Reviews

Emma (2020)

Emma (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

EMMA AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Emma (2020)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Emma (2020)

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

STATEN ISLAND AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Space Force

Space Force

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Another Helping of Quaint-Location Crime Fiction

ELVEN (THE RIVER)

A man finds a foot in a river. It makes him nervous, but not because he does not know where it came from. He’s nervous because he seems to already know where more body parts remain unburied.

 

A little girl finds a hand in the same river. Her name is Silja, she is 10 years old, she seems intelligent, but does not speak. “Different.” “Sensitive.” She lives with her mother and grandmother. Grace, Silja’s pretty single mom, is a barmaid who works hard to get away from her own critical mother. Grace is so lonely that when she reluctantly has to turn a trick for some extra 

money, she tells the customer that she can stay longer. When told “that’s not necessary,” her sadness is palpable.

 

Welcome to Djupelv, a tiny village on the northern tip of Norway, 800 miles northeast of Oslo, the capital. Djupelv is also the name of the river (sometimes spelled Djupelva), cold, relentless, icy, that gives the show its title. The camera pans between dramatic interactions to scenes of the flowing river, as if to say corrupt human nature cannot match the elemental, pristine, power of nature.

 

It’s not police against criminals in the Norwegian series The River. It’s a policeman from Oslo, Thomas Lønnhøiden 

(Espen Reboli Bjerke), now working in a town from which his parents disappeared in a plane crash, along with the plane, when he was an infant. He wants to find justice for Silja, but he’s also compelled to solve the mystery of his parents’ death. He’s up against a lazy, incurious police department, an ineffectual local media, and complicit Military Intelligence. Norway’s military calls the shots in this region, where the Cold War never ended, and where Russian and Norwegian agents still play Spy vs. Spy. In some ways, it’s an oddball companion piece to the brilliant three-season thriller Occupied (Netflix), in which Russia engineers a relatively subtle invasion of Norway to maintain a steady, cheap oil supply.

 

In the plot-packed first episode of The River, Russian troops have been spotted at the border. A preparedness drill, led by a determined, ambitious woman sergeant Mia Holt (Ingeborg Raustol), takes on extra urgency. When the girl Silja disappears and is found dead near a ramshackle building on Army property, no one but Lønnhøiden seems to want to find out the truth. “They talk in half-truths and riddles,” he complains, and for eight episodes, through suicides, sabotage, and snowmobile chases, the lies keep on coming. Plausibility is not a strong point, but the raw beauty and frequent bursts of unpredictable action may keep you watching.

 

Unlike some cold-weather settings that wait for better weather to shoot, The River revels in its frosty locale. There are chases through knee-deep snow in the woods, cars skidding into snowbanks, and overhead shots of long roads cleared by snowplows 24/7.

 

The scenery is reason enough to enjoy much of The River, shot in tones of Arctic gray that make it difficult to guess the time of day. Everyone is dressed in thick wool and heavy parkas, so that even though some sexual chemistry develops between Thomas and Mia, there are so many layers to take off that it’s hard for them to find the time.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece

HAMARINN (THE CLIFF)

A river is also featured in the Icelandic show Hamarrin, which takes place in a rural region hundreds of miles from the capital, Reykjavik. Helgi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a special investigator from the city, is called in to help the local policewoman Inga (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir) investigate a suspicious death at a construction site. (Haraldsson and his character Helgi are also featured in The Lava Field, which has appeared on Netflix and Amazon Prime from time to time.)

 

Developers, with the eager participation of some local landowners, want to build a hydroelectric plant, which would require blowing up the the cliff and damning the rivers and falls that make the area a popular tourist area during the summer. Building the plant offers plenty of money and jobs, but to some the cliff is not just sacred but invested with supernatural powers. Shiny round blue lights, like small comets, or balls of lightning known as “the Moon of Urd” are sometimes spotted in the sky at night, falling near the cliff. The real moon hovers low in the sky, a natural wonder of its own.

 

Facing the cliffs, the few residents, and their many horses, see plain pasture. On the other side of the cliff (about 62 feet high, a brisk recreational hike to take a peek from the peak), the world looks different: a sumptuously beautiful ecosystem of hills, wild horses, streams, flowing water, and waterfalls, as gorgeous as anywhere on earth.

 

Environmentalists (and some residents) want to stop the project; some dynamite and blasting caps are found missing. The police “raid” the environmentalists’ encampment, looking for the dynamite, and if you want to see what citizen-friendly policing looks like, it’s a kind of comical scene. When Helgi and Inga rush to control the conflict, they come upon a lot of shouting, not shooting. The greens claim the police brought drug-sniffing dogs, which they describe as “rude.”

 

Obviously, there is plenty of tension beneath the façade of Icelandic cooperation. Everyone seems to have had a past with everyone else, marriages are frayed but alternatives are few. The men do have the option of visiting Halldora, who runs a massage parlor. Helgi and Inga are always knocking on her door, as she in quick turns is considered a witness, a suspect, and a victim.

 

Everyone suspects everyone else; even families are divided. “A bit of jealousy and envy is normal,” one of the residents says. A bit, sure. But long-buried emotions often swell, punctuated by the sometimes spare, sometimes symphonic electronic music soundtrack. In this remote place, some people (and children) are more attuned to the currents emanating from the cliff than others. Those who do not heed those powerful vibrations don’t see trouble until it’s too late.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece

Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, 
and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–
1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in
Queens, NY.

King Creole

King Creole

So often when we techie types attempt to explain the benefits of High Dynamic Range to the masses, we fall back on the clichés of “blacker blacks!’ and “brighter highlights!” as if that were the beginning and end of the story. If anything, though, Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR release of King Creole—Elvis Presley’s fourth film and the last before he went into the Army and came out the other side as an amphetamine-addled self-parody—proves that this simple explanation is woefully inadequate 

when it comes to explaining the actual benefits of HDR video.

 

Compare the 4K HDR download of the film to the Blu-ray release (the best you’ll find on disc, since the 4K transfer is a digital exclusive), and you’ll see that the blacks are no more black, the whites no more vibrant. The difference HDR makes is on the journey from one end of the value scale to the other. What the 4K HDR download has that the 1080p disc doesn’t is a proper richness and nuance between those two extremes. Rather than merely cranking the overall brightness of the image to drag it out of the shadows, this transfer allows the bright spots to shine and the darkness to revel in its inkiness, while also allowing for some middle ground. And the result is an image that’s wholly dimensional, with believable depth and oodles of texture that’s lost in the overly contrasty 1080p transfer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film was beautifully shot to 

CREOLE AT A GLANCE

One of the few “good” Elvis movies, thanks partly to Michael Curtiz’ expert direction, atmospheric Big Easy locations, and a provocative turn by Carolyn (Morticia Addams) Jones. 

 

PICTURE     

4K honors Russell Harlan’s evocative cinematography, which benefits greatly from a non-gimmicky application of HDR.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is primarily mono, until Elvis bursts into song, when it blossoms into multichannel splendor.

begin with. Director Michael Curtiz (best known for Casablanca and White Christmas) and cinematographer Russell Harlan (who deserves more credit for the success of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird) approached this musical noir/melodrama as if they were filming Olivier instead of Elvis, and their choice of New Orleans as setting lends the film a gritty verisimilitude that’s positively captivating.

 

It isn’t just the HDR treatment that helps push this download into must-see territory, though. The 4K transfer also reveals fine details—the filigree in the iron terrace railings on Bourbon Street, the fine mesh of screen windows—that simply get lost in the film’s 1080p transfer.

The visuals alone more than make up for Creole’s occasional shortcomings—the uneven performances (especially by Dolores Hart of The Virginian fame) and the often-laughable lip-syncing during Elvis’ barnburner performances. There’s also the weird sexual tension between Presley and Carolyn Jones, who slinks her way through every scene in a way that’s wholly distinct from her turn as Morticia Addams on the small screen just a few years later. When Presley’s down-on-his-luck Danny Fisher and Jones’ gangster concubine Ronnie share the frame, there’s a dangerous energy that’s unmatched by most films of the era. Watching them together, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been—what Presley’s film career might have been like if Colonel Parker hadn’t kept the King on a leash, forcing him to take roles in fluff like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Viva Las Vegas when he returned to the spotlight a couple years later.

 

But go too far down that road and one also can’t help but wonder what King Creole would have been had James Dean lived to play the role of Danny Fisher, which was written for him before it was rejiggered as a musical about a New Orleans singing sensation rather than as a straight drama about a New York boxer.

King Creole

We’ll never know, of course. But I do know this: King Creole has never truly thrived on home video until now, until our residential display technology finally caught up with the capabilities of good old-fashioned film stock. Indeed, the film sounds better than ever as well. True, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remains a mostly mono affair except during Elvis’ musical numbers, when the soundstage comes to life thanks the multitrack recordings of those songs. But much like the rest of this wonderfully and captivatingly imperfect film, somehow it just works.

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.

Gladiator

Gladiator

Having not watched the film for years, what I most remembered about Gladiator prior to this viewing was the incredible recreation of the Roman Colosseum filled with tens of thousands of cheering, blood-thirsty fans. I recall marveling at the size and scope of it and how they had been able to resurrect and recreate this 1,900-plus-year-old monument.

 

Those digital effects didn’t hold up quite so convincingly viewed in 4K resolution 20 years later, but that’s OK. While the movie boasted some impressive visual effects for its day, they were always there just to serve the greater purpose of telling the 

story and never just for the sake of, “Look what we can do!” digital wizardry. At its heart, Gladiator remains a thoroughly compelling story featuring powerful acting all around with impressive practical sets and effects and action scenes that remain dynamic and thrilling, keeping this film as entertaining today as it was on its release back in 2000.

 

I had also forgotten just what a powerhouse Gladiator was at the 2001 Academy Awards, snagging a total of 12 nominations and pulling down a total five Oscars including Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, and Visual Effects. 

 

Director Ridley Scott wastes no time jumping into the story, quickly introducing us to General Maximus Decimus (Crowe) as he is about to lead his Roman army to victory against a Germanic horde in what will be the final battle of his latest campaign. It’s immediately clear Maximus is an accomplished war fighter, leading from the front, and beloved by his men.

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

Twenty years on, aside from some of the digital effects, this sword & toga potboiler holds up surprisingly well in 4K, thanks to its strong acting, excellent production design, and classic action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is excellent, and true to the movie’s 35mm roots, with occasional glimpses of grain in the images and an analog softness.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is consistently effective, whether evoking the subtle sounds of casual interaction, the mayhem of battle, or the intense engagement of gladiatorial combat.

Following the battle, aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells Maximus of his plans to leave rule to him rather than his debauched son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Predictably, Commodus doesn’t take this news well, instead killing his father in private and declaring himself Caesar and then ordering the Praetorian Guard to kill Maximus and his family. When the soldiers fail to kill Maximus, he rides towards his home, arriving just in time to see it burned to the ground and his family slaughtered. Severely wounded, Maximus is taken prisoner and sold as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed) and made to fight as a gladiator. Maximus’ motivation throughout remains solely to survive long enough to be able to avenge his family by killing Commodus.

 

If Gladiator were just about fighting, fancy sets, and costumes, it wouldn’t hold up nearly so well. What keeps it great is the acting, primarily by Crowe who earns his Oscar in every scene and seems fully at home in the role of commanding troops and fighting. Maximus is always believable as the general who could come in and organize a band of gladiators to overthrow the people they are forced to fight, leading a rebellion from within. Phoenix brings just the right level of loathsomeness to petulant Commodus, someone solely interested in his own rise to power and willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, along with his lecherous relationship with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson).

 

At over two and a half hours, Gladiator is a long film that doesn’t feel long. Rather, Scott takes us on what feels like an epic journey, even though, in reality, the events portrayed in the film would take less than a year to play out. The running time gives us plenty of opportunity to care about Maximus and his journey; to root for his fellow gladiator/slaves Jubu (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller); to follow the political machinations of Roman Senators Gauis (John Shrapnel) and Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) as they try to keep Commodus in check and do what is right for the Republic. It also allows enough time between matches in the arena to keep the film from feeling like just a string of fights.

 

Filmed in 35mm, Gladiator was given a restoration in 2018 and both the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download are taken from a new true 4K digital intermediate. The movie looks like it has been born anew. Image quality retains its film-like look, with grain occasionally visible in some of the early-morning sky scenes or through some of the battlefield smoke, but you are drawn closer to the action with the clarity and cleanness of the picture. Native film scanned to 4K doesn’t produce the micro-level of detail seen in modern transfers, but you can still appreciate far better resolution here than in the previous, HD version.

 

Closeups reveal the texture and feel of the fabrics used on the elaborate Academy Award-winning costumes, the nicks and dents in the battle armor or links in chainmail, the cracks and lines in the walls of the city, or the fine stalks of wheat with individually detailed wisps, or the dirt and dust Maximus rubs on his hands before each battle.

 

The added detail also helps you to appreciate the large vistas that give the film its sense of scope and scale. But I did notice that some of the long shots and even the occasional closeup appeared a bit soft. Also, the lengthy shots leaning heavy on CGI, such as the Colosseum and the initial Rome flyover, are softer due to the graphics limitations of the day, and the greater resolution makes the digital crowd feel a bit less real.

 

The added contrast from HDR also helps to improve images. There are a lot of low-lit scenes here, whether in tents or prisons or at night time, and the deep black levels and shadow detail add to the realism. Many interior scenes are lit by numerous torches, and we not only get the nice pop of brightness from the fires, but the warm, natural glow of the firelight, and the deep shadows as actors move around a space. The spectacle of Commodus’ Rome benefits from the wide colors, with bright, gleaming golds and other regal colors looking vivid, along with the bright-red blood spilled in battle and the deep red-orange of fireballs and flames in combat.

While the UltraHD disc receives a new object-based DTS:X soundtrack, the Kaleidescape version gets a DTS-HD Master 7.1-channel mix that’s still exhilarating and exciting, especially when run through an upmixer found on modern AV processors.

 

The opening battle features shouts and chants from the armies along with the din of soldiers, which engulfs you from all around the room, followed by the sounds of arrows whistling past you into the surround channels and fireballs sailing overhead and bursting into treetops. The crowd noise inside the Colosseum is also appropriately huge and room-filling, putting you right in the midst of the action. Bass is deep and authoritative when appropriate, such as chariots crashing in the arena or when the fireballs smash into trees.

 

Equally as impressive as the bombast are the subtler audio moments that help to define and establish the scene and space the characters are in, with nearly every scene or moment featuring little bits of audio that help to set the space of things happening on or off camera. Listen to the carriage ride as Commodus is riding to the front—you hear the sounds of the rocking and creaking of the carriage itself 

Gladiator

along with things jingling inside, as well as the noises of the horses and the wheels turning outside. In another scene, you can hear the delicate, gentle tinkle of Lucilla’s earrings knocking together as she talks. Or in the prison at night, where you hear the sounds of doors opening and closing, crickets chirping in the distance, or echoing footsteps. Throughout, the audio mix is impressive whether in the midst of battle or in quieter moments.

 

Of course, Hans Zimmer’s dynamic Oscar-nominated score sounds wonderful here, giving more room to breathe across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Gladiator holds up remarkably well after 20 years, not just visually and sonically, but also from its involving story and acting, and the new 4K HDR version clocking in at a whopping 95 GB from Kaleidescape represents the best you’ve ever experienced this film!

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.

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Live Die Repeat

Having already covered Top Gun from the recent spate of HDR releases from the Tom Cruise catalog (which includes War of the Worlds, Vanilla Sky, and The Firm), we thought we would dip back in and take a look at Live Die Repeat, which was released theatrically as Edge of Tomorrow before being rebranded for the home video market. While Repeat was released on Blu-ray several years ago, it never got a higher-resolution release on physical disc. Fortunately, you can now enjoy the movie in its full potential via Kaleidescape, which offers it in a near 60 GB download featuring 4K HDR video with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos immersive audio soundtrack.

I belong to what I can only imagine is a fair-sized group of people that doesn’t really care for Tom Cruise the person but who really respects the choices made by Tom Cruise the actor. Say what you will about the guy’s antics, he gets a first look at some amazing scripts, he makes a lot of really smart choices of roles that work for him, and his decision to perform his own stunts is well documented. (His role as Jack Reacher aside, something I’ll never forgive the casting department for. I mean, Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs about 250. Cruise wouldn’t even come up to his armpit! But I digress . . .)

 

My wife and I saw Repeat when it was released theatrically back in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t our first choice for a movie that night. I recall we had a babysitter lined up that evening, and we went to the theater to see something else (X-Men: Days of Future Past, I think). When X-Men was 

REPEAT AT A GLANCE

One of the earliest takes on the “let’s kill off the  lead character repeatedly” trope, the film is hugely entertaining, because of—and despite—the presence of Tom Cruise in the starring role.

 

PICTURE     

Not the last word in razor-sharp detail, but the clean and clear Kaleidescape download is a big step up from the Blu-ray release.

 

SOUND

An aggressive and fun Atmos mix will keep all your speakers active, with lots of room-rattling seismic subwoofer action for the bass-head crowd.

sold out, we turned to whatever was playing at a similar time and bought tickets to Repeat.

 

I don’t recall knowing much of anything about the film as we went into the theater, but I clearly remember turning to my wife about halfway in and saying, “Man! I am really loving this movie!” Boasting Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 90%, I’m really surprised Repeat wasn’t a bigger success than it was. Perhaps it was the title, thus the rebranding for home release. Whatever the case, Repeat is a really entertaining and clever sci-fi film based on the Japanese short novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

 

Imagine Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds and you’ll have a rough idea what Repeat is about.

 

Against his will, Major William Cage (Cruise) is stripped of his rank and sent to Heathrow Airport to join a misfit bunch of soldiers in J-Squad who are preparing to head to the front lines as part of a major invasion force to combat an army of aliens known as “Mimics.” Cage has just enough time to piss off everyone in his new squad before suiting up in a mechanized armored suit and being loaded on a dropship into the heart of combat. Just moments after hitting the beach, he manages to kill a rare alien known as an “Alpha”—but in the process of doing so, manages to get himself killed as well.

 

Moments later, Cage jolts awake exactly 24 hours prior, back at Heathrow ready to join J-Squad and prepare for the fight.

 

He lives the same day over and over (and over . . .), retaining knowledge of each prior day before being jolted awake in the same instant. Each time he learns a bit more about the fighting pattern and habits of the Mimics (and of the people around him), and we watch his character and story slowly continue and develop. What keeps it from being dull and repetitive are some great turns by supporting actors Brendan Gleeson as the general ordering the assault, Bill Paxton as Cage’s new J-Squad master sergeant, and Noah Taylor as Mimic expert Dr. Carter.

 

Even better is the relationship between Cage and war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Vrataski uniquely understands Cage’s predicament as she too once had the power to reset the clock, using it to defeat the Mimics in the battle of Verdun . . . before losing it.

 

Instead of the usual cocksure, toughest/smartest-guy-in-the-room character Cruise typically portrays, here he starts way out of his element, and it is Blunt who takes on the alpha role. With no warfighting experience—Cage was part of the Army’s media relations following a failed career in advertising—Cage relies heavily on Vrataski for combat training, and she is merciless, repeatedly killing him over and over (and over . . .) at any sign of a wound. The results are humorous and keep the film interesting as Cage and Vrataski work together to figure out strategies to continue advancing their day and problem solving.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this 4K HDR transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Images are not bristling with micro detail, but the transfer is just incredibly clean and clear. I really wasn’t impressed with the image quality until I went back and compared it with my Blu-ray version, and that is when the fine layers of detail and benefit of higher contrast really come through.

 

Comparing closeups, the 4K transfer is considerably sharper, producing more fine detail like pores, whiskers, and lines in the actors’ faces. During one shot, you can see the fine weave on Cage’s collared shirt, and one tight closeup on him would enable a dermatologist to conduct a full exam. In another lengthy shot, you can clearly make out the individual strands of razor wire on a fence in the 4K version; they were small blob-dots on the Blu-ray.

 

While the movie retains its film-like image quality, what really impressed me throughout was just the clean, clear, noise-free quality.

 

Much of the film is on a dirty, drab battlefield under grey French skies, so there isn’t a lot of room to push the color gamut here. However, HDR does a nice job of keeping blacks deep and dark and clean, while still allowing for bright highlights—nothing that really pushes the boundary, but that just results in very natural-looking images. There are some scenes where 

HDR is used to boost the brightness, such as in fluorescent lights in the barracks, or lights inside the dropships, some bright red fires burning in the dark of night, or the bright blue-white glow of an alien underwater.

 

Even more entertaining was the Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which makes full use of all the speakers in your system. There is a lot of combat in this film, and the sound mix does a great job of placing you in the midst of the mayhem. We get helicopter blades and turbine fans blowing, jets streaking past overhead, troopers falling out of dropships swinging past you, along with all matter of ordnance blasting around the room. The area where Vrataski trains Cage has these spinning metal blades that slice and dice around the large space, clearly traveling 360 degrees around the listening position. There are also some nice, subtler audio moments— just the rattles and hum that put you aboard the dropship, hearing Mimics climbing and crawling on metal structures up over your head, or the drips of water and echoes of cavernous spaces with Mimics moving all around the room.

 

Also, be warned that this soundtrack features some serious low-frequency information. Bass heads will love it, as the many explosions definitely hit you in the chest and rattle your couch. And for no apparent reason, the very opening 

Live Die Repeat

scene has some of the most seismically huge deep-bass notes you will hear outside of a test tone. That ultrasonic bass will energize every air molecule in your room and possibly damage your subwoofer if it isn’t up to the task, so set your volume knob—and alert your neighbors!—accordingly.

 

Live Die Repeat is just a really fun movie that retains its entertainment value. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a viewing. If you avoided it because you’re not a Tom Cruise fan, I assure you watching him get killed over and over (and over . . .) is highly entertaining. And if you haven’t seen it with the Dolby Atmos audio soundtrack, then you will definitely enjoy giving it another viewing. They are rumored to be working on a sequel—Live Die Repeat and Repeat—so now is a perfect time to (re)watch the original.

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.

Jaws

Jaws

Widely regarded as one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, residing well within the AFI Top 100 list, and holding the honor as the first-ever true summer blockbuster film are all fine reasons to pick up the new 45th Anniversary 4K HDR transfer of Jaws, but none of them are why the film still resonates with me to this day. 

 

Nope.

 

I was five when Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to take 

our family to see it at a drive-in theater. So, I remember Jaws for absolutely ruining night swimming for me for my entire life, and for giving me a fairly unhealthy fear of the water that persists.

 

I don’t remember a lot about my childhood from age five, but I do remember seeing Jaws. (Well, all of it except the very opening, where my dad made me cover my eyes as Chrissie [Susan Backlinie] runs naked out into the ocean for what turns out to be a very unfortunate evening swim. So, yeah, watching a Great White shark brutalize and eat people was somehow OK for a five-year-old, but catching a brief glimpse of Chrissie’s shadowed side-boob, not so much. Go figure.)

 

I remember drawing pictures of a lone stick floating on top of the water inspired by Pippet, the black lab that played fetch with a stick. I also recall recoiling at Quint’s (Robert Shaw) strangled, bloody screams at the end at he is slowly eaten whole alive. But the real doozy for me was when old 

JAWS AT A GLANCE

The first summer blockbuster ever, and the film that launched Spielberg’s career, gets a restrained but effective makeover in this 45th-anniversary edition.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration respects the looks of the original 35mm film stock, sticking to freshening it up a bit and showing a light touch with the HDR enhancements.

 

SOUND

The new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t venture far from the original mono track, but does add some nice atmospheric effects and effectively places John Williams’ score among the surround channels.

Ben Gardner’s (Craig Kingsbury) head pops out of the bottom of his boat punctuated by a sudden intense burst of music, likely the first jump-scream in my life.

 

For the rest of that summer, I kept expecting that head to come popping out of anywhere there was water. The toilet, the bathtub, you name it. I can also thank Jaws for the fear that the tile mermaid at the bottom of my grandparents’ black-bottomed pool would somehow come to life and drag me under whenever I went swimming.

 

So, yeah. Jaws has been a part of my life for just about as long as I remember.

 

And you know what? The film still totally holds up. The acting, the dialogue, the chemistry, the editing . . . it’s all still great and all still works. The best parts of the film are aboard the Orca with Quint, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) interacting. The dynamic between the three of them is fantastic, and Quint’s monologue about surviving the USS Indianapolis is still powerful and compelling (despite the fact that he was apparently black-out drunk when filming that scene initially).

 

Of course, John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score retains all the tension and drama to enhance each scene, but even the shark scenes and effects remain believable and frightening after 45 years. Sure, there are scarier, more brutal, and bloodier shark films out there today, but Jaws sets the standard for scary things in the water, and the bar remains high.

 

There are actually some close-to-home parallels between Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) arguing to keep the beaches open for all of the 4th of July festivities and our current economy and states deciding on what and when to reopen. With tourists set to pour into the town, bringing needed lifeblood to the little beach town’s economy in light of a giant alpha predator turning the shallow waters into a smorgasbord, the Mayor argues that closing the beaches shouldn’t be an option.

 

About the only things that really date the film are Mayor Vaughn’s suits and the variety of clearly out-of-fashion swimwear seen on the beaches of Amity.

Jaws

One thing I really noticed on this viewing was just how little we actually get to see that 25-foot Great White shark. In fact, it isn’t until an hour in that you finally get your first brief glimpse. But this turns out to be one of Spielberg’s master strokes in creating suspense and unease, wondering every time someone enters the water if there will be an attack or sudden reveal. In fact, Jaws is an example of a film that succeeded because of its technical challenges, rather than in spite of them. The shark model, “Bruce,” was notoriously buggy during production, frequently causing Spielberg to shoot around it, but instead of hampering the film, it makes it work that much better.

 

Another thing that struck me on this viewing of Jaws was the dearth of end credits. Compared to modern films, where it isn’t unusual to have eight or more minutes of credits, with the screen packed with hundreds of names at a time, usually of those serving on a variety of visual effects teams, here they run just over a minute and most of the screens feature just a couple of names. This really showed the stark contrast in production back in the ‘70s, relying entirely on practical effects, and how much Spielberg was able to accomplish with just a relative handful of help compared to modern blockbusters.

 

For its 45th Anniversary release, Universal Studios has given Jaws a full 4K HDR restoration, and this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer retains the look of its photochemical origins, with grain visible in the pale blue and low-lit evening or sunsetting skies, but it is as if layers of age have been wiped away in the restoration to produce images that are just clean and new-looking.

 

This isn’t a movie with lots of sharp, detailed edges—though it appears to look sharper and more detailed later in the film aboard the Orca—or one that has micro-details leaping off the screen, but rather a transfer that retains the best of both its film and digital look to present something that looks both new and correct for its period.

 

Closeups occasionally reveal plenty of detail, with one shot of the Mayor’s anchor-festooned suit revealing fine, sharp blue single-line pinstriping detail that i is horizontal on the lapel and diagonal on the breast and arms; and foreground objects have nice defined edges. But this transfer is more about the overall pristine look than moments of single-strands-of-hair pixel resolution. Some shots look a bit soft and defocused, but this appears to be more an issue with the original focal point during filming than a lack of resolution in the transfer.

 

They took a pretty delicate touch with the HDR grading here, with occasional bright highlights such as the opening flames of the beach fires, or bright lights aboard ships, but the added dynamic range lends itself to more natural and realistic-looking images as light levels get low, and we retain deep blacks but still plenty of shadow details. There are several underwater scenes with a variety of lighting, or with bright lights probing through smoke and mist on top of the water that could cause banding issues, but images remain clean and distortion-free.

 

When I heard Jaws had been given a Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio makeover I was . . . curious. I mean, what could an immersive sound mix do with a 45-year-old mono master short of possibly being used to gimmicky effect that spoiled a classic? Well, much like the video, the new audio track takes the best of the Jaws soundtrack and uses modern technology to expand and improve it. This is most noticeable in John Williams’ fantastic score, which is now lifted above the front channels and mixed into an enveloping canopy overhead, filling the room and surrounding you in the iconic music.

Beyond that, they have used audio cues to subtly enhance other moments throughout the film. There are bird chirps, ocean waves crashing or lapping against things, wind sounds, or creaks and groans of the boat rolling in the water that all pull you into the scenes. On the beach, we get a nice mix of radios playing, and a helicopter flyover as it patrols the waters for sharks.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and understandable throughout—especially with Williams’ score given room up in the height speakers—except for a few moments where many people are talking/shouting at once in some of the crowded exterior scenes. Also, don’t expect much from your subwoofer, though it does get a little room to show off during the finale.

 

The best word I can use to describe this 45th Anniversary release is “restraint.” They used technology where available to improve the experience while being careful not to do anything that would be detrimental to the Jaws so many of us remember.

 

While the Kaleidescape download doesn’t include any of the fairly extensive extras that accompany the 4K Blu-ray disc—which include two near feature-length documentaries, The Making of Jaws and The Shark is Still Working: The Impact &

Jaws

Legacy of Jaws—these are the same extras included with the 2012 Blu-ray release, so if you have that, you aren’t missing out on anything new. On the plus side, the 4K HDR version is available from Kaleidescape for an incredibly reasonable $15.99—or just $11.99 if you are upgrading from the Blu-ray version—which helps offset this, and makes it an absolute must buy.

 

Jaws is one of my favorite films and this newly restored version illustrates why it remains a classic that belongs in every collection.

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.

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

One of the biggest concerns I’ve had about about the home video marketplace in the years since we started to transition from discs to online distribution is the decline in well-made behind-the-scenes supplemental material. We’ve seen some exceptions, like Beyond Stranger Things on Netflix, but bonus goodies of this sort almost seem like a vestige and little more, and they’re far too rare even at that.

 

I’m not sure if Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian is a full-blown reversal of this trend, but it’s certainly a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of content available on Disney+.

 

You know what? Strike that. To call this series a return to the glory days of behind-the-scenes documentaries that flourished during the DVD era would be to sell it short. Unlike far too many of those bonus features, this eight-episode exploration of the 

making of the first live-action Star Wars TV series doesn’t have a promotional or congratulatory bone in its body. Nor does it lean on all of the tropes that practically defined the making-of doc in decades past.

 

Few and far between are the stereotypical shots of creatives or performers answering questions in front of a green screen. In fact, one almost gets the sense that director Brad Baruh has never seen a behind-the-scenes documentary and is making up his own formula as he goes along.

 

That’s actually not the case. Baruh has been involved in the making of a few Marvel Cinematic Universe docs and even had a hand in a couple of the best “one shot” short films set in the MCU. But with Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, he breaks the mold, structuring the series around a series of roundtable discussions, each focusing on a different aspect of the series or its legacy, rather than following the making of the series in chronological order.

 

The first episode takes a deep dive into the directors who worked on the show, and subsequent episodes explore its place in the Star Wars universe from a storytelling perspective as well as a pop-culture phenomenon perspective, along with the actual grunt work of production and post production.

 

But what really makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian 

such a joy is that it’s wildly unpredictable. Rambling discussions that would have been left on the cutting-room floor in the hands of a more seasoned pro instead become the centerpiece of an episode. Actors, directors, producers, and effects artists are allowed to take the conversations in directions that interest them, rather than simply pandering to the voyeuristic tendencies of the viewer.

 

(Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the trailer for this series, which seems intent upon cherry-picking the few shots and discussions in which it does gravitate toward tried-and-true territory, but oh well. Marketing people are gonna market. Don’t let that turn you off.)

The series even treats some of the controversies behind the making of The Mandalorian with unapologetic honesty—like the fact that star Pedro Pascal wasn’t really behind the mask of the titular Mandalorian all that much, and was instead played primarily by stuntmen Brendan Wayne and Lateef Crowder depending on the needs of the scene.

 

The best episodes of the series so far are those that focus on the technical wizardry that made The Mandalorian possible, like the advances in virtual set technology and the reliance on video-game engines for real-time rendering of backdrops that responded to camera movement. But at its heart, what makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian such a pleasure to watch is 

that every story it tells is ultimately a human story. While watching the series, my mind has been blown on several occasions to discover that things I thought were special effects actually weren’t, and things I never would have suspected to be special effects actually were. But instead of treating these technological wonders as the subject of interest in and of 

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

themselves, Baruh treats them as the efforts of creative humans solving problems in a way that no one ever solved them before.

 

And in a way, that’s a bit of a metaphor for Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian as a behind-the-scenes documentary. You’ve certainly seen bonus features that aim for the same end goals. But you’ve rarely seen ones that approach those goals in quite this way.

 

As I write this, three episodes have yet to air, and the last will hit Disney+ on June 19. Whether you dig in now or wait to binge the complete run of eight episodes is your choice, of course, but don’t sleep on this one. Even if you’ve never been a fan of supplemental material, this series is so original in its approach to deconstructing the creative process that you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

 

And if nothing else, its title—not The Making of the Mandalorian, or Behind the Mask, or anything of the sort, but rather Disney Gallery—gives me hope that this isn’t a one-off, that indeed Disney+ will be home to future series of this nature, which maintain the spirit of old DVD making-of supplements by documentarians like Charles de Lauzirika, Van Ling, David Prior, and Laurent Bouzereau, but in a fresh new way that embraces the streaming era of home cinema.

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.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (aka Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), makes me long for a time machine. Not necessarily so I could dial back the last 18 years and view the film again for the first time (although that would be a treat), but rather so I could capture my impressions after having just seen the film with fresh eyes.

 

I say this only because I come to Spirited Away with so much baggage that I find it difficult to discuss the film in and of itself. After nearly two decades of reading doctoral theses about linguistic symbolism, of devouring literary and film analyses, of falling down rabbit holes of spiritual, religious, and philosophical themes and the interconnections between those themes—

after all of that, it isn’t easy to simply sit back and consume the film as a self-contained work of art.

 

So I did the next-best thing. I sat beside my wife this weekend as she experienced this weird and captivating journey for the first time, unburdened by even cursory familiarity with its plot, much less its deeper meanings. Glancing out of the corner of my eye to see her giggle and applaud, weep and gasp, I was reminded of that first viewing. And I was also reminded that you don’t really need to know a damned thing about Spirited Away to appreciate it as one of the best animated films ever made.

 

But, then again, of course you don’t. After all, if it weren’t such a wonderful (and wonderfully made) adventure on the surface, would film scholars and critics and folklorists and pop-culture pontificators and linguists and PhD candidates still be struggling to deconstruct it in 2020?

SPIRITED AWAY AT A GLANCE

The anime classic is well served by the Kaleidescape download, which bests the Blu-ray release and provides both the original Japanese soundtrack and an excellent English dub.

 

PICTURE     

The 1080p presentation captures all of the details of the original animation.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix extends the world of the film out into the room, giving both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

So, forget all of the symbolism. Forget the film’s deep ties to Shintoism and Japanese cultural norms (some admirable, some deplorable). What makes Spirited Away work as a two-hour adventure that has the power to capture the heart even if you know no more about the concept of kamikakushi than you do about differential calculus?

 

The animation certainly helps. Not only is this Miyazaki’s most visually stunning work, it also represents perhaps the most artful (and subtle) marriage of hand-drawn 2D and computer-rendered 3D animation ever committed to the screen. The worlds of our ten-year-old hero Chihiro (both the material world and the spirit world) seem more real and more tangible than most cinematic settings captured in live action.

 

It isn’t merely the animation that creates this perception, though. What makes Miyazaki a master filmmaker (medium be damned) is that he understands how to lead the viewer through a story—and through the world in which it takes place—in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a passive viewing experience.

 

Perhaps the best example of this is the film’s denouement, in which Chihiro must travel to confront the twin sister of the sorceress who stole her name and employed her in a bathhouse for gods and spirits. (It sounds like gibberish, I know, but it all makes sense in the context of the story.)

 

In most films—especially fantasy films—Chihiro’s journey would have been written as an epic quest, fraught with danger and excitement. In Miyazaki’s hands, though, this journey is a quiet and contemplative train ride. This shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, on two levels: It gives both little Chihiro and the viewer alike a chance to reflect, to contemplate, to catch our breaths together.

It’s a technique Miyazaki employs in most of his films, and one he describes using the Japanese word ma, which roughly translates into “pause” or “gap,” but which is probably best described as kinetic negative space. But no film—from the oeuvre or Miyazaki or any other filmmaker—makes such effective use of this technique as does this scene. And I think the reason it works so well here is that this ma doesn’t simply work on a narrative level. It isn’t simply a quiet, contemplative break from the action. It also gives the viewer the opportunity to revel in Spirited Away on the level of pure audiovisual experience. It may be the first time most viewers fully appreciate how seamlessly the 2D and 3D animation blend in this film. It may also be the first time you have room to truly meditate on Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic score. (Unfortunately, the clip above cuts this passage of the score short. Fortunately, you can enjoy this movement in its entirety here.)

 

I could go on, but to say more would be to rob you of experiencing—and indeed interpreting—this beautiful film for yourself. Then again, there’s so much to appreciate here even if you have no interest in interpreting a thing. Spirited Away has been likened to stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with good reason. It is, on one level, simply an amazing coming-of-age tale framed through the lens of the fantastical, the mysterious, the inscrutable, and at times even the grotesque. But despite all of that—indeed, despite its deep roots in Japanese mythology and folklore—there’s something uniquely universal about Spirited Away.

 

It’s a film that rewards further exploration, sure. But again, all of that would be pointless if not for the fact that it’s a film worth watching over and over and over again purely on its own terms, with its patently obvious themes about greed and kindness and the nature of the self. Force me to construct a list of films that demand to be owned rather than merely rented (or

borrowed by way of a subscription service like HBO Max, soon to be the temporary home of this and all of Miyazaki’s other animated films in the U.S.) and Spirited Away would be on it.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s download of the film is a wonderful way to own it. We’re presented with both the original Japanese soundtrack and the surprisingly good English-language dub (overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The film defaults to Japanese with English subtitles, as it should. But if you’re watching with younger viewers (or simply refuse to read captions), just know that the English dub maintains the film’s delightful score, as well as its effective and atmospheric sound mix. Both versions use the surround channels and subwoofer alike to extend the worlds of the film out into the room, and to give both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

 

Kaleidescape does present the film without the bonus features found on both Disney’s 2015 Blu-ray release and the 2017 follow-up by GKIDS (after Disney relinquished distribution rights in the U.S.). But that’s honestly of little consequence. Those bonus goodies did little to enrich the film.

 

What’s more important is that the Kaleidescape presentation is superior to the 

Spirited Away

already excellent 2017 Blu-ray. You could, I suppose, complain that Spirited Away isn’t available in 4K, but this better-than-Blu-ray-quality 1080p presentation lacks for nothing in terms of capturing all the details of the original animation. There is, perhaps, a second or two here or there that might benefit from a wider color gamut, but without the ability to A/B this transfer against a hypothetical 4K re-scan of the film elements, I can’t say that for sure.

 

What I can say for sure is that this one belongs in your collection whether you’re a fan of Japanese animation or not. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself so enraptured by Miyazaki’s magical worlds and his talents as a filmmaker that you end up exploring the rest of his catalog almost immediately. If you’re looking for a little guidance, I would suggest next diving into My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which are also available on Kaleidescape, along with rest of Studio Ghibli’s long-form catalog.

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.