Dennis Burger Tag

Parasite

Parasite

Three thoughts occurred to me pretty much simultaneously as I sat and reflected upon Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as the closing credits scrolled by.

 

Thought the first: How on earth am I going to say anything meaningful about this film without spoiling the entire experience? I’ve never been one for rehashing plots, so it’s easy enough to shy away from giving away story beats or plot twists. What a

film means and how well it’s made are generally far more interesting to me than the what-had-happened of it all.

 

With Parasite, though, the themes are so nuanced and ever-evolving that to go down that road would be to rob you of half the experience of watching the film. Just as you think you’ve figured out what Parasite is really about, it 

becomes about something subtly different, in a way that seems shocking at first but utterly inevitable in retrospect.

 

Thought the second: What a fascinating counterpart to Todd Phillips’ Joker this film is. It isn’t, I think, a spoiler to say that on the surface Parasite is about wealth inequality and class struggles, territory Joker explored as well. But while Phillips uses this thematic kick-starter primarily as fuel for one of the most enthralling character studies of the past few years, Bong uses it as the bedrock of a tightly scripted narrative that doesn’t merely encourage rapt attention—it downright demands it.

 

While Joker lives or dies by Joaquin Phoenix’ improvisation, and indeed feels like it could have been cut together a hundred different ways resulting in a hundred different films, Parasite by contrast comes across as a meticulous orchestration that hinges upon every piece of punctuation in the screenplay. Shorten one lingering glance or snip one line of dialogue, and I 

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Joker

can’t help but feel as if it would be akin to playing Rush’s “YYZ” in 4/4 time.

 

Of course, comparisons between the two films can only go so far, as one is a drama based on a comic book and the other is a wholly original black comedy that morphs into farce before shifting gears into thriller territory before evolving into . . . well, something else altogether. And yet, I can’t help but see the two films as opposite sides of the same coin. Perhaps due to the proximity of their release? Maybe. But it feels like there’s a deeper connection going on here. Something both zeitgeisty and timeless.

In addition to surface thematic similarities, the films do share one other thing in common: Stunning cinematography and absolutely unimpeachable home video presentations. Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR release seems to be an absolutely faithful transfer of the 4K digital intermediate of the film, which was shot on Arri Alexa 65 cameras and captured at 6.5K resolution. The transfer doesn’t lean too heavily on intense highlights, but has a wonderfully high-contrast look that makes most use of its expanded dynamic range at the lower end of the value scale. Colors are simply sumptuous, but more than anything else, it’s cinematographer Hong Gyeong-pyo’s eye for framing and composition that makes Parasite such a visual feast.

 

Kaleidescape presents the film with your choice of 5.1 or stereo sound, both in Korean despite being labeled as English. There are no caption options, as subtitles are baked into the transfer and positioned within the 2.39:1 frame.

 

There will be some controversy, I’m sure, over the fact that Universal decided to release the film here in the U.S. without its original Atmos soundtrack. This is true of both its digital release now as well as its disc release (Blu-ray only, no UHD) later in

the month. Interestingly, other local distributors (The Jokers Films in France, for example) are delivering Parasite with its object-based audio intact, and I’ll admit even I’m intrigued to hear what that sounds like, because the surround mix is as bold and cheeky as the film itself. Aggressive pans from the surround soundstage into the front channels are employed frequently, though not gratuitously, to redirect the viewer’s attention and extend the fabricated reality of the film out into the room.

 

If I had to speculate about why we’re not getting Atmos in the U.S. (and let’s be clear here, this is nothing more than speculation), I would guess that the 5.1 option we’ve received is a new nearfield mix intended for the relatively more intimate confines of home theaters or media rooms. Whatever the reality, it’s hard to complain about such a brilliantly crafted audio experience, and it does up-mix quite nicely into Atmos, if that’s your preference.

 

Thought the third: If Parasite wins a condescending Best International Feature Film Oscar and gets snubbed for Best Picture, I’m going to pitch a hissy. (And I say this as someone who normally puts as much stock in the Academy Awards as I do the serving-size suggestions on a box of Cheez-Its.) This isn’t the sort of token foreign film Hollywood trots out every year and then dislocates its collective 

Parasite

shoulders in an effort to pat its own back for patronizingly celebrating a film with subtitles. It’s a universally applicable work of art whose themes resonate across cultural boundaries.

 

It’s also one of those rare films that manages to be both poignant and approachable. It asks tough questions without offering pandering answers and it somehow manages to not be even slightly opaque in the process. Quite frankly, if it doesn’t win Best Picture, I can only assume it’s because the Academy jealously recognizes that few modern American directors would have had the courage to make this film, at least not in quite this way.

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.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

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

 

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

 

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

 

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as soulmates at an impasse. It’s ostensibly the story of their divorce, territory Baumbach already explored from one perspective in The Squid and the Whale. But to call it a film about divorce (which The Squid and the Whale most certainly was) would be to miss the point of Marriage Story. Instead, it’s a story about the individual sense of identity that’s often lost in any marriage, but also the intimacy that’s gained in return. That back and forth, give and take, yin and yang ultimately influences all of the film’s themes.

 

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

 

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

Marriage Story

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

If you haven’t already seen Season One of The Mandalorian on Disney+, it stands to reason that you’re simply not interested. You may even be sick of hearing about it altogether, given that it’s the only thing in 2019 that managed to out-meme that crazy woman from Real Housewives yelling at a cat eating salad.

 

Here’s the thing, though: While much of the discussion about The Mandalorian has centered on its adorable baby-alien McGuffin or the show’s ties to the larger Star Wars universe, or even on its everything-old-is-new-again weekly release 

schedule, there hasn’t been an awful lot of talk about whether it is actually good. Not as a Star Wars TV series. Not as a lore drop about one of the franchise’s most beloved and mysterious factions. Not even as a small plank in the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, chronologically speaking. But as, you know, just a TV show. A thing that exists in and of itself, independent of the fanatical fanbase or larger mythology.

 

The last time I wrote about the series, five episodes into its eight-episode run, I withheld judgment on that matter. Now that we’re a few days past the first-season finale, and I’ve had a chance to watch the season again from front to back, 

I wanted to step back and take off my Star Wars scholar hat and discuss the show on its own terms (not an easy task, since I once defeated the president of the Star Wars Fan Club in a trivia contest and still have the prize to prove it).

 

The Mandalorian is the love child of Jon Favreau, a name you definitely know, and Dave Filoni, who may be unfamiliar if you’re not a big Star Wars fan. In short, Filoni was half of the creative driving force behind The Clone Wars, one of the best TV series of the past 20 years, but also one of the most criminally underrated, likely because it was animated.

 

That aside, though, there’s one massive difference between The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian: The former assumed you were deeply invested in Star Wars lore and wanted to know more; the latter seems more interested in deconstructing the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a cultural phenomenon and reassembling them into something new. Something that both pays homage and reinvents.

 

You don’t have to know much about George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy to know that this means going back to the wells of both Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the former of which influenced the latter and both of which inspired Star Wars in very different ways. Since The Mandalorian isn’t about a larger civilization-spanning conflict, Favreau and Filoni leave other influences—like The Dam Busters and Tora! Tora! Tora!—on the table and bring in some new inspiration, namely Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic Japanese comic-book serial Lone Wolf and Cub and the film adaptations it spawned.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The beauty of Favreau and Filoni’s new pastiche is that you really don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Nor do you have to know that the show’s producers have eschewed CGI as much as possible by going back and developing new techniques for photographing and compositing spacecraft models that are very much inspired by the techniques of ILM circa 1976 to 1983. Without knowing any of that, you can just feel it. There’s this wonderful mix of the familiar and the foreign that drives this series.

 

And that’s true of everything, down to Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which may be my favorite thing about The Mandalorian. Instead of aping John Williams’ iconic themes, as so many other composers have done when playing around in ancillary Star Wars projects, Göransson gives us something new that isn’t really new at all. Squint at it from one direction and

there’s an undeniable Eastern influence to the tones, the textures, the overall structure of the music. Step back and look at it from another angle, and it could just as easily have accompanied any of the misadventures of the Man with No Name.

 

As with Williams, Göransson also sprinkles in the flavor of Holst and the spice of Stravinsky 

from time to time, but—at the risk of sounding repetitive—it’s the way he combines these influences, along with his own unique aesthetic, that results in something new and compelling that still feels familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

 

I hinted above that The Mandalorian doesn’t attempt to bite off more than it can chew, namely in the way that it doesn’t attempt to mash up every classic work of cinema or serial that inspired the original Star Wars, and that’s as true thematically as it is narratively and stylistically. There really isn’t much here by way of spiritual rumination. The mystical is treated as a mystery, and doesn’t play heavily into the meaning of the series.

 

Then again, it can take a while to really figure out what fundamental ideas the show is attempting to play around with, in large part due to its very episodic structure. In crafting this season, Favreau and Filoni seem intent upon letting the writers and directors of each 33- to 49-minute episode create their own little narratives, reminiscent in ways of David Carradine’s Kung Fu from the mid-1970s. And it isn’t until the very end that one episode really connects to the next and a larger story arc begins to congeal.

 

Taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to see a very simple thematic through-line woven into this collection of eight largely disconnected episodes: A tale of principles, of honor, of cultural (or familial) baggage, and of redemption—all themes that resonate within the larger Star Wars mythology, but that work just fine on their own.

 

Technically speaking, The Mandalorian is beautifully shot and honestly looks even more cinematic than its $15-million-per-episode budget would lead you to suspect. There has been some controversy over the fact that the show doesn’t make use of the expanded dynamic range or larger color gamut afforded by its Dolby Vision (or HDR10, depending on your device) presentation. Gleaming specular highlights are nowhere to be found, and the lower end of the value scale can be a bit flat. I’m guessing this was largely an aesthetic choice, as it does give the show a somewhat “classic” look, especially in comparison to other contemporary series that do make more obvious use of HDR.

 

I hesitate to accuse Disney+ of being dishonest in presenting The Mandalorian’s non-HDR cinematography in an HDR container, though, and that mostly boils down to a little-discussed advantage of our new home video standards in the era of higher-efficiency, lower-bitrate streaming: The minimization of video artifacts.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

On a lark, I disabled the HDR capabilities of my Roku Ultra and spot-checked an early episode, just to see what differences might pop up. In terms of color purity, shadow detail, overall brightness and so forth, any differences were hard to spot. But without the benefit of 10- (or 12-) bit color, large expanses of clear, pale sky were occasionally rendered like sun-bleached sticks of Fruit Stripe gum, with blatant banding stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Say what you will about the series’ overall flat color palette and lack of value extremes, but simply packing it in a Dolby Vision box does keep visual distractions of that sort to a bare minimum.

 

As for the audio, you’ll definitely want to enjoy The Mandalorian on the best sound system you can. One evening, whilst hanging out at a friend’s house, someone floated the idea of watching the most recent episode, which I agreed to despite having just watched it the evening prior. To be frank, I found it a lackluster experience mostly due to my buddy’s inexpensive soundbar. And it wasn’t really the explosions or gunfire that left me wanting more (although the sound mix does them justice); it was the presentation of Göransson’s score. There’s a dynamic drive to his musical accompaniment, as well as a rich blend of timbres and textures, that simply demands to be heard by way of a well-calibrated, well-installed, full-range surround sound system.

 

But should you give it a chance to shine in your home theater or media room even if you care little for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away? I daresay yes. At its heart, The Mandalorian is a delightful bushidō/gunslinger mashup that nods at fans quite frequently, but also quite slyly, such that you’re likely to be completely unaware of any allusions or references you’ll almost certainly miss if you’re not a franchise devotee, at least once you get past the first ten minutes of the first episode (the only place where blatant fan service really rears its ugly head).

 

Taken as a whole, it definitely does stand on its own, despite its tenuous connections to the larger mythology, despite its heavy nods to works of classic cinema and television, and (perhaps most importantly) despite the fact that everyone else on your Facebook newsfeed won’t stop memeing the hell out of the series’ most heartfelt moments or most quotable dialogue.

 

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.

2019: Beyond Discs & Cinemas

Beyond Discs & Cinemas

2019 was the year in which nothing new happened in the audio/video marketplace, and yet everything changed in the world of home entertainment. We saw no meaningful new AV standards or formats, unless you count the fact that a handful of 8K TVs and projectors hit the market. And we don’t. Not yet. We also saw Dolby expand the capabilities of Atmos in the home, 

upping the number of speakers that could be supported in media rooms or home theater. But that’s more evolution than revolution.

 

So, what changed? In a sense, you could say market forces that have been simmering for a while finally boiled over, and we all had to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, commercial cinemas are no longer the gold standard by which we judge our movie-watching experiences. 

 

Why Go Out to the Movies?

Granted, blockbuster franchise films still dominate the box office, with billion-dollar worldwide hauls almost being taken for granted. The thing is, though, that’s really the only thing drawing us to the local cineplex en masse anymore. Scour the Top 20 list of highest-grossing films for the year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t a superhero flick, Star Wars film, Disney movie, or sequel/ remake/reboot of some sort.

 

That doesn’t mean these are the only sorts of films we’re watching anymore. Far from it. It’s simply that these big event films are the only ones that really offer anything we can’t experience (arguably better) at home. They’re meant to be seen in crowds. They’re designed to trigger our popcorn-binging reflex. They are, in short, events.

 

With but a handful of exceptions, anything smaller, more meaningful, or contemplative in the world of cinema is far more likely to find its audiences on sofas or home theater recliners. And the underlying reasons for this are numerous (and a long time coming), but I would argue that the reason this trend hit a tipping point in 2019 is that 4K finally became mainstream. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s difficult to buy a new TV now at any price point that doesn’t offer a better image than you’ll find at your local cineplex, and that has a lot more to do with HDR than anything else. Granted, the device on which you do your streaming makes a big difference in terms of the quality of presentation, but who could have imagined just four or five years ago that we would soon be able to stream truly reference-quality imagery and sound into our home cinemas by way of a $99 box and a $15-a-month subscription service? 

 

The display is only half the equation, though. All of those people coming home with new UHD/HDR TVs are also discovering that there’s simply a ton of amazing-looking content no more than a click and a stream away. Sure, you could argue that Netflix has become the equivalent of the $5 DVD bin at Walmart, but the service is also the only place you can watch Martin Scorsese’s new film, not to mention David Attenborough’s latest planet-spanning documentary series

 

Ding Dong, The Disc Is Dead

The rise of new streaming services like Disney+ late this year further nail the coffin closed on commercial cinemas as the pinnacle of popular entertainment. But there’s another mainstay of the movie world that is taking an even worse beating as a result of the rise of streaming. This was the first year since 1993 that I didn’t buy a single movie on a disc of any sort. Discs have defined my entertainment experience since I plunked down $250 for thirteen pounds’ worth of LaserDiscs dubbed The Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Edition late that year. When I purchased my current home in 1998, one of its most appealing features was a closet off the main den that would perfectly store and conceal my burgeoning DVD collection. 

 

I’ve probably got one final disc purchase left in me—next year’s 27-disc, nine-film Skywalker Saga collection, which also, poetically enough, carries a $250 price tag and will finally bring my physical home video collection full circle, just as I begin to winnow it down. 

 

Make no mistake, though: I’ll continue to buy films for home consumption. They’ll simply be on Vudu and Kaleidescape going forward. I’m not alone in that, either. Disc sales have been on the decline since 2008 and show no sign of rebounding. We’ll almost certainly never have another disc-based home video format after UHD Blu-ray. And indeed, movie studios are already losing interest in that one (as evidenced by the fact that more and more films are receiving 4K home video releases purely in the digital domain, either streamed or downloaded). 

 

This was also the year in which completely non-traditional forms of media hit the mainstream in a big way, which has to be factored into the decline of cinemas and discs alike. A little show called Critical Role, which started a few years ago as a live-streamed home Dungeons & Dragons game, exploded into the public consciousness thanks to the most successful video Kickstarter crowdfunding project of all time  early in 2019. The eight best friends who started the show have also created a full-fledged “television network” around it, distributed mostly through Twitch and YouTube, which features shows ranging from art tutorials to video game live-playthrough/puppet show mashups to a weekly late-night talk show about painting miniature figurines hosted by that kid from Boy Meets World.

 

And I don’t mean to claim here that rolling dice and roleplaying as elves and half-

orcs is the future of home entertainment or anything, but it’s certainly part of it. The success of Critical Role not just as a show but as a network points to a pent-up desire for something different. Something genuine. And given that virtually anyone these 

some content from the Critical Role “network”

days can get their hands on near-commercial-quality video gear and upload their antics to the internet, it stands to reason that the real innovation in terms of what we view on our TVs and projectors will, in the coming years, increasingly come from the occasional lark of this sort.

 

Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and other tech companies are sinking hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into creating new films and TV shows that wouldn’t have looked out of place on cinema screens a few years ago, proving that there’s also still plenty of appetite for mid- to big-budget traditional media in all of the usual genres. It’s simply that the way we view that media has forever changed, and when the entertainment history books are written, I think 2019 will be undeniably viewed as the turning point.

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.

Joker

Joker

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Joker

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Joker

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Crown (Season 3)

The Crown (Season 3)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Crown (Season 3)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Disney+ and the Return of the Water Cooler

Disney + & the Return of the Water Cooler

As Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run earlier this year, the web was flooded with stories about its cultural significance, with many outlets predicting that it would be the last “water cooler” TV series. In other words, as our viewing habits shift more and more toward streaming, many said, we would be missing out on those big shared cultural experiences that have dominated popular entertainment for decades.

 

Popular though it may be, it’s hard to really discuss Stranger Things on an episode-by-episode basis when entire seasons are dumped into our laps at once, with some of us binging in one day, some moseying toward the end in a more relaxed weekend, and others sipping each new season an episode at a time over the course of weeks or months, long past the point 

where any meaningful discussion has fizzled.

 

We’ve become so accustomed to this binge-watching delivery of new series that when Disney announced a more traditional, weekly release schedule for its serialized Disney+ exclusives, the internet was sorta shocked. Some instantly leapt to the most cynical assumption possible—that Disney+ didn’t want subscribers signing up for a month, burning through what they wanted to watch, then canceling. The truth turns out to be a little less sinister: Entire seasons of its launch shows simply aren’t finished and ready to be binged just yet.

 

But never mind the reasoning behind this decision to forgo the binge model. What I’m more interested in are the effects. The day Disney+ launched back in November, all anyone in my friend circle could talk about was The Mandalorian, the new weekly Star Wars series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. That was to be expected. It’s the new and shiny Star Wars thing, and most of my friends were champing at the bit to watch it.

 

Then the next Friday rolled around, and my chat groups 

and Facebook newsfeed were once again dominated by discussions of The Mandalorian. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. And throughout all of these discussions, there has persisted a fundamental assumption that everyone has seen the most recent episode—that we’re all on the same page—to a degree I can’t remember since the advent of the DVR.

 

Last Friday, my wife and I had friends in from out of town, which meant we would had to put off watching Episode Five of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” until later in the weekend. What hadn’t really occurred to me is that this also meant I would need to mute all of my chat channels, opt out of Facebook, and eschew Reddit completely (even subreddits totally unrelated 

to Star Wars or Disney+) until I was caught up. Not so much out of fear of being spoiled, but more because I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was talking (or memeing) about.

 

And it’s not merely The Mandalorian that’s creating this sort of phenomenon. While my main friend circle consists mostly of Star Wars geeks, I have 

Disney+ & the Return of the Water Cooler

The Imagineering Story

another, sizeable friend group that would be better described as Disney nerds. And their current idea of appointment TV is The Imagineering Story, a documentary series whose sixth and final episode airs (umm . . . streams) this weekend.

 

For my Marvel-loving friends, I can say with near certainty that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, What If . . ?, and other ongoing series in the months and years to come will similarly dominate the pop culture conversation in similarly sustained ways.

 

Of course, all of this creates something of a problem for those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of examining an entire 6- or 10- or 12-episode run of a TV show and evaluating its merits as a complete work. That’s why you haven’t seen me reviewing The Mandalorian here on Cineluxe, because much as I’ve loved it so far, I honestly can’t tell you yet if it’ll hold up to scrutiny once this season has wrapped.

 

Does that really matter, though? The show could completely flub the landing in its season finale (which debuts just after Christmas) and it would still have merit in the way it’s brought me and my friends closer together, giving us something to discuss on an ongoing basis that isn’t politics or doctor’s appointments.

 

And to be completely fair, I should point out that, in the larger discussion about the end of Game of Thrones and the water-cooler discussion that ended along with it, not every pundit saw it as the end of an era. In a piece with the unwieldy title Game of Thrones doesn’t mark the end of appointment TV—Hollywood always gives viewers what they want,” Alex Sherman predicted the Disney+ release model way before Disney announced it. “Netflix has upended TV watching by giving consumers what they want—lower prices, no commercials, entire season releases,” he said. “But as long as consumers want shared viewing experiences (and they do), streaming platforms will come around and begin to offer them.”

 

I doubt Sherman would have guessed that his prediction would come to pass so quickly, or in quite this form, but with subscriptions predicted to hit 20 million (on par with the 19.6 million people who viewed the finale of Game of Thrones legally) and a reported 43 percent of Americans expressing some level of interest in signing up at some point, it’s pretty safe to say that Disney+ has brought the water cooler back again. 

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Disneys new subscription-based streaming service Disney+ has given everyone plenty to talk about, from its fantastic original programming, to its war on binge-watching, to the surprise revelation that almost all of the Star Wars films are available for the first time in 4K with Dolby Atmos (and they look way, way better than the Blu-ray releases). But one of the service’s most compelling features—its user interface—isn’t getting much discussion at all.

I can only assume that some form of Stockholm Syndrome is at play here: We’ve grown so accustomed to fumbling around with the terrible onscreen menus for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other such services that when someone comes along and does it right, we’re almost blind to it.

 

I’m hoping, though, that the designers for these other services are taking notice.

 

 

What Other Subscription Streaming Services Could Learn from Disney+

One of the most obvious ways Disney+ sets itself apart is by having distinct domains —mini user interfaces nested within the main UI—for different types of content. There are separate screens for Disney-branded content, Pixar content, Marvel shows and movies, Star Wars shows and movies, and a wealth of documentaries and TV shows from National Geographic.

 

Within these domains, you’ll find expected sub-categories, like Movies, Series, and Specials, as well as a nifty section called “Through the Decades” that lets you navigate a body of work (like Star Wars or Pixar movies) chronologically.

 

Back out to the main menu, and there are even more ways of finding content to watch, including the usual search terms, as well as curated collections. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is that Disney+ allows you to navigate a complete list of all available movies, A-Z.

Keeping in line with the praise I heaped on the Kaleidescape UI in Pt. 1, one thing I really dig about the Disney+ UI is its varied aesthetic. The Star Wars portal doesn’t look like the Pixar portal. And an overall search of all Disney+ content looks quite different from navigating a list of, say, all the Toy Story movies. These different visual modes encourage different modes of thinking, and complement the different ways you might arrive at figuring out what you want to watch for the evening.

 

Disney+ also doesn’t seem to rely too heavily on algorithms for feeding you new content. It makes its entire library pretty easy to search, and while there are the obligatory “Trending” and “Recommended for You” lists, these make up such a small part 

of the overall experience that you could be forgiven for overlooking them completely.

 

Contrast this with Netflix, inarguably the biggest direct competitor to Disney+, which relies so heavily on its flawed recommendation algorithms that finding a movie or TV show any other way can be a hair-pulling, fit-pitching

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ National Geographic portal

exercise in masochism. I covered this to a degree in my previous post about Disney+, where I suggested you try to find a comprehensive listing of all the Netflix-original Marvel TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders) without stumbling over all manner of unrelated garbage. It’s nearly impossible on Netflix, whereas Disney+ treats this level of ultra-specific sub-categorization as a given.

 

To be fair, Netflix has a wealth of amazing content that’s right up my alley and that Disney+ would never offer in a million years. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a high-definition presentation of one of my favorite 1970s Hong Kong

Interface Faceoff, Pr. 2

action flicks, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in its proper aspect ratio, complete with the original Mandarin soundtrack and subtitles. (Amazon, by contrast, only presents the film with an awful English dub.)

 

Here’s the thing, though: I never would have found this hidden treasure by searching Netflix alone, and the service never 

spoon-fed it to me even though I’m right in the movie’s target demographic. I happened upon it entirely by accident because I was using Roku’s excellent universal search function to try to find the film for sale anywhere in the digital domain. Disney+ paves so many varied roads to its vault of films and TV shows that I can’t imagine something similar happening on the newer service. 

 

One other, seemingly minor thing about Disney+ that I absolutely adore and don’t want to leave unsaid is that the app doesn’t hold you hostage the way practically all other streaming apps do. Exiting Netflix, for example, requires you to navigate to the left, scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, and select the tiny Exit button.

 

Netflix isn’t alone, though. Practically all of these services hit you with a massive guilt trip when you attempt to leave. “Are you absolutely sure? Are you really going? I’m just going to go ahead and select ‘No’ for you since I can’t imagine you have anything better to do.”

By contrast, the only thing required to exit Disney+ is a single press of the back button on your remote, which evokes an air of confidence. Disney+ knows it can’t be your only source of streaming content, doesn’t take offense when you leave, and seems pretty sure you’ll be back sooner than later.

 

Of course, that’s not to say

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ “Disney Through the Decades” section

there aren’t areas where Disney+ could improve. I would like to see another level of sub-interfaces beneath the existing ones, so you could, for example, click on the horizontal Movies listing under the Pixar UI and be taken to a tiled list of titles instead of having to scroll right forever. But in the three weeks Disney+ has been available, we’ve already seen some substantial improvements, like the addition of a “Continue Watching” category, so you don’t have to keep a mental tally of which series you’re consuming and how many episodes you’ve seen to date.

 

It stands to reason that the service will continue to improve in numerous ways. The important thing is that it’s starting off with a well-planned and intuitive foundation, whereas all the other subscription-based streaming services need to start their renovations with a complete demolition.

 

 

The Best of Both Worlds

When you get right down to it, the two UIs I’ve held up as paragons of their disparate domains don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. Disney+ and Kaleidescape serve very different purposes and work for very different content distribution and consumption models.

 

But both seem to be built on the same fundamental premise: That movie-watching isn’t simply something that happens between the opening and closing credits. It’s an experience that starts from the time someone says, “Hey, wanna watch a movie?” and someone else answers, “Sure, whatcha in the mood for?” It’s about browsing a library—one you own or one you subscribe to—and figuring out what strikes your fancy without getting lost in the weeds. It’s as much about getting to the movie as it is watching it. And the entire industry could learn a lot from how Kaleidescape and Disney+ help you navigate that entire process.

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.

 

To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content 

libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.

 

The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.

 

And then Disney+ happened.

 

Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.

 

So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.

 

Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.

 

Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.

 

On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and 

Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.

 

There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content 

for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.

 

In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.

 

 

What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.

 

All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.

 

And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management 

that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.

 

Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel 

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.

 

Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.

 

No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.

 

A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens

which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.

 

This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference

between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.

 

You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.

 

There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.

 

To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.

 

In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.

 

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.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.