the new Atmos mix. Both the songs and Alan Silvestri’s score are mixed up to height speakers, noticeably expanding the soundstage. “Power of Love” sounds great mixed wide and big across the front channels and height speakers, as does “Earth Angel” and “Johnny B. Goode” from the school dance.

 

While not filled with a lot of bass-heavy moments, subwoofers are brought into 

Back to the Future (1985)

play when appropriate, beginning with low, room-thrumming bass energy as Marty cranks every amp to 10. We also get a nice bass boom when the DeLorean travels in time, when the farmer blasts at Marty with his shotgun, and the booming thunder storms during the climax.

 

While a bit uneven, the Back to the Future trilogy remains loads of fun to watch, especially the first film, which will leave you smiling ear-to-ear with nostalgia as well as entertaining new viewers. The restored 4K HDR version has this film looking its best, and the new Atmos mix retains the spirit of the originals while breathing in some new life for modern home theaters. If you’re looking for a family-friendly weekend movie marathon, this trip back to the future remains a blast from the past.

 

—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.

Review: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

1968 saw the lowest movie attendance in history. It was also the year of 2001, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Night of the Living Dead, If . . ., The Producers, Bullitt, The Party, Petulia, Planet of the Apes—and Rosemary’s Baby. In other words, the movies that would reinvent Hollywood and define it for the next 50 years.

 

Coincidence? Of course not—and it’s exactly that creative ferment born from cultural strife that gives me hope this eerily similar era might lead to another radical reinvention of the movies. Because boy do they (and we) need it.

 

But that’s a topic for another day. The focus of attention here is Roman Polanski’s genre-defining, damn near perfectly calibrated horror/thriller Rosemary’s Baby. And let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: This is not a serious film, let alone an art film. Polanski knew full well he was making a trashy potboiler and didn’t care. He wanted to know what it felt like to

create a big hit within the studio system, and he did. He hit the jackpot.

 

That’s not to say that Polanski colored within the studio lines. He toys with both the studio conventions and a very wary but looking to be jazzed audience the way a cat torments a half-dead mouse. The movie gets its big perverse kick from seeing how far it can push the boundaries without breaking them. There’s the continual sense that this stuff shouldn’t be happening in a mainstream crowd-pleaser and yet it is, which makes the film, beyond its subject matter, feel very much like a nightmare. But that approach has since become so commonplace that it’s lost its punch—which means you have to approach Rosemary’s Baby on its own terms and with fresh eyes if you’re going to get anything out of the experience at all.

ROSEMARY AT A GLANCE

The movie that reinvented the horror film still makes for a riveting shocker more than 50 years on, even in HD.

 

PICTURE     

The best it’s ever looked on home video—which makes you wonder what it would be like in 4K.

 

SOUND     

So well mixed that it’s atmospheric as hell without any kind of surround sound reinterpretation.

There’s barely a frame that doesn’t bear a graceful, brutal swipe from Polanski’s claw, but probably the most striking example, especially since it essentially sets the whole grisly machine in motion, is Teresa Gionoffrio’s suicide juxtaposed with the entrance of the Castevets. We go from shots of a woman’s head framed in an improbable amount of blood (Weegee never photographed a crime scene that gory) to a seemingly incongruous low angle of two archetypal geriatric Manhattan flânuers strolling toward the camera dressed like they just came from Mardi Gras. The whole sequence is as disconcerting as it is hilarious. It’s like, “OK—I just got my first big, gruesome shock, so why am I laughing?” It’s Polanski’s way of saying you’d better trust him on this ride or you should just go watch another film.

 

There’s no point in recounting the plot or the set pieces. If you’ve seen the movie, you know all of that well; if you haven’t, why spoil it for you? What’s worth underlining is that—like Kubrick’s The Shining, which owes Polanski’s film a huge, and amply acknowledged, debt—Rosemary’s Baby still works. I know it’s arguable, but I don’t think anyone’s ever pulled off anything as odd yet apt—diseased yet airy—as the elaborate ritual leading to Rosemary’s insemination, where she’s granted an audience with a Samsonite-lugging Pope while being straddled by Satan.

 

The film has flaws, but Polanski, out of sheer creative exuberance and guile, manages to trump them all. He’d wanted Robert Redford for the lead, which would have been amazing. He got John Cassavetes instead—which would have sunk the whole enterprise under the hand of a lesser director. Cassavetes acts like an asshole from the very start, so of course he’d sell his

soul to the Devil. And yet the film somehow manages to glide right over that major lost opportunity.

 

I was also struck during this most recent viewing by what an outright flake Farrow’s Rosemary is. I realize Polanski wanted to keep the audience wondering if all of this was happening in the character’s head, but this Antichrist-infested Midwesterner is such a dim bulb you almost don’t care if she’s delusional to boot.

 

And I have to ask: If Farrow is a housewife and Cassavetes is a struggling actor, where did they get the money to rent an Upper West Side apartment that would easily sell for many millions today?

 

I’ve never had a chance to see Rosemary’s Baby in a theater, so watching it in HD on Kaleidescape was a better than expected experience—that only made me long to see it in 4K. William Fraker’s cinematography was more compelling than I’d remembered from other home video incarnations—although I would hope that going to the next level of resolution will help minimize that damn flashing they used throughout when printing the film. It seriously dates what would have otherwise been an exquisitely photographed movie (and will forever haunt a large number of otherwise excellent films from the late ‘60s through the ’70s).

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Christopher Komeda’s weird gothic-jazz score, bringing the evil of the East European woods into ‘60s Manhattan, still holds up, partly because it’s applied sparingly instead of being blared wall to wall. And this, like Rear Window and The Birds, is yet another older film that would seem ripe for an Atmos makeover, but the original audio mix is so ingeniously done that expanding the surround field wouldn’t necessarily make it more atmospheric. That said, as with those other two films, I’d be intrigued to see somebody give it a shot.

 

To repeat myself: Nobody needs to convince you to watch Rosemary’s Baby. Its reputation as a horror classic is unassailable and secure. But I would urge you to first scrape away as many of the accreted conventions Polanski’s shocker has spawned as you can and try to see it as if all those other films had never happened, as this is the place where it all began.

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.

Review: It (2017)

It (2017)

Had I known going in just how drastically Andy Muschietti restructured Stephen King’s It when adapting the 1,138-page novel into two movies, I probably never would have given it a chance. In case you’re not familiar with the book, it follows the adventures and tribulations of seven friends known collectively as “The Loser’s Club,” cutting back and forth between their adolescent and adult encounters with a shapeshifting, homicidal cosmic horror who takes the form of a clown known as Pennywise.

 

The intercutting between the characters as adults and adolescents is crucial to the plot (not to mention the emotional impact) of the novel, so if you had told me ahead of time that Muschietti shuffled the story like a deck of cards, then laid out the 

events in chronological order, with the first movie focusing on the story of the Loser’s Club as kids and the second serving as a sequel focusing on their adult experiences, I would have explained to you (probably with as much condescension as I could humanly muster) that such an approach would miss the point of the book entirely.

 

And although that may be the case, what Muschietti has done is turn this story into two distinct stories, each with its own themes, and each of which—much to my pleasant surprise—works as its own self-contained experience, with a proper beginning, middle, and ending.

 

The other big change Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman made to the source material was an update to the timeline. Rather than starting in 1957, as does the book, It moves the Loser’s Club’s youth to 1989, and also adds a couple of years to their ages. The former change not only allows the cinematic sequel to take place in the present day, but also allows Muschietti to rely on cultural references that

IT AT A GLANCE

This hugely creepy, hugely successful Stephen King adaptation makes for amazing demo material, even though the 4K transfer comes from a 2K source.

 

PICTURE     

The Kaleidescape download does a great job with the movie’s rich and gorgeous palette, retaining all the definition and detail, with HDR bringing extra depth to the shadows in this super-dark film.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is aggressive as hell, with britches-leg-flapping bass, but dialogue sometimes gets lost in all the audio mayhem.

will likely be a bit more familiar to modern audiences. The latter change keeps the film from veering too far into exploitative territory and also makes the story somewhat more believable.

 

Muschietti and Dauberman also removed some of the cosmic/spiritual aspects of the story that strain credulity to its breaking point, and what we’re left with is a movie that, in many ways, sort of feels like a scary, R-rated riff on The Goonies. There are also shades of Stranger Things here and there (and not merely because Finn Wolfhard, that series’ star, plays a key role in the film).

 

Despite the comparisons, It manages to carve out its own identity. A lot of the credit for that goes to Bill Skarsgård, whose performance as Pennywise is unforgettable. Rather than borrow anything from Tim Curry, who played the role first in ABC’s

two-part miniseries adaptation from 1990, Skarsgård makes the character his own, bringing a wholly alien physicality to the performance that makes one thing abundantly clear from the giddy-up: This isn’t your garden-variety sewer-dwelling murder-clown we’re dealing with here.

 

The look of the film also contributes to the sort of distinctive and effective personality lacking in so many of today’s horror movies. Shot on ArriRaw in a combination of 2.8K

and 3.4K, It has a rich and gorgeous palette that makes even its most pedestrian scenes visually engaging. What’s more, you’d never know from looking at the imagery’s crisp edges, luscious textures, and fine detail that it was finished in a 2K digital intermediate. This movie is further proof that this sort of thing just doesn’t matter as much as some people would have you believe. The important thing is that Kaleidescape’s download is above reproach in terms of definition and detail. HDR is also put to good use, not only in delivering the movie’s rich colors but also in allowing a good bit of extra depth in the shadows. Make no mistake about it—It is an incredibly dark film—one that should be viewed in a completely light-controlled room. But even with the lights out, the Blu-ray release made portions so inscrutably dark that it was difficult to tell what was going on at all. The 4K HDR transfer rectifies that at least enough to make even the darkest scenes discernible.

Long story short, it may come from a 2K DI, but the 4K HDR release of It—at least as presented by Kaleidescape—is amazing video demo material, and comes darn close to being a reference-quality transfer.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos is also everything you would expect the soundtrack for a movie like this to be. Directional sound effects are aggressive as hell, the bass is absolutely britches-leg-flapping, and the overall creepy ambiance of the movie is handled fantastically by the soundtrack. My only real beef here is that voices occasionally get lost in the mix. Don’t blame your center speaker if you find some of the dialogue a bit unintelligible; instead blame the sound engineers. That said, this problem isn’t nearly so bad here as it has been in the past few Chris Nolan films.

 

As for the movie itself, my only real beef is that it feels a little short. An odd statement to make about a 135-minute horror flick, I know, but It is so packed with characters, most of whom have their own compelling individual storylines distinct from the group dynamic, that it just whizzes by. A few extra minutes’ worth of runtime would have allowed Muschietti to flesh out a couple of characters that seem underserved here. Stanley Uris, for example—played wonderfully by the

It (2017)

young Wyatt Oleff—serves such a minor role in the overall story that he could have just as easily been written out of the screenplay and it hardly would have been the biggest departure from the novel. The relationship between Eddie Kaspbrak and his mother is also a bit undeveloped, leaving the resolution of their storyline feeling somewhat unsatisfying.

 

Those quibbles aside, It is a surprisingly good horror movie that thankfully relies more on scares than gross-outs to keep you glued to the screen and huddled under your blanket. Don’t go into it expecting a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s book (although, given how poorly that one has aged, that’s probably a good thing), but do go in expecting a very satisfying reinterpretation of parts of the novel—one that absolutely works on its own terms, whether you have any intention of watching the sequel or not.

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.

Review: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Of the stable of movie reviewers here at Cineluxe, I am probably the least qualified to review Stanley Kubrick’s epic historical drama, Spartacus. I certainly don’t possess the encyclopedic film knowledge or ability to dissect filming styles like Mike Gaughn, nor have the ability to draw wide parallels and comparisons like Dennis Burger. But what I can bring to this review is a fresh set of eyes and perspective, unsullied by previous experience and unburdened by any real knowledge of the film, as this was my first viewing. What I can hopefully answer is the straightforward question, “Is it worth my time/money to watch Spartacus?”

 

Doing even the slightest bit of digging into the film reveals it was not the smoothest production. After failing to get the title role in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas was looking for a major project for his production company, Bryna Productions, and he optioned 

Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. Fast was initially hired to adapt his work into a screenplay, but was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood blacklist at the time, writing screenplays under pseudonyms. Trumbo apparently turned the script around in two weeks and Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given on-screen credit for the film and publicly announced Trumbo as the writer, effectively ending the blacklist.

 

The original director, Anthony Mann, was fired by Douglas after the first week of filming, and a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick (who had worked with Douglas on Paths of Glory just three years earlier) was brought in. However, this is the only film where Kubrick was not given complete creative control, and it included a significantly higher budget—$12 million (equivalent to $105 million today)—and far larger cast than anything he’d previously worked on. Disagreements persisted throughout the production, based on Kubrick’s shooting style, pacing, the screenplay, and choice of location.

SPARTACUS AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic looks suitably spectacular after receiving the 4K HDR treatment, with an able assist from the Dolby Atmos mix.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K resolution gives images great sharpness and depth throughout, with the HDR subtly accentuating highlights while bringing out rich colors, like the Legion’s crimson uniforms.

 

SOUND     

The conservative Atmos mix stays mainly in the front channels, which give the epic score plenty of room to breathe, but occasionally spreads into the surrounds for things like thunderstorms.

Despite all that, the film was a massive box-office success, receiving seven Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design.

 

With a run time of three hours and 17 minutes, watching Spartacus is a fairly significant time investment. While the film’s 1960 opening ran 202 minutes, the film received a pretty major trim—41 minutes—for a re-release in 1967. It received an extensive restoration in 1992, backed by Steven Spielberg, and while the cut footage—including the “infamous” bath scene between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis)—was restored, the prints from the premiere were apparently lost, and there are two short scenes that no longer exist.

 

For its 55th Anniversary, the film was given another major restoration that included creating a new true-4K digital intermediate. A title card at the film’s conclusion notes, “2015 Digital Restoration 6K scan from original large format Technirama Film Elements 4K color correction and digital restoration, 7.1 channel audio by NBCUniversal Studio Post.” The 4K Blu-ray includes a DTS:X soundtrack, while the Kaleidescape version reviewed here features Dolby Atmos.

 

Born into slavery, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is saved from death when purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who runs a school that trains gladiators to fight and die “for ladies and gentleman of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill.” While in training, Spartacus meets and falls in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons). After Varinia is sold, Spartacus leads a revolt and overthrows the soldiers at Batiatus’ camp. This revolt grows into an idea to rise up to free all the slaves of Italy, to create an army of gladiators that could fight their way to freedom to leave Italy forever to return to their homelands.

 

After the slave army conducts a variety of raids on Roman garrisons where they gather treasure and more freed slaves, the Roman Senate enacts a plan to send Legions to crush Spartacus’ army.

 

Spartacus is classic old-school, epic Hollywood filmmaking. It opens with a four-minute musical overture, followed by another near-four-minutes of credits, and even includes a mid-film intermission with a two-minute Entr’acte. With its run time, there is plenty of time to develop characters’ stories, appreciate Spartacus’ rise to power and march across Italy, and delve into the political intrigue happening in Rome, though the pacing does feel a bit slow at times.

 

What drives Spartacus is the strong performances of the leads. Likely motivated to show William Wyler he picked the wrong guy for Ben Hur, Douglas delivers a powerful portrayal, doing much of his acting with his eyes, saying more with a stare, a glare, a squint, or a furrowed brow than he does with his mouth. Olivier’s Crassus is a strong foil to Douglas, but the star of

Spartacus (1960)

the show for me was Ustinov, who seems to revel in his role as successful citizen turned sycophant to the Empire, tossing in off-handed comments and jokes that bring a bit of levity to the story, an example of which: “A gladiator is like a stallion that must pampered. Oiled, bathed, shaved, massaged, taught to use your heads.”

 

Spartacus’ influence on Gladiator is clear, though that later film relies far more on gladiatorial-battle set pieces and the CGI spectacle of recreating the Roman Colosseum. What Spartacus lacks in modern computer trickery, it makes up for in sheer 

numbers, augmenting its cast with eight thousand Spanish soldiers to double as Romans for the climatic battle, and doing much of its shooting on location (including California’s Hearst Castle—and anyone who has ever been on the tour will recognize the swimming pool at what is supposed to be Crassus’ estate), which looks fantastic captured in the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format.

 

The quality of this transfer is apparent before the film even starts, as the title credits are razor-sharp, clean, and clear.

 

The opening shots reveal a natural bit of film grain in the blue skies, but images have incredible depth and sharpness, letting you see for miles into the distance. Resolution is impressive throughout, with individual pebbles and stones visible in the rocky ground, or the frayed edges on the ragged sleeves of the slaves’ tunics, the detail of the embroidery, or the scuffs and wear in leather. The detail lets you clearly know what the fabric of each actor’s costume would feel like, and reveals the quality differences between classes. The resolution also reveals incredible facial detail in closeups, clearly showing every pore, wrinkle, and line in Douglas’ leathery, sunburnt face.

 

One of the downsides to suddenly revealing everything in a film—especially one that is now 60 years old—is that some of the filming techniques and shortcuts of the day are apparent. For example, there is an interior scene where it is obvious the brick and mortar of the walls is just set-dressing façade. It’s also clear when they are shooting on an interior set rather than on location. And that the groups of Roman soldiers in some long-focus shots are not actually groups of soldiers.

 

Also curious is the filming decision to nearly always greatly soften the image when showing Varinia. The sharpness of every other scene makes this especially apparent. I can only imagine this was a creative decision of the day, as Simmons was beautiful and had no apparent skin imperfections. (Though her acting was fine, her casting made me think they really wanted Elizabeth Taylor but instead used the closest substitute they could.)

While the grand battle scene is certainly impressive, I was surprised there weren’t more lengthy shots revealing the entirety of the fighting force. However, there are plenty of scenes that show off an innumerable amount of people either marching, preparing for battle, or starting to charge.

 

Also impressive is the training that occurs at Batiatus’ gladiator camp. It’s clear the actors are doing their own stunts, some of which required a fair bit of dexterity and stamina, and it appears that some people are actually being injured. For example, at the 54-minute mark, Spartacus fights Marcellus (Charles McGraw), and the higher resolution and color reveal that McGraw is actually bleeding from a wound, and you see Douglas actually smashing his face into the cooking pot.

 

This new transfer greatly benefits from the HDR grading, with interior scenes having deep shadow detail, and inky, clean blacks. We also enjoy added highlights from sunlight glinting off sweating skin or in burning firelight. Having never seen the film prior, I can’t say for certain but it appears that they took a pretty conservative pass with the HDR, and definitely remained true to the film’s original look. The wider color gamut brings out the richness of the crimson of the 

Spartacus (1960)

Roman soldiers and Senators, the gleam of shining gold, the red-orange as villages burn at night, and just a more natural quality to skin tones.

 

Sonically, it felt like about 90% of the audio came from the front three left, center, and right speakers. If the surrounds were ever employed, it was sparingly, and certainly not in a manner that ever caused distraction or undue attention. The sweeping score is big and dynamic, with its soundstage given a chance to open up across the width of the front speakers with a bit of the strings mixed up into the front height channels for added dimension. The only other time I was aware of any height-channel activity was during a thunderstorm were a bit of the storm is mixed overhead. They also use the subwoofer to bring weight to the musical score, and to punctuate some of the battle scenes or marching. Dialogue is kept to the center channel, and it is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

Spartacus remains a spectacle and triumph of its time, and it is the kind of massive Hollywood film of epic scale we don’t often see any longer. Further, the care and effort that went into this restoration are simply stunning to behold, letting you appreciate details audiences 60 years ago likely missed. Getting back to my opening question, “Is it worth your time/money to watch?” Absolutely.

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.