Dennis Burger Tag

Review: The Social Dilemma

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. Frustrating because it has a really important message to convey, but sometimes undermines that message with cutesy animation and heavy-handed musical accompaniment. Frustrating because it wants to be equal parts documentary and drama, but fails in the latter respect. Frustrating because I wanted to write it off entirely, but ended up being won over despite my better judgment. But most of all, frustrating because it relies on some of the same tactics it decries.

 

As you could probably ascertain from its title, The Social Dilemma is about the dual-edged sword of social media and the impact it’s having on society. What makes the documentary aspect of the film work as well as it does is the reliance on 

Silicon Valley experts like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, who helped create the very tools that they’re now warning us about.

 

Harris—co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” according to The Atlantic—dominates the film with a series of cogent explanations about how the algorithms that drive everything from Google searches to Facebook interactions work. On the upside, he’s given a lot more room to breathe here than in his famous TED Talk on the subject, allowing him to connect some dots I’ve never seen connected before, at least not in the way they’re connected here.

 

But for every illuminating observation from Harris, The Social Dilemma feels compelled to spoon-feed the viewer a disjointed dramatic narrative that feels like the mutant child of an ABC Afterschool Special and one of those awful Chick Tracts that used to litter the gutters of New Orleans.

SOCIAL DILEMMA AT A GLANCE

This often penetrating look at the ill effects of social media is effective when it sticks to interviews but goes astray with inappropriate music, animation, and dramatic vignettes.

 

PICTURE     

This image displayed none of the artifact problems you would have expected from a UHD image being streamed without HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 mix has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score but doesn’t overwhelm the all-important dialogue.

It’s in these dramatizations that The Social Dilemma commits its greatest sin: Assuming the stupidity of the viewer. The story here is about a family whose two youngest children are being harmed by social media—one child whose entire sense of self-worth is based on “Likes” in response to photos she posts, the other who ends up sliding down the slippery slope of fake news and becoming radicalized.

 

Handled well, I suppose it could have worked. But in attempting to explain how the algorithms that encourage engagement trap users in a dopamine-driven feedback loop, the filmmakers decided to anthropomorphize these algorithms and give

The Social Dilemma

them dialogue, à la a twisted techie version of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This takes what is genuinely a malignant phenomenon and turns it into a seemingly malicious one, which undermines a lot of the film’s messaging. It also directly contradicts the views of the experts, who do a much better job of explaining the nuances of these wholly impersonal 

algorithms and the way they manipulate users to generate revenue, engagement, and growth. But nuance doesn’t suffice these days, I suppose, so we end up with these wholly unnecessary abstract dramatizations that do little more than confuse the uninitiated and drag down the film.

 

By the time its closing credits rolled, though, The Social Dilemma won me back with a well-developed conclusion that cuts straight to the heart of the divisiveness, anxiety, depression, suicide, social upheaval, and general discord sowed by social media—as well as some of the upsides of this technology. I wish some of this balance had been sprinkled more evenly through the rest of the film, because we can’t have an honest conversation about the impact of social media without covering the good as well as the bad (although, full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this respect since Facebook was responsible for my reunion with my daughter).

 

If the entire 94-minute running time of The Social Dilemma had lived up to the quality of the last 10 minutes or so, it would be much easier to recommend. But I’m left with a dilemma of my own here, because I think the message of the film is so important that you should view it despite its flaws. Just go in armed with the knowledge that director Jeff Orlowski employs some of the same psychological sleight-of-hand the film warns us about.

 

As for the presentation of the film itself, Netflix delivers The Social Dilemma in Ultra HD without HDR10 or Dolby Vision high dynamic range. As soon as I noticed this, I deliberately kept an eye out for the sort of visual artifacts inherent in high-efficiency streaming without HDR: Banding, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail, etc. Surprisingly, I couldn’t see them, which makes me think Netflix may be employing a higher-than-usual bitrate for the film, but I’m just speculating. Whatever the explanation, it points to the fact that streaming services are constantly evolving in terms of quality of presentation. Even just a couple years ago, Netflix would have had to stick this SDR film in an HDR container to deliver a stream this artifact-free.

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score that could have easily gotten out of hand with the wrong sound mixer. Thankfully, it’s a mostly front-channel affair, and dialogue clarity

is topnotch. It should sound fine whether you’re watching on a full-fledged home cinema system or a simple soundbar.

 

In the end, as I said, I’m of two minds here: I want you to watch The Social Dilemma, but I also want you to know what you’re getting into here. It’s a significantly flawed film, but it’s also an important one. If the hypnotic animation 

and ham-fisted dramatizations are too much for you to stomach, though, I highly recommend watching Tristan Harris’ TED Talk instead. It doesn’t connect the dots nearly as effectively as does The Social Dilemma, and it isn’t nearly as well-produced, but it also isn’t burdened by all the saccharine fluff that mires this docu-drama.

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.

Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a prime candidate for a 4K/HDR remaster. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the film itself, of course. In fact, I would rank it as the second-best “goth” film of all time (right after Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, of course). It’s just never been a film that made for decent home theater demo material. The DVD release looked like a skit performed for public-access TV, and the Blu-ray—while a huge improvement—was still a blown-out, garish, overly saturated mess of a thing that could be categorized as “watchable” at best.

 

That kind of thing sticks with you. For the past 32 years, the home video presentation of Beetlejuice has left a lasting impression in the mind of viewers of how this quirky and adorably dark film is supposed to look. My only hope here is that 

enough people give the UHD/HDR release enough attention to undo some of the damage done by previous home video efforts.

 

To be frank, you don’t really notice the advantages of the new HDR color grade at first. And I suspect that’s because the opening credits sequence—with its sweeping overhead view of the village of Winter River, CT, which morphs into a model thereof—seems to have been taken from a print, not the original film negative. So while you immediately get a sense of the enhanced resolution of this new restoration, the color palette is still a little limited and the overall quality of the image is ever-so-slightly dupe-y.

 

As soon as the last title fades away, though, we quite obviously move to a scan of the original negative, and from here on out the image takes on all the qualities of beautifully restored (or perhaps lovingly preserved) 35mm film.

 

Maybe the most startling thing about this new presentation is how nuanced the colors are. Gone are the ridiculously 

BEETLEJUICE AT A GLANCE

This 4K transfer of Tim Burton’s surprisingly affirmative romp through goth darkness shows what a boon HDR can be for ’80s films—when it’s done right.

 

PICTURE     

This 4K HDR version avoids the garishness of, and restores a lot of the detail missing from, earlier home video incarnations.

 

SOUND     

The tastefully done Dolby Atmos mix results in audio that sounds better than the original soundtrack sounded on the mixing stage, enhancing the clarity of the dialogue and giving Danny Elfman’s score plenty of room to breathe.

ruddy skin tones and the Hulk-Smash green of the foliage (both outdoors and in the scale model of Winter River that dominates the plot of the film). Yes, as the lovely Geena Davis and a surprisingly sufferable Alec Baldwin make their trek into the idyllic little town toward the beginning of the film, the image is still peppered with vibrant primary hues—the sign on the hardware store, the covered bridge where Davis and Baldwin’s characters lose their lives—but because of the wider color gamut of HDR10, the saturation of the overall image doesn’t have to be cranked to 11 to allow for such vivid chromaticity when and where it’s appropriate.

 

The second thing you notice is that there’s just so much detail in the image that has been lost in previous home video transfers, and not wholly as a function of resolution. Take the short scene in which the pushy real-estate agent played by Annie McEnroe surprises Baldwin’s character at the window in a desperate push to talk him out of his home. Even on Blu-ray, the scenery behind her is a white-hot blur, devoid of depth or detail. And that makes sense, given the 8-bit limitations of HD video. The choice had to be made whether to overexpose the world outside that window or underexpose the interior and risk

losing Baldwin in the shadows.

 

In this new 10-bit transfer, both interior and exterior are perfectly exposed. Baldwin exists in the shadows, yes, but doesn’t get lost in them, while the depth and detail of the foliage behind McEnroe still shines through.

 

That’s one scene out of dozens I could point to in 

extolling the virtues of this new UHD/HDR restoration and its ability to breathe life into this tale of the dead. Other details that come to mind are the imperfections of Winona Ryder’s teenaged complexion and the fine filigree lace of Davis’s bridal gown, both of which are resolved beautifully. The film grain is also perfectly organic throughout—not too noisy, not too overbearing, but never artificially smoothed over.

 

But perhaps my favorite thing about this new transfer is the way it handles the scenes in the bureaucratic Neitherworld, which have always been the worst-looking aspect of the film’s home video releases. Here, the HDR gets to flex its muscles with no concern for lifelike skin tones or believable greenery. Simply put, these sequences now glow and iridize like a fluorescent

blacklight poster, which is how they’ve always looked in my memory of seeing the film far too many times to count on the big screen in the spring of ’88.

 

The sound on the other hand? I think it’s safe to say Beetlejuice didn’t sound as good on the mixing stage as it does here. Aside from a few cute and subtle exceptions, the new Dolby Atmos remix doesn’t get too carried away with repositioning sound elements or making the film sound like a modern blockbuster, mind you. And thank goodness it doesn’t include any re-recorded sound effects, as does the travesty of a remix included with the new 4K/HDR remaster of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The mix mostly serves to simply give more space to Danny Elfman’s delicious score and the wonderfully uplifting Harry Belafonte soundtrack. But it’s also apparent that there’s also been some equalization done to the audio. There’s an enhanced richness and fidelity I don’t recall ever hearing before, and dialogue clarity is among the best of any home video release. Like, ever.

 

There’s nothing much by way of extras here, aside from three episodes of the Beetlejuice Saturday-morning cartoon that ran from 1989 to 1991. These haven’t been restored and are horribly compressed, so they likely aren’t worth your time. The Kaleidescape download, unlike the recent UHD Blu-ray release, also includes an isolated music track—that is to say, a version of the film devoid of dialogue or 

Beetlejuice

sound effects. But it’s unfortunately married to the pan & scan standard-definition transfer of the film, so its value is debatable at best.

 

But don’t let the lack of supplemental goodies bum you out. Beetlejuice is one of the worthiest UHD/HDR remasters I’ve seen to date (almost on par with The Wizard of Oz), and the film itself is such a joyous (and ironic) celebration of life that it stands on its own.

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 Goonies

The Goonies

I wish I could say something—anything—meaningful about The Goonies without referencing the numerous works it has inspired over the past 35 years. Truth be told, though, this 1985 Richard Donner classic, penned by Chris Columbus from a story idea by Steven Spielberg, is more a cultural touchstone than it is a work of cinema in its own right. The ripples it has left on the surface of the pop culture pond have by this point overshadowed the pebble itself.

 

Stranger Things, for example—for all its references to the films of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter and Stephen King—could easily be seen as an episodic riff on The Goonies with a gaggle of other pop-culture references piled on for good measure. 

To this day, 35 years after its debut, you can feel the echoes of The Goonies in everything from Ready Player One to Deadpool 2. Heck, even the last Star Wars movie made a ham-fisted and nonsensical homage to this beloved ’80s romp. (Although, to be fair, of the many cinematic sins committed by Episode IX, insulting the intelligence of Goonies fans while also clumsily attempting to tug at their heartstrings is far from the most egregious.)

 

I guess the point is, The Goonies wouldn’t still hold such sway over filmmakers and viewers alike if it didn’t have something going for it. But I’m just too close to it to evaluate the film objectively. I notice its flaws—the clumsiness of the climax, the laughable special effects in places, the ridiculousness of its very premise—and I see them as charming virtues.

 

My wife, on the other hand, had never seen the film before I downloaded the UHD/HDR remaster on Kaleidescape. What can I say? She was a military brat who spent her formative years in Europe. She missed out on much of American popular culture between the release of The 

GOONIES AT A GLANCE

This might not be the best 4K HDR makeover of an ’80s film ever, but it’s worth the upgrade to have a great-looking and -sounding version of this hugely influential kid-adventure classic.

 

PICTURE     

The cinematography is a little too flat and soft to consistently take full advantage of UHD’s increased resolution and expanded color gamut, but there are some breathtaking shots in this transfer and HDR helps with things like lanterns & lightning.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a big step up from earlier releases, with enhanced atmospheric effects and a bit more bottom end to support the action.

Empire Strikes Back and Tim Burton’s Batman. And catching her up on all of the ’80s nostalgia-fuel she missed is always a hit-or-miss proposition. She thought E.T. was “OK.” She didn’t think The Thing was scary at all. I hesitate to sit her down in front of The Last Starfighter or Flight of the Navigator for fear of her inevitable reaction. Divorce attorneys are expensive, y’all.

 

But much to my relief, she ate The Goonies up flaws and all, giggling at all the funny bits, clapping at the little victories, jumping at all the cheap scares, and cooing every time Sean Astin did something adorable (which is quite frequently). And I think its sway over her had a lot to do with the aspects of the film that just don’t age as the years go by: The excellent cast, the believable performances, and ultimately the heart of its very simple narrative. The Goonies is, when you get right down to it, a straightforward adventure tale—equal parts treasure hunt, dungeon crawl, and crime thriller. And that straightforward story gives it enough momentum to overcome things like the silliness of a few of its gags or the groan-worthiness of things like obviously rubber bats being flung on strings at the actors’ faces.

 

Of course, you don’t really need me to tell you any of the above. You likely either know what you think about The Goonies or you’re beyond caring. The question you really want answered is: Should you upgrade to UHD/HDR if you already own the film?

 

The simple answer: Yes, this one is worth the upgrade.

 

The not-so simple answer: I wouldn’t put this on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters. Hell, I wouldn’t even put it on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters of ’80s flicks. The cinematography is a little too flat and a bit too soft to consistently take full advantage of the increased resolution or expanded color gamut. That said, there are shots here and there that are simply breathtaking in this new transfer, and the high dynamic range does enhance things like flashing lightning and the glare of lanterns. What’s more, the middle passage of the movie—which takes place entirely underground—does benefit from a little more range at the lower end of the value scale. I only caught one or two scenes with uneven black levels. Aside from those, the gloomy-looking second act looks better than it ever has before.

 

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also an appreciable step up, with enhanced atmospheric effects (especially during the thunderstorm near the beginning) and a bit more bottom end to support the action. As has been the case since the film’s debut, though, dialogue clarity is the weak spot in the sound mix, and there’s likely nothing that can be done about that,

since much of the dialogue was improvised and the actors talk all over each other near-constantly. Had Donner attempted to spackle over the roughly recorded dialogue with ADR back in the day, the results would have likely been a lip-sync disaster on par with the American kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.

 

So don’t go into this expecting a film that sounds like it was recorded yesterday, but do expect a minor upgrade in sound quality over the 10-year-old Blu-ray release.

 

That Blu-ray, by the way, is the source of all the bonus features included with this new 4K release, which is to say there’s not much here, and you can probably skip most of it. The seven-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are cute and shed some light on the reference to an excised octopus attack mentioned in the final moments of the film. But practically everything here was best left on the cutting-room floor.

 

The only bonus goody that’s absolutely must-see is “Hidden Treasures: Video Commentaries from the Cast.” As the name implies, this is a commentary with the Goonies (along with Donner), recorded (if memory serves) for the DVD release of the film in 2001. What sets this one apart from most commentary tracks is that the

The Goonies

participants were filmed sitting together at a table watching the film projected in front of them, and we get to see much of their interaction by way of picture-in-picture popups.

 

Do I think The Goonies deserved a new retrospective documentary for its 35th anniversary? I absolutely do. As I said from the giddy-up, the movie still has far more influence on modern popular culture than most of its contemporaries, and a fresh look at its lasting relevance would have been nice. Maybe we can hold out hope for some new bonus features on its 40th or 50th anniversary.

 

But if you’re just here for the movie itself, I seriously doubt any future releases will look (or sound) better than The Goonies does here.

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 Cineluxe “Comfort Viewing” Guide to “The Lord of the Rings”

Comfort Guide to LOTR

Maybe you saw Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy in cinemas back in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and haven’t dug back in since. Or perhaps you’ve caught the films individually here and there on cable over the years. Or maybe you’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings at all. (That might seem improbable, but I see new YouTube clips on my timeline every couple of days proclaiming “I’ve never seen Fellowship of the Ring” or “FIRST TIME WATCHING Lord of the Rings: The

Fellowship of the Ring” or something to that effect.)

 

No matter what your relationship with the films may be, settling in to watch them from beginning to end can be an uplifting experience, which is something all of us need right now. What the series’ fans know—and what new viewers are learning with ever-increasing frequency—is that The Lord of the Rings is emotional nourishment. Spiritual sustenance. In other words: It’s comfort viewing. Despite the focus on hobbits and elves and dwarves and magical artifacts, The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, about times like those we’re currently living through. It’s about defiant endurance in the face of uncertainty. It’s about clinging to hope when there seems to be none.

 

But committing to an 11-plus-hour movie marathon can be daunting, no matter how inspirational the films themselves may be. In addition to the time investment, there’s the fact that the films have been released to home video so many times that choice overload starts to kick in.

 

That’s where this guide comes in. The goal here is to help you enjoy The Lord of the Rings in the best quality

possible, whether for the first time or the twentieth, and to help you navigate the wealth of bonus materials based on your personal interests and preferences. Before we get to all of that, though, the first thing you need to decide is which version of the films you should watch.

 

Director Peter Jackson has famously said the theatrical versions are his preferred cuts, and that the extended editions are simply “a novelty for the fans.” That is absolute rubbish. The theatrical edits are a roller coaster of unevenness, with the first and third films—The Fellowship of the Ring and The 

Return of the King—being perfectly enjoyable for what they are, but only as self-contained films with no connection to the rest of the trilogy.

 

On the other hand, the second film, The Two Towers, is a confusing mess of a thing in its original edit. At 178 

STEP 1

Watch the Extended Editions.
Forget the theatrical cuts even exist.

minutes, it’s a laborious slog, filled with one non sequitur after another, packed with characters whose motivations make little sense. The 228-minute Extended Edition, by contrast, positively whizzes by. It also gives you a deeper understanding of the histories and motives of its characters and the mythical lands they populate.

 

From a purely narrative perspective, the Extended Editions of Fellowship and Return aren’t quite that essential, but they still add some much-appreciated depth and context. They also insert some connective tissue that ties the three films together

STEP 2

Buy the films on Blu-ray or on Kaleidescape. Streaming simply doesn’t do them justice.
Comfort Guide to LOTR

into one unified work.

 

Skip the Extended Edition of the first film, for example, and you may be left wondering where certain items and artifacts central to the plot of the second film came from. Watch the shorter theatrical cut of Return of the King, and one of the second film’s major characters just disappears from the narrative with no explanation and no resolution.

 

So if you’re committing to watch all three films—and why wouldn’t you?—the Extended Editions are certainly the preferable option. But before you go traipsing off to Vudu or Amazon or some other digital retailer to buy the trilogy, allow me to make the case for why streaming doesn’t do these films justice.

 

That’s an odd pronouncement coming from me, especially given that I’m probably the biggest cheerleader for streaming here at Cineluxe. But streaming falls short of 

delivering The Lord of the Rings in all its glory for a couple of reasons. First, the films aren’t available yet in 4K/HDR, and probably won’t be for another year, at least. And while 4K streaming looks pretty amazing these days, the same can’t be said 

for HD. Second, the streaming versions of the Extended Editions lack the amazing Appendices, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.

 

That leaves Blu-ray Discs and the Kaleidescape downloads as your best options if you want to enjoy The Lord of the Rings to the fullest. If you opt for Blu-ray, each film is split across two discs to keep the compression from getting too out of hand. 

 

This actually works to the advantage of The Fellowship 

STEP 3

The first and third films can be viewed in halves, while The Two Towers should be approached as one long film with a quick potty break between scenes.

of the Ring and Return of the King, though, since you can treat the first and second half of each as a film in its own right. Take a break at the halfway point to grab a meal or take a nap or even sleep for the evening and you won’t disrupt the flow of the experience too much. The Two Towers, the middle film in the trilogy, doesn’t break quite so cleanly, so you’re better off treating it as one long film with a quick potty-break intermission between scenes.

 

If you’re watching on Kaleidescape (or if you ignored my counsel and bought the films on iTunes or whatever), you don’t get such neat breaks, since the films run straight through from opening to closing credits. But you can always hit the

STEP 4

If you want to explore the extras but you’re not sure you’re up for all 21 hours’ worth, you can go straight to the groups of Appendices that suit your specific interests.

intermission button on your remote right after “The Council of Elrond” in Fellowship of the Ring (you’ll know it when you get to it, I promise) and just after “The Siege of Gondor” in Return of the King. (That one’s not quite as obvious, but just remember to take your break right after the orcs start pushing a big flaming battering ram shaped like a wolf’s head toward the gates of the city of Minas Tirith and chanting “Grond! Grond! Grond!” That’s the name of said flaming wolf-headed battering ram.)

 

And that’s it. Congratulations! Make it through one more 

disc (or a few more hours of film) after that point and you’ve finished the epic journey through the lands of Middle-earth in the best way possible. 

But hang on a minute. If you’re like most people, once you’ve experienced all three films, you’ll be itching to know more about the books that inspired the trilogy and the process of adapting them for the big screen. That’s where the Appendices come in.

 

On both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape, the Appendices are broken into six parts (two per film, with each Appendix getting its own disc if you opted for physical media). The neat thing is, they follow a reasonably  predictable structure, so if you know for sure you don’t want to watch all 21 hours’ worth of documentaries (not a typo), you can hone in on the sort of background information that interests you most.

 

The odd numbered Appendices (the first disc or batch of bonus content) tend to dig into the history, themes, and meaning of the books themselves, along with the writing and planning that went into adapting this supposedly un-filmable book into three of the best films ever made. As such, Appendices 1, 3, and 5 explore the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien; the publication of the book; the characters, the peoples, and the locations of Middle-earth; and preparatory work like writing the screenplay, adapting the scripts from two films to a trilogy once Miramax passed on the adaptation and New Line stepped in, and creating the costumes, sets, props, etc.

 

The even-numbered Appendices are probably more your speed if you’re primarily interested in The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films and not so much as an adapted work. Appendices 2, 4, and 6 explore the long process of shooting the films, as well as post-production work like editing, special effects, sound effects, and score music.

 

“But wait!” he says in his best Billy Mays voice, “There’s more!” Each film is also accompanied by four full-length audio commentaries. Again, there’s some consistency here,

Appendices 1, 3 & 5 focus on the book, its author, and the translation from page to screen.
Comfort Guide to LOTR
Appendices 2, 4 & 6 are more like typical behind-the-scenes documentaries
Comfort Guide to LOTR

with one track for each film focusing on the writing, one on the design, one on production, and one with the cast. 

STEP 5

Still hungry for more info? Each film has 4 commentaries that range in appeal from “must listen” to “for hardcore nerds only.”

The cast commentaries are the best by a long shot, since Sean Astin is a walking/talking film encyclopedia and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are straight-up laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout. Andy Serkis also performs part of the commentary for Return of the King in character as Sméagol/Gollum, which is something you don’t want to miss.

 

The commentaries featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh,

and Philippa Boyens are also absolute gems if you want to take a deeper dive into the process of adapting the book than the documentaries in the Appendices provide. 

 

The other two commentaries for each film, I must admit, are for hardcore fans only, so unless you’re absolutely obsessed by this point, you can probably safely skip them. To wit, I’ve only listened to the design and production commentaries two or three times over the past two decades. (By contrast, I watch all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices every other year, and dig into the cast and writers’ commentaries at least once every three years.)

Dennis Burger

CLICK THE THUMBNAILS BELOW TO ORDER THE LORD OF THE RINGS ON KALEIDESCAPE

"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
Comfort Guide to LOTR

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.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

If you’re the type of person who enjoys mecha-versus-giant-monster action flicks, chances are pretty good that you saw Pacific Rim when it hit cinemas in 2013. Unfortunately, chances are equally good that you saw its awful followup, 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising.

 

Look, I know bad sequels are the rule, rather than the exception. But Uprising wasn’t just a bad sequel. It was a sequel so bad that it actually made the original worse by virtue of existing. Its convoluted plot and nonsensical character relationships, if accepted as true within this cinematic universe, somehow manage to retroactively undermine the straightforward plot of Guillermo del Toro’s ridiculously fun original movie. And as such, I’ve had trouble returning to Pacific Rim for the better part of

two years now, unable to wipe the stain of Uprising from my robot-and-monster-loving brain.

 

If you find yourself in the same camp, it’s time to give the first Pacific Rim another look-see. And if you’ve never seen either of them, I beg you to ignore the second movie and give the first one a fair shot, assuming the premise doesn’t offend your sensibilities.

 

Because, yes, Pacific Rim involves gigantic walking tanks that look vaguely humanoid, piloted by hotshot jockeys whose sole purpose is to clobber gargantuan other-dimensional creatures that stomp up from the ocean depths to lay waste to human civilization. But that’s not really what the movie is about.

 

As with all of del Toro’s movies, it’s a story about humanity. 

RIM AT A GLANCE

With interesting new releases in short supply, now is the perfect time to rediscover Guillermo del Toro’s inspired 2013 robots vs. monsters slugfest. 

 

PICTURE     

One of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era.

 

SOUND     

One of the few Atmos mixes that manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action.

But specifically, it’s about the endurance of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds. The director draws a lot of inspiration from obvious sources like Gojira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tetsujin 28-go, and Ultraman. But it’s also impossible not to see the influence the works of H.P. Lovecraft had on his vision for this mash-up universe. And it’s in inverting and subverting the themes of Lovecraft that Pacific Rim really finds its heart.

 

If you’ve not familiar with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology, it was the foundation of what’s known as cosmic horror, a genre about coming to terms with notions of the ultimate insignificance of humanity in the face of problems too large for us to comprehend. Pacific Rim effectively takes these horrors and says, “Hell, no. One way or another, we’re not going to let this be our end.”

 

As such, you can see it as an allegory for all sorts of things, from the threats created by natural disasters to the impending doom of climate change. No matter what existential threat you plug into the equation, though, del Toro is saying that cooperation—indeed, vulnerable acceptance of our reliance on one another—is the solution to problems too large for any of us to deal with.

 

Of course, I’m not digging too deep to get to these themes. Pacific Rim isn’t even remotely opaque. It wears its meaning on its armor-plated sleeves like any good rock-‘em-sock-‘em end-of-the-world battle royale movie should. But ultimately, the fact 

that Pacific Rim is about something—that it means something—is what sets it apart from so many other recent big-monster movies.

 

Unlike the 2014 remake of Godzilla and its 2019 King of the Monsters sequel, Pacific Rim stays grounded in the (admittedly overwrought) human drama of it all. Guillermo del Toro understands that if you don’t care what happens to the humans at the center of the story, you won’t really care when kaiju start ripping through 

cityscapes and knocking down buildings. As such, it leans on a rather unusual structure. Although, interestingly, it’s a structure that would be blatantly ripped off by Avengers: Endgame a few years later: Cram what the audience expects to be the entire movie into the first 15 or 20 minutes, then flash-forward five years and spend a protracted second act focusing on the character relationships before rocketing toward an epic battle late in Act 3.

 

The result is such a wonderfully paced movie that its 132-minute runtime feels like a brisk 90 minutes at most. (By contrast, Uprising’s 110 minutes felt like a brutal, relentless, never-ending gauntlet of incomprehensible masochism.)

 

Pacific Rim’s excellent UHD/HDR10 transfer is further evidence for why we need to quit worrying about resolution. Sourced from a 2K digital intermediate (despite the fact that the movie was shot in 5K resolution), this remains one of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era. It’s true that the high dynamic range and wide color gamut aren’t used to mimic the look of film the way so many other successful 4K/HDR transfers do. Instead, the 10-bit color and cranked contrasts are used to give this neon-colored cartoon of a live-action movie the sort of depth and weight it lacked in high-definition.

 

I’m not knocking the 1080p release. It was one of the finest transfers of its day. But unburdened by the limitations of 8-bit video, the HDR transfer of Pacific Rim positively brims with a richness and intensity of color that was never possible at home

until recently. The streets of Hong Kong come to life with a neon vibrancy that makes this unbelievable world just a little more believable.

 

Bottom line, I would rank it in the Top 5 HDR home video transfers to date, and Kaleidescape’s release captures it all perfectly, from the rain-soaked inkiness of the predominately nighttime setting to the crackling potency of the radiation spewing from the mouths of the otherworldly beasts. Kaleidescape also offers the film with your choice of Dolby Atmos or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, and although I would normally opt for the latter, this is one of the few Atmos mixes I truly love. It manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action, and the robust bass adds much-needed weight to the massive mechanical and alien combatants.

 

Interestingly, the Kaleidescape download of the 4K/HDR version includes something the UHD Blu-ray release doesn’t: All of the extras included with the original HD release. The 4K disc only features 13 short documentaries, known as “Focus Points,” which spotlight different aspects of the making of the film. The Kaleidescape download also includes deleted scenes and a hilarious blooper reel.

 

The best of the extras, though, is the audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro,

Pacific Rim

which you’ll have to download the 1080p version of the film to listen to. It’s worth the effort, since he dives deep into the color coding he used throughout the film to give viewers insight into the characters in a way that exposition simply couldn’t. The commentary also reveals the primary reason why this movie works when so many similar efforts are simply awful—because it was a labor of love. Del Toro genuinely adores big robots and gigantic monsters, and sees no reason why a movie about them can’t be made with the same care and attention to detail you would expect from a serious film.

 

Make no mistake about it: Pacific Rim is not a serious film. It’s a feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. But it’s an incredibly well-made feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. So, unless you’re simply allergic to that premise, give it a shot. If nothing else, I think you’ll find that it’s one of the best home theater demo movies ever made.

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.

Easy Rider

Easy Rider (1969)

The last time I sat down to watch Easy Rider was sometime in 1990. Sixties nostalgia was in full swing, since grunge hadn’t really exploded and given the burgeoning decade something resembling its own identity. I was in my late teens, and the film was barely in its twenties. And yet, it felt archaic to me. A time capsule, if you will. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t compelling. But I think I mostly saw Easy Rider as something akin to a 95-minute music video for some of the best tunes dominating 

classic rock radio at the time. And sure, I understood its lasting influence on American New Wave cinema. But it still struck me as little more than a nostalgia trip, and a disjointed one at that.

 

Fast-forward 30 more years, and Easy Rider feels relevant to me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before digging into Kaleidescape’s recent 4K HDR release. For me, Easy Rider isn’t just a hop into the Wayback Machine anymore. It’s a relatable portrait of a turbulent and divided America. Of senseless violence and othering. Of rage and misplaced resentment boiling over into identity politics and spilling out into interpersonal strife. Of the end of an era.

 

And sure, it’s not quite like looking out the window. The clothing looks more like costumes. Some of the characters feel more like caricatures. But, despite all of that, Easy Rider still feels like it has something to say about our present moment in history, for perhaps the first time since its release in 1969. (I’m reminded of a popular adage in geek 

EASY RIDER AT A GLANCE

Treated for years as a quaint cultural artifact, this iconic big-studio “indie” film takes on a new significance when viewed in the light of current events. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR transfer stays true to the look of the movie’s film stock, faithfully presenting its often drab but sometimes vibrant color palette.

 

SOUND     

The legendary music soundtrack sounds amazing in both stereo and surround, but the dialogue remains tinny and flat, thanks to the original on-set audio recordings.

culture: “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” I’m also reminded of the oft-quoted observation by Marx: “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”)

 

Part of the film’s reinvigorated applicability may have something to do with its structure—a series of loosely connected vignettes that barely add up to a plot. According to legend, most of what was left on the cutting-room floor when the film was whittled down from 220 to 95 minutes could be considered story. And what we’re left with is more of a moment-to-moment experience than anything else. And I think—again, just speaking for myself—this forces a bit of reflection on what the film leaves unsaid: The racial tensions of the era, the conflict in Vietnam, the political infighting. Despite the fact that the film doesn’t mention any of the above, all of it looms large over Easy Rider. And since they’re not explicit here, it’s easy to impose some of our own sociopolitical strife in their place.

 

I think the new 4K HDR transfer also helps immensely, at least when it comes to getting immersed in the weirdness of Easy Rider. If you know the film well, you may be wondering what the enhanced resolution does for the imagery. The short answer is: Not much. In large part, really nothing. But the expanded dynamic range and enhanced color gamut bring the cinematography to life in ways that home video simply hasn’t been capable of doing until recently.

 

I’m reminded of my observations about the new 4K HDR release of The Wizard of Oz. In similar respects, Easy Rider benefits not only from more vibrancy and purity of colors, but also from the selective intensity of primary hues. In past transfers, the 

entire palette had to be boosted or muted, brightened or darkened universally. With HDR, dazzling Crayola-colored reds and blues comfortably share the screen with more subdued pastels and weather-worn pigmentations, and intense flashes of light comfortably share the frame with deep shadows that nonetheless contain nuance. Peter Fonda’s flag-adorned chopper practically glows against a backdrop that’s more often than not dull and dingy.

 

To put it simply, for the first time, the home video presentation of Easy Rider actually looks and feels like film, and thankfully the restoration efforts—while cleaning up dirt and scratches and other ravages of time—have done nothing to rob the footage of its wonderfully organic and grainy photochemical chaos.

 

Of course, the film’s sound mix is what it is. The iconic music tracks sound amazing, in both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and stereo mixes. The dialogue and other on-set audio still sound as if they were recorded with a couple of tin cans and some string, though, and there’s just not much to be done about that, short of egregious meddling.

 

The Kaleidescape download also comes with a couple of bonus goodies: An audio commentary with Dennis Hopper and an hour-long documentary from 1999 

Easy Rider (1969)

called Shaking the Cage. I would recommend skipping the former, since it provides a rather unbalanced perspective on the making of the film. Perhaps if Sony Pictures owned the second commentary track included with the Criterion Blu-ray release—featuring Hopper, Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis—it would be worth a listen.

 

Truth be told, you get everything you could want from a commentary and more from Shaking the Cage, which should be viewed as an essential companion piece—almost more like annotations for Easy Rider than a traditional making-of retrospective. It’s true, you don’t get much in the way of insight into the themes and mysteries of the film, but rarely have I seen a more unbridled examination of the personality conflicts, fights, compromises, and sheer pandemonium behind the making of any film. In some ways, it’s almost more entertaining than Easy Rider itself.

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.

My Favorite Video Game Has Become My Wife’s Must-See TV

My Favorite Video Game Has Become My Wife's Must-See TV

I’m starting to feel like I’ll never finish playing The Last of Us, Part II. And it’s all my wife’s fault.

 

Mind you, this isn’t your stereotypical story about a man’s nerdy hobby and his other half’s nagging insistence that he put down the controller and help out around the house. We are not that kind of couple. No, the problem is that my wife has become as obsessed as I am with the game’s gripping story and incredible visuals, and since she has no desire to play it 

herself (“too many buttons”), she won’t let me play unless she’s around to watch.

 

It’s funny, all this fuss, especially given that I had no intention of playing The Last of Us, Part II to begin with. The original game, released in 2013 at the end of the PlayStation 3’s life cycle, was one of the most compelling single-player video games ever created. It was a simple tale, a sort of post-pandemic, American-horror-story riff on Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, released years before The Mandalorian would bring that classic Shogun epic swinging back into the pop culture consciousness. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the original The Last of Us was such a perfectly told tale that creating a followup seemed as sacrilegious to me as making a sequel to Citizen Kane.

 

But I got The Last of Us, Part II for Father’s Day and figured “What the hell?” Even if it lived up to all my fears, it couldn’t spoil my appreciation for the original. It turns out, though—despite what you may have heard from the nerd-rage circles of the internet, where legitimate creative expression is met with ire and only repetitive and pre-chewed fan service is allowed—The Last of Us, Part II is not only a brilliant 

sequel, it may well be the single most compelling and challenging work of art released this year in any medium.

 

And that’s the problem. My wife occasionally watched me play the first Last of Us, and she had a pretty good handle on the 

story despite experiencing it only in snippets. But she can’t take her eyes off of The Last of Us, Part II, and now my play time is dictated by her viewing schedule.

 

That’s why I’m only 35 hours or so into the story, a month after the game’s release. From what I’ve seen so far, though, this new game is a revenge tale that’s ultimately about the futility of revenge—reminiscent of the very best samurai flicks. It’s a necessarily violent (at times) narrative about the personal cost of violence. It’s a non-linear 

storytelling experience that not only forces you to see, but also to experience—to feel—the conflicting emotions and motivations of the various major players—each the antagonist of the other. It is, in a sense, a narrative extrapolation of the famous MLK quote: “The reason I can’t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everybody blind.”

What’s more, it proves that in such a contest, no one agrees who took the first eye.

 

Add to that some of the most impressive HDR visuals you’ve ever seen on any screen and a dynamic surround sound mix so convincing that it has at times made us think there was a real storm brewing in the distance outside, and it’s understandable that my wife treats The Last of Us, Part II more like a movie or TV show than a vicarious gaming experience. (Indeed, she almost seems to forget that there’s

an interactive element at all, except during those times when I need to use the PS4 controller to strum a guitar in the occasional musical mini-game interlude.)

 

The point of all this is not that you should play The Last of Us Part II if you’re not a gamer. The point is, if you have a gamer in your household and you’ve relegated them to the basement or bedroom, invite them into the home theater or media room. Let

them play on the best AV system in the house. That’s the environment for which today’s cinematic single-player games are designed.

 

Let’s face it: some of us are already starting to get a little starved for new content to watch, and that problem is only going to get worse as more film releases are delayed or taken off the release schedule altogether. With a new generation of video-game consoles slated for release this Christmas, though—and with any number of new story-

driven games waiting in the wings—you may just find that your spouse’s or kid’s next favorite game may become your new favorite home cinema viewing 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.

The Bletchley Circle

It’s pretty easy to take a quick glance at The Bletchley Circle and think you’ve got it figured out. Combine two parts Rosemary & Thyme, one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Numbers, boil until completely devoid of flavor, add a dash of Masterpiece Theatre saccharine and a sprinkle of tut-tut-tea-time-pass-me-a-scone English inoffensiveness, and you’ve got the recipe for my impression of the series before I actually sat down to watch it. And to be frank, if not for my interest in the

Enigma and Lorenz ciphers used by Germany in World War II, and the Allied efforts to break those codes, I likely never would have watched the first episode.

 

But thank goodness I did, because that initial impression couldn’t have been more off-base. True, The Bletchley Circle does owe a debt to the aforementioned properties. And yes, it is unapologetically English. But rather than being just another formulaic murder-mystery series or, worse yet, another boring period drama, the first season actually manages to be a smart, well-scripted whodunnit that carves out its own identity.

 

Actually, to call it a whodunnit is a little misleading. Yes, on 

BLETCHLEY AT A GLANCE

This British murder-mystery series is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. 

 

PICTURE     

The Kaleidescape download is a step up from the streaming version, mainly in its shadow depth and detail. Its 1080p presentation holds up better on screens 65″ and up.

the surface the show follows four former Bletchley Park colleagues who reunite seven years after the end of the war to get to the bottom of a series of murders that have the police baffled. And yes, they use all the tools of the codebreaking trade to analyze patterns and hone in on the elusive killer. But that’s not really what the show is about, and if you watch murder mysteries in an attempt to identify the killer before the big reveal, or to experience that “Ah ha! I should have seen it all along” moment, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed.

 

What The Bletchley Circle is really about is the relationships between these four women, and their attempts to find their respective places in society after contributing to the war effort and then being forbidden to reveal—even to their husbands—the role they played. What it’s about is a peculiar moment in time when a country is struggling to find its own post-war identity. It’s about the age-old struggle between masculinity and femininity and the social norms surrounding such constructs. And what makes The Bletchley Circle work is that it grapples with all of this without being overtly political or in any way heavy-handed. In lesser hands than those of writer Guy Burt (probably best-known for his work on Showtime’s The Borgias), the series could have easily devolved into the sort of Woman Good/Man Bad culture-war orthodoxy that I sympathize with politically, but always find boring in works of fiction.

 

Thankfully, the struggles the quartet faces as a result of being highly intelligent and highly skilled women living in a world that only knowns how to place them in secretary-, cashier-, librarian-, or housewife-shaped boxes are handled with enough nuance that the series feels true to its time and place. It doesn’t feel like a wholesale re-evaluation of the past through the

lens of current mores.

 

If there’s a criticism to be leveled against the first season of the show—three perfectly paced 46-ish-minute episodes that feel more like a single movie with two built-in potty breaks—it’s that the four leads occasionally feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out characters. In fact, at times the young Lucy (played by Sophie Rundle of Peaky Blinders and Gentleman Jack fame) feels like little more than a vehicle for her eidetic memory, which comes in handy when the plot calls for the quick recollection of dates and figures.

 

But such blunders are few, and on the whole The Bletchley Circle is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. Is it worth owning? I’d say yes, but only the first season, which thankfully contains a satisfying story with a proper beginning, middle, and ending. Season Two ups the production-value ante a little, and adds some color to the otherwise beige palette of Season One. It also features a somewhat more on-point storyline that ties more directly into the ladies’ time at Bletchley Park. But some sloppy scripting and puzzling anachronisms keep it from being as satisfying as Season One. My recommendation would be to check out Season Two on Amazon Prime before spending $16.99 to own it.

The Bletchley Circle

Season One, on the other hand, is an easy no-brainer purchase for anyone who likes a good (and I do mean good) period drama or murder mystery. The video transfer available from Kaleidescape is a step up from the streaming version on Amazon, mostly in its handling of shadow depth and detail. The streaming version also suffers from a few chromatic aberrations that might not be noticeable if you’re watching on a 65-inch TV all the way across the living room, but which definitely mar the presentation when blown up to cinematic proportions. The Kaleidescape transfer nips such problems in the bud and looks great on the big screen, even if its resolution is limited to 1080p.

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.

I’m Kinda OK with Hollywood Being on Pause

I'm Kinda OK with Hollywood Being on Pause

The Souvenir

I agree with Mike. I’m unconvinced by John Sciacca’s arguments about why movies might get better as a result of production delays.

 

But I do agree with John about one thing: There’s a major upside to the ongoing delays and shutdowns in Hollywood. With the tide of new content rolling in much more slowly, my wife and I finally have the opportunity to catch up on all the movies and TV shows we’ve let slip by in the past few years. And we’re both finding that—having missed the zeitgeist and the flurry of 

conversations surrounding these releases when they were new—we’re able to enjoy this content on our own terms, at our own pace.

 

We’ve recently, for example, started digging into The Witcher, the Netflix adaptation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s folklore-inspired fantasy series. As the credits rolled on the first episode, my wife turned to me and exclaimed, “Why did we wait so long to watch this?”

 

Well, our daughter was in town the week it dropped last year, and then there was Christmas, and by the time New Year’s celebrations settled down and we had time to sit down for some new entertainment, the sixth season of Grace and Frankie was out, and . . . look, there’s only so much time in the day and only so many days in a week. We forgot about one squirrel and started chasing a newer one.

 

Am I a little sad that the release of Marvel’s Black Widow, originally slated for May 2020, got pushed back indefinitely? Absolutely. In an alternate universe, my wife would be queuing it up on our Kaleidescape Strato tonight. Instead, I think we’ll give Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir a spin, since it didn’t even make a blip on our radar when it was released last year (to be fair, an unusually exceptional year for new cinema). Or maybe we’ll finish watching the amazing Imagineering Story on Disney+, which we somehow managed to forget about after four episodes.

 

I’ve also been itching to sit my wife down in front of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood and Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu-jō (aka Throne of Blood) for years now, but there just never 

seems to be the time. There’s always something new, something shiny, something tempting right over the horizon. And while few of these baubles ever truly measure up to the classics we’ve been meaning to watch or re-watch, they always seem to somehow find their way to the front of the line.

 

So, while I hope that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune manages to make its December 2020 target release date, and while I’ll certainly watch Wonder Woman 1984 the minute I can get my nerdy front paws on it, I’m kind of OK with the fact that the torrent of new releases has been reduced to a trickle. I’m not happy about the fact that so many creative types are out of work at the moment, mind you. But I’m glad I finally have the time to dig a little deeper into the home entertainment back catalog, the surface of which I only manage to scratch in any given year.

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.

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

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.