Amazon Prime Tag

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.

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.

The Report

The Report (2019)

Sitting at home during the early stages of what may turn out to be a genuinely spectacular pandemic, I sometimes let my mind drift over recent history, with specific key aspects of select periods pointing to some deeper meaning.

 

Sure, it may be the wine talking, but there are truths that only become apparent when allowed to ruminate without the burden of an overly hectic social schedule. Facts like how 2019 was unlike any other year in that it indeed was the Year of Adam Driver.

 

Think about it: Last year, Driver starred in no fewer than four full-length North American releases: The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Report, the last of which came and went in a haze all too fast to garner nearly as much box office success as it deserves.

 

Released in November ’19 a month ahead of the super-hyped wrap to the original Star Wars saga, The Report places Driver in the role of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones who, in 2009, was enlisted by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to investigate the ’05 destruction of videotapes documenting allegedly abusive CIA interrogations of prisoners in the months following 9/11. 

 

When the report detailing the findings of the original two-year investigation is brushed aside, Feinstein directs Jones and his team of six to dig deeper, leading them to discover horrible truths that the CIA preferred to remain buried.

 

As a thriller, The Report relentlessly grabs viewers by the collar as we’re taken behind the scenes of the torture program that came to be known for the introduction of the term waterboarding into the American vernacular.

 

Like Three Days of the Condor and other classic thrillers of the ‘70s, The Report builds tension by allowing the story to unfold around a central character, in this case Jones, whose sincerity and near-disbelief at the attempts to thwart his investigation only inspire him to push harder, if not always with the greatest of prudence.

 

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is a big film with big-ticket stars that remarkably maintains the feel of a lean, independent production. Special effects are replaced by a keen eye on detail, as Jones and his team methodically research the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” videos of which went missing shortly before the original investigation kicked into gear. This isn’t some Watergate-style 18-minute gap in audio—hundreds of hours of tapes quickly went MIA thanks to the CIA, or so Jones and his team maintained as the followup investigation built momentum over five years. According to history, the small group dove into more than six million pages of documents, conducted interviews, and met with interference by the Agency and members of the Obama administration, among others. 

 

Unlike thrillers that expand the narrative into the leads’ personal lives, The Report is all about the business at hand. We’re left to surmise that Jones’ home and love lives are anemic at best, as we see him work tirelessly with an added boost of adrenalin every time he or a member of his staff discover a new and potentially beneficial revelation.

 

Playing a man who is consumed by his mission, Driver portrays Jones as supremely buttoned-up, humorless, and wholly wonkish as he dives into a sea of paper in pursuit of the true story. Burns, making his directorial debut, lets the day-to-day details of the story build as the 6,700-page report takes shape. Aside from occasional violence depicted in flashback scenes to the CIA black sites where the abuses took place, The Report is all talk and tension in the best possible way.

 

It is a challenge to present relatively recent news.Yet, Burns and the cast pull it off with what felt like a never-ending race from the windowless box where the team did their research to meetings with administration officials, the CIA, and conversations with anonymous sources. Throughout, Driver maintains a focused, sort of angry composure that had me anticipating an explosion of emotion that never materializes. Instead, he is simply a professional with no intention of letting up, especially as it becomes clear that early suspicions about allegations of torture are in fact true.

 

As a screenwriter, Burns collaborated with co-producer Steven Soderbergh on several films, including Contagion, which unsurprisingly is getting cited in current news stories. He eschews oversized scenes for adherence to the story, acknowledging that the story itself is more powerful than any dramatic flourish can provide. Of course, this means the viewer must keep up with the dialogue, which is mixed clear and upfront, with sound effects and music playing their roles as distant seconds to the words.

 

This is Driver’s sweet spot. His dry yet impassioned delivery comes across as honest and sincere, whereas a lesser actor may have lapsed into a more over-the-top presentation throughout the film. As Sen. Feinstein, Annette Bening becomes the character—from her outward appearance to her mannerisms in public and private, she embodies the senator’s pleasant, no-nonsense manner without it becoming a caricature.

 

Upon its release, The Report came and went without making a dent at the box office, which is a shame, given that you will be hard-pressed to find an equally gripping film with a commitment to historical accuracy that makes it required viewing for fans of historical narratives. The combination of a tight script and first-rate cast makes The Report a home run for Burns, box office losses to the contrary.   

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

I’ll be honest with you: This was not an easy review to write. As a devotee of all things Terry Gilliam, I burned through multiple drafts that had me sounding like a drooling fanboy rather than a calm, introspective observer and commentator presenting a review of one of the most anticipated films of this or any century.

 

See? That’s what I’m talking about. I went into my initial screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with way too many expectations and background baggage to simply sit back and enjoy the film. Instead, it took no fewer than three viewings—and four drafts of this review—for me to appreciate and process Gilliam’s latest film without adding footnotes based on the long and harrowing story of a movie that materialized nearly 30 years after the director first went to work on a project that would become a textbook example of industry limbo.

 

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gilliam’s vision of the classic story is updated and twisted around without losing the plot . . . most of the time. In 1998, Gilliam secured the funding to make the film as he saw fit, with Johnny Depp starring as marketing executive (later film director) Toby Grummett and Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Though production commenced full swing in 2000, the series of early challenges that are laid bare in the documentary Lost in La Mancha were matched only by an equally disastrous series of setbacks that continued through early 2017, when production on the final version was announced.

 

Along the way, Gilliam directed no fewer than four full-length features (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Zero Theorem) and two shorts (The Legend of Hallowdega and The Wholly Family). Not too shabby for an artist who still had his sights and heart set on bringing Quixote to completion.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that he begins the film with a title card that proudly states: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making . . . and unmaking . . . a Terry Gilliam film.”

 

And it is indeed a Terry Gilliam film, with all the spectacle that comes with such a description, not to mention the darkness, humor, and general sense of foreboding that are his trademarks, ever since he showed in Time Bandits how easily fairly tales

can take unexpected and troubling turns without the promise of a happy ending.

 

Featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce taking over for Depp and Rochefort— let alone assorted other come-and-goers including Robert Duvall and Michael Palin—the film was ultimately, sort of let loose in May 2018 despite financier-producer Paulo Branco’s best efforts to

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

prevent its release. That was also the month Amazon Studios backed out of a deal to distribute Quixote in the U.S.

 

Jumping to the present, Quixote made few appearances in U.S. theaters but is now resting comfortably on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video. Not exactly the big-screen experience the typical Gilliam film deserves, but unlike his earliest solo efforts, especially Brazil, Quixote translates well to smaller screens. There is visual payback when viewing it on a big screen, yet the story and images are compelling on any reasonably-sized display.

 

Despite the well-publicized departures of the film’s former stars, Driver and Pryce are custom-tailored to their respective roles. Pryce’s depiction of Javier, a Spanish cobbler enlisted to appear in Grummett’s student production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is nothing short of sublime. We watch Javier move from being a shy hermit to a hero, at least in his own mind, as he gets to portray Quixote.

 

While in Spain years later to direct a TV commercial, Grummett discovers a copy of his old student flick, and sets out to the village where it was filmed. And, surprise, that’s where he encounters Javier, who not only still believes he is the real Quixote but that Grummett is Sancho Panza. Out of a sense of guilt for the man’s current state of mind combined with equal parts boredom with his current project and a sense of adventure, Grummett joins Javier on a journey that takes the two of them through encounters with the authorities, and a confrontation with a local who believes Grummett is responsible for his daughter leaving home to become an actress, only to find herself years later working as an escort.

 

As in many of Gilliam’s signature films, fantastical plot lines and troubling twists are held together with a sense of empathy for lead characters who are at once imperfect and wholly agreeable, in that order. Driver appears to revel in playing an over-the-top narcissist whose conscience drives him along on an adventure that is antithetical to anything Grummett, now a successful, lascivious director, ever had on his bucket list. He yells, he laughs, he even belts out the Eddie Cantor classic, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie),” complete with a dance routine.

 

Similar to some of Gilliam’s other 21st-century productions, especially The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Quixote revels in engrossing characters as the plot occasionally derails and characters lose some of their charm over the course of the film. Yet the life-or-death battles in the third act will reward viewers who stick with the flick until the end.

 

Gilliam is known for creating large, lavish sets with extensive use of otherworldly special effects to build upon otherwise familiar settings. (Think of his Vegas-on-LSD sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Though set in the modern era, many of Quixote’s more harrowing scenes convey a sense of imminent danger, even though there are no outward signs of its arrival until well into the denouement.

 

Considering the director’s talents as a visual storyteller who first gained worldwide fame as Monty Python’s resident animator, the settings are presented as boldly and as colorfully as the terrain allows, with imagery that pops off the screen. The soundtrack is more subdued, with a subtle mix that serves the purpose without calling attention to itself. 

 

In retrospect, it makes sense that Quixote received high praise at the Cannes Film Festival only to drizzle into limited availability in the streaming world, with barely a beep’s worth of promotion by Amazon. However, I disagree with Gilliam’s reference to “unmaking” in the title card. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph by any standard, and a worthwhile investment of two hours for fans of adventure and comedy that will leave the viewer on edge. It’s what Terry Gilliam does best.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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.

Good Omens

Good Omens

Good vs Evil. Dark vs Light. Angels vs. Demons. These themes are the basis of almost every story ever written or told. But Good and Evil working together to prevent the apocalyptic end of the world because they’re comfortable in their day-to-day lives and have no desire to see them end? Such is Good Omens, a six-episode limited series co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios.

 

The series is based upon the novel of the same name written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman back in 1990. There were adaptation attempts in the past, most notably with Terry Gilliam in the early aughts. But it didn’t become a personal mission until Pratchett asked Gaiman to adapt it to a TV show shortly before his death.

 

It follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) from the Garden of Eden to modern England. They try to subtly thwart the End Times and coming of the Antichrist who, through a mixup at the hospital, ends up in a lovely, idyllic English countryside hamlet unbeknownst to the powers of Heaven and Hell. There’s a wonderful supporting cast, including Frances McDormand (God), Jon Hamm (Gabriel), and Michael McKean (Sergeant Shadwell of The Witchfinder Army). The writing is witty and whimsical with a dash of irreverence—quintessential Pratchett and Gaiman (if you’re familiar with their work).

Good Omens

The subject matter made it into the news because of a petition by the Christian group Return to Order claiming the show is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light, and acceptable.” The group is pressuring Netflix to cancel the series.—the limited-run series that has already completed airing and doesn’t have a second season planned. And that’s on Amazon, not Netflix. There has been some lovely and entertaining back and forth on Twitter with Gaiman, Netflix, and Amazon. The petition has since been changed to name Amazon as the offender. If you might be upset with God being voiced by a woman, or with the four riders of the apocalypse being portrayed as a group of bikers, better to steer clear.

 

Otherwise, Good Omens is delightfully quirky. It is quite obvious that the actors are enjoying the material, and the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant is wonderful. The series isn’t perfect—there are some pacing issues in the first few episodes and some of the subplots fall flat—but I was consistently chuckling and smiling throughout. And the soundtrack includes Queen hits. (Crowley is a fan and plays them in his beautiful two-tone 1933 Bentley.) Can’t go wrong with Queen.

 

Amazon’s presentation is excellent. It is available in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (although hard to find in a search, as with all Amazon selections currently). The colors look vibrant and the English countryside is especially welcoming—save for the Antichrist, of course. The sound is mixed well, with judicious use of the surround channels and consistently clear dialogue.

 

If you’re familiar with the work of Pratchett (the expansive Discworld series) and Gaiman (Sandman comic, Neverwhere, American Gods), Good Omens is a delightful jaunt towards Armageddon led by standout performances by Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Their scenes alone make the show worthwhile.

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.

Home Theaters are Better Than Movie Theaters

Home Theaters are Better than Movie Theaters

Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

As John Sciacca points out in his recent article, “Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?” home entertainment spent more than half a century playing a catchup game with commercial cinemas, at least in terms of technological innovation and quality of presentation. But Wabbit Season has now pretty much undeniably become Duck Season, and home entertainment reigns supreme. Yes, commercial cinemas are making some interesting technological innovations, as John points out. But most of these are limited to a handful of theaters in major metropolitan areas.

 

For most people, a well-built, well-calibrated, well-programmed home cinema system (be it in a dedicated screening room or multi-use home entertainment space), has the potential to vastly outshine the movie-watching experience at the average local cineplex. And while much of this has to do with incredible advancements in the quality of consumer electronics in the

past few years, that’s not the whole story. There’s also a story to be told here about comfort, convenience, and customization.

 

In short, here are 10 reasons why home theaters are now better than movies theaters.

 

 

1) BETTER PICTURE

These days, even a mid-level Ultra HD (or “4K”) display, when properly calibrated and positioned, can give 

you a better and more immersive image than you’re likely to find in your local movie theater. Sure, your neighborhood megaplex has bigger screens working to its advantage, but depending on how far away you sit, a 75- to 120-inch screen at home can fill up just as much of your field of view. And displays this large are pretty close to becoming the norm for better home entertainment spaces. What’s more, you’d have to look pretty far and wide to find a movie theater screen that delivers anything close to the black levels and high dynamic range delivered by a good modern home display.

 

 

2) BETTER SOUND

At least in theory. While commercial cinemas still have the advantage in terms of channel count, let’s face it—you really don’t need 128 speakers in your living room to deliver an audio experience that’s every bit as engrossing as that of a movie theater. What’s more, theater sound has to be balanced for potentially hundreds of viewers. At home, you can tune the sound for the handful of seats that matter most. And today’s advanced room correction systems can make even a somewhat compromised space sound positively cinematic.

 

 

3) BETTER QUALITY CONTROL

Have you ever been to a commercial cinema and complained about an image that was too dim or stretched, or a screen that was soda-stained, or speakers that were blown, only to be greeted with that deer-in-headlights look? The fact is that most movie theater managers don’t care about (or even understand) quality of presentation. At home, you can either

address problems when they arise or, at worst, call your local integrator for assistance.

 

 

4) THE AV EXPERIENCE CAN BE
TWEAKED TO YOUR TASTE

Whether you like your movie sound to be played at reference listening levels, or just a bit louder or quieter than industry standards would dictate, chances are slim that you’ll ever be happy with where the volume knob is set at your local movie theater. At home, you can adjust the loudness to your liking, and even tweak it based on your mood.

 

 

5) THE “WOW” FACTOR CAN BE EVEN BETTER

Back in the day, there was an undeniable theatrical element involved in going to the movies. And yes, most of that boiled down to that highly anticipated moment when the curtains opened or widened to accommodate a Cinemascope film, but still. They used to call it “going to see a show” for a reason. The movie itself was simply the centerpiece of a larger event.

 

These days? Not so much. But home theaters can make movie-watching special in a way that commercial cinemas have long since abandoned. If you have a home automation system, you can dim the lights and draw the shades and maybe even cause the screen to drop down from the ceiling at the press of a button. If you have a Kaleidescape movie server system, these automated events can even be tied to the opening and closing credits of the movie itself—or even intermission. And you can program an entire evening’s worth of entertainment—trailers, cartoons, movies, and more—that can be launched with a single click. Simply put, movie night at home can be special in a way that bopping down to the local movie theater long ago ceased to be.

 

 

6) YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN TIMETABLE

Speaking of intermission, how many times have you missed a few minutes of a movie due to a necessary potty break? That’s not a problem when you’re watching at home. Perhaps more importantly, unless you’re itching to watch

the latest Marvel movie, which is likely to be playing on half the screens at your local multiplex, you’ll likely find that your choice of viewing times is limited to 4:25 or 9:45. At home, you can start the movie when you want.

 

 

7) THE VARIETY OF ENTERTAINMENT IS SO MUCH BETTER

As I alluded to in that last point, even at a megaplex with 16 screens, half of them are likely to be playing the same movie, which greatly limits your viewing options. These days, the rise of streaming services creating their own award-winning movies means that your options are wide open for home viewing.

Want to check out something like Bird Box or Roma? Outside of a few film festivals and a limited theatrical release aimed only at Oscar contention, the only way you’d ever see these films is at home. You could easily argue that Netflix and Amazon are the most innovative and important film studios in existence today, and their works are only available in the home for most people.

8) TWO WORDS: GOURMET POPCORN

OK, it’s entirely possible that my wife and I are weirdos in this respect, but we’re total popcorn snobs. We have our own oil popper, and when it’s time to sit down for a movie we’re likely to spend five minutes simply deciding what kind of kernels to pop. On the rare occasions when we do go to the cinema, the grease-covered cardboard they sell by the bucket is an unappetizing letdown.

 

And hey, maybe gourmet popcorn isn’t your thing. Substitute your own snack of choice and you get the point. Movie theaters have done a decent job of offering more variety in their snacks in recent years, but let’s be honest here: They’re all kinda gross unless you live in a major metropolis. At home, you can snack better, snack cheaper, and snack healthier to boot.

9) YOU GET TO DEFINE “COMFORT”

My wife recently returned from a road trip, during which she went to the movies with a friend of ours who lives up north. She came home raving about the recliners in the cinema they visited, to which I replied, “Were they as comfortable as your seat on the sofa?” The answer, of course, was a resounding, “no.” Still, it’s humorous to me that the notion of comfortable seating in a movie theater is a novelty in and of itself. What’s more, these seats have to accommodate a broad range of opinions as to what constitutes “comfortable.”


Personally, I like a firm memory foam sofa that conforms to my posterior, but isn’t so cushy that I drift off during our annual 12-hour Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon. Maybe your tastes lean even firmer, or maybe you’d prefer to sink into the accoutering equivalent of a marshmallow. Either way, in your home theater or multi-use entertainment space, you get to pick the seats.

 

 

10) YOU GET TO PICK THE AUDIENCE

There may yet come a day when commercial cinemas once again reclaim their technological superiority over home cinema systems en masse, but even if they do, I can’t imagine going back to the movies on the regular. And that mostly boils down to the fact that the moviegoing masses are loud, obnoxious, obtrusive, self-centered jerks. When we went to see Captain Marvel a few weeks back, I nearly sprained my shushing muscles. And outside of chains like Alamo Drafthouse, most cinema operators generally couldn’t care less if kids are swinging from the rafters.


Anyone who comes to my house to watch a movie knows they’re there to watch a movie, not gab for two hours straight or check their phones every ten minutes. And you could argue that my rules for movie-watching at home are a little strict, but you know what? Friends and family who join me on my couch for a show always come to appreciate the specialness of the experience.

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.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

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 3)

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

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.