Reviews

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this year’s Golden Globes played some part in my awareness of Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix Original film Marriage Story. Ashamed because I couldn’t care less about awards ceremonies and rarely base any of my viewing choices on self-congratulatory pomp.

 

I do, on the other hand, care quite a bit about Baumbach’s work. And I’m drawn to him, in part, because his films aren’t predictable. While I’ve loved all of his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (especially the delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox), his own directorial efforts have been a little more uneven. For every engaging The Squid and the Whale, there’s been an off-

putting Margot at the Wedding. For every mercurial Frances Ha, there’s been a muddled While We’re Young.

 

But even Baumbach’s failures have been noble failures in my book, because he has a singular talent for writing dialogue that’s simply unmatched in our generation. And all of that is on full display in what I consider to be one of his best films yet.

 

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as soulmates at an impasse. It’s ostensibly the story of their divorce, territory Baumbach already explored from one perspective in The Squid and the Whale. But to call it a film 

about divorce (which The Squid and the Whale most certainly was) would be to miss the point of Marriage Story. Instead, it’s a story about the individual sense of identity that’s often lost in any marriage, but also the intimacy that’s gained in return. That back and forth, give and take, yin and yang ultimately influences all of the film’s themes.

 

It really isn’t the thematic or narrative heart of Marriage Story that makes it work, though. It’s the characters that drive the film, as well as Baumbach’s aforementioned gift for crafting dialogue that sounds completely organic and natural to the ear, but upon closer inspection turns out to be a masterfully assembled jigsaw puzzle agglomerated from pieces pilfered from two different boxes.

 

Characters talk past and over one another, they inject non sequiturs and distractions, they leave thoughts dangling and stumble over interruptions, and if you didn’t know better you might suspect that Baumbach is allowing his performers to improvise. They’re not improvising. Every pause, ever “uh,” every clipped and broken sentence fragment is meticulously scripted to keep the flow of what’s actually being communicated between two characters who aren’t really listening to one another unambiguous for the viewer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film is perfectly cast. It’s seems pretty clear to me that Baumbach selected Johansson and Driver not merely because of their inherent talent, but as much for the audience’s expectations of what they bring to a film. With Johansson, we expect a certain emotional complexity—an ability to convey two contradictory emotions on her face, in her body language, in her vocal inflections. With Driver, we expect a certain caged-animal ferocity—explosions of intensity and frustrated vulnerability. Baumbach plays around with those expectations in wonderful ways, and I hesitate to say more than that.

Marriage Story

The one thing I will say about characterization, though, is that Baumbach seems to be going for more universal relatability with this film than with previous efforts. Much as I love his last Netflix Original, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I’ll admit that as with most of the writer/director’s films, I found its neurotic characters as unrelatable as they were fascinating. It could simply be that I’m from Alabama, where—to paraphrase Julia Sugarbaker—we proudly display our crazy out in the open rather than bottling it up until it boils over, but there’s always been an aloof affectation to Baumbach’s characters that made them seem more than a little alien to me.

 

That’s far from the case with Marriage Story, save for a few supporting characters whose affectations are more of a contrived West Coast sort that I at least understand. At its heart, though, the two leads are less defined by their neuroses than by their sympathetic human failings.

 

If all of the above makes Marriage Story seem like the sort of film that could just as easily be viewed on a laptop or mobile screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the characters room to breathe, opting for wide shots throughout except when closeups are needed for punctuation. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen in the home, and one that rewards quality of presentation thanks largely to its distinctive, filmic look.

 

Shot on Kodak Vision3 200T and 500T film stock (depending on lighting levels, one would assume) in an increasingly uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Marriage Story is an analog cinephile’s dream. The organic grain structure and photochemical idiosyncrasies of the stock give the film a unique character that’s missing from so many modern, digitally captured movies.

 

What surprised me, though, is that Netflix’s UHD/HDR presentation—at least by way of my Roku Ultra—is more than up to the task of delivering this unabashedly analog imagery pretty much perfectly intact. Much as I love this modern era of high-efficiency, relatively low-bitrate streaming, I’m not blind to its limitations. One expects a few seconds here and there with a little light banding or digital noise. Indeed, there is a handful of shots in Marriage Story—one in particular featuring characters positioned against an inconsistently lit cream-white wall—where I leaned forward to judge just how prominent the banding would be. And yet I saw none.

 

Ask me to find a visual flaw in the presentation and I might point to one scene in which the structure of the film grain and the textures of an onscreen object interfere a little, and may have been presented a little less noisily in a much higher bandwidth download or on disc. But without being able to do direct A/B comparisons, I’m just guessing.

 

That aside (if it’s even valid), Netflix presents Marriage Story beautifully, preserving the slight golden cast of the film stock, as well as its overall low-contrast aesthetic. It’s important not to confuse contrast and dynamic range here, as the HDR does leave a lot of room between the not-very-black blacks and the never-very-intense highlights, allowing us to peer deeper into shadows and appreciate the subtle differences between, for example, two black pieces of clothing dyed differently and aged asymmetrically.

 

The sound mix, too, is one that hinges on subtleties. Mostly a mono affair, the barely-surround soundtrack makes another strong case for why the center channel is the most important speaker in your sound system. The mix does spread to the front left and right speakers occasionally, mostly to give width to Randy Newman’s sparse-but-poignant score, but also, creatively, to give some space to the often dense and chaotic cacophony of dialogue.

 

Netflix, it seems, is somewhat under siege as of late, with some criticizing the inconsistent quality of its original offerings and others (yours truly included) musing on how the service can maintain any semblance of identity in the face of new competitors like Disney+ and the upcoming HBO MAX and Peacock.

 

If the company keeps supporting the creation of films like this, though, it can count on my $15.99 every month. And if Noah Baumbach is going to keep maturing as a filmmaker and delivering consistently amazing character studies like The Meyerowitz Stories and now Marriage Story, he’s going to convert me into an unapologetic and unreserved champion.

 

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.

Gemini Man

Gemini Man

Between Men in Black, Bad Boys, and Independence Day, there was a time when Will Smith ruled the summer box office with hit after hit. He was a bankable star studios could count on to carry tentpole films, but then a string of disappointments took some of the shine out of Smith’s star, and he stopped being offered those marquee roles.

 

Smith’s latest bid to return to box office bankability was Gemini Man, which is available as a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack from the Kaleidescape Store a full three weeks prior to its January 14th 4K Blu-ray release. Unfortunately for Smith—and Paramount Pictures—Gemini was a flop at the box office, costing an estimated $138 million to make, and grossing just $173 million worldwide against an estimated $275 million needed to break even. Further, Gemini belongs to that increasing list of films that sees a real divide between critics—receiving a measly 26% on Rotten Tomatoes—and viewers—scoring 83% from audiences, making you wonder, “Who’s right?”

 

According to Wikipedia, Gemini Man was originally conceived in 1997, but “the film went through development hell for nearly 20 years.” Over that time, multiple directors were attached along with numerous actors, with Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Nicholas Cage, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, and many others set to star at

various points. This kind of struggle to get a film to screen rarely results in box office success.

 

Another challenge Gemini faced was director Ang Lee’s insistence on shooting the film at a high frame rate (HFR) of 120 frames-per-second (fps), five times the 24fps Hollywood standard. Besides adding to the cost and complexity of production, this limited the number of screens that could actually show the film at Lee’s desired frame rate, with just 14 Dolby Cinema screens in the US able to show the film at the full 120fps. (Even then, the Dolby Cinemas were limited to showing it at 2K resolution, being unable to display 3D, 120fps, and 4K simultaneously.)

Lee’s previous HFR release, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was given a chance for a wider audience in its home video release, becoming the first major title to be released in 4K HDR at 60fps, the technical limit of the 4K Blu-ray format. And while the film had some stunning, truly reference-caliber visuals, it had a distinctly un-filmlike video look that distanced many viewers.

 

While the 4K Blu-ray disc of Gemini Man will include the film at 4K 60fps, the digital download is currently limited to the traditional 24fps, which is the version currently available from Kaleidescape and what I’m reviewing here. (It’s important to note that Billy Lynn was initially available from Kaleidescape at only 24fps, but later became available at 60fps as a free upgrade, so it’s possible the same will be true for Gemini Man. According to Kaleidescape, “There is no announcement at this time. Paramount hasn’t made a 60 fps file available for digital, but we have made them aware that we are interested.”)

 

Smith plays Henry Brogan, a former Marine Scout Sniper now working as a top-tier assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Brogan’s skills behind a rifle are legendary, but he’s a bit haunted from years of killing and the 72 people he’s dispatched, and decides to retire when he feels he’s losing his edge.

 

When he learns that his latest kill might not have actually been guilty and that he has been used, Brogan starts investigating. In retaliation, the DIA decides to get rid of all loose ends, including sending kill squads to take care of Brogan and his former team. When Brogan dispatches the first hit team, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), who heads a black-ops unit codenamed Gemini, unleashes a young new assassin to finish the job.

 

This young assassin named Junior (a digitally de-aged version of Smith) bears a striking resemblance to Smith and seems to know and anticipate all of his moves. After a test reveals that Brogan and Junior share identical DNA, Brogan is determined to learn where this clone came from and what the government is using him to do.

 

Shot in a combination of 3.2 and 4K at 120fps, Gemini’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the images look reference-quality throughout. Closeups bristle with detail, showing every pore, whisker, and strand of hair. Images of Smith’s hands and fingers while he’s holding his sniper rifle reveal every whorl and loop in his fingerprints. Apparel shows fine textural details like the weave of a linen shirt, the loops in a terrycloth robe, or even the individual gold links in a necklace.

 

Without question, this film put all the resolution and detail up on the screen, and it looks gorgeous. Only once, at the very beginning, did I notice any video that was anything short of reference—a small bit of line twitter in the lines and structure of the roof complex.

 

The plot takes Brogan to multiple locations around the world, and outdoor scenes are bright, sharp, and very detailed, with long-range shots featuring rich depth and dimension. The scenes in Cartegena are especially vibrant and rich with color. Some scenes, like in Budapest, look like they were obviously filmed against a green screen—one of the dangers of 4K’s ultra-revealing nature.

 

Blacks are clean and detailed, though many night shots on the ocean are lit like via a full moon and aren’t totally dark. HDR is used nicely to create shadow and dark-level detail in outdoor scenes resulting in beautifully realistic images. A scene in some catacombs includes a fight where a flare is thrown into water, creating layers of shadows with no hints of banding. And a

scene in Varris’ office is bathed in various shades and layers of black while still revealing rich detail and clean images.

 

One of the film’s big gimmicks is Smith’s digital de-aging, where you get him fighting a much younger version of himself. The first big encounter/fight between the two Smiths played out like a non-stop video game battle, with them running, jumping, leaping, and chasing each other from building to building and through the streets, including a John Wick-esque motorcycle fight, as if each character had multiple lives in reserve. At a distance, the de-ageing effect worked very convincingly.

 

But closeups of young Smith looked just slightly . . . off. His face was a bit waxy and smooth, like he’d undergone excessive digital noise reduction, and his mouth while talking looked somewhat digitized or like the audio was out of sync. My wife felt Junior looked like a videogame character. Since the movie’s premise rides on the believability of this effect, I have to say that as good as Smith looked, you were often aware that you were watching an effect.

 

As mentioned, the Kaleidescape download includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and the audio is used nicely to create some ambience in scenes, such as birds and bugs buzzing about on Brogan’s farm. Gunshots also have nice snap and 

Gemini Man

impact. The Atmos mix also provides a ton of width to the front images, making sounds extend well out into the room and far beyond the screen.

 

While I found the soundtrack adequate, it wasn’t especially dynamic or immersive. Whether this was because I was so caught up in the movie and enjoying the drama or just because the mix actually was a bit restrained, I can’t honestly say.

 

While Gemini Man is far from perfect, it is entertaining, with a plot that’s just complex enough to stay interesting; and the picture quality looks fantastic on a luxury home cinema system. This might not be a movie we’ll still be watching years from now, but it does make for an entertaining night in your own theater.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Expanse (Season 4)

The Expanse (Season 4)

We might quickly be reaching the saturation point with the number of streaming services available. But until that happens, having a plethora of services that produce their own content allows shows to survive through the whim of executives.

 

As I recounted in my previous review of The Expanse, the SyFy Channel canceled the series after its third season, citing low ratings. Undeterred, fans started an online campaign to find it a new home, going so far as setting up a GoFundMe to charter a plane to fly around Amazon Studios in Santa Monica with a banner emblazoned with #SaveTheExpanse. Jeff Bezos—a

professed fan of the show—received the message, and on May 26, 2018 announced that Amazon would pick up the series for a fourth season.

 

And then the waiting began. A year and a half of it. Thankful messages from the cast and crew were released on Twitter and Instagram, announcements were made at conventions, and production stills trickled out, but the wait was still excruciating. Finally the time arrived, and on December 12, Amazon dropped all 10 episodes in 4K HDR.

 

The primary story follows the fourth book, Cibola Burn, as the crew of the Rocinante is sent through the ring gates 

that were opened in the previous season to check on a conflict between some colonists and Royal Charter Energy, a company with a scientific charter, on the planet Ilus (or New Terra, if you’re part of RCE). But where the book concentrated solely on this plot, the show pulls ideas from the next book and fleshes out the stories of other characters not on the Rocinante. This helps to set up the fifth season and keeps us from losing interest by not staying on just one storyline for ten episodes.

 

The length of the episodes is in line with one-hour TV dramas, ranging from 43 to 53 minutes, and there are generally crossfades between act breaks where you might expect a commercial. But cinematically the creative team broke from norms a bit by changing aspect ratios depending on the location. While much of the show is in 16:9, everything that happens on Ilus/New Terra is 2.39:1, which gives the planet a larger, more expansive feel.

 

It’s the first time in the series that one of the primary locations has been another planet. Most of the action until now has taken place on ships or within space stations and asteroids. The wider aspect ratio shows off this new planet and its vistas. Ilus feels almost like Earth, but with something definitely off and different. The 4K detail is excellent and really shows off the set design, especially of an alien structure with lots of nooks and crannies.

 

Overall the ensemble cast is thoroughly engaging. New cast member Burn Gorman plays the ruthless security chief of RCE, and his chemistry with adversary Amos (Wes Chatham), the mechanic from the Rocinante, is electric. I often had chills when they faced off on screen. There’s also some great character development added for Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) while she tries to make a life for herself on Mars after being dishonorably discharged from the Martian Marines. Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) and Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn), who were the two standouts from Season Three, continue to light up the screen.

 

The sound of The Expanse continues to expertly build the atmosphere throughout the season. The sound mix uses surrounds to fill out the locations without drawing too much attention from the on-screen action. There’s a moment early on where a swarm of some destructive unknown organism flies through the colonists’ camp. The mix could easily have gotten out of control, but instead it helped to draw the focus in while putting the viewer in the middle of it all.

 

Don’t expect to be able to follow everything if you haven’t seen any of the previous seasons. This is definitely a continuation of the story without apologies and handholding to new viewers. Luckily all of the seasons are available for 4K HDR streaming through Amazon Prime. If you’re a fan of sci-fi it’s well worth your while.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

The Irishman

The Irishman

It was a big get, even for a company as big as Netflix. Martin Scorsese is one of the most lauded directors in cinema and has, save for a handful of television episodes, directed exclusively for the cinema. So what led him to abandon his primary creative home for the literal home of Netflix subscribers?

 

As with everything, it came down to money. The Irishman is a slow burn of a movie at 209 minutes (that’s just shy of three and a half hours). With a budget of $159 million, it’s both the longest and most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.

 

Before principal photography began, a few different companies worked out distribution deals to finance the movie, but as the budget grew, those companies balked and withdrew their funding. In this day of expensive blockbuster action films, a long, introspective film about the life and possible redemption of a mob hitman doesn’t fit the current studio model. Netflix swooped in and bought the film rights, agreeing to finance the film.

 

Movie theaters weren’t left completely out of the equation since there was a theatrical release, but the terms of that release caused controversy in the world of the big theater chains. A traditional release window puts a movie in the theater for at least few months before going to the home market. For The Irishman, Netflix held fast to four weeks (a week longer than they

conceded for Roma last November), with a theatrical release date of November 1st before coming to Netflix streaming on November 27th.

 

This rankled the major theater chains, which chose to sit out of the theatrical release in protest. And while Scorsese defended Netflix’s decision and acquiesced to the

The Irishman

realities of getting The Irishman made, he also lamented that people wouldn’t be able to have the communal experience of watching his movie in a theater:

 

There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem, though. We have to make the film. . . . Having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want, the tradeoff being it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take on this particular project.

 

The question is: Is the enjoyment of The Irishman hindered by relying almost solely on the home market? I’d argue no, and add that maybe it’s even aided by a more intimate viewing experience. The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, and follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets and starts working for mob boss Russell Bufalino. This eventually leads to an introduction to controversial Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, for whom he becomes chief bodyguard and close friend.

 

As with any Scorsese film, there are moments of mob violence, some beautiful, long single-take tracking shots, and a lot of dialogue-driven drama. By putting this all on our home screen instead of an expansive movie-theater screen, the presentation feels more personal. It’s easier to be drawn in.

 

And even at three and a half hours, there aren’t any points of lag in the story, which is a testament to Scorsese; his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; and an extraordinary cast, including Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and, for the first time, Al Pacino. All three actors deserve the accolades they have received, in particular Pesci as Russell Bufalino.

 

The 4K presentation is excellent and really shows off the fantastic CGI de-aging of the actors. The story takes place across six decades, and an incredible amount of attention was put into how De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino looked as time marched on. There were a few moments of digital effects that were less convincing and entered the uncanny valley (there was also some slow-motion blood splatter that looked suspect to me), but overall it was quite a technical achievement.

 

The 5.1 sound design is meticulous and subtle. Cars sounded authentic to the period, there were moments of bone crunching that made me squirm, and nothing distracted from the story, only added to it. There’s a gunshot towards the end of the film that perfectly captures the starkness and emptiness of the scene, and is in essence the culmination of where Frank has come as a character. Surrounds are primarily used for music and to fill the space with reverb for larger locations.

 

It will be interesting to see how The Irishman being a streaming release ripples across the industry, with such high-profile names as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci attached. The more our home theaters have improved over the years, the less the need for movie theaters. Yes, the communal experience Scorsese refers to is missing, but I’ve found that seeing a film with a bunch of people can detract from my own enjoyment. Getting a 4K presentation with excellent sound and no uncontrollable external distractions (plus the ability for bathroom or snack breaks without missing anything) is shifting the importance of viewing from the cinema to the home.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Joker

Joker

I had to watch Todd Phillips’ Joker twice to write this review. And it required two viewings because I realized, as the credits rolled the first time around, that I had absolutely nothing meaningful to say about the video transfer or the sound mix. From beginning to end, I was so hypnotized (and indeed horrified) by Joaquin Phoenix’ performance as the titular character that I honestly forgot I was supposed to be reviewing a home video release.

 

Had I gone ahead and put fingers to keyboard after that first viewing based on my hazy impressions, I would have told you a story about a grungy, filmic 4K HDR transfer that evoked the gritty neo-noir classics of the 1970s and ’80s. It took a second pass to realize that Joker’s cinematography is actually pristine, which makes sense given that it was captured digitally in a mix of 3.4K, 4.5K, and 5.1K resolutions, and finished in a true 4K digital intermediate. It’s the set dressing, the lighting, the framing, and indeed the movement of the camera that evokes the look of the cinematic era the film aspires to. When you get right down to it, though, Joker is an objectively gorgeous film with a wonderfully revealing home video presentation.

 

The sound mix, too, would have gotten an inaccurate assessment had I not gone back for a double dip. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brilliant, minimalist cello score would have certainly been the focus of my discussion, as it dominates the sound mix, or at least one’s memory of it. But other than that, nothing really stuck to my ribs in terms of the overall delivery of audio, aside from a few distant ringing phones, ignored in the background, which struck me as being rendered with a wonderful illusion of space.

It wasn’t until the second time through that I even realized the soundtrack for the Kaleidescape release of the film is Dolby Atmos, but you shouldn’t take that oversight as an indication that the mix is subtle. Focusing more on the technical presentation than the performance at the heart of the film, it’s an ambitious and at times aggressive mix, one that uses its height channels to enhance the vertical elements of the filth-ridden cityscape of Gotham. (Not the stylized Gotham of the Burton or Nolan films, but a blatant homage to the New York City of ’70s cinema.) The fact that I barely noticed the height channels the first time through is as much a credit to the artistry of the mix as it is to Phoenix’ mesmerizing performance. As with the imagery, the sound simply works in service of the narrative, and never serves to distract from it.

 

If it seems as if the only aspect of the film itself I can focus on is the acting of its lead, there’s a reason for that. Joker isn’t a story-driven work. It’s as pure a character study as I’ve seen in ages. For those of us who love comic books and the movies based on them, it’s easy to go into a film like this—ostensibly an origin story about a character who has never had a consistent canonical backstory—with a ton of baggage. The thing is, though, Joker isn’t interested in your baggage. It isn’t interested in the 79-year history of the character as Batman’s archnemesis. Hell, it isn’t interested in Batman at all. Indeed, the overall mythology of Gotham City and its most famous residents is so tangential it could have been left out of the film altogether and it wouldn’t have had any major effect on the plot, what little of it there is.

 

Director/co-writer Phillips seems so completely uninterested in any of the normal trappings of comic-book films that to call this a comic-book film at all feels dishonest. To discuss it in relation to the four-color serialized stories on which it is (very) loosely based would be to miss the point entirely. To understand the film, we have to view it for what it is: An exploration of the internal and external forces—personally and societally—that combine to create not merely a villain, not merely a criminal, but an unabashed agent of chaos, one that is, in this film, more man than myth.

 

In exploring all of this, Phillips touches upon a lot of conflict familiar to modern audiences—wealth inequality and the rage of the working class aimed at the apathetic ruling class, the failures of bureaucracy, media bias, our weird attitudes toward mental illness, our complex and often contradictory attitudes toward nonconformity.

 

As I mentioned above, there isn’t a lot by way of plot here, and it’s often difficult to figure out what Phillips wants us to take away from the film on any of these topics. Indeed, in the supplemental material included with the Kaleidescape download (and due to be included on the UHD Blu-ray release in January), he claims that the film isn’t really about any of these things. I’m not sure I really buy that. I think it was easier to hide behind that dismissal than it was to admit that he doesn’t really have the answers. He simply wants us as an audience to do some of the heavy lifting and accept the unique part we play in creating such monsters, individually and collectively.

Joker

But it’s entirely possible you’ll come away from Joker with completely different impressions than I did about whatever underlying message there may be. I, for example, couldn’t help but read into the narrative some serious thematic exploration about agency and free will, both topics I think about quite a bit. But in a few brief discussions with others who’ve seen the film, I seem to be alone in that, at least within my friend circle.

 

I think a lot of that has to do with how abstract Joker is at times. I referred to it earlier as pure character study, and I stick by that. There are plenty of wonderful actors sharing the screen with Phoenix, namely Zazie Beetz, as well as Robert De Niro, whose character is largely a nod to The King of Comedy, a film that very much inspired elements of this one. But Arthur Fleck, aka “Joker,” is the film’s only real character.

 

As well as pure character study, Joker is also pure cinema—a work of art that simply couldn’t have existed in any other form than as a motion picture. Imagery and audio sit in the passenger seat alongside character development, and story just sort of seems to be dragged along for the chaotic ride, hanging onto the rear bumper for dear life (and I assure you, I don’t mean that as a slight in any way).

 

That focus on fundamental human truths, combined with the undeniable ’70s and ’80s aesthetic, keeps Joker from feeling too zeitgeisty, despite the current subject matter it grapples with. There is one thing, though, that betrays the film as absolutely not a product of the bygone era it emulates. Many parallels have been drawn between Joker and Taxi Driver, and they’re not unfair. One crucial difference, though, is that Phoenix’ Joker could not, in any light, be viewed as a hero or anti-hero or anything other than a force of nature unleashed by circumstance and his own weaknesses. To write it off as a mere mashup of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, as I imagine some will do, would be intellectual laziness of the highest (and snottiest) order.

 

Phillips walks a very thin line here: He wants you to understand this character without sympathizing with him. He doesn’t want you to want to watch the world burn; he simply wants you to recognize and acknowledge why some people do. And as with the best interpretations of this character (or at least the character that goes by this name) in print and on screen, Phillips

wants you to admit that, as wrong as he may be, and as dangerous as he may be, there’s an alluring element of truth behind the Joker’s lies; and refusing to admit as much is why we struggle to honestly understand the seemingly senseless acts of violence that have become so commonplace they barely register in the 24-hour news cycle unless the body count is truly catastrophic. To tiptoe right up to that line without crossing over into the territory of glorification is perhaps this film’s neatest trick.

 

In the end, though, I can imagine some viewers taking uncomfortable issue with this approach, with the lack of moralizing, the lack of overt condemnation for this murderous clown.

 

Speaking for myself alone, I don’t think the film needs it. I think it’s implicit. I can’t imagine anyone cheering at the end of this cinematic tone poem. Then again, I didn’t see Joker in commercial cinemas, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because anything other than slack-jawed silence as its credits rolled would have confirmed my worst suspicions about humanity. 

 

Viewed at home, via my own AV system, with no rustling snack packaging, no whispering, no cellphones glaring from the periphery, no obtrusive snickering at

Joker

the two or three overt references to comics history that the film makes when it serves its purposes—in other words, taken on its own terms, and viewed without distraction—I can honestly say that this is one of the best films of 2019.

 

I can also say, without hesitation, that it’s one I’ll return to again and again, to meditate on its themes, its red herrings, and, most importantly, one of the most captivating, heartbreaking, frustrating, and fascinating character portrayals I’ve witnessed in ages. But it almost seems vulgar to discuss how beautifully shot it is, and how wonderfully this home video presentation preserves its sumptuous cinematography. 

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.

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

It’s time for another anniversary re-release review here at Cineluxe. Forrest Gump recently received a 25th-anniversary 4K HDR makeover, and is available on 4K Blu-ray disc as well as for download from the Kaleidescape Store, which is how I enjoyed it.

 

I remember watching Forrest in the theater at the time of its original release back in 1994 (and several times afterwards on both VHS and LaserDisc) and being blown away by its innovative use of CGI to create Forrest’s (Tom Hanks) incredible life. Industrial Light and Magic used CGI in a way unlike any other film at that time—from the feather that floats and dances around at both the beginning and end of the film, to Forrest shaking hands with a number of former presidents at the White House or standing behind Governor Wallace on the steps of Alabama University, to removing Lieutenant Dan’s (Gary Sinise) legs so convincingly that I actually thought Sinise was legless.

 

Today, we take CGI imagery for granted, with filmmakers able to create entire worlds (à la Disney’s recent “live action” Lion King remake), but in 1994, Forrest Gump was an effects tour de force that didn’t feel like you were watching a movie driven by effects. This was a case of the technology being used to help tell the story and immerse you in Forrest’s life, instead of being the story.

 

At its heart, Forrest Gump is really a pretty simple film—a life recapped in a series of flashback memories by Hanks while he’s sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. But it is heart—propelled by Hanks’ genuine and spot-on portrayal of Gump and by Robert Zemeckis’ deft directing—that makes the film still hold up after all these years.

 

There are actors who so inhabit roles that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing them—Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. And Hanks’ portrayal of Gump certainly deserves to be on that list. From the first time he says, “My name is Forrest, Forrest Gump,” Hanks is Forrest, and there is no separating the two.

 

Hanks never uses Gump’s being “different” and his 75 IQ (borderline impaired) for laughs or for pity. Instead, he portrays him as curious, honest, and pure, always looking for the best in those around him. Ultimately Gump is driven by the desire to please people, but especially his loving and protecting mama (Sally Field); his best good friend, Bubba (Mykelti Williamson); his best gal, Jenny (Robin Wright); and his Vietnam officer-in-charge cum First Mate, Lt. Dan.

 

Due to Hanks’ portrayal, we never feel sorry for Forrest or even think about his IQ after it’s initially mentioned, but rather we root for him as he lives a bigger-than-life life where he just happens to be in all the right places at all the right times and displays his ability to run like the wind blows.

 

For the film’s 25th anniversary, Paramount created a true 4K scan of the original 35mm print and gave the audio a Dolby Atmos makeover. If I had to summarize the image quality of the new 4K HDR transfer in a word, it would be “uneven.” The images are mostly clean and sharp, and there are scenes where they look tack sharp with tons of detail; but other scenes are almost out of focus and lack real definition.

 

As with many film-to-4K transfers, closeups often show the real improvements in image quality, revealing the texture in curtains, drapes, bed linens, clothing, and actors’ faces. In an early scene where Forrest is being fitted with his leg braces—to help his back “being as crooked as a politician”—the tiny dots inside the plaid pattern of his shirt are clearly resolved.

 

It’s longer shots or things in the background that often don’t have the same sharpness and detail. Leaves on trees, fields of grass, and stalks of corn tend to look softer and less defined. The opening shots of the sky reveal a fair bit of noise and grain, 

which isn’t uncommon, since that particular shade of blue tends to wreak havoc with film capture. Also, a couple of scenes have some brief aliasing in fine edges. The archival footage is also very soft and definitely shows its age, especially when contrasted with the sharpness of the rest of the film.

 

HDR is used sparingly throughout, not really pushing dynamic-range boundaries. There are scenes where whites are fairly brilliant, such as the shoelaces in Forrest’s Nikes or the T-shirts worn in the Army barracks. The napalm strike in Vietnam benefits from the additional dynamics. Blacks are also deep and noise-free. Colors are rich and vibrant, such as the bright Crimson red jacket worn by Alabama’s football coach, Bear Bryant. The greens in Vietnam are also lush, with clear distinctions between the different shades of green in the uniforms, helmets, camouflage, canteens, weaponry, etc.; and the golden-orange sunset on the bayou looks beautiful.

 

Gump is known for its fantastic soundtrack, featuring nearly 50 songs that capture the sound and feel of the period. Thus, I had high hopes for the Dolby Atmos mix, but it’s even more restrained than the film’s use of HDR. The height speakers are used very sparingly throughout, coming into play to add some atmosphere like rumbling thunder, bird chirps, or some reverb to add space to the Washington

Forrest Gump

speech scene. A helicopter flyover in Vietnam is also mixed nicely into the height speakers.

 

Most of the soundtrack is mixed across the front three speakers, which gives the music nice separation, and keeps dialogue clear and understandable. The big Vietnam firefight has some bullets that whiz into the surround speakers and the hurricane scene pushes wind and the groaning ship out to the surrounds, but the mix is sonically tame by today’s standards.

 

Forrest Gump is an undeniable classic, ranking No. 76 on the AFI’s Top 100 list, and receiving 13 Academy Award nominations and taking home six statues for Best Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Writing, Film Editing, and Visual Effects. In 2011, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” While this isn’t a perfect transfer, it retains all the heart and feel, and belongs in any film collection.

 

And that’s all I have to say about that.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Crown (Season 3)

The Crown (Season 3)

When Peter Morgan’s Netflix-original historical drama The Crown launched in 2016, it did so with an interesting conceit: In dramatizing the life of Queen Elizabeth II from 1947 to modern times, the cast would be replaced every two seasons to account for the roughly two-decade advance of the calendar. Season Three, which recently dropped on Netflix in its ten-episode entirety, is of course the first to feature such a complete re-casting.

 

It honestly never occurred to me that I might have a problem with this. But as Season Three approached, I realized just how smitten I had become with Claire Foy’s performance as Elizabeth and Vanessa Kirby’s brilliant turn as Princess Margaret. Trailers and clips of the new season, and interviews with its cast, left me cold. Made me a bit bitter, I’ll admit.

 

For anyone with similar concerns, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way from the giddy-up: The new cast is fantastic. Olivia Colman manages to capture the essence of Queen Elizabeth II perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute force of nature in the role of Princess Margaret. And I imagine Matt Smith is watching Tobias Menzies’ performance as Prince Philip right now with a tinge of envious respect. Simply put, the new cast has won me over completely, perhaps aided by the fact that John Lithgow returns ever-so-briefly as Winston Churchill (the only casting carry-over) to provide a bit of continuity to the whole affair.

 

It’s simply a shame that the writing this season doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the new cast. The thing I’ve always loved about The Crown—at least until the end of the second season—is that it was believable. I’m no Royalphile, mind you, so I’ve never really been bothered when the series had to take some liberties with reality to compress ten years’ worth of history into ten episodes of television. When it did so in its first two seasons, I rarely noticed.

 

The third season, though, takes such a turn for the tabloid that it strains the bounds of credulity. The second episode, “Margaretology,” in which Margaret attends a dinner at the White House in the midst of a vacation in the U.S., is one of the worst offenders in this respect. I have no doubt that a meeting between Princess Margaret and LBJ was a bawdy affair—by the standards of the day. The problem is that The Crown turns it into a bawdy affair by today’s standards, ripped right out of a 

modern revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, complete with a scandalous kiss on the mouth and an improvisational limerick contest so salacious I didn’t even need to fact-check it to know it didn’t happen.

 

As I said, I realize any dramatization of this sort is going to be at odds with reality from time to time.

The Crown (Season 3)

But a viewer’s reaction should be (and, speaking for myself alone here, was for the first two seasons) “Did that really happen?” not “There’s no way that happened.”

 

The third season so completely lost my trust by the end of the second episode that, had I not already committed to reviewing it, I would have cut my losses and kept my fond memories of the Claire Foy run of the series.

 

And that’s truly unfortunate, because The Crown is so beautifully made otherwise. The cinematography in particular has always been stunning, but reaches new heights of artistry this season, especially in the way it conveys the emotional isolation of Elizabeth. HDR is used brilliantly to create a tangible distinction between the interiors of Buckingham Palace and the sunlight of the outside word piercing through the windows, intruding on the space within but never able to fully illuminate it.

 

Set design, costume design, and all of the rest of the elements that contribute to the visual verisimilitude of this historical world are all captured wonderfully by the excellent 4K/HDR presentation. So, if you can stomach the unnecessary sensationalism of it all, you’re in for an absolute treat of a presentation worthy of the best home cinema setups.

 

My advice, though, if you haven’t seen any of The Crown yet, would be to watch the first two seasons and simply pretend that the series ends in early 1964 with the birth of Prince Edward. The third season of The Crown is gorgeous and brilliantly acted, sure, but simply ends up being too insulting to truly enjoy. The earlier seasons, imperfect as they may have been, deliver an emotionally fulfilling and interesting story, beautifully shot and wonderfully performed, and are still very much worth your time.

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.

Klaus

Klaus

We’ve been inundated with new origin stories over the past few years. We’ve had Spider-Man, the Joker, and now . . . Santa Claus? There is, of course, the historical origin story, which likely begins in what is now Turkey, with influence from Scandinavia and Coca-Cola. In movies, Santa pops up quite a bit, although there are only a few notable films that address

where he comes from (the most popular being the stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970).

 

Klaus, the first original animated movie Netflix has released, is a brand-new take on the Santa story. It was conceived, written, and directed by Sergio Pablos, who is best known as the animator and creator of the Despicable 

Me franchise. The Klaus story follows the privileged son of the head postmaster, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), as he is tasked to establish a post office in the remote island town of Smeerensburg (an intentional misspelling of the actual Dutch town of Smeerenburg) and postmark 6,000 letters or risk being ostracized from the family and his indulgent lifestyle.

 

As he arrives, he is made aware by the sardonic boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) that the dreary, snowy, northern town is inhabited by two extended families that have been feuding for centuries. They have no interest in speaking to one another, let alone carrying out a lengthy written correspondence. But moods in town begin to change, starting with the children, after Jesper meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons) and the two brighten up the lives of the children by delivering toys. This must be done in secret, lest they be discovered spreading joy and goodwill by the angry adults.

 

As their mission continues and they evade capture, the legend of Klaus grows, giving explanation to all the traditional Santa Claus lore—flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, Santa’s elves—in new, interesting ways. While most of Klaus is based in the expected rules of our own world, there are some mystical elements that keep the story of Santa magical. The movie is beautifully heartfelt with some lovely tear-jerking moments, and shows how ingrained negative philosophies can be changed with just one new generation of open minds. Speaking as a father, there are moments that toddlers might find scary, but the overall message is an excellent one.

Klaus

The 4K animation is gorgeous with excellent detail in the character design and scenery. The 2D style is beautifully shaded to give a feel of 3D, and the use of color throughout serves the story and helps to drive the narrative. While the HDR doesn’t deliver the bright highlights you might see in something like Blade Runner 2049, the increase in bit depth and color gamut add to the intensity of the animation. Even if the story is of little interest to you, the animation will completely draw you in.

 

The 5.1 Dolby surround mix supports the storytelling without being obtrusive. There were a few moments where the dialogue moved away from the center channel to follow whoever is speaking that were a bit more drastic than I expected. For most of the film, though, the sound did an excellent job conveying the changing atmosphere of Smeerensburg.

 

Klaus is a joyful new take on Santa and, at least in our house, has already earned its place in our list of yearly holiday movies.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra

For an early anniversary present, my wife surprised me by sending me to attend the Adult Space Academy at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (Yes, much to my surprise, Space Camp is actually a thing, and something 12-year-old me had desperately wanted to attend but thought had long been a missed opportunity.)

 

For three days, I lived in Habitat One and was immersed in all things space, touring the grounds where much of the US space program developed under Wernher von Braun, training for and completing missions, spinning in the Multi-Axis Trainer, and much more. It was all quite a thrill, and made me feel like a kid again, experiencing and enjoying the wonders and scientific complexities of space travel.

 

Needless to say, after leaving One Tranquility Base, I was hopped-up on NASA and space travel, and when I saw that Ad Astra was releasing early for download at 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Virtually since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have frequently looked to the moon and beyond for creative inspiration in their storytelling, and over the years Hollywood has managed to deliver some truly epic films—both factual and fictional—that have revolved around space travel. Ad Astra’s director James Gray said he wanted the film to feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie,” so I was hopeful for a film that not only entertained but that nailed the science.

 

And . . . not so much.

 

Ad Astra belongs to that increasing number of films that has a real divide between critics and moviegoers, but whereas these disparities are usually with audiences preferring the film to critics, Ad Astra received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84% and just a 40% audience score. So, who’s right?

 

I have to side with the audience here. Ad Astra is such a slowly paced, agonizingly nonsensical, trying-so-hard-to-impress with its self-importance movie that I occasionally started questioning whether it was actually a brilliant film and I was just too dense or emotionally stunted to understand or appreciate it. Then there would be things like Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) droning expository voiceovers, lunar rovers being attacked by a group of space pirates (which, I guess, are a thing now), or random rabid space baboons that take over research stations and lie in wait to attack that I felt my disdain was fully justified. I hung in there through all 123 minutes waiting for some big resolution or enlightenment to drop on me and then . . .the end credits appeared.

 

In reading some of the critics’ reviews, I almost felt like I had watched a completely different movie. This was no transformational, emotional journey. Instead Ad Astra was so plodding and confusing it felt like a script that had gone through numerous writers and studios, with things happening that made no sense whatsoever.

 

And that “most realistic depiction of space travel”? Yeesh. The science in this film is virtually non-existent to the point of being insulting. (If you’d like a thorough breakdown of all the physics problems with Ad Astra, take a look at Bill Hunt’s “two cents” at the Digital Bits.)

 

Pitt has been widely praised for his acting in this film, but that wasn’t enough to connect me to his character or really care about what was going on. Most times McBride, who is known for keeping a cool, steady, slow pulse rate regardless the situation, and who has to regularly take Blade Runner 2049-style psychological evaluations, seems detached or disinterested, just a drone going about his duties. The film also features Tommy Lee Jones as Pitt’s long-lost, marooned-on-Neptune father, H. Clifford McBride, Donald Sutherland as a retired military colonel re-tasked to chaperone Pitt, and Liv Tyler as McBride’s (ex?) wife, Eve, who I don’t believe utters a single word in the film and is only shown in brief flashbacks and memories. Also, the actor playing Lt. General Rivas (John Ortiz) looks so much like a totally miscast Fred Armisen that I found his scenes to be a bit distracting.

 

So, assuming you are going to watch Ad Astra regardless of what I or anyone else says, are there any redeeming factors to screening the movie at home?

 

Fortunately, yes.

 

Filmed in ArriRaw at 3.4K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, images are mostly terrific looking. The film uses different color palettes for different environments, with scenes on earth looking very film-like and having greens, blues, and

neutral tones, with scenes on the moon being much sharper and having a silvery-white look, Mars a dusty, rusty orange-red, and Neptune a beautiful gleaming navy-blue.

 

You definitely can’t knock the film’s visual effects, and the large set pieces such as the ginormous earth antenna, the interiors of space crafts, and the moon-buggy chase all look great and show terrific attention to detail and set dressing. Closeups reveal tons of detail, such as the twist in the cabling used on the large antenna, the weave of fabric on Pruitt’s jacket, the woolen texture of Pitt’s army uniform, or scratches and blemishes on the astronauts’ helmets.

 

There are a lot of shots off into outer space, and blacks are deep and clean. HDR is used nicely to punch up the rocket engines during launches as well as some of the bright displays and instrumentation aboard the ships. 

 

20th Century Fox maddeningly refuses to supply Kaleidescape with the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack found on the UltraHD Blu-ray disc, but even still, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track here offers plenty to enjoy, especially if combined with an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X. There are lots of little atmospheric sounds that immerse you in the action, such as air hissing 

Ad Astra

when hatches open and close, the creaking and groaning of the antenna structure, devices giving off electrical buzzes and crackles, or a variety of PA announcements. 

 

Dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, though there were times when lines spoken inside of helmets sounded muffled and unclear. There are also some low, steady deep bass notes near the end that will test your media room for any loose items that rattle.

 

Ultimately, I was disappointed with Ad Astra and doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It was slow, unentertaining, and never seemed to find its footing. The film is summed up by one of the best IMDB-user reviews I read, “Brad Pitt goes to Neptune, but this script comes from Uranus.”

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.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Home cinema fans are increasingly being presented with something of a dilemma: Buy into the digital home video release of a film a few weeks early and miss out on some enticing bonus features or wait a few weeks and buy the full-fledge disc release, complete with all of the supplemental trappings but yet another damned box to clog our shelves.

 

In the case of Downton Abbey—the big-screen continuation of the smash-hit ITV/PBS soap opera about the decline of the aristocracy in post-Edwardian England—the calculus gets a little more complicated. While it’s true that the disc slated for release on December 17 promises to deliver all manner of goodies—from cast interviews to documentaries to deleted scenes 

to an audio commentary by director Michael Engler—that release will be limited to Blu-ray quality at best. The Kaleidescape release, like all of the other digital releases aside from iTunes, presents the film completely devoid of extras. But does come home by way of a 4K/HDR transfer.

 

So, do you go for the best presentation of the film 

now, or do you wait for a lesser presentation that’s backed up by some significant behind-the-scenes insight? (Or, for you Apple TV owners, do you opt for the feature-packed download?)

 

I can’t answer that question for you, of course, but what I can say is that Kaleidescape’s presentation of this delightful little film is simply stunning. I saw Downton Abbey twice in local cinemas, both times in BigD (a competitor of sorts to IMAX that focuses more on wide-aspect-ratio films), and neither of those experiences came close to the sheer visual splendor of the Kaleidescape download.

 

That is, I think, largely due to the fantastic (although subtle) use of high dynamic range, which gives the image more pop, depth, and sparkle when such is called for. The cinematography of Downton Abbey was always one of its most undeniable strengths on the small screen, and this big-screen continuation doesn’t stray far from the style of the series. But Kaleidescape’s presentation of the film does make me wish someone would go back and do an HDR grade for all six seasons.

 

One substantial way in which the look of Downton Abbey the film differs from Downton Abbey the series, aside from the HDR, is its aspect ratio. While the show was framed for 16:9 TVs, the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and this does make a substantial difference in how things are framed. Wider, longer shots of the estate and the adjacent village plant Downton Abbey more firmly in its geographical surroundings. Dinners, of which there are of course plenty, also feel quite different in the movie as compared with the TV series. With a wider canvas to play with, cinematographer Ben Smithard manages to make each table feel like a continent instead of a collection of loosely interconnected islands.

Downton Abbey

I can’t say for certain whether this transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate, but I have to imagine it was, as it wants for nothing in terms of detail. I can, on the other hand, say for certain that it was shot digitally on Sony Venice cameras, which are capable of capturing images at up to 6K resolution in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Forget the pixel count, though. What matters is that Downton looks better than ever here, in terms of sharpness, shadow detail, depth of field, contrast, and color. The largely brown-and-grey palette, punctuated by golds, reds, oranges, and lavenders throughout, is delivered with all the lushness and warmth it deserves, and skin tones are spot on.

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a largely front-focused affair, although it does lean on the surround channels a good bit to accentuate John Lunn’s iconic and familiar score. Aside from that, the surround soundstage does come into play occasionally to accentuate ambiance, be it the chirping of birds or the exuberant crowds at the royal parade, but by and large you won’t be pulling this one out to blow anyone’s hair back or shake their britches legs. For the most part, this is a dialogue-and-music-driven mix, and the lossless 5.1 track renders it with wonderful clarity and richness.

 

It should probably go without saying that the Downton Abbey film is primarily aimed at those who are already smitten with the characters and locations (which are, in some respects, characters in and of themselves). In many ways, it feels like a “Christmas Special” for a seventh season that never existed. (For the uninitiated: Each season for Downton Abbey since Season Two was bookended by a made-for-TV movie with a bigger budget and longer running time, broadcast on Christmas Day in the U.K. and presented as a special season finale when each year’s crop of episodes was broadcast a few months later here in the Colonies.)

 

I can’t see the film through anything other than the eyes of a longtime devotee, but I have to imagine that those who haven’t seen the series will be a little confused by stray references to characters who aren’t introduced, and relationships that aren’t spelled out for new viewers. Of course, little of this is essential to understanding the plot of the film, which is pretty self-

explanatory. The King and Queen are coming to Downton, and everyone is all aflutter. Who forgot to polish the silver? Who’s responsible for cooking the big dinner? Who’s going to be whose heir? What personal tragedy will befall poor Lady Edith this time around?

 

The magic of Downton Abbey (as both a TV series and a film) is that, like the best of the Merchant Ivory catalog it so evokes, it manages to make such low-stakes controversies seem like a Big Deal. And honestly, the details of the plot are, as always, secondary to the wonderful character interactions and performances, especially from Dame Maggie Smith, who seems bound and determined to make this, likely her last turn as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, the performance of her life.

 

Thematically speaking, the screenplay by showrunner Julian Fellowes does tinker around with the Downton formula just a bit. The series has always ultimately been about the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, and that remains true here. As always, this struggle is presented without a thumb on the scales, and those two opposing points-of-view don’t split across upstairs/downstairs lines as you might expect. There are agents of progress both in service and in the aristocracy, and bastions of tradition above and below the main floor. What makes the

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey movie a bit of cheeky fun in this respect is that Fellowes pushes many of the characters into positions of role reversal, with traditionalists defending a bit of change and change-seekers going to bat for the way things have always been done, right and proper.

 

When you get right down to it, the Downton Abbey film feels like returning home for a big holiday dinner. If you’re part of the family, it can be a wonderful exercise that recharges the soul. If you’re new to the family, you can feel a little awkward and out of sorts. In this case, though, the family happens to be so delightful that I think many a newcomer will be drawn in enough to explore the entire run of the show, if only to have a better understanding of the relationships at the heart of this wonderful little melodrama.

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.