Reviews

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life is such a pervasive presence on broadcast TV during the holidays that one almost has to wonder if there’s actually any value in owning it. It has been in USA’s rotation since Thanksgiving and will air there and on NBC as well right up until Christmas Eve. If you care at all about this beloved Frank Capra classic, you have ample opportunity to view it for free, and if you don’t, it almost seems hard to escape this time of year. So why would you spend your hard-earned money to make it part of your permanent film library, when—let’s be honest with ourselves here—you’re just going to ignore it again until your next big tryptophan overdose in late 2021?

Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR download of It’s a Wonderful Life provides a pretty compelling answer to that question, actually. Because I promise you, whether you’ve seen the film once or you binge it like the sugary confection it is, you’ve never seen it looking as good as it does here.

 

Working with the best elements they could get their hands on, the Paramount Pictures Archive restored the film in 2019, which was no easy task given that only 13 of the film’s 14 original camera-negative reels survived, all with significant deterioration at the ends. The team also had two complete fine-grade nitrate prints from 1946 to work with, which they used to fill in the gaps.

 

The result is quite frankly astonishing—rich in detail and organic nuance, with a healthy level of very fine grain but none of the noise that often plagues nitrate films of this 

WONDERFUL LIFE AT A GLANCE

An impressive restoration and a 4K HDR upgrade turn this once-a-year holiday ritual into a movie collection must-have.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration, coupled with a subtle application of HDR, results in impossibly gorgeous imagery throughout.

 

SOUND     

The two-channel mono soundtrack’s limited dynamic range can be occasionally harsh and have an impact on dialogue intelligibility, but this is still the best the movie has ever sounded.

era, especially those sourced from multiple generations of assets. The movie has also been given a very subtle but effective HDR grade, the likes of which you certainly won’t see on broadcast TV.

 

Comparing it to the standard-dynamic-range HD release (sourced, I believe, from the same restoration), you won’t notice much by way of enhanced highlights, even from the neon lights that line the streets of Potterville toward the end of the film. But what you will notice is a broader and smoother range of midtones, as well as enhanced shadow detail and depth closer to the bottom end of the value scale.

 

This really stood out to me in one scene in particular, when George Bailey sits with his father at the dinner table discussing the future. In the HD transfer, George’s jacket is a medium gray, since taking the image much darker would have swallowed 

the folds and details in the fabric. In the 4K/HDR transfer, the jacket is very nearly black, and yet all of the subtle textures and contrasts that give it shape shine through, despite the overall darkening of the image here. The effect is to give the scene a greater sense of intimacy, to make it look and feel more like a family dinner than a brightly lit movie set. And you can see that sort of benefit from HDR throughout the film. Never does the image get much brighter than you’ve 

seen it before, but HDR allows it to get properly darker in places without losing any detail or crushing any blacks. It simply gives the film a more consistent look from beginning to end.

 

There are times, by the way, when I suspected I could see where the second-generation nitrate prints had been substituted for the original camera negative—the sort of thing you can normally pick out much more easily in HDR. A few shots here and there are ever-so-slightly plagued by diminished midtones and a loss of highlights. The occasional camera angle looks a little more dupe-y, a little less pristine.

Watching the excellent 13-minute documentary about the restoration process, though (included on the UHD Blu-ray but not available on Kaleidescape, sadly— but embedded in this review, above), I’m inclined to believe I was mistaken in blaming these very minor issues on the restoration. You can see in the doc, especially at right around the 7:45 mark, that the second-generation elements were so seamlessly integrated into the original camera negative that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart unless you know exactly where the splices are. So the occasional second or two of subpar imagery in the movie must be an artifact of the original production. And I’m even more inclined to believe that given that every shot of Donna Reed looks like the lens was slathered with five pounds of Vaseline before “Action!” was called, something that’s even more noticeable given the enhanced resolution.

 

This handful of visual booboos is hardly a distraction—nowhere near the level of something like The Blues Brothers Extended Edition—and they’re only worth nitpicking at all because the rest of the film simply looks so impossibly gorgeous. What can be distracting at times is that the dynamic range of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (labeled as stereo, but in actuality two-channel mono) is so 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

limited that, especially in louder scenes—like Harry Bailey’s graduation party—the sound can get a weensy bit harsh, and dialogue intelligibility suffers in spots. But this is still the best the film has ever sounded, so it’s hard to complain.

 

So, should you buy It’s a Wonderful Life in 4K? If you care at all about the film, I say yes. Absolutely. I’ll admit (whilst hiding behind some protective cover) that I’ve always been a bit “whatever” about this Christmas mainstay. But watching it in 4K with the benefit of HDR, once I got past the insufferable scenes with the kids in the drug store early in the film and the laughably bad outer-space sequences, I enjoyed it in a way I never have before.

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: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)

Much like Spartacus, My Fair Lady is a gem from Hollywood’s golden age of the early ‘60s that I had yet to see. Also like Spartacus, it’s available in a gorgeous new 4K HDR transfer that is available for streaming from sites like iTunes. But to truly experience the transfer in its full glory, the 89.8 gigabyte download from Kaleidescape is the best option.

 

A third trait My Fair Lady shares with Spartacus is that it was restored by Robert Harris (who also restored Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Rear Window, and The Godfather Parts I and II). Harris originally restored the film in 1994, but was then hired by CBS in 2015 to perform a full digital restoration to prepare the film for its 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release.

This was a lengthy restoration that took over six months and started by taking a new 8K scan of the original 65mm negative. Restoration involved a good bit of repair to scratches, tears, and splices, color correction, cleanup, and dust removal. All told, some 12 million glitches were said to have been digitally removed, and faded colors were returned to their original vibrancy using an archival print from the Motion Picture Academy as a reference.

 

Immediately following the film, a vibrant pink title card proclaims, “Paramount Pictures has made a High Dynamic Range version on [sic] this film based on the efforts of Robert Harris, Fotokem, Audio Mechanics and the many others who helped with the original restoration.” (The press release from 20th Century Fox on the extensive restoration is pretty interesting reading.)

LADY AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR transfer from a 65mm print breathes new life into Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical.

 

PICTURE     

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges—which is especially impressive given that this is a 56-year-old film.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be.

As mentioned, I had never seen this film before, and at first blush Lady seems like a lot to ask of a modern viewer. It’s not exactly like a 56-year-old movie based on a 64-year-old musical stage play set in early-1900s London that lasts just under three hours (170 minutes) is something you’d plan for your next movie night. Also, the plot of a priggish linguist taking on the challenge of teaching a poor Cockney street girl “the majesty and grandeur of the English language” to fit into polite society, doesn’t really grab modern eyeballs (though I do love Kaleidescape’s concise synopsis, “A London guttersnipe transforms herself into a proper lady under a language professor’s stern tutelage.”)

 

However, as intrigued as I was about the quality of the new 4K HDR transfer—especially after how impressed I was with Spartacus—it was really Audrey Hepburn starring as Eliza Doolittle that sealed the deal for me. Audrey is truly a timeless beauty, and it is just a treat to be able to watch and appreciate her—a testament to her charms, talents, and classic style that she is still such a draw so many years later. If there’s any question how much my wife and I adore Ms. Hepburn, our youngest daughter’s name is Audrey . . . 

 

A little digging reveals some pretty interesting things about Lady. With a production budget of $17 million dollars (nearly $143 million when adjusted for inflation), it was the most expensive film shot in the US at the time. Based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, it had been adapted into a stage musical in 1956 that played on Broadway and in London. That version had Rex Harrison cast as Professor Henry Higgins (which he reprised in the film) with Julie Andrews playing Eliza. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, though Audrey Hepburn was notably snubbed from receiving a Best Actress nomination, rumored because many wanted Andrews to have the lead (she wasn’t considered well-known enough to star in such a big film) and because nearly all of Hepburn’s singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. (Hepburn was told she would be 

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Spartacus (1960)

able to do most of her singing, and worked on the vocals for some time, but 90% of her lyrics were dubbed according to Hepburn.) The film went on to win 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Cinematography. It also has extremely favorable critics and audience scores from Rotten Tomatoes, with 95% and 90% respectively.

 

As a musical with 25 numbers, including the Overture over opening credits and Finale (all lovingly pre-bookmarked for easy and instant access by Kaleidescape’s Movie Guide team), I was thinking this would be a near-three-hour song-fest with all of the dialogue sung, but that (pleasantly) isn’t 

the case. In fact, quite a bit of the movie is spoken, with characters breaking into song as the moment calls. I was also surprised how many of the songs I was familiar with, just not knowing they were from Lady. “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” were all tunes I’d heard, but now have them in context.

 

While I find myself still humming “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” even a couple of days after, my two favorite numbers were “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Show Me.” “Luck” is performed by Doolittle’s father, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), with some humorous lyrics extolling the benefits of how some luck can get you out of tricky situations like doing hard work, getting hooked by a lady, or helping out a neighbor in need. “Show Me” is performed by Eliza (dubbed by Nixon) about how a potential suitor needs to show his attentions with actions, not words.

 

One character that does take a bit of getting used to is the surly Professor Higgins. He is in love with himself and linguistics, and shows large measures of disdain to all around him but mostly Eliza whom he meets after overhearing her extremely Cockney accent as she is trying to sell flowers outside an opera. After a chance encounter with another linguist, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), we have the opening number “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” which basically establishes the premise/bet that Higgins believes he can teach anyone—even Doolittle!—to speak in such a way that not even the King could tell she didn’t belong, and that would be then the key to them having a better life.

 

But Higgins hurls a constant barrage of verbal assaults at Doolittle throughout the film, including calling her creature, baggage, garbage, guttersnipe, squashed cabbage leaf, deliciously low, horribly dirty, draggletailed, barbarous wretch, and more. Some of these are off-hand descriptions while others are shouted insults. His feelings are also pretty well summed up in the number, “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”. I would say that his character is incredibly misogynistic. However, someone online argued that he is actually a misanthrope (“a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society”), which actually seems more accurate.

 

That Higgins shows not the least bit of interest, compassion, concern, or care for Doolittle—even on a human level, let alone a romantic one—makes the ending feel that much more forced. But what is more classic Hollywood than the leads coming together at the end?

 

So, how’s it look? In a word, stunning.

 

Images are incredibly clean and detailed throughout, with razor-sharp edges. Cobblestones in the street are clearly outlined and detailed, as is the distressing and texture in cement columns. Early on, Higgins is wearing a hat with a very fine check plaid, and the tight lines are clearly defined and visible. In another scene, he is moving about his grand library and even though the camera is some distance away, you can just about read the fine print on the books’ spines. And near the end, Higgins sits in a white rattan chair that has incredible detail to its tight lines and pattern.

 

We also get terrific depth of field and focus. Shots such as at the Ascot Gavotte race or at the embassy dance show dozens of actors at once, all in crisp focus. You can also appreciate the costumes—especially Doolittle’s Ascot outfit and embassy gown—and other little attentions to detail and set dressing. It really demonstrates the benefits of being able to extract every bit of detail from the 8K scan of the original 65mm negative and Super Panavision 70 process. 

 

I was only occasionally aware of any film grain, and it certainly was never distracting, but at the same time it didn’t look like it had been scrubbed away, softening the picture.

 

They definitely took a light touch with the HDR grading, but we do get some nice bright whites, especially in men’s crisp tuxedo shirts and Doolittle’s race dress. Blacks are also nice, dark, and noise-free, whether in nighttime street scenes or in 

tuxedoes. The added contrast also provides more realistic and lifelike images throughout.

 

Don’t expect to use the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio mix as demo material to show off your sound system. But it keeps the attention and focus up front where it should be, and if there was any audio mixed into the surround speakers, I didn’t notice it. I did notice that the mixers used the front three channels to give characters some room to move, not locking voices just to the center channel, but letting them move left and right of center. This was also noticeable in the horse-race scene—the film’s most dynamic sonic moment—as the horses race from far right to far left. The orchestration is also given a lot of space to play in the front, with music having a nice tall soundstage helped a bit by some processor upmixing to the front height channels.

 

Dialogue was mostly intelligible throughout, but I did have some difficulty early on when Doolittle is speaking in her heavily accented voice. Whether this was just me having trouble with the dialect, the mix, the other crowd noises occurring at the same time, or some combination of all of the above, I can’t exactly say.

 

My only quibble with the audio is in the dubbing of Audrey’s lyrics. I know it was a

My Fair Lady (1964)

huge musical of the time and that audiences expected professional singing quality, but dammit if Gerard Butler can be the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera then Audrey could have sung for Eliza. We know she can sing from “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even taking the dub-snub away, it is the fact that the musical numbers have a noticeably different tone and quality to them, and the voice change just pulls you that much more out of the scene, but especially so in the numbers “Just You Wait” and “The Rain in Spain,” which has Hepburn singing some of the lines and Nixon clearly coming in and sounding vocally and tonally different.

 

I can’t imagine My Fair Lady looked or sounded any better even on the night of its premiere. This transfer has images that look great for a modern film, let alone one that is 56 years old, and it dazzles up on a home theater big screen. While the near three-hour runtime is a fairly serious commitment, I found it thoroughly entertaining and definitely see why this movie is considered such a classic. I dare say you’ll never see Audrey Hepburn looking ever so loverly as she does here. 

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: The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)

If nothing else, the 4K HDR release of The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition demonstrates just how far home video has come in the past 20 years. And if you’re not familiar with the provenance of the longer cut of the film, perhaps a little backstory is in order here.

 

Director John Landis originally intended The Blues Brothers to be a three-hour roadshow with an intermission. Studio heads balked after a test screening and forced him to cut the movie down to 148 minutes, then again to 133 minutes for the final theatrical release. When Universal destroyed most of the elements for the original film in 1985, it was believed that only the 

133-minute cut and its negative survived—until, that is, the son of a theater owner was caught trying to sell a print of the 148-minute cut on eBay in the early ’90s. And it is from this print that all deleted scenes and alternate cuts for the extended cut were sourced.

 

Back in the era of DVD, the discrepancies between the quality of the original camera negative and that of the lost-and-recovered print weren’t that blatant. Sure, you could tell some scenes were a bit grainier, a little less detailed, a little more washed out, but it was hardly a distraction. In the HD era, the disparity started to become substantially more apparent.

 

Fast-forward to this year’s UHD release of The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition, and I honestly find it nigh unwatchable, if only because the portions of the film scanned from the original camera negative are so utterly gorgeous they make the preview-print footage look that much worse by comparison. After the opening credits pass 

BLUES BROTHERS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR release underlines the visual inconsistencies that plague the extended cut, making the more consistently entertaining theatrical cut (included with the Kaleidescape download) a way better way to go.

 

PICTURE     

The images are consistently excellent throughout the theatrical version, with HDR significantly improving the shadow depth.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is immaculate, enhancing the film’s original four-track soundtrack.

by, The Blues Brothers: Extended Edition is simply a chaotic audiovisual rollercoaster, with one scene looking sharp, detailed, well-balanced, and properly saturated, with exactly the right amount of organic film grain—and the next looking like a blown-out, overly contrasty mess of crushed blacks, faded highlights, and about twice as much grain as it should have. It’s honestly such a distraction that I had trouble sitting through the extended cut, despite the absolutely fabulous DTS-HD Master Audio

5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download of the film.

 

Thankfully, though, purchasing the extended edition on Kaleidescape also comes with the theatrical cut, fully restored in UHD HDR as well, so I decided to give it a watch, despite not having seen the shorter edit in over a quarter-century. And what I took away from that viewing surprised me.

 

When you get right down to it, the 

studio was right. The shorter cut of The Blues Brothers is a better movie. Simply put, it’s better paced, more consistently funny, and the focus is more consistently where it belongs—on the musical numbers.

 

Not only that, but the original theatrical cut is a better home cinema experience from beginning to end. Again, the opening and closing titles—which had to be sourced from what I believe is the interpositive, not the negative—don’t quite measure up to the quality of the rest of the transfer. But that aside, I never would have imagined The Blues Brothers could look this good while still looking true to itself.

 

And it isn’t merely the enhanced detail brought about by the 4K scan that benefits the look of the movie. HDR also allows enhancements to shadow depth, bringing details out of the darkness that have simply never appeared in home video

presentations before.

 

Granted, the real star of the show here is still the immaculate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix, which doesn’t suffer from the tonal and fidelity inconsistencies that plague so many films of the era. Sure, the pre-recorded musical numbers shine brighter here, with deeper bass and better transparency than the rest of the mix, but dialogue and sound effects are still clear and well-presented, and the occasional surround sound effect doesn’t sound at all out of place. A lot of that probably comes down to the fact that the film was originally mixed in four-track stereo, with discrete left, center, and right channels and a mono surround channel, making it a little easier to conform to our modern surround-sound channel layout. But whatever the reason, The Blues Brothers sounds absolutely as wonderful here as you would hope.

 

At any rate, in a weird way I think I’m sort of grateful the 4K release of the extended cut of The Blues Brothers revealed what a mishmash that version of the movie is, visually speaking. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have returned to the theatrical cut and discovered for myself just how much better it is. I’ve spent the past few decades treating the longer cut as the film proper, viewing the theatrical cut as a sort of historical artifact, when in fact I think we should view these 

The Blues Brothers (1980)

different cuts from exactly the opposite perspective. The extended edition is really just an incredibly long bonus feature, and one that quite frankly overstays its welcome.

 

In some hypothetical parallel universe in which the original elements for the movie still existed and we could enjoy the full three-hour roadshow version, it’s entirely possible it would be the superior edit. But we don’t live in that universe. So if the only version of The Blues Brothers you know is the compromised, intermediate extended cut (it was, after all, the only version available on DVD for the longest time), I encourage you to give the shorter theatrical cut another shot. Especially in its newly restored 4K HDR form, it’s simply the best version of the movie that actually exists.

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: The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Proving that nothing has power like a great story, Hollywood routinely returns to classic literature to resurrect and retell new versions of beloved stories. Here at Cineluxe we’ve recently reviewed the latest versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and to those we’ll add Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

Counting this version, the Copperfield novel (which carries the cumbersome full title of The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) has been made and remade into movies and TV series more than a dozen times since 1911, including two animated versions.

Dickens admitted Copperfield was his favorite work, writing, “Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” The story was originally published serially over 18 months and totaled more than 600 pages. Any time a work of that length is translated to a film-sized chunk—even one with Copperfield’s two-hour runtime—heavy edits are required. However, judging from Dickens’ verbose writing style—partly the nature of serialized writing, which was often paid by the word—much could be trimmed while still retaining the heart of the story.

 

The titular role of David Copperfield is played with terrific sincerity by Dev Patel. We follow the character’s life and tragedies from birth up through marriage, as he moves throughout England and slowly climbs his way up in society. (“You can’t take something from someone who has nothing!”)

COPPERFIELD AT A GLANCE

This latest filming of Dickens’ favorite novel condenses the book’s 600-plus pages into a two-hour runtime full of colorful characters and witty dialogue.

 

PICTURE     

Images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout, with HDR deployed lightly to enhance the natural look of the visuals.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sticks mainly to the front channels, but the surrounds are used occasionally to add ambience to naturalistic effects.

Patel is joined by a terrific supporting cast that really leans into playing the over-the-top side characters who wind in and out of Copperfield’s life. These include Hugh Laurie as the delightfully eccentric Mr. Dick, who is convinced that the thoughts of King Charles I are stuck in his head since Charles was beheaded; Benedict Wong as the alcohol-obsessed Mr. Wickfield (who “takes his wine with an enviable degree of enjoyment”); Ben Whishaw as the sniveling and class-obsessed Uriah Heep; as well as Tilda Swinson as David’s great aunt, the donkey-hating Betsey Trotwood; Peter Capaldi as the eternally yet optimistically in debt Mr. Micawber; Morfydd Clark, who plays both David’s mother Clara; and his first love interest, the eternally childish Dora Spenlow, who likes to carry around and speak via her puppy, Jip.

 

One of the film’s storytelling techniques is that Copperfield regularly recalls and mimics and then writes down quotes and snippets of conversations he has or overhears with these peculiar acquaintances, keeping these scraps of papers in a box he carries with him and later uses to turn into stories that he ultimately sells to make his way. 

 

While I’ve yet to read the novel, the dialogue is so witty, sharp, and biting I wonder how much was lifted from Dickens’ text and how much is original. Lines like “I see my father’s gravestone shadowed by trees bending towards one another in the wind like giants whispering secrets” certainly feel true to Dickens’ flowery writing style.

While there is frequent humor, it is often subtle and restrained. Lines like Mr. Dick’s comment, “[Does she mean] to visit violence on the boy? Yes. She’s a remarkable woman. Very kind,” are typical of the type of humor to expect.

 

Details on the resolution of the transfer aren’t clear, but images are clean, detailed, and sharp throughout. We are especially able to appreciate the bright outdoor scenes that offer countryside views for miles. The rocky beaches of Yarmouth show every stone in clear, individually outlined detail, and you can practically feel the texture of the bricks, stones, plaster, and wood that comprise the construction of various buildings.

 

The film uses a light touch with its HDR grading, which is used to create images that look consistently natural, with lots of rich, deep shadows and bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows. Deep, clean blacks are present when called on, such as at the bottle factory Copperfield works at in his youth.

 

The Kaleidescape transfer includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does a fine job presenting the film’s dialogue. While most of the audio is kept in the front of the room, the surrounds are used occasionally to add some convincing and scene-appropriate ambient effects, such as street and

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

city sounds, noises on the factory floor, life at the beach, or the creaks and groans and strains of ropes aboard a boat. The musical score also mixes up nicely into the overhead speakers to expand the soundstage, as do sounds from an intense thunderstorm near the film’s conclusion.

 

Several of the actors speak with pretty thick accents, making some of the dialogue tricky to understand at times, though these moments are usually brief and can certainly be rectified by turning subtitles on.

 

While the film meanders along a bit slowly, it is a fine and interesting journey to take. The movie inspired me to download the novel to my iPhone, and if a film can move you to read a book, that is a version of success on its own, I’d say. So, while I can’t compare how closely writer and director Armando Iannucci’s vision hews to the original, it certainly feels both true to the book’s spirit, story, and quirky characters while being fresh, inventive, modern, and unique in its approach.

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: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

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: The New Mutants

The New Mutants (2020)

While we have beaten the proverbial Tenet theatrical-release horse to death here, when all the dust settled, it was actually not the first major film to “restart” theatrical exhibition here in the States. Nope. While Tenet debuted on September 3, it was 20th Century/Marvel Entertainment’s The New Mutants, which opened on August 27 that actually holds that “honor.”

 

And much like Tenet, the box office returns for Mutants were pretty disastrous by normal metrics, bringing in just over $7 million its opening weekend, and going on to gross just under $24 million in the US. Of course, these aren’t normal times, 

and Mutants is now seeing something of a second life in streaming, where it topped the charts of both Fandango Now and Vudu for both number of rentals and revenue. The movie is also available for download from Kaleidescape in 4K HDR with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack.

 

Unless you’re fairly deep into the X-Men comics franchise, Mutants likely didn’t show up on your radar. It had been languishing in production purgatory after Disney acquired 20th Century Fox (the film was originally scheduled to be released in 2018), literally couldn’t have been released at a worse time, received almost no advertising support, and didn’t fit into the shoebox of the typical X-Men superhero series, resulting in a hybrid teens-with-powers/horror-ish film that feels targeted at the YA market and doesn’t really feel that connected to the rest of the franchise. It also didn’t help that the film received franchise-low Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 33% and 56%.

MUTANTS AT A GLANCE

Vaguely related to the X-Men franchise, this diverting teens-with-superpowers entry checks off all the usual genre boxes without breaking any new ground.

 

PICTURE     

Shot at 8K, the film reveals terrific levels of detail, with so much depth and definition to the images that they look 3D.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is dynamic and active, providing immense bass energy when needed.

In retrospect, Disney likely should have released Mutants straight to Disney+, where it could have gotten more mileage promoting the film as another exclusive to drive subscriptions. But, to paraphrase the Anton Chigurh line from No Country for Old Men, this film has been traveling for years to get here, and now it’s here, and we’ve got to call it: Is The New Mutants worth seeing?

 

In short, mostly yes. While it isn’t a great or really even memorable film—my wife commented, “Well, that was pretty meh” as the end credits started—it moves quickly through its 94-minute runtime, features a talented cast—including Anya Taylor-Joy, who is quickly becoming a major star (and who is absolutely wonderful to watch as Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit mini-series, btw)—and, perhaps most important to Cineluxe readers, looks and sounds great in a home theater.

 

The film opens as an F5 tornado is ripping through a Native American reservation, with Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) narrowly escaping with her life as the sole survivor. She awakens at a hospital, chained to a bed, with no idea how she got there, where she is greeted by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes informs her that this is a special hospital, and that Moonstar is a mutant who needs to remain there until she learns what her abilities are and how to control them.

 

Moonstar quickly meets the hospital’s other “patients”: Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Robert da Costa (Henry Zaga), and Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy).

 

As the characters get to know each other, we get the usual bit of teen interpersonal drama and learn they are all mutants who were brought there by Dr. Reyes after some horrible—and fatal—tragedy in their lives. The stories—and the characters’ powers—reveal themselves as Moonstar gets to know the other patients and tries to figure out what her own powers are and what she needs to do in order to leave the hospital. While this is happening, the characters start experiencing ultra-realistic hallucinations related to their personal tragedies.

 

Is it a hospital, a prison, or a cage? Who is the superior Dr. Reyes keeps referring to? And just what are Moonstar’s powers?

 

These are the key questions the movie hangs on and wants to keep you guessing at, but unfortunately, they just aren’t deep enough to make the film fully successful.

 

As a “casual” X-Men fan (I’ve watched all of the movies, but don’t read any of the comics or graphic novels), the only real connections I found between the X-universe and Mutants was a brief mention of the X-Men (the teens feel they are being groomed to eventually go and join them) and a vision Moonstar had where she saw a facility that looked exactly like scenes in Logan where X-23 was created. While there’s nothing wrong with a series branching out and going its own, new way, when you have such a rich universe to pull from as X-Men, it is a bit surprising that it didn’t have any more tie-ins.

 

Also, this film seems overly ripe for an end-credits scene that would tease . . . something. (Director Josh Boone originally planned for this to be the first of a trilogy of films.) The ending just screams “There’s more to come,” but there isn’t.

 

Prior to viewing the movie, I had no idea what it was about, and after watching the trailer, I expected it to be a horror film going for scares about being trapped in this asylum. In fact, its genre is even listed as “horror.” But it just isn’t scary. It tries to be, with some flashback/hallucinations and a moshed-up Slenderman/Venom-looking group of baddies called the “Smiling Men” (voiced by Marilyn Manson), but it never generates the tension, suspense, or startle moments to make it succeed as a horror film. Also, you never really get to care enough about any of the characters or feel they are ever in any real peril to be concerned something might happen to them. And when you take that element away, I’m afraid what’s left just isn’t strong enough.

 

Another issue I had was that the actors are all given over-the-top accents that seem to vary in consistency throughout the film. Maybe they felt the audience needed to be hammered over the head with thick Russian, Scottish, Cuban, and Deep South accents to believe the characters’ backstories.

 

Finally, I am just so sick of Hollywood’s insistence on pushing a gay agenda. Of the five main characters, two happen to be gay. Of course, we are then given that prerequisite long moment as they stare into each other’s eyes before having that first, closeup kiss. This same-sex relationship does nothing to serve the story or develop the characters and feels solely there to check a “Does the movie have a gay character?” box. According to recent studies, about 4.5% of society identifies as gay or bisexual, and I don’t understand why this has to be such a trend throughout movies, TV, and streaming series.

 

Having said all that, I didn’t dislike the movie, and was never bored watching.

 

Where Mutants is worth praising is in its technical specifications. Captured in DXL Raw at 8K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images look fantastic. Shots reveal terrific levels of detail in the costumes, showing

texture and detail of the fabric, the stitching, and the weave of the material. The images are so clean and clear, they make the fabric nearly tactile.

 

Some of the edges of the structures in the outer courtyard area of the hospital have so much depth and definition, they are almost 3D looking. You also get tight and jaggie-free lines in the brick and mortar of the buildings and the shingles and tiles on the ceilings.

 

Beyond just giving the film an overall more realistic color palette, the added dynamic range of Mutants’ HDR grade also brings more pop to things like lightbulbs, fluorescent lights, white T-shirts, or the glowing reds, blues, and oranges of the mutants’ powers in action. One scene really demonstrating the benefits of HDR is during Guthrie’s hallucination. Here we are transported into a dark mine shaft illuminated by the bright lamps atop miners’ helmets, but deep shadows and detail are retained amidst the piercing beams of the lights, with nothing looking washed out and no noise or banding.

 

Sonically the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active with some immense bass energy when called for. From the film’s opening tornado, the room comes alive with howling winds swirling all around along with explosions that will shake your 

The New Mutants (2020)

couch. Height speakers are frequently used for things like PA announcements, thunder and rain sounds, or to add ambience to expand the sonic space. Take something that is as seemingly “sonically simple” as the scene when the mutants all gather in an attic. Listen to this scene for a bit and then pause the movie, and you’ll notice the myriad of small sounds that suddenly vanish. This is a wonderful bit of layering to make a “quiet” room actually sound quiet.

 

Ultimately, The New Mutants is kind of like a cinematic fast-food meal—the story is mostly entertaining—albeit somewhat predictable—and mostly satisfying while watching, but nothing you’ll rave about afterwards.

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: 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: The Speed Cubers

The Speed Cubers (2020)

The Netflix-original documentary The Speed Cubers seems like exactly the sort of film whose very existence hinges upon the streaming provider’s ability to target the most niche of special interests. It is, after all, a film set at the 2019 World Cube Association World Championship—WCA being the governing body that organizes and regulates tournaments to see who can most quickly solve twisty puzzles (the most popular of which is the Rubik’s Cube, more commonly known these days as “The 3×3”).

Given the concept, it also seems like exactly the sort of film that you could easily nope out of if you have no interest in mechanical puzzles or how quickly they’re solved by kids you’ve never heard of. But if that’s the way you’re leaning, I implore you to give this all-too-brief 40-minute film a chance anyway. Because beneath the super-nerdy veneer, The Speed Cubers is ultimately about what all good documentaries are about: The human spirit.

 

The humans at the center of this story are Feliks Zemdegs, widely regarded as the best speed cuber of all time, and Max Park, the young hotshot who has in recent years broken many of the world records previously held by Zemdegs. To most outsiders, the two could be described as the Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt of the cubing world. As The Speed Cubers reveals, though, their relationship doesn’t quite fit into such a tidy box.

 

For the profoundly autistic Park, Zemdegs is simultaneously hero, role model, friend, and fierce competitor. When Max

CUBERS AT A GLANCE

Watching other people watch other people play with Rubik’s cubes might not sound like compelling documentary fodder but this Netflix original goes beneath the gameplay to show the deep bonds that form among competitors.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K presentation is solid enough, but comes sans HDR—which might be for the best given how much the documentary relies on cellphone and home-video footage.

 

SOUND     

The front-heavy 5.1 mix does a good job of presenting the dialogue and creates an appropriate frame for Dan Vidmar’s unobtrusive but effective score.

refuses to brush his teeth, his parents merely need to remind him that Feliks always brushes his own. When Zemdegs joins the Park family for dinner, it’s Feliks, not the Parks, who encourages Max to eat his vegetables, without a hint of condescension.

 

It may sound a little one-sided, but what the film reveals is a beautiful give-and-take—a lovely friendly rivalry quite unlike

anything I’ve ever seen captured on camera.

 

I hate to say much more than that, lest I spoil any of the surprises in this wonderful little haiku of a film. And yes, there are twists and turns along the way, though none of them is contrived. There are also laughs aplenty and even a few tears, so have some tissues ready if you’re a sympathetic crier.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing

about The Speed Cubers, though, is just how well it’s made. Cinematographer Chris Olson—whose own short film Why We Cube was previously the best documentary on the subject of twisty-puzzle competitions—shows amazing restraint in serving as the viewer’s eyes into this world, turning what could have easily been a voyeuristic exposé into a tender tribute instead. It’s a shame his work is only presented in 4K, without the benefit of HDR, but given how much of the film relies on home-video and cellphone footage of Max and Feliks in their younger years, it’s debatable whether it would have benefited from an HDR grading overall. Thankfully, Netflix’ presentation is artifact-free, save from that found in archival footage.

 

Similar restraint is shown by music composer Dan Vidmar—better known by the stage name Shy Girls in the alt-R&B music scene—whose score honestly didn’t capture my attention at all until my second viewing. That’s the mark of good film music, in my opinion. What you notice when you specifically listen for the score is that Vidmar has a knack for accentuating both action and emotion without Mickey Mousing either.

 

Don’t go in expecting the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 sound mix to fill your surround speakers or stress your subs. The front-heavy mix does its job of presenting the dialogue and music in a perfectly straightforward manner, exactly as it should in a documentary.

 

Really, the only thing you could complain about here is that The Speed Cubers is over far too quickly, leaving you wanting to know more, even if you previously had no interest in the ostensible subject matter of the film. If you’re hungry for more, most of the biggest names in the online cubing community have made their own supplements for the film, the best being Ming Dao Ting’s in-depth interview with director Sue Kim and cinematographer Chris Olson, which runs longer than The Speed Cubers itself. Search YouTube and you’ll find hours of additional commentary where that came from.

 

But if all you’re interested in is the documentary itself, what you’ll find in The Speed Cubers is one of the sweetest, tenderest, most life-affirming short films I’ve seen in ages. And I think we could all use a bit of that in our lives right now.

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.