Reviews

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I worried, as I prepared to digest the new 4K HDR release of V for Vendetta via Kaleidescape, that it would feel a bit outdated.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.

Review: The Birds

The Birds (1963)

Without The Birds, there would be no Jaws—and, arguably, no Spielberg, since he lifted so many of his filmic mannerisms from this brutal and detached end-of-the-world tale. The really ironic thing is, while this is far from Hitchcock’s best film, it’s still better than Jaws. I realize that conclusion is heresy to the popularity = quality crowd, but it underlines the vast difference between what an adult with adolescent tendencies and a perpetual adolescent with no interest in growing up can do.

 

As I mentioned in my Psycho review, Hitchcock, in that film, managed to intuit the entire course of the movies from that point on. But, for whatever reason, he wasn’t able to assimilate and exploit what he had achieved there and spent the rest of his career sputtering, trying to remain relevant while leaning on his past glories from the Studio Era. But, increasingly consumed by bitterness, he just couldn’t make any of those old conventions hold.

The Birds was his next film after Psycho, and seems meant to function as a kind of companion piece, but because he had lost so much confidence in himself and in the very nature of the movies, his attempt to make a shocker with studio polish resulted in a very uneven affair. This is especially obvious on the technical level, where the heavy reliance on process shots and matte paintings means things rarely sync up visually for large swathes of the film. That’s not to fault Robert Burks’ cinematography, which is beautiful and effective when it just gets to record things without having to allow for any trickery. And it’s not really to fault the dependence on Albert Whitlock’s matte work, which almost succeeds in giving the film a warped pastoral quality, like the action is playing out on a vast theater stage. But it’s kind of sad to see Hitchcock’s reach constantly exceed his grasp and sense his slipping ability to maintain a proper sense of proportion.

 

The things in the film that go well go very well and more 

THE BIRDS AT A GLANCE

Hitchcock’s 1963 avian shocker leans a little too heavily on process shots for its own good but still delivers in the end.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer hews pretty closely to the original film, which is a blessing during the well-realized sequences but tends to underline the bits that come up short.

 

SOUND     

The original mono mix, which was pretty atmospheric to begin with, is nicely enhanced by the stereo here, but makes you wonder what the film would be like in surround.

than justify the time spent watching it. Since it really doesn’t have any stars, just the semi-talented Robert Taylor and Tippi Hedren as the leads, Jessica Tandy gets to steal the show with her rock-solid performance as a deeply needy yet domineering mother. The scene where she discovers Dan Fawcett’s body still plays—and is one of the things Spielberg lifted pretty much straight for Jaws. And he didn’t just pilfer The Birds for that reveal of a mangled corpse. The subsequent low-angle shot where Tandy staggers out of the house to stand gape-mouthed next to the farm hand would also become a Spielberg staple.

 

As would the low-angle track-back late in the film where Tandy, then Hedren, then Taylor are shown, with the ceiling looming low above them, as they listen for signs the bird attack has subsided. Not only would Spielberg get an absurd amount of mileage out of this, ’80s filmmakers leaned on it so heavily they eventually broke it.

 

What really doesn’t work at all is the famous attack on the school children—which I would have to shift into the “infamous” column, and not just for its technical blunders. The animation at the beginning of the crows welling up from behind the school house is crudely done and all out of scale. And the pacing of the rear-projection shots creates the weird sense of everyone running in place. A cineaste would argue Hitchcock was trying to evoke a nightmare sense of frantic effort with no progress. He wasn’t—he just couldn’t pull it off.

 

The equally famous attack on the town almost works, creating a borderline apocalyptic feel larger than what’s being shown on the screen. But it’s marred by that hokey series of shots of Hedren reacting to the stream of flaming gasoline and especially by all the heavily processed rear-projection stuff while she’s trapped in the phone booth. 

 

But it wasn’t ultimately the technical miscalculations and gaffes that undermined Hitchcock—they were just the symptoms, not the disease. There’s something really disturbing, but not in any entertaining way, about how he obviously relishes showing children being attacked and witnessing atrocities. Even more foul is how he sets up the doll-like Hedren just to have her brutally taken down—especially during the elaborate bird-rape in the attic at the end. It’s as if his faith in cinema to protect him from the outside world had been shattered and he felt he had to lash out at the audience in his fear and rage.

 

All of that said, Hitchcock deserves tremendous credit for doing a horror/thriller film without a score. Yes, the absence of music tends to lay bare a lot the movie’s flaws, but it also makes many of the scenes—like the discovery of Fawcett’s body,

the later discovery of Annie Hayworth’s body, and the final attack on the Brenner home—far more effective. There’s no John Williams here to Mickey Mouse everything by dragging you through the film by the nose, clobbering you with cues, telling you what to think and feel. You’re thrown into each of the scenes without any ersatz late-Romantic bluster to act as a buffer, which is not just bracing but kind of liberating.

 

The 4K HDR transfer is for the most part faithful—which means it gets the best-photographed moments—which includes most of the interiors—absolutely right, but also tends to emphasize all that frequent mismatching between shots. Probably the worst shot of the film is the very first one, done on location in San Francisco, which looks like it was grabbed surreptitiously on a 16mm camera. (It wasn’t—it just looks that way.) Get beyond that, and you’ll be able to experience some patches of Burks’ best work.

 

The one shot I can fault the transfer for—although its problems lie in the original image—is the very last one in the film, an elaborate high-contrast matte shot that borders on monochrome. The HDR crushes the blacks and punches up the whites so much it becomes not just too blatantly artificial but visually chaotic.

The Birds (1964)

If ever a film cried out for a surround mix, this one would seem to be it. So much of it hinges on things happening from just out of frame and on characters being engulfed that it’s a natural for the 5.1 or Atmos treatment. And yet the original soundtrack is so well designed that the DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix here is surprisingly effective. The staccato bird cries followed by the sudden, muted crescendo of fluttering wings that signals the beginning of the final attack is so chilling it’s hard to say whether a surround reworking would be an improvement. But I’d be curious to know.

 

I’m not going to resort to one of those “You can tell I had problems with this film but it still makes for a great night at the movies” conclusions. But I will say this: With very few exceptions, time spent with a Hitchcock film is time well spent. Even if you just watch The Birds to pick up on all the Jaws/Spielberg parallels, you’ll have, in a way, improved your life. The Birds is a suitably disturbing thriller; it’s just not quite the film Hitchcock set out to make.

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: Ed Wood

Ed Wood (1994)

I told myself I was going to make this one a quickie and not belabor my points. So, Point No. 1—this is the only good Tim Burton movie. Point 2—it features Johnny Depp’s best performance, by far. Point 3—it’s astonishing Martin Landau did such a great job of playing Lugosi without getting much help from behind the camera. Point 4—Ed Wood died at the box office, not because it’s not a great film—it is—but because it doesn’t fit within the all too predictable definition of what a Burton film is supposed to be. And because it committed the unforgivable sin of being in black & white.

 

I guess this is going to take some explaining after all.

 

I continue to be amazed by the number of people who haven’t seen Ed Wood, and by the number who have seen it but didn’t realize Burton directed it. In an age where practically everything, no matter how inept, has its rabid fan base, there’s 

something fundamentally wrong about the neglect this film has suffered. It seems like its financial failure caused Burton to decide to only do “Tim Burton” films from that point on—akin to what happened after De Niro played a very Ed Wood-like Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. Audiences weren’t willing to accept him as anything other than the hardboiled “Robert De Niro,” so he was essentially harassed into being that somewhat limited character for the rest of his career.

 

If the points I rattled off at the top weren’t enough to get you to check this movie out, how about these? It’s got one of the great opening-credits sequences, which manages to capture both the feel of Wood’s movies and set the tone for 

ED WOOD AT A GLANCE

The best Tim Burton film, Wood also features the best efforts of Johnny Depp, Matin Landau, and most of the other above- and below-the-line talent while managing to capture the feel of Halloween.

 

PICTURE     

Stefan Czapsky’s both gritty and elegant black & white cinematography comes across with punch and depth even on Amazon’s plain-vanilla HD.

what’s to come without feeling arbitrarily grafted onto the rest of the film. Beyond Landau and Depp, there are some hugely entertaining turns by Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, and especially Mike Starr as the head of the C-grade exploitation house Screen Classics. (But there are some big casting missteps as well, especially a so-meek-she’s-barely-there Patricia Arquette as Wood’s wife.)

 

Then there’s the writing. Ed Wood stands above Burton’s other films mainly because it’s one of the few times he’s had an exceptional script to work from—by far the best effort from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the team responsible for the unexceptional The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, and the inexcusable The People vs. OJ Simpson). Their portrait of Wood might not be very accurate, but it’s exactly who we need Wood to be, serving up one big fat softball after another for Depp to knock out of the park.

 

The movie is laugh-out-loud funny in a way Burton films rarely are. You can thank the script for most of that, but it’s more than ably realized by Depp, who displays some genius comedic chops he’s just been too cool to bother to use since; Murray, who adds some nicely timed flourishes; and especially Starr, who aces every scene he’s in.

 

The script can also claim most of the credit for the nicely modulated shifts of tone. While Ed Wood is mainly a comedy—and frequently a really broad one—it occasionally transitions deftly to drama, especially when dealing with Lugosi’s drug addiction. And it pulls off the really neat trick of not having Wood come across as just a cartoon or complete loser or clown. The actual Ed Wood doesn’t get enough credit for having tapped into the often trashy archetypes that define American culture in ways more sophisticated directors have never been able to. Wood wasn’t the worst director of all time, just the most naive.

 

Then there’s Stefan Czapsky’s both gritty and elegant black & white cinematography, which convincingly evokes the feel of ‘50s LA despite having to constantly push back against the director’s typically half-baked ideas. The images are punchy with a decent sense of depth, even in plain old HD on Amazon Prime. Besides, a color film about Ed Wood would just be absurd.

 

In the same way this is the best work from Burton, Landau, Depp, and Alexander & Karaszewski, it’s the only Howard Shore score I’ve ever been able to stomach. Pared down and witty, it’s an effective complement to the action and helps paper over some of the deeper sags in the mis en scène.

 

And, finally, Ed Wood is well worth watching because it’s one of those rare films that just feels like Halloween. While we tend to associate that holiday with shock-machine gore fests, they rarely capture the feel of the evening itself—which is one of the reasons why the studios tend to dump them on the market at the end of summer. But Ed Wood—along with Pixar’s sublime Coco—is suffused with the atmosphere of All Hallow’s Eve.

 

To say Ed Wood was one of the best films of the ‘90s would border on being a slight, since that was a pretty abysmal decade for filmmaking. Better to say that it stands outside that decade, and the rest of Burton’s oeuvre, as an example of what happens when the right forces come together at the right time and somewhat magically manage to conjure up something that’s better than the sum of its parts.

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: Midsommar

Midsommar (2019)

One relatively recent trend in cinema that warms my dark heart is the reemergence of horror as a legitimate genre of cinema. This isn’t to say, of course, that I don’t get a kick out of schlocky B-movie suspense, but for most of my adult life, horror movies have been little more than that, leaving legitimate attempts at making serious films in the genre—like Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick’s The Shining—in the distant past. So to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary embraced in recent years as legitimate art is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction.

 

Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, 2019’s Midsommar, keeps the horror-as-art train rolling, not simply due to its gorgeous cinematography, deep reliance on symbolism, or its 148-minute run time, but rather by virtue of the fact that it actually has something to say. While Peele used horror for the purposes of societal allegory in Get Out and Aster himself used the 

genre to explore familial angst in Hereditary, Midsommar broadens its reach to explore both cultural issues and deeply personal struggles. And it’s the constant tug of war between the individual on the one hand and the expectations of the herd on the other that give the film so much of its tension.

 

That’s simply one element of what makes the film work, though. In telling the tale of a group of anthropology students (and the girlfriend of one of them, herself a psychology student) as they travel to Sweden to study and document the cultural traditions of an isolated Scandinavian commune, Aster uses personal relationships the way Kubrick used architecture in The Shining. In other words, if you’re paying attention, there’s an internal consistency to it all that’s nonetheless contradictory, which results in a foreboding sense of unease.

MIDSOMMAR AT A GLANCE

This horror-as-art film faithfully maintains its deceptively filmic look in Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect 4K HDR transfer.

 

PICTURE     

The transfer is true to the movie’s intentionally muted color palette, delivering it with exceptional detail.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is unusually aggressive, leaning hard on the surround channels to deliberately disorienting effect.

That in itself wouldn’t be worthy of praise, but it’s the way in which Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski convey the ties that bind (and the wedges that divide) the characters that makes the film so fascinating. In one early scene, for example, the film uses mirrors brilliantly to convey a sense of othering. The characters viewed directly by the camera? They are the “Us.” Those that can only be seen in reflection? They fall (or move) into “Them” territory. And what’s particularly fascinating here is that the film’s “Us” and “Them” are right opposite of the audience’s “Us” and “Them,” which further builds tension.

 

What I appreciate most about Midsommar is that such compositional sleight of hand is almost always employed with such subtlety that it never comes across as a gimmick. Only one scene crosses the line into artsy-for-arty’s-sake territory, and it’s an establishing shot, demarking the transition from one culture into the other, so it’s easily forgiven.

 

That scene, by the way, is far from the only one that could be construed as cinema-for-cinema’s sake. So much of Midsommar is pure audiovisual experience—style as substance, if you will—intended to invoke feeling rather than trigger thought. I think perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that it strikes such a perfect balance in alternating between storytelling and tone poetry that it’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime never becomes a slog.

 

That’s aided by the fact that the film never resorts to jump-scares or twists to keep you hanging on. It telegraphs exactly the direction in which it’s heading and then takes its time getting there, which only adds to the suspense and tension.

 

The one big surprise—at least for me—is that Midsommar wasn’t shot on film, but rather captured in a combination of 8K and 5K, and finished in a 4K digital intermediate. Despite this, it boasts a very film-like aesthetic, although the palette is intentionally muted. And Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR presentation is wonderfully true to Midsommar‘s intended look, delivering it with exceptional detail. Far more importantly, the Kaleidescape download doesn’t muck up the background textures the way streaming providers do. Perhaps it’s a result of the resolution at which the movie was shot, but Apple TV’s stream in particular suffers from occasionally messy and noisy textures that serve as a bit of a distraction, whereas the Kaleidescape download maintains its composure from beginning to end, even when the film is at its densest, visually speaking.

 

The high dynamic range frankly does little to change the look of the film overall, largely due to the aforementioned muted palette. When HDR does make itself known, it’s generally in the shadows, especially during those scenes in which a darkened interior is viewed from a sunlit exterior. HDR allows the viewer to see into those shadows without brightening the

image as a whole.

 

Kaleidescape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also true to the film’s theatrical audio mix. You may have seen Midsommar presented in Dolby Atmos on certain streaming platforms, but these Atmos tracks were created using Nugen Audio’s Halo upmixer software, based on the original 5.1. Given my druthers, I’ll take the original mix, thank you very much. It’s an unusually aggressive one, of the sort I normally don’t love, but in this case it absolutely works.

 

The soundtrack leans on the surround channels hard, often panning dialogue into them so fully that if your rear speakers aren’t up to the quality of the rest of your sound system, you’ll likely hear a shift in the quality of the sound. Even if your system is well-designed from front to back, it’s still a disorienting and frankly distracting effect. But that’s the point. The mix rarely goes whole-hog on the surrounds when there’s something crucial happening onscreen. And when it does, it’s because the film wants to you feel disoriented at that moment.

 

The only thing missing from Kaleidescape’s download is Aster’s original 171-minute cut of Midsommar, which A24, the film’s distributor, made him trim down for wide theatrical release. Given that the cuts were made simply to cram more 

Midsommar (2019)

butts into seats, and not due to content, it’s strange to me that A24 is so precious with the original edit. In the US, the only ways to see it are via Apple TV (it’s included as an iTunes Extra with the purchase of the film) and by way of an incredibly limited 4K Blu-ray release that’s already fetching six times its original asking price on the secondary market.

 

What I wouldn’t give to view that cut of the film in the quality of Kaleidescape’s presentation. Despite its nearly three-hour length, the director’s cut is even better paced and frankly feels like a shorter film. But the improvements over the theatrical cut aren’t so substantial that I would choose Apple TV’s compromised stream over Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect download.

 

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.