Dennis Burger Tag

Warner Bros. Is Setting “Wonder Woman 1984” Up for Failure

Warner Bros. Is Setting "Wonder Woman 1984" Up for Failure

In case you missed the news late last week, Warner Bros. has announced that Wonder Woman 1984—its biggest film of the year—is finally locked in for a December 25 release after months of will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth. Interestingly—and completely in line with the studio’s inability to take a firm stance on anything this year—the movie is being released both in commercial cinemas and on HBO Max on the same day.

 

If you didn’t know any better, you might think this is a good move. It makes the comic-book blockbuster free-to-stream for anyone who subscribes to Warner’s premium over-the-top service; and on the surface, it seems like a more charitable release than was given to Tenet, which was foisted on commercial cinemas at a time when most of them were closed.

There’s just one problem: WarnerMedia simply hasn’t done the work required to make HBO Max a viable release platform for any first-run movie, much less one with this much potential. I covered most of the reasons why in my last rant about the service: The esoteric and labyrinthine signup process, the confusing nomenclature, the fact that on the eve of 2021 a major studio’s premier streaming platform is still living in 2015 by failing to offer 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio.

 

The thing is, conditions are actually much worse on the ground than I made them look in that column. According to Variety, as of late September, HBO Max only had a reported 9 million subscribers, give or take, as compared with 73 million subscribers for Disney+. That’s pitiful, but this is devastating: According to the story, 70 percent of HBO subscribers—who have access to HBO Max as part of their pay subscription—haven’t even bothered to claim their free HBO Max accounts.

 

Mind you, I’m sure Warner believes WW84 will give HBO Max a huge boost, and its cat-petting executives are 

probably counting dollar signs as they fall asleep, in anticipation of a huge influx of new subscriptions. But if you can’t get 70 percent of HBO subscribers to take an HBO Max login—for free—then how do you expect to con people into paying $15 for a service that’s only available in HD? And heaven help those poor souls who decide to sign up for a 7-day free trial right before the launch of the new Wonder Woman movie, only to discover how difficult it is to access the service. (Remember, it’s still not available on Roku, by far the most popular streaming platform in the world.)

 

Simply put, if you thought Warner Bros. set Tenet up to fail in the U.S. by overhyping it and then releasing it in the midst of a pandemic, imagine how much worse things are going to be for WW84. On the day Tenet hit cinemas, we in the Colonies saw approximately 47,000 confirmed new SARS-CoV-2 infections. IHME’s conservative model currently predicts we’ll see between ~365,000 and ~543,000 new infections on Christmas Day alone, if current trends continue.

 

The best-case scenario here is that people will be ten times less likely to go see WW84 in cinemas. But guess what the entertainment headlines will be the next day if that scenario plays out? “Wonder Woman 1984 Bombs at the Box Office!” Logic be damned, the takeaway for most people seeing those headlines will be that the movie just isn’t worth watching, and its fate will be all but sealed.

 

I would imagine Warner’s response to that will be, “But look how many new HBO Max subscriptions we picked up!” And I suppose that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. But given that Pixar is releasing Soul the same day to the much-more-popular Disney+, I’m betting that cartoon’s viewership numbers will be the far bigger headline in the streaming news.

 

So, what could Warner have done differently? Any number of things. The ideal option would have been to build HBO Max from the ground up to support decent audio and video quality and not make it so damned difficult to access. Barring that, I think a much better option would have been to release the movie to high-quality digital platforms like Vudu and Kaleidescape on Christmas Day for $20 or $30 or $40—in glorious 4K HDR—and announce that it would be hitting HBO Max for free three or four weeks later. And for goodness’ sake, skip the theatrical exhibition altogether.

 

That would have allowed those of us who actually value reference-quality audiovisual home cinema presentations to enjoy the movie Day One, plague-free; it would have netted Warner Bros. far more in profits; and it would have also made them look like the good guys for following up with a free-to-stream option so quickly thereafter.

 

Instead, I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb here in predicting the studio’s half-ass-it-and-they-will-come approach to WW84‘s release is ultimately going to be the thing that keeps it from performing to its full potential.

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.

Review: Love Actually

Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually is probably the most misunderstood of all Richard Curtis’s directorial efforts. That’s not to say it’s his best (that would be About Time by a country mile), nor is it his worst (I’m looking at you, Pirate Radio/The Boat That Rocked, in all your edits and incarnations), but it seems to me that most people are so concerned with fitting Love Actually into their own preconceived boxes that almost no one engages with what it actually is. On the one hand, you have viewers who embrace it as the perfect romantic comedy, when in fact it’s mostly a subversion of that genre’s most saccharine trappings. On the other hand, you have the pecksniffian morality police who never resist the opportunity to tell you how much this movie fails to

perfectly live up to their woke sensibilities and how you’re a bad person if you actually enjoy it because most of its characters make bad choices.

 

I have no interest in finding common ground with either of those two camps, because I think they both miss the point. Love Actually is hardly a rom-com. (Even the trailer gets this wrong.) It’s a comedy about love, and that’s something altogether different. It’s been accused of being a movie that has no idea what love is about, but I think it’s far more accurate to call it the story of people trying to figure out what love is and sometimes failing to do so.

 

The all-star ensemble cast is huge, and its characters run the gamut from Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to Portuguese housekeeper, but what they all have in common is that they’re imperfectly awkward human beings doing their best to find or hold onto or comprehend love in its many forms, from childhood infatuation to forbidden obsession to meaningful intellectual connection, from 

ACTUALLY AT A GLANCE

This non-rom-com comedy about the various forms of love is definitely a Christmas film, despite what the naysayers say, and something to be enjoyed at the holidays with loved ones.

 

PICTURE     

The HD presentation is bright and colorful enough, and wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 4K HDR upgrade due to the inherent softness of the images.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix keeps dialogue intelligible and conveys the music soundtrack with spot-on fidelity.

platonic love to the complicated but undeniable bond between siblings and the developing ties between stepson and stepfather. Truth be told, only a handful of the relationships in the movie have anything to do with romance. But they’re all, in their own way, about love.

 

It strikes me as plainly obvious that Curtis isn’t trying to convey any lessons here, nor is he making moral judgments (which is why I think it so offends some viewers). Love Actually is simply intended to be relatable and empathetic, both in its warmest moments and in its most fumbling, insecure, and idiotic. And it succeeds in that respect wonderfully, which makes it one of my favorite Christmas movies, whether or not it’s objectively one of the best.

 

And yes, it is a Christmas movie, despite arguments to the contrary. Any number of angry keyboard warriors have tried and failed to point out that the story here could have just as easily been told at or around Valentine’s Day. I think they’re confusing

it with any number of half-hearted knockoffs that have followed in the 17 years since Love Actually debuted.

 

Of course, it’s a Christmas movie! And not merely because of the setting or the fantastic live rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” performed at the end by little Olivia Olson (who would grow up to play Marceline the Vampire Queen on Adventure Time, FYI). It simply isn’t a traditional Christmas movie—of which Curtis is well aware, as evidenced by cheeky 

references to lobsters at the Nativity and so forth. Instead, it’s a story that does its best to grapple with a more modern notion of Christmas, one where the traditional extended family structure isn’t necessarily the only norm anymore.

 

It’s also a post-9/11 movie and, legend has it, a reinforcement of and response to an essay the author Ian McEwan published shortly after that dark day. But above all else, Love Actually is simply a sweet and sentimental, awkwardly charming good time, and one of those rare movies that’s actually best enjoyed in good company. It’s neither a masterpiece nor an affront to moral standards, but I can’t imagine letting a Christmas season pass without watching it with friends, family, or loved ones. That plants it firmly in “must own” territory, whether I would place it on my list of All-Time Top 50 Best Films or not. (And for what it’s worth, there are quite a few of those I have no interest in ever seeing again.)

 

If you don’t own it already, I would argue that Kaleidescape’s presentation is the way to go, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Kaleidescape has the UK cut of the film. The only differences between the UK and US edits are in the music, but I prefer the former by a good bit. To the best of my knowledge, Universal only released the UK cut on Blu-ray in 2009, and has replaced 

it with the US version in subsequent rereleases, of which there have been a few (the most recent being earlier this year).

 

Not that any of these has made a substantial difference in terms of the visuals. The movie is presented in HD only, but that’s totally fine. Keen-eyed viewers will notice an overall softness to the image, but before you think this would be rectified by a 4K redux, look a little closer. Viewing the HD release at cinematic proportions, you can notice a fine grain structure that indicates plenty sufficient detail in the transfer, meaning the softness is inherent to the cinematography. To my eye, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of additional crispness or nuance to be extracted from the negative.

 

Colors are bright and vibrant enough for this sort of flick, so I lean toward thinking that HDR wouldn’t do it a whole heck of a lot of good, either. Long story short, if you’re holding out for a 4K remaster of Love Actually, I just can’t imagine one is on the horizon. And that’s OK, since this likely isn’t a movie you dig into for the audiovisual experience. Granted, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a great job of keeping dialogue clear and intelligible, and the fidelity of the soundtrack music is spot-freaking-on. In the end, that’s exactly what you would hope for.

Love Actually (2003)

Extras are sparse here. There’s the forgettable audio commentary track, and that’s really it. The deleted scenes from the Blu-ray are missing, but you can find those on YouTube if you’re interested. What really matters is that the movie itself is presented in delightfully distraction-free quality, with a full-bandwidth soundtrack and no compression issues to be seen.

 

If, for whatever reason, you’ve never seen Love Actually and you need a little silly and adorkable escapism this holiday season, this one is well worth the price of a download. Will it change your life? No. But if you don’t find yourself guffawing through tears by the time the end credits roll, you’ve got the heart of a Grinch.

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.

Review: The Speed Cubers

The Speed Cubers (2020)

The Netflix-original documentary The Speed Cubers seems like exactly the sort of film whose very existence hinges upon the streaming provider’s ability to target the most niche of special interests. It is, after all, a film set at the 2019 World Cube Association World Championship—WCA being the governing body that organizes and regulates tournaments to see who can most quickly solve twisty puzzles (the most popular of which is the Rubik’s Cube, more commonly known these days as “The 3×3”).

Given the concept, it also seems like exactly the sort of film that you could easily nope out of if you have no interest in mechanical puzzles or how quickly they’re solved by kids you’ve never heard of. But if that’s the way you’re leaning, I implore you to give this all-too-brief 40-minute film a chance anyway. Because beneath the super-nerdy veneer, The Speed Cubers is ultimately about what all good documentaries are about: The human spirit.

 

The humans at the center of this story are Feliks Zemdegs, widely regarded as the best speed cuber of all time, and Max Park, the young hotshot who has in recent years broken many of the world records previously held by Zemdegs. To most outsiders, the two could be described as the Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt of the cubing world. As The Speed Cubers reveals, though, their relationship doesn’t quite fit into such a tidy box.

 

For the profoundly autistic Park, Zemdegs is simultaneously hero, role model, friend, and fierce competitor. When Max

CUBERS AT A GLANCE

Watching other people watch other people play with Rubik’s cubes might not sound like compelling documentary fodder but this Netflix original goes beneath the gameplay to show the deep bonds that form among competitors.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K presentation is solid enough, but comes sans HDR—which might be for the best given how much the documentary relies on cellphone and home-video footage.

 

SOUND     

The front-heavy 5.1 mix does a good job of presenting the dialogue and creates an appropriate frame for Dan Vidmar’s unobtrusive but effective score.

refuses to brush his teeth, his parents merely need to remind him that Feliks always brushes his own. When Zemdegs joins the Park family for dinner, it’s Feliks, not the Parks, who encourages Max to eat his vegetables, without a hint of condescension.

 

It may sound a little one-sided, but what the film reveals is a beautiful give-and-take—a lovely friendly rivalry quite unlike

anything I’ve ever seen captured on camera.

 

I hate to say much more than that, lest I spoil any of the surprises in this wonderful little haiku of a film. And yes, there are twists and turns along the way, though none of them is contrived. There are also laughs aplenty and even a few tears, so have some tissues ready if you’re a sympathetic crier.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing

about The Speed Cubers, though, is just how well it’s made. Cinematographer Chris Olson—whose own short film Why We Cube was previously the best documentary on the subject of twisty-puzzle competitions—shows amazing restraint in serving as the viewer’s eyes into this world, turning what could have easily been a voyeuristic exposé into a tender tribute instead. It’s a shame his work is only presented in 4K, without the benefit of HDR, but given how much of the film relies on home-video and cellphone footage of Max and Feliks in their younger years, it’s debatable whether it would have benefited from an HDR grading overall. Thankfully, Netflix’ presentation is artifact-free, save from that found in archival footage.

 

Similar restraint is shown by music composer Dan Vidmar—better known by the stage name Shy Girls in the alt-R&B music scene—whose score honestly didn’t capture my attention at all until my second viewing. That’s the mark of good film music, in my opinion. What you notice when you specifically listen for the score is that Vidmar has a knack for accentuating both action and emotion without Mickey Mousing either.

 

Don’t go in expecting the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 sound mix to fill your surround speakers or stress your subs. The front-heavy mix does its job of presenting the dialogue and music in a perfectly straightforward manner, exactly as it should in a documentary.

 

Really, the only thing you could complain about here is that The Speed Cubers is over far too quickly, leaving you wanting to know more, even if you previously had no interest in the ostensible subject matter of the film. If you’re hungry for more, most of the biggest names in the online cubing community have made their own supplements for the film, the best being Ming Dao Ting’s in-depth interview with director Sue Kim and cinematographer Chris Olson, which runs longer than The Speed Cubers itself. Search YouTube and you’ll find hours of additional commentary where that came from.

 

But if all you’re interested in is the documentary itself, what you’ll find in The Speed Cubers is one of the sweetest, tenderest, most life-affirming short films I’ve seen in ages. And I think we could all use a bit of that in our lives right now.

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.

Review: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta (2005)

It’s been a few years since I sat down with James McTeigue’s 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal anti-fascist comic book from the early-to-mid ‘80s—so long, in fact, that I worried, as I prepared to digest the new 4K HDR release of V for Vendetta via Kaleidescape, that it would feel a bit outdated. McTeigue’s film was, after all, made in response to the second Bush administration, and by that point the comic book, although a nearly unparalleled work of sequential art, was starting to feel like a bit of an artifact, rooted as it was in the Thatcher era.

 

That concern couldn’t have been more off-base, and I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I know that as an unabashed Moore devotee, I’m supposed to dismiss the film, and its script by the Wachowskis, as a 

toothless dilution of the anarchistic themes of the original. On the other hand, the years have been kinder to the movie than the comic, to the point where the adaptation is shockingly more poignant, relevant, ominous, prophetic, and indeed instructive than its inspiration. And I say that as someone who still holds the comic in the highest regard.

 

Whence the ambivalence on my part? It comes mostly from the fact that when V for Vendetta was released in 2005, it seemed a little cartoonish, over-the-top, and heavy-handed in its allegory. Fast-forward to 2020—roughly the year in which the film is set—and it almost feels as if it didn’t go far enough in envisioning the dystopian near-future. In a way, it’s as if it’s plotted a course for itself that’s exactly the opposite of Marx’s observation about the repetition of historical entities: What first appeared as farce now reads like tragedy.

 

Long story short, I’ve always liked the film, but I’ve never quite taken it as seriously as I now think it deserves to be

VENDETTA AT A GLANCE

This overtly political tale of resistance set in a dystopian 2020 was derided at the time of its release for not honoring its comic-book roots but feels uncomfortably relevant today.

 

PICTURE     

The visually dark movie doesn’t provide a lot of room for HDR to blossom, but the 4K presentation is satisfyingly faithful to its filmic look.

 

SOUND     

A demo-worthy Dolby Atmos soundtrack that helps address the clarity problems with the film’s dialogue while powerfully delivering its diverse soundtrack.

taken. And watching it now shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the rate of societal collapse over the 15 years since it was first released.

 

If you’re not familiar with V for Vendetta, it centers on a mysterious revolutionary known merely as V—”a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate”—and his attempt to inspire the oppressed subjects of a fascist regime to rise up and demand their liberty.

 

The Shakespeare-quoting, Count of Monte Cristo-loving V isn’t what you would call a hero by any measure, and his bone to pick with this regime is as much personal as philosophical. But that actually underscore’s the film’s central thesis: That while 

humans are flawed and individually weak, ideas have the power to change the world.

 

I could pick nits about the unnecessary changes the Wachowskis made in adapting the book to film, but one thing that can’t be denied is that McTeigue absolutely made the right call when he chose to embrace the cinematic form in his adaptation. Just as writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd built their comic

on a foundation of classic literature and illustration, then pushed it toward the cinematic, McTeigue builds his film on a foundation of classic cinema, then pushes it toward the comic-book form—and remember, this film came out a time before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made comic books cool in the eyes of the general public.

 

It isn’t just the reliance on classic Hollywood clips and stylistic references to earlier films that firmly root this adaptation in the cinematic tradition, though. McTeigue also made the brilliant choice of casting John Hurt—whom audiences will instantly associate with his turn as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984—as the Big Brother-like autocrat in this imagined future. This not only highlights the differences between the dystopian futures forecast by Orwell and Moore, but also serves as a subtle-but-effective warning about the oppressed becoming the oppressors.

 

Overall, V for Vendetta is an aesthetically dark film, which doesn’t leave much room for a high dynamic range grading that pushes contrasts to the extreme. But Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR download does add a lot of richness and detail to the shadows, and allows the occasional specular highlight more room to breathe without blowing out. As such, this ends up being one of the rare remasters where the increased resolution is just as impactful as the enhanced dynamic range.

 

Details and textures look simply spectacular in this new transfer, and although it’s unlikely V for Vendetta will make any videophile’s Top 10 list for best HDR releases of the year, cinephiles will go nuts over just how much more filmic this presentation is. The differences are subtle, but they add up to a much more faithful representation of the original camera

negative from which this new transfer was sourced. This may not be the title you pull out to push your projector to its limits, but it’s the most faithful home video transfer I could imagine for V for Vendetta.

 

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos remix, though? It’s definitely demo-worthy. V for Vendetta has always suffered somewhat in the intelligibility department by virtue of the fact that its main protagonist wears a rigid and resonant Guy Fawkes mask over the remains of his face, and anything less than flawless fidelity makes some of his vocalizations less than distinct.

 

V’s alliterative and magniloquent lines have simply never been delivered as clearly as they are in this remix, and the film’s soundtrack—which runs the gamut from Tchaikovsky to Stan Getz and João Gilberto—has never sounded this powerful, this beautifully resolved. I do think the overhead speakers are a bit overused at times, but that probably means most people will find the height effects perfectly appropriate. At any rate, given the choice between a slightly distracting at times Atmos mix and the muddled fidelity of the old, compressed 5.1 track, I’ll take the former any day.

 

I do wish the Kaleidescape download included the new bonus features added to 

V for Vendetta (2005)

the UHD Blu-ray release. All we get by way of extras are carry-overs from the original DVD release. But no matter. V for Vendetta stands on its own, without the need for supplementation.

 

At least, I think it does. Watching the film now, though, I can’t help but think that audiences still haven’t completely gotten the film. Yes, its iconography has been appropriated by hacker groups and the hashtag-resistance. But the moral of this story—that if you have principles and the courage of your convictions, you can win the support of the people—still struggles to break through the noise. If we don’t learn that lesson, our future will be even darker than the one portrayed herein.

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.

Ep. 10: What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies?

The Cineluxe Hour logo

After a longish hiatus, The Cineluxe Hour returns with a wide-ranging, freewheeling discussion of what’s been happening with new movie releases over the past year, and what that means for the movie theaters and for people watching films at home.

 

The episode opens with Cineluxe’s Dennis Burger, Michael Gaughn, and John Sciacca laying out the chronology from how the movie studios initially reacted to the pandemic through the decision to pull movies like Bloodshot, The Invisible Man, and Onward from theaters and offer them for home viewing.

 

At 9:35, John, Dennis, and Mike recount the events that led to the disastrous release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in theaters, and the impact that decision has had on other movie releases.

 

At 14:45, Dennis and John discuss their recent columns about Christie’s patent to allow theaters to send first-run movies to people’s homes.

 

18:37: How the pandemic has accelerated the decline of movie theaters and the flourishing of streaming, and how the theaters might not be able to recover.

 

20:25: How the proliferation of inexpensive high-quality big-screen video displays is allowing a much larger number of people to have a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. But John raises concerns that this could signal the end of the “event” movie.

 

27:15: Dennis discusses Disney’s decision to send Pixar’s Soul straight to Disney+ and to reorganize its company to focus on streaming.

 

31:30: Michael speculates that the world has changed so much over the past eight months that movies the studios have been hanging onto, like No Time to Die, The Batman, and Wonder Woman 1984, might seem out of touch and out of date by the time the studios finally release them.

 

And, lastly, at 34:07, everyone nominates their favorite older films that look exceptional after receiving a 4K HDR upgrade.

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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.

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

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

The Strange & Maddening Tale of Warner Bros. & HBO Max

The Strange & Maddening Tale of Warner Bros. & HBO Max

My daughter called me last week with what should have been a simple question: “Hey, do we have HBO?”

 

Insert a deep sigh here.

 

I explained to her that, yes, we do indeed have access to HBO Max, and that she would need to sign in with her login for our AT&T Mobile account. But before I could start to dig into all of the problems she might potentially have logging into the app, 

she thanked me, told me she loved me, and hung up. I knew she would be calling back.

 

Five minutes later, the phone rang again. “I can’t get it to work!” she said, obviously exasperated.

 

“Try using your email login rather than your mobile number,” I said. She quickly thanked me, told me she loved me, and hung up. But, again, I knew she would be calling back.

 

Two minutes later, the phone rang once more. “That doesn’t work, either!” So I asked her if she was trying to log into the

app directly or if she was using the “Sign In with TV or Mobile Provider” button. She confirmed that she was using the latter.

 

“I don’t know what to tell you, Punkin. HBO Max has just been a straight-up disaster since the day it launched. Maybe try again later?” And I could hear the frustration building in her voice.

 

“Why do you keep saying HBO Max? What is HBO Max? I just want to watch HBO!”

 

Mind you, my daughter is a tech-savvy Millennial currently attending graduate school. But when I explained to her that there were currently two HBO streaming apps—HBO and HBO Max—and that with the launch of the latter, the company discontinued HBO Go and rebranded HBO Now as simply HBO, but that we only had access to HBO Max and not HBO (at least I think that’s how it works), I may as well have been explaining integral calculus to our American Staffordshire Terrier.

 

And then I remembered something I probably should have thought to ask her from the giddy-up. “Baby, what device are you trying to log into this app on?”

 

“My Roku TV.”

 

“Ah, yeah, HBO Max isn’t on Roku. You’ll have to use your Xbox.”

 

I’ll elide the profanity that followed. I probably don’t need to, though. I can only imagine that if simply accessing this stupid app is so frustrating for a technology writer and his very tech-savvy daughter, it must be an outright nightmare for the casual consumer.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Any number of studio-centric streaming services are straightforward and easy to understand—easy enough that my 78-year-old father (a recent cord-cutter) has no trouble signing into Disney+ or CBS All Access or even Peacock, for goodness’ sake, much less other rivals like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

 

But given how horribly Warner Bros. (a subsidiary of WarnerMedia, owned by AT&T, which also owns HBO) has bungled pretty much every decision it has made this year, is it really any surprise that HBO Max sucks so spectacularly?

 

Just look at the way Warner has handled its theatrical releases in the midst of our current pandemic, constantly shuffling release dates incrementally while other studios have made bold moves, and how it insisted on releasing Tenet to theaters at a time when cinemas in New York and California weren’t even open, much to the detriment of those cinemas that were open and ended up operating at a loss just to exhibit that box-office flop.

 

It gets worse. In the chaotic shuffling that accompanied the launch of HBO Max, there has also been a lot of uncertainty about what would happen to the content streamed on DC Universe, a Warner-owned superhero-centric streaming service that was home to such popular shows as Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn. At first, it seemed that only Doom Patrol would be moving over to HBO Max. Now it seems that Warner is transitioning DC Universe into a digital-comic-book-only platform and folding all of DC Universe’s animated and live-action content into HBO Max. But sadly, DC Universe was the only Warner streaming platform with 4K HDR support. So fans who’ve become accustomed to watching their favorite shows in high quality will now have to suffer an HD downgrade (not to mention pay a heftier monthly subscription, unless they get HBO Max for free as part of their mobile subscriptions, and ugh! I’m getting a headache just typing all of this).

 

I don’t want to gloss over one of the main points of that last paragraph. Here in late 2020, verging on 2021, HBO Max—the premier streaming home for most WarnerMedia movies and TV shows—doesn’t offer any of its content in 4K HDR, and there’s no clear timeline for when it will.

 

Which means all of the big exclusives coming next year—including the long-awaited director’s cut of the butchered Justice League theatrical film—will probably stream in HD quality at best, without the benefit of Dolby Atmos audio. It also means that if you want to watch Game of Thrones in 4K, the only way to do so for now is via a chunky 33-disc boxed set.

 

So, just to summarize for those of you who haven’t been taking notes: Not only has Warner Bros. responded to a global pandemic with stubborn devotion to a dying distribution model, its parent company also seems incapable of putting together a streaming platform that makes a lick of sense, nor one that competes with other similar services in terms of AV quality. If WarnerMedia or AT&T or whoever is making these seemingly never-ending disastrous decisions doesn’t shape up and start cheating off of Disney’s paper, I have a sneaking suspicion one of the biggest casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic may well be Warner.

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.

Good Grief—The Peanuts Moving to Apple TV+ Isn’t the End of the World

Good Grief--The Peanuts Moving to Apple TV+ Isn't the End of the World

If Disney’s restructuring of its media and entertainment divisions to prepare for the streaming future of cinema wasn’t enough to convince you that the media landscape has forever changed, perhaps this will: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is now an Apple TV+ exclusive.

 

The move has been described as an “indignity” and “a disservice to American traditions and the common good” by commentators who probably haven’t watched the special in years. To be frank, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the Peanuts special—which has aired on ABC for the past 20 years and was broadcast by CBS before that every year since its 1966 debut—is such a cultural touchstone that removing it from the airwaves and putting it entirely in the streaming domain 

does seem almost sacrilegious. (Note that I said “almost.”) On the other hand, would we even be talking about The Great Pumpkin right now if not for this development? I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched it on broadcast TV, and I wouldn’t be able to now if I wanted to, since I’m a full-fledged cord-cutter.

 

Before you get up in arms about this (or, depending on your perspective, before you start cheering), there are a few relevant details about the development worth considering. Firstly, The Great Pumpkin will seemingly now be a permanent part of the Apple TV+ lineup, viewable any time of the year for those who subscribe to the service. 

Interestingly, though, Apple is also making the special free-to-stream for non-subscribers during a three-day window from October 30 through November 1. So, if the Peanuts gang is part of your annual Halloween tradition, you’ll still be able to tune in without shelling out $4.99 a month, assuming you own a smart TV or a streaming device such as a Roku or, of course, an Apple TV.

 

The same is true of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving—which will hit Apple TV+ on November 18 and stream free from November 25 to November 27—and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which joins the permanent Apple TV+ lineup on December 4, with a free-to-view period running December 11 through December 13. Will these three-day free windows become an annual tradition? One can assume so. And Apple has also announced the development of a glut of new Peanuts holiday specials, including ones for Mother’s Day, New Year’s, and Earth Day.

 

It’s a big win for the streaming service, which hasn’t enjoyed the same success as competitors like Netflix and Disney+. But will it be a similar win for viewers? That’s a tougher question to answer. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has been available on home video for years now, and I’m pretty sure I recently saw the special-edition DVD in the $5 bin at Walmart, so it’s not as if this is some sacred artifact that loses its luster if audiences can view it more than once a year in this specific release window.

 

And as I said, as someone who doesn’t own the DVD, and who no longer subscribes to cable or satellite (and who also, not incidentally, lives in a neighborhood full of 100- and 200-foot-tall trees, making antenna reception all but impossible), this free Apple TV+ release means I’ll be able to watch The Great Pumpkin for the first time in years. And I plan to do so.

 

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that something about all of this just feels a little wrong. Not an affront to the soul of America, as some would have you believe, but still . . . just a little wrong.

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.

Demo Scenes: It (2017)

Demo Scenes: It
The S.S. Georgie & the Sewer
(Chapter 1, 5:09–9:11)

 

A great home theater demo scene should accomplish a handful of things, aside from merely looking and sounding great. It should be compelling in its own right, even if you’re not familiar with the movie from which it’s pulled. It shouldn’t spoil anything major about the story. And in terms of imagery and sound, it should engage the viewers in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as effective on a lesser AV system.

 

The opening chapter of It—the first of two movies to adapt Stephen King’s beloved 1,138-page horror opus—does all of that and more, especially the 4K/HDR release with Dolby Atmos sound. If you own the film on Kaleidescape, you can access the best parts of this opening sequence by navigating to the Scenes collection and picking the first option: “The S.S. Georgie & 

RELATED REVIEW

Demo Scenes: It

the Sewer.” If you own the film on disc or via another digital retailer like Vudu or iTunes, just press play and let the opening of the film run. You’ll have to sit through the opening credits and a few establishing shots, but it doesn’t add a lot of unnecessary length to the demo.

 

The real show starts at around the 5-minute mark, as little Georgie Denbrough—the younger brother of one of the movie’s main protagonists—ventures out into a storm to test his new and freshly waxed paper boat in the suburban streets of Derry, Maine.

Though the weather may be frightful, the imagery here is absolutely delightful, thanks largely to the blend of inky shadows and striking highlights caused by projectiles of rain bombarding the slick neighborhood blacktop. The visuals are matched by an equally engrossing Dolby Atmos sound mix, which fills the room not only with the sound of falling rain and splashing puddles but also with the fantastical score by Benjamin Wallfisch (whose work you may also remember from Shazam! and Blade Runner 2049). The music starts playfully, perhaps even innocently, but takes a turn for the sinister as little Georgie’s waxed paper boat slips away from him and rockets down the gutters toward the open maw of a storm sewer nearby.

 

The shadows in this storm drain are so stygian that it’s honestly a shock when the visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown appears therein, first as a pair of creepy eyes floating in utter darkness, then as a murderous grin hovering in a stray beam of almost-but-not-quite-complete blackness. From here on out, the scene would strain the confines of creepiness even if it were just Pennywise and Georgie talking across the lip of the storm sewer. But the movie cranks the tension to even higher levels by filling the overhead channels with a haunting mix of thunder, wind chimes, and strings that sound more like they’re being tortured than played.

 

You don’t have to be a spooky-movie expert to know that things aren’t building toward a happy ending for little Georgie here. Heck, you don’t even have to look at the screen to know that Pennywise is up to no good. But the audiovisual experience here is just so enthralling that you won’t be able to cover your eyes (or your ears) even if you want to.

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 Turns Christie’s Big Announcement Into Old News

Disney Turns Christie's Big Announcement Into Old News

In his story about Christie Digital’s recently announced cinema-to-home movie-distribution technology, John Sciacca posed a simple question: Is this “a good or bad thing for commercial theaters“? Not to be completely contrarian here, but I think that’s the wrong question. What I wonder is whether it’s relevant at all.

 

And look, I don’t mean to dismiss Christie Digital’s technology out of hand here. To get a sense of what that technology is, exactly, and how it works, I downloaded the patent application and read it from beginning to end. What’s found within is an explanation of some pretty cool tech. What the patent makes clear (and Christie’s announcement doesn’t) is that this new distribution method won’t require the use of Christie hardware on both ends. From the patent:

As described below, these systems and methods provide a hardware based technological solution that enables the mirroring of movie theater content and the insertion of targeted advertisements to offsite locations and devices (e.g., a remotely situated projector, a user’s television or mobile device, etc.). 

In other words, once this new system goes live (assuming it actually does), you’ll be able to log into a website or an app on your phone or smart TV (or, one would hope, your streaming media player) and reserve a viewing of a film. According to images embedded in the patent, it should work just like buying tickets for a show at your local cineplex: You pick your movie,

pick your start time, then sit back and watch all of the attached trailers and promo spots for the concession stand that you would see if you were actually sitting in your local IMAX, along with a few additional ads targeted at home viewers.

 

The one extra step required (if my reading of the patent is correct) is that you may also have to select your playback resolution, as it says 4K streams may cost more than 2K streams (each of which, by the way, would be transcoded to Ultra HD [3,840 x 2,160] or HD [1,920 x 1,080] resolutions from 4,096 x 2,160 or 2,048 x 1,080 to account for the differences between digital cinema and home video formats).

 

While a cinema can have any number of “virtual” screenings, and while they don’t necessarily have to be tied to the start times of in-person screenings, the schedule of these streams will still be dictated by the cinema. So, hypothetically, if you want to start watching Dune at 7:45 and your local cinema is only streaming it at 6:30 and 9:00, you’re out of luck. (There is, buried in the patent, a provision that would allow cinemas to reserve an Integrated Media Block [IMB] and Secure Content Transcoder [SCT] on their end for single-ticket VOD purchases, but I hesitate to speculate what that luxury would cost. At least in terms of server and hardware commitments on the part of the cinema, that’s effectively the same as letting you rent out an entire auditorium, since you and you alone would be consuming the output of one virtual screening system.)

 

If all of this had come out a year or two ago when we were all still speculating about how day & date would work, you could have easily argued that Christie’s solution to first-run movie-viewing at home was the simplest and most likely to succeed.

 

Fast-forward to this dumpster-fire of a year, though, and it all seems too little too late. We’ve already seen day & date work, and it doesn’t require this convoluted Rube Goldberg reliance on someone at your local cinema pressing a button that allows you to start watching at their convenience. We’ve seen films like Onward hit Disney+ as well as other digital platforms like Kaleidescape and Vudu. We’ve seen Bill & Ted do the same. We’ve seen movies like Enola Holmes go from being prospective commercial cinema tentpoles to Netflix exclusives.

 

While we’ve seen so many potential blockbusters get pushed back and back and back again, we’ve seen others—like Hamilton—get moved forward in the release schedule and dropped right into our laps at home. And, of course, there’s Disney’s risky gamble with Mulan, which reportedly paid off big-time. So much so that the company is restructuring its media and entertainment divisions and doubling down on its commitment to streaming as the future of cinema.

In other words, Hollywood has proven to us that commercial cinemas don’t have to play a part in a viable film release. The fact that they continue to do so with certain films is a choice, pure and simple. And much like this country’s broken private-medical-insurance scam, it’s a choice that doesn’t benefit the end user in the slightest, instead benefiting only the racket-like middleman we’ve all been conditioned to believe is essential to the process.

 

When things finally go back to normal, or when we finally arrive at a new normal, and are able to safely attend mass gatherings, I have to wonder if audiences will return to commercial cinemas in anything approaching the same numbers as before. Sure, the pathological extroverts will flock to those sticky floors, busted speakers, and overpriced concessions like moths to a flame, since their own laughter and cheering is meaningless to them unless a few dozen of their closest strangers are there to affirm their emotional reactions. And it would be unfair to overlook people who don’t have high-performance AV systems at home. They benefit from a trip to the local megaplex, as well.

 

But the rest of us have been to the promised land, and we’ve learned from experience that the horse-and-buggy method of film distribution isn’t necessary anymore. And I just don’t see many of us tolerating the vestiges of a dying model (locked-in start times, forced commercials, etc.) when we know it doesn’t have to be that way. You can’t blame Christie for trying, since they have a vested interest in the success of commercial cinemas. But all of this seems to me to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t have to exist.

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.

Review: It (2017)

It (2017)

Had I known going in just how drastically Andy Muschietti restructured Stephen King’s It when adapting the 1,138-page novel into two movies, I probably never would have given it a chance. In case you’re not familiar with the book, it follows the adventures and tribulations of seven friends known collectively as “The Loser’s Club,” cutting back and forth between their adolescent and adult encounters with a shapeshifting, homicidal cosmic horror who takes the form of a clown known as Pennywise.

 

The intercutting between the characters as adults and adolescents is crucial to the plot (not to mention the emotional impact) of the novel, so if you had told me ahead of time that Muschietti shuffled the story like a deck of cards, then laid out the 

events in chronological order, with the first movie focusing on the story of the Loser’s Club as kids and the second serving as a sequel focusing on their adult experiences, I would have explained to you (probably with as much condescension as I could humanly muster) that such an approach would miss the point of the book entirely.

 

And although that may be the case, what Muschietti has done is turn this story into two distinct stories, each with its own themes, and each of which—much to my pleasant surprise—works as its own self-contained experience, with a proper beginning, middle, and ending.

 

The other big change Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman made to the source material was an update to the timeline. Rather than starting in 1957, as does the book, It moves the Loser’s Club’s youth to 1989, and also adds a couple of years to their ages. The former change not only allows the cinematic sequel to take place in the present day, but also allows Muschietti to rely on cultural references that

IT AT A GLANCE

This hugely creepy, hugely successful Stephen King adaptation makes for amazing demo material, even though the 4K transfer comes from a 2K source.

 

PICTURE     

The Kaleidescape download does a great job with the movie’s rich and gorgeous palette, retaining all the definition and detail, with HDR bringing extra depth to the shadows in this super-dark film.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is aggressive as hell, with britches-leg-flapping bass, but dialogue sometimes gets lost in all the audio mayhem.

will likely be a bit more familiar to modern audiences. The latter change keeps the film from veering too far into exploitative territory and also makes the story somewhat more believable.

 

Muschietti and Dauberman also removed some of the cosmic/spiritual aspects of the story that strain credulity to its breaking point, and what we’re left with is a movie that, in many ways, sort of feels like a scary, R-rated riff on The Goonies. There are also shades of Stranger Things here and there (and not merely because Finn Wolfhard, that series’ star, plays a key role in the film).

 

Despite the comparisons, It manages to carve out its own identity. A lot of the credit for that goes to Bill Skarsgård, whose performance as Pennywise is unforgettable. Rather than borrow anything from Tim Curry, who played the role first in ABC’s

two-part miniseries adaptation from 1990, Skarsgård makes the character his own, bringing a wholly alien physicality to the performance that makes one thing abundantly clear from the giddy-up: This isn’t your garden-variety sewer-dwelling murder-clown we’re dealing with here.

 

The look of the film also contributes to the sort of distinctive and effective personality lacking in so many of today’s horror movies. Shot on ArriRaw in a combination of 2.8K

and 3.4K, It has a rich and gorgeous palette that makes even its most pedestrian scenes visually engaging. What’s more, you’d never know from looking at the imagery’s crisp edges, luscious textures, and fine detail that it was finished in a 2K digital intermediate. This movie is further proof that this sort of thing just doesn’t matter as much as some people would have you believe. The important thing is that Kaleidescape’s download is above reproach in terms of definition and detail. HDR is also put to good use, not only in delivering the movie’s rich colors but also in allowing a good bit of extra depth in the shadows. Make no mistake about it—It is an incredibly dark film—one that should be viewed in a completely light-controlled room. But even with the lights out, the Blu-ray release made portions so inscrutably dark that it was difficult to tell what was going on at all. The 4K HDR transfer rectifies that at least enough to make even the darkest scenes discernible.

Long story short, it may come from a 2K DI, but the 4K HDR release of It—at least as presented by Kaleidescape—is amazing video demo material, and comes darn close to being a reference-quality transfer.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos is also everything you would expect the soundtrack for a movie like this to be. Directional sound effects are aggressive as hell, the bass is absolutely britches-leg-flapping, and the overall creepy ambiance of the movie is handled fantastically by the soundtrack. My only real beef here is that voices occasionally get lost in the mix. Don’t blame your center speaker if you find some of the dialogue a bit unintelligible; instead blame the sound engineers. That said, this problem isn’t nearly so bad here as it has been in the past few Chris Nolan films.

 

As for the movie itself, my only real beef is that it feels a little short. An odd statement to make about a 135-minute horror flick, I know, but It is so packed with characters, most of whom have their own compelling individual storylines distinct from the group dynamic, that it just whizzes by. A few extra minutes’ worth of runtime would have allowed Muschietti to flesh out a couple of characters that seem underserved here. Stanley Uris, for example—played wonderfully by the

It (2017)

young Wyatt Oleff—serves such a minor role in the overall story that he could have just as easily been written out of the screenplay and it hardly would have been the biggest departure from the novel. The relationship between Eddie Kaspbrak and his mother is also a bit undeveloped, leaving the resolution of their storyline feeling somewhat unsatisfying.

 

Those quibbles aside, It is a surprisingly good horror movie that thankfully relies more on scares than gross-outs to keep you glued to the screen and huddled under your blanket. Don’t go into it expecting a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s book (although, given how poorly that one has aged, that’s probably a good thing), but do go in expecting a very satisfying reinterpretation of parts of the novel—one that absolutely works on its own terms, whether you have any intention of watching the sequel or not.

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.