Kaleidescape Tag

Review: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)

When you talk about classic films that have served as the basis for modern movies being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, you’d have to include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. With a budget of $13 million, it was the most expensive film of its day, and its success likely went on to lead studios to greenlight other epic films like Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Lawrence of Arabia, which certainly paved the way for bigger and bigger films down to our day. 

 

As I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, as much as I’m a film lover, I have some gaping holes in the list of classic films I’ve seen. After checking off Spartacus and My Fair Lady I was happy to add Commandments to my list, especially when the new 4K 

HDR version released for the film’s 65th anniversary arrived at Kaleidescape.

 

With a run time of 3 hours and 51 minutes, Commandments is a whopping 127.1 Gigabyte download, meaning there is a significant amount of information here that couldn’t fit onto a single 100 GB 4K Blu-ray disc. For those looking to see this movie in its finest quality, the Kaleidescape version is the way to go.

 

According to Paramount Home Entertainment’s press release:

 

As part of the restoration done in 2010, the film was scanned in 6K and those files were the basis for this brand-new Dolby Vision version, which shows off the full beauty of the original VistaVision negative. The VistaVision format used special cameras to feed 35mm film into the camera horizontally in order to capture a wider image spread over two 35mm film

COMMANDMENTS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic gives a great sense of what it must have been like to see an “event” film in the age of the movie palaces.

 

PICTURE
Colors are rich and vibrant throughout, and there’s a surprising amount of detail in the images, although the seams sometimes show in the Academy Award-winning effects work.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix is mainly spread across the front three channels, resulting in clear presentation of the dialogue.

frames, giving VistaVision twice the resolution of regular 35mm film. In addition, Paramount spent well over 150 hours doing new color work and cleanup on the scan. The move to Dolby Vision created the opportunity to further improve the look of the film: blacks are enhanced and improvements were made to smooth out special effects mattes to create the most vibrant and pristine image possible. The 4K film presentation contains an introduction by DeMille, an intermission, an overture/exit music card, and an entr’acte card, along with a DTS-HD 5.1 lossless soundtrack.

 

Viewing these epics certainly gives you a glimpse into the spectacle that was not only filmmaking but film-going in that earlier era of cinema. At nearly four hours, this would have been an evening event that played at a classic movie palace like Radio City Music Hall, possibly with a live orchestra performing before the movie, and it’s easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed filmgoers out for a night on the town working their way down aisles and into the auditorium to find their seats while the overture that precedes the film plays. As the music stops, the screen fills with images of curtains opening to reveal director DeMille introducing the movie and explaining the lengths they went to to ensure its accuracy and how they relied on historians to fill in the missing 30 years of Moses’ life not chronicled in the Bible. In fact, it’s not until 8:30 into the run time that all of the credits and opening pomp have concluded and the film actually starts.

 

Of course, with a film of this length, audiences would get restless, so there is an intermission—more accurately an entr’acte—where they could file out to the lobby, use the restroom, grab some concessions, and discuss the film’s exciting first half. 

Following the conclusion, the house lights would raise and the audience would slowly shuffle out as the film’s score played and an “Exit Music” card filled the screen.

 

I’ve been to many opening nights of major films, but they no longer carry this kind of gravitas and event feel, a bit how I imagine air or train travel would have been like in the early days.

 

This first half of the film (up to the entr’acte at 2 hours 16 minutes) concerns itself with the biblical account of Moses found in Exodus Chapters 2-3, where Moses (Charlton 

Heston) is found as a baby floating in a basket on the Nile River and raised by Bithiah (Nina Foch), a daughter of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke). Sethi’s son, Rameses (Yul Brynner) is jealous of Moses’ success and attention and rivalry for the throne, and after Moses kills an Egyptian, master builder Baka (Vincent Price), Rameses banishes Moses from the land, where he is forced to wander in the wilderness. There he discovers Jethro (Eduard Franz) and marries his daughter Zipporah (changed to Sephora in the film, Yvonne De Carlo), and ultimately receives his assignment from God (in the form of a burning bush) to release his people from Egypt’s bondage. The second part of the film focuses on Exodus 5-14, with the ten plagues delivered against Egypt, and Pharaoh Rameses ultimately freeing the slaves from bondage and letting them leave Egypt, only to change his mind and then confront Moses at the Red Sea; and then accounts from Exodus 20 and 32 where God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses while the people craft a Golden Calf to worship after Moses has spent so long on top of Mount Sinai.

 

Despite DeMille’s opening comments, there is some liberal interpretation of the events actually recorded in the Bible, with characters added, storylines extrapolated, and timelines moved around. A more accurate telling of Moses’ story can actually be found in DreamWork’s excellent 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt. I was also surprised the film chose to gloss over and just mention seven of the ten plagues, arguably some of the most exciting parts of the Exodus account. We also get the classic “Old Hollywood” oddness of casting young people to play older characters, with the woman playing Moses’ adoptive Mother, Foch, actually being a year younger than Heston. 

 

Accuracy aside, this is a sweeping tale that is a visual spectacle, especially the grand outdoor scenes filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula. Where Spartacus was known for hiring a cast of thousands to portray the Roman armies, I never really felt like I was seeing that immense scale of people up on screen. Here, however, in the scenes where the Israelites are working as slaves building monuments and then when leaving Egypt, the screen is literally filled with people and animals, giving it a massive scope and scale. The sheer enormity of the production and logistics of filming these scenes is incredibly impressive, especially when you understand that every person and animal on screen is real—something that would surely be created far less expensively in CGI today. The results of the restoration process are certainly impressive, with clean, sharp-edged images and tons of detail throughout. Excessive grain has certainly been cleaned away, but without giving the film an unnatural look. 

 

Closeups reveal the intricacy and ornate designs of Egyptian necklaces and jewelry and carvings, or the texture of fabric and cloth worn by Pharaoh, and the pebbling and wear in stone blocks or monuments. Even long-range shots—such as one of a mass group of slaves harvesting straw to make into bricks—have great depth and focus.

 

Colors are also rich and vibrant throughout, such as when Moses returns from Ethiopia with tribal people in bright-colored dress, or the many golden elements throughout Egypt, or the sparkles and shimmer found in drapes, Pharaoh’s headdress, and other costumes. Shadow detail is good throughout, including interior scenes lit by torches producing nice golden hues and rich shadows. 

 

Interestingly, there were two moments when the color “green” is specifically mentioned where the objects are not green. One is when an Ethiopian princess says she wants to give Moses “this green stone from our mountains” and the stone is blue 

looking, and another scene where they are told to raise a green pennant and the pennants are more a teal/light-blue color. Whether this was due to missing elements or just the difficulties of working with the Technicolor film negative I can’t say.

 

I also never noticed any of the excessive soft focus (Vaseline on the lens) that seemed to plague every scene showing Varinia (Jean Simmons) in Spartacus. Image quality throughout Ten Commandments was consistently terrific, less a couple of scenes (such as one of Moses wandering in the desert and another where he goes to the burning bush) that looked far more aged/less restored than others, perhaps due to damage to the original negative.

 

Of course, one can’t expect perfection from a 65-year-old film, and there are bits where Commandments shows its age. Process shots filmed using either matte paintings or rear projection are noticeably softer and grainier, making them stand out even more. There are significantly visible black edges around objects in the foreground of composite shots. Also, some of the scenes—for example the women bathing before Moses is discovered—look like they are shot on a set.

 

While certainly dated by today’s standards, the Academy Award-winning effects 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

in the film—Moses’ staff turning into a serpent, Death coming into the Egyptians’ homes, and especially the parting of the Red Sea—still hold up remarkably well, and I can only imagine how impressive they would have been for their time.

 

Sonically, even though the film has a new 5.1-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, it is mostly a three-channel affair across the front speakers. Dialogue remains clear and easy to understand, anchored in the center channel, with the orchestration given some room and width across the front left/right speakers, as well as some of the crowd and army noises. If anything was mixed into the surround speakers, it certainly didn’t overly call attention to itself.

 

With the advent of CGI, it’s likely we will never have a modern film of the scope and scale of The Ten Commandments. Ranked as one of the AFI’s Top 10 epic films of all time, and nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), The Ten Commandments is certainly a film worthy of your home theater. There’s also no doubt it has ever looked better than what we have here, and while its runtime is a bit daunting, the intermission provides a natural breaking point, making it easy to split over two evenings, giving you a wonderful trip back into classic Hollywood. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Gattaca

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

On the surface, Gattaca might seem a bit of an odd choice for Sony to select from its catalog to give a new 4K HDR restoration and transfer. Released in 1997—meaning it missed the 20th anniversary and is a bit early for the 25th—with a reported budget of $36 million, the film only brought in $12.5 million at the box office. Even with relatively high Rotten Tomatoes critics (83%) and audience (87%) scores, and sitting at No. 22 on IMDB’s list of the top sci-fi movies of all time, the film never really gained much traction and likely wasn’t on anyone’s list of titles that needed a 4K release. However, the themes of institutional discrimination—based on genetics here rather than race—make it pretty timely for viewing, and much 

of the science in this set in the “not-too-distant future” seems pretty much within grasp of our modern technology.

 

I generally like a dose of action with my sci-fi, but that’s not the deal here. In fact, for a sci-fi film, Gattaca has almost no action or even special effects. Instead, it relies on the strength of its premise, and succeeds by just telling an interesting, compelling, and believable story performed by a superb cast. It also has a pretty compressed timeline, with the principal action taking place over a span of just a few days (with some flashbacks to fill in story points), which keeps it moving along.

 

With eugenics being the principal driver of the film’s theme and plot, the title “Gattaca” comes from the letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA, being adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. In this future, all humans are genetically-typed at birth, and any inherent flaws, like a propensity for bi-polar disorder, heart conditions, and even

GATTACA AT A GLANCE

This 1997 sci-fi tale of genetic discrimination still holds up and looks great in this 4K HDR restoration.

 

PICTURE
The UHD transfer delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob the movie of its original film look.

 

SOUND     

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack focuses most of its attention on delivering clear dialogue but also uses the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive.

a predicted lifespan, are cataloged. This information, which is stored in a national registry, follows you through life, determining what you are eligible to do. Those with any issues are considered “Invalid” and relegated to performing menial jobs, essentially locked out from being able to succeed.

 

To ensure children have the best options in life, genetic engineers can help with designer DNA—for a price. With these modifications, they can not only eliminate any flaws or defects to make sure children are “Valid,” they can also give them additional skills and traits to excel, and even a lengthened lifespan. But, the better the modifications, the higher the cost. DNA is the commodity in this world, and everything from dating to job interviews is based on a quick scan of one’s genetic material. 

 

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a natural-born child with no genetic modifications, but his genetic profile contains numerous flaws, including a 99% chance of a heart defect and an estimated lifespan of just 30.2 years. Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), on the other hand, was dealt a near-perfect genetic hand and his profile will open any door. Unfortunately, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. With help from a black-market matchmaker—and some body modifications—Vincent becomes a “borrowed ladder” and assumes Jerome’s identity. This creates a symbiotic relationship where Vincent is able to pursue his dream job due to the doors Jerome’s DNA can open—“You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix under your arm”—and Vincent uses his income to support Jerome in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. And with the interview consisting of just a single urine sample of Jerome’s “pure” DNA, Vincent lands the job at Gattaca Aerospace, where he is on track to serve as engineer on an upcoming rocket to the Saturn moon Titan—a launch window lasting just seven days that opens once every 70 years. 

 

Vincent and Jerome go to great lengths and are fanatical about keeping Vincent’s DNA and true identity hidden. Things are going great with Vincent excelling at his position at Gattaca, but just days before the scheduled launch, a director there is murdered inside the labs and the feds are called in to investigate—a process that involves vacuuming up all genetic materials there and DNA testing all employees. When a stray eyelash identifies that an Invalid—Vincent—was inside Gattaca, he becomes the prime suspect, and Detectives Hugo (Alan Arkin) and Anton (Loren Den) doggedly pursue him. During this, Vincent falls for co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), who becomes a further piece he needs to juggle and keep his truth hidden from. 

 

As the countdown to launch looms, and with the Feds closing in with random and more invasive genetic testing, will Vincent be caught or will he go to space? 

 

Gattaca has a very cool and stylish look, feeling a bit noirish. Although set in the future, the vehicles, the architecture and interiors, and even technology like watch phones and DNA readers, have a retro look. The film doesn’t concern itself with trying to be too futuristic—there are no holograms, hover vehicles, or robots, which makes it easy to buy into.

 

Originally filmed on 35mm stock, this version is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Images are clean throughout, with just a bit of grain and noise in some scenes, like light-blue skies or some blown-out whites, and edges are nice and sharp as well.

 

While the movie doesn’t have the tack-sharp look of modern digitally shot movies, it delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob it of its original film look. Closeups show the pinpoint detail and stitching in clothing, or pores and whiskers on actor’s faces, less Uma Thurman, whose face looks smooth and flawless. Only one scene really jumped out—at 1:25:30, near the end of the movie, where Vincent and Irene are talking after his true identity is revealed—where the grain 

was so cleaned away that images were startlingly modern-looking.

 

Color is also used throughout to give Gattaca its look. We have futuristic cool blues, metallics, greys, and blacks in some scenes and rich golden hues in others, especially when Vincent is looking back on his past. The HDR grade does a nice job here of delivering these colors as well as deep, clean blacks along with nice shades and rich shadow detail, and with bright highlights and punchy greens from computer monitors and screens.

 

Gattaca also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix, and while most of the attention is focused on delivering clear dialogue, they also used the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive. During the opening scenes, we see bits of fingernails and snips of hair falling on screen in slow motion, and these land and bounce with heavy bass thunks, and we get the delicate sounds of each hair landing and being placed exactly in space in the front of the room. The listening room also fills with little atmospherics to establish a scene, like hums inside a building, wind blowing, or machinery noise.

 

The height channels are used to expand the soundtrack by playing the reverb and echo from PA announcements in the Gattaca offices, or lifting music from a jazz 

Gattaca (1997)

club or piano concerto up for a fuller presentation. The frequent rocket launches—viewed off in the distance by Vincent—also flare up into the ceiling and deliver some nice low end from your subwoofer. Another scene has Vincent crossing a very busy freeway, and the roar of traffic fills the room with the rush of cars coming from everywhere. Occasionally, this echoing and reverb of voices seems a bit overdone, such as when characters are talking inside the Gattaca offices, but it never lasts long enough to be too distracting.

 

Gattaca might be the perfect sci-fi film for people who aren’t really too into sci-fi. While it develops slowly and is light on action, the plot is intriguing, the acting is top-notch, and the visuals are compelling. And at just 106 minutes, it is long enough to develop its story and characters, but not too long to wear out its welcome. Also, the idea of wanting the opportunity to achieve your hopes and dreams regardless of the preconceptions others place on you—or your DNA—certainly makes Vincent a relatable character.  

John Sciacca

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

Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

As different as they are, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The two films overlap in time, and they both employ Fred Hampton as a character—the former in a bit part, the latter as its protagonist—and have some tangential overlap in terms of the other players involved. 

 

But while Sorkin’s film is a whitewashed work of puerile fantasy masquerading as dramatization that takes a bunch of radicals and employs them as distorted pawns in a piece of propaganda designed to glorify the safe, center-right establishment, Black Messiah is an almost entirely honest portrait of a human being who also just so happened to be a revolutionary. It may be 

one of the most honest biopics I’ve ever seen.

 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It does exhibit a few of the problems inherent in compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour narrative. But let’s set the quibbles aside for a moment and dig into what makes Black Messiah so great, despite its flaws.

 

The first thing is its acting. Almost across the board, the performances are captivating. The dialogue in particular is delivered with such authenticity that you almost have to wonder how much of it was improvised. People often misspeak and correct themselves, or stammer and repeat themselves, but almost none of it feels scripted or rehearsed.

 

This is all the more impressive when you consider that so much of what comes out of the Fred Hampton character’s mouth exactly mirrors speech uttered by the real Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya absolutely inhabits the role, and if you have

JUDAS AT A GLANCE

The story of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the people around him features consistently strong acting while avoiding most of the biopic clichés.

 

PICTURE
A study in rich, earthy hues, this is a surprisingly gorgeous film that doesn’t try to ape the look of its era.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix gives the music, which runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, room to breathe, although the improvisational approach to the acting make dialogue sometimes hard to make out.

any doubts about how well he’s captured Hampton’s mannerisms, speech patterns, gift for rhetoric, and undeniable charisma, you only need to watch a few minutes of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton.

 

In any other film, a performance like this would be a standout, but Kaluuya’s naturalism and believability is the rule rather than the exception. Equally compelling is Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. I can’t say how accurate her portrayal is since Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri) is an incredibly private person. Accurate or not, though, Fishback does more with a downturned look or a furrowed brow than most actors could convey in a soliloquy. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her because her essential humanity simply radiates off the screen.

 

LaKeith Stanfield is also fantastic as William O’Neal, the car-thief-turned-FBI-informant who acted as both agent provocateur within the Illinois Black Panther Party and also one of the key catalysts in Hampton’s assassination. Stanfield has perhaps

the most difficult job in the film, in that he has to portray internal conflict and nervous insincerity without Mickey Mousing it, and he does so almost flawlessly.

 

Also wonderful is Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who recruited O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to Hampton. It would have been really easy to play Mitchell as a villain, but as with Fishback, Plemons brings a 

lot of nuance to the part, mostly through his facial expressions. I’ve frankly rarely seen so much acting done with so few words.

 

Even the tertiary players turn in such authentic performances that at times you forget you’re watching a dramatization. The only less-than-stellar performance is by Martin Sheen, who shares the role of J. Edgar Hoover with ten pounds of prosthetics. He simply isn’t a good enough actor to do the part justice, and instead comes off like Martin Sheen wearing a good Halloween costume. If anything, he makes Hoover into an almost comedic mustache-twirler, which downplays the man’s true maliciousness.

 

As much credit as the rest of the cast deserves, some praise also needs to be aimed in the direction of screenwriter Will Berson and King himself, who shares screenplay credit. Whichever of the two wrote the lion’s share of the dialogue needs to be employed on any films set in this era, because no matter how good your actors are, it must be near impossible to write characters that deliver lines like “Right on!” and “Dig!” without devolving into parody. And there’s a lot of that sort of talk in the film—rightly so. But as with the acting, the language here simply rings true, except in those cases where its intentional inauthenticity is essential to the plot. 

 

There’s a fine line to walk when compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour dramatization, and Berson and King also deserve a lot of credit for mostly making the right choices. On the one hand, you have to pick between honesty and clarity. In almost every instance, the screenwriters err on the side of honesty, which means that some narrative threads can be a little tough to track at times, and do require you to keep a lot of data in RAM. When dealing with a film like this, I’ll take “a little too messy” over “a little too neat” any day of the week. The only time it ventures into too-neat territory is with its “thirty shekels of silver” scene near the end. I understand its metaphorical necessity, but the details of the scene are a bit of a white lie.

 

There’s also a choice to be made with a film like this between fact and truth. In almost every instance, the script errs on the side of truth. That means that sometimes similar events are amalgamated to avoid narrative redundancy. Some people are combined or, puzzlingly, renamed. But by and large, Black Messiah is more interested in providing a truthful portrayal of who Hampton was than getting every minor historical detail perfectly correct, since those details would only make sense in the context of a narrative that would span weeks or months, not mere hours. 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a surprisingly gorgeous film, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. Shot on a variety of Arri lenses in the ArriRaw format at 4.5K resolution and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, it is a study in rich, earthy hues. Its environs are dingy, its characters rarely well-dressed, and there’s a paucity of light that gives the picture a stark look at times. It’s a contrasty affair overall, and I dig the fact that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t attempt to film-look the footage. In short, Black Messiah doesn’t look like it was shot in 1969, because that would be redundant. The art design of the film establishes the setting; the processing of the imagery doesn’t need to.

 

What I like best is that there’s nearly nothing arbitrary about about the look of the film. The camera moves when it needs to move. Scenes are framed the way they need to be framed. There’s one gorgeous shot in which we stay tightly focused on O’Neal as he calls his FBI informant on a payphone. When he hangs up, the camera pulls back to take in his desolate surroundings. But it’s not a gratuitous composition. After his call, O’Neal is smaller, engulfed in a larger landscape, to spotlight the fact that he feels small, helpless, overwhelmed. It’s a subtle choice, indicative of the sort of decisions Bobbitt makes with the camera. After that scene, I stopped scrutinizing the cinematography because there’s such a wonderfully subliminal and effortless mastery to the composition of each shot that, by analyzing it, I found that I wasn’t letting it do its job. 

 

The high dynamic range is used primarily to give the imagery some expanded wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale. It’s a study in the subtle contrasts between inky blacks and nearly inky blacks. Kaluuya in particular has a very dark complexion, and in some scenes his features and facial expressions would have been lost in the shadows if not for HDR.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation preserves everything wonderful about its look, as well as its sound. You wouldn’t think this sort of film would benefit from a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it does. Interestingly, most of the ambient overhead effects are reserved for the score, which is a delightfully eclectic blend of jazz and funk with—at times—hints of Stravinsky and Holst peppered in for good measure. The music runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, and the Atmos mix gives it room to breathe, to ebb and flow in interesting ways you might not even

consciously notice.

 

If there’s any criticism to be leveled at the sound mix, it’s again an issue that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Given the natural rhythms of the dialogue, the spontaneous inflections and in-the-moment verisimilitude of it all, recording ADR for Black Messiah would have robbed it of much of its authentic energy. As such, the dialogue seems to have mostly been captured on-set, and at times it can be a little hard to parse. This movie is best experienced on a system with a lot of dynamic-range capacity and a hell of a good center speaker.

 

This is definitely a film you want to watch if you want to understand Fred Hampton—not as a mythical being, as the title would suggest, but as a man, community leader, reformer, and father-to-be. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t really interested in whether or not you like Fred Hampton or the Black Panthers. It doesn’t ask you to laud or loathe them. It’s just interested in showing you who they were, what they were about, and why they were such a threat to the institutional powers of the day. And it does so in the least heavy-handed way possible.

 

It’s hard to watch this film and not come away understanding that the most 

Judas and the Black Messiah

dangerous thing Hampton ever did was uniting the white southerners of the Young Patriots Organization and the Puerto Ricans of the Young Lords with the Black Panther Party to form the Rainbow Coalition. But King doesn’t force that realization on you. Nearly any other filmmaker would have done so, especially given how important this plot point is to the film’s overall thrust. It’s the key detail that turns Hampton’s story from one of racial struggle to one of class struggle, and most storytellers would have browbeat the viewer to drive this home. That King draws the dots but resists the urge to connect them speaks to his confidence not only in the intelligence of his audience, but also in his abilities as a filmmaker.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah may not be perfect, but it’s definitely one of the most (actually, one of the very few) important films I’ve seen in recent years. And if you missed its free-to-view run on HBO Max, you owe it to yourself to rent it as soon as possible. 

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 Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best films of the 1970s—maybe the best—and one of the most influential. That last part is ironic, in a way Altman would have appreciated, because there’s no way it can be in any legitimate sense true. Altman and Kubrick created films that came from such an intricate and hermetic personal aesthetic that it’s impossible to build upon them without having the effort result in tone-deaf travesty. That doesn’t mean legions haven’t tried, but all have failed.

 

I asked Altman once what he thought of the fact that The Long Goodbye closed almost as soon as it opened but has become possibly his best-known work. He deflected, with a purpose, saying that his Philip Marlowe fell asleep in the early ‘50s—the 

era of Chandler’s source novel—only to wake up in the early ‘70s, finding that his sense of chivalry was no longer in fashion and could only lead to disaster. Altman’s Marlowe would quickly become suicidal if he found himself transported to our sociopathic present.

 

The Long Goodbye both is and isn’t a detective movie; is an unforgiving evisceration of Chandler’s work and a very heartfelt tribute. It’s so cynical it verges on nihilism while it openly tries to figure out which values, if any, still have meaning. And because it lives both in and outside genre, it gets to feed from both worlds, very much like early Godard. There are very few films that feel this much like a movie.

 

Altman, of course, makes none of it easy, constantly toying with the audience like a sly, somewhat sadistic, cat. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did everything they could to make the film gritty, flashing the footage, flattening 

GOODBYE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman uses Philip Marlowe to take aim at post-Counterculture LA in what might be the best film of the ’70s.

 

PICTURE
The wall-to-wall grittiness of the film’s subversive beauty 
is retained in this Blu-ray-quality HD download.

 

SOUND     

The stereo mix does just fine with Altman’s layered dialogue and John Williams’ laughably good score—this movie doesn’t need surround.

the palette, pumping up the grain. The result eschews superficial prettiness, which tends to be fleeting, to tap into something much more sublime.

 

This is John Williams’ best score (no, I’m not being facetious) exactly because it’s so awful. Williams isn’t known for having a sense of humor so I have to wonder if he didn’t just write a bunch of straight cues, not fully aware of how Altman was planning to deploy them.

 

And then there’s Elliot Gould’s almost non-existent range as an actor, which Altman turns to the film’s advantage by making his Marlowe continually spout lame, often improvised, wisecracks. Altman has everything around Gould do the acting for him, which results in Marlowe coming across as a smug but ultimately lost figure.

 

To add irony to all the other irony, The Long Goodbye probably holds up as well as it does both because it’s Altman’s most genre-driven movie, and because enough of what’s best of Chandler’s work manages to survive the merciless beating it receives here to permeate the film and give it a resonance unique to Altman’s canon.

 

And if all of that is just a little too high-brow for you, watch this movie just to revel in the secondary casting. Sterling Hayden is still astonishing as the washed-up writer on a fatal binge. Just as nobody seeing him as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle could have anticipated his performance as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, nobody seeing those two earlier films could have ever seen his Roger Wade coming. And yet there’s something at Hayden’s core that creates a through-line that joins those characters in a way that goes well beyond their having been played by the same performer. 

And nobody seeing Henry Gibson on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Laugh-In could have anticipated his Dr. Veringer in a million years. Gibson and Altman conspired to pull off a tremendous practical joke that’s simultaneously, when seen from just the right angle, chilling. It’s that he’s the least likely villain ever that makes him so apt.

 

As for the presentation: How do you judge the image quality of a film that went out of its way to not look very good? To reference my earlier thought, there’s that beauty that comes from aping the styles of the present, which rarely ages well, and then there’s the beauty that comes from staying true to the demands of the material, even if it takes you to deeply unpleasant places. The Long Goodbye is gorgeous exactly because it’s lurid, and because it’s as lurid in the heart of the Malibu Colony as it is in a decrepit city jail. While there’s plenty of Southern California sunshine in evidence, it’s always accurately shown as monotonous or piercing, never pleasant.

 

This Blu-ray-quality HD download does a pretty good job of honoring what Altman and Zsigmond wrought, and you can’t help but recoil in horror at the thought of some culturally myopic tech team scrubbing it free of grain and trying to expand 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

its dynamic range. Still, matching the movie’s original resolution would likely yield huge improvements, and a deft touch with an appreciation for grunge could conjure up something amazing.

 

In a similar vein, should an upgrade someday come, someone should post a sign reading “Hands Off the Soundtrack” on the mixing-room door. This film would not benefit from a surround mix—stereo suits it just fine.

 

The Long Goodbye is the kind of art that appears when you just don’t care at all but can’t help but care a lot. It feeds from a wellspring of paradox and, while it wraps things up, it never really resolves a thing. There are no reliable guideposts. Nothing triumphs; nothing is vanquished. That constant troubling creates an energy that keeps Altman’s film vital and relevant, and impossible to dismiss as simply smart-ass. The result is nothing but a mess, but a strangely elegant one that somehow still rings very true. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe 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.

Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I was nine when the Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. I was never really a fan of the Star Trek TV series, but I was excited to see that movie as I was all hyped up on space and alien movies following Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the trailers looked like it would be an exciting film with good effects—really all a nine-year-old could hope for. 

 

The reality was, that film was so boring, I haven’t felt any need to ever see it again. Even 40-plus-years later I can recall going to sleep, waking up, and then going back to sleep again, just waiting for it to end. I’m sure my memory has clouded the reality of it, but I recall it being filled with agonizingly slow closeup pans of the Enterprise that felt like they lasted 30 minutes, as the

camera just moved all around the ship over and over. It was like the filmmakers were just so proud of this ship they had created, they wanted everyone to appreciate each and every inch of it.

 

Had this dud of a film been the first Star Trek movie today, it likely would have killed the franchise, with studios far less likely to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a second chance.

 

Fortunately, three years later under a different director we got what is widely considered the best film in the original series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Even so, Paramount strongly hedged its bet, giving Khan roughly 25% the budget of The Motion Picture.) We got a great villain, action, an easy-to-understand plot, and a massive shock of an ending that also set up the next film. This was the Star Trek critics and fans alike wanted, nabbing

KHAN AT A GLANCE

Probably the best film in the Star Trek franchise holds up surprisingly well in 4K HDR, despite some subpar effects shots and occasional softness.

 

PICTURE
When the shots are sharp, the images are clean with lots of detail. Solid blacks and punchy highlights throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is heavily focused on the front channels and pretty undynamic by modern standards.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ and Audience scores of 87 and 90% that have only been bested by one other film in the franchise, J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot starring Chris Pine at Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto filling the role of Spock.

 

Having recently rewatched the latest trilogy of films (all available in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio on both 4K Blu-ray and from Kaleidescape), and with Kaleidescape running a special pricing promotion on all Trek films, I thought it was time to revisit Khan and see how it held up after almost 40 years. And besides being a great film, Khan is also the only movie from both the William Shatner and Patrick Stewart eras that has been given a 4K HDR makeover, making it ready-for-primetime in a modern home theater.

 

The version available from Kaleidescape is a Director’s Cut that includes some three-plus minutes of additional footage. It’s been so long since I watched the film, I can’t tell you what was added back in, or if it has any real impact on the story. 

 

The movie begins with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) administering the famous Kobayashi Maru simulation to Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) who—as expected—fails badly. Admiral Kirk (Shatner) is now out of active command, depressed and sitting behind a desk at Starfleet. After some Romulan ale and a chat with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk decides to join the Enterprise crew on a routine training mission that, well, turns into not being so routine after another starship—the Reliant—is taken over by the genetically engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who was abandoned by Kirk on a planet to fend for himself 15 years ago. Khan has been plotting his revenge on Kirk for years, and now with the Reliant under his command—as well as possession of a powerful planetary terraforming device called Genesis—he is ready to deliver some revenge . . . a dish best served cold! 

 

For a “fresh” perspective on the movie, I watched with my 14-year-old daughter and her similar-aged friend, neither of whom had ever seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV shows. For them, the movie was a bit slow, taking too long to get to the action. They also found the effects and some of the acting a bit, shall we say, “dated” to put a kind word on it. 

 

While having nowhere near the level of lustful gazing found in The Motion Picture, we are still treated to a few lengthy slow shots as the camera gives us plenty of time to appreciate the Enterprise in all her glory, and Montalban’s enthusiastic performance of Khan is still great, with his impossible-to-ignore physique on display throughout. (Remember, he was 62 when this was released and looks like he just stepped out of the gym following a serious Chest-Day workout.) 

 

Compared to Star Wars—a film that had a similar budget and that debuted five years before—the effects in Khan are noticeably sub-par. (And, admittedly, haven’t benefitted from decades of the ILM effects’ team reworking . . .) Laser blasts and photon torpedoes look like they’ve just been drawn in, some of the ship flying sequences and explosions are clearly models, and one scene is very obviously on a stage with matte paintings. We also don’t get near the stage dressing and attention to detail—just take a look at a lot of the switches and knobs aboard instrument clusters on the Enterprise and it appears they don’t do anything. Of course, some of these are just byproducts of the era—and the difference of what we’ve come to expect from high-quality CGI—that are more noticeable now with 4K’s enhanced resolution and detail. 

 

Filmed in 35mm, the original negative “was in terrible shape” and received a 1080p remastering back in 2009 for the Blu-ray release. There’s no word (I could find) about the sourcing of this 4K HDR version, but my guess is that it is taken from a 2K digital intermediate.

 

The big thing you’ll notice here is how clean the images look. Right from the get-go, the title sequence and blackness of space just look clean and sharp. The shots in space all look especially good, with deep blacks and bright white star points. There is a fair bit of grain in the opening scenes aboard the Enterprise, but that seems to be less noticeable as the film goes on, or maybe I just got used to it. 

 

Another thing that really stood out is a pretty noticeable change in focus and sharpness in some scenes, sometimes even when cutting back and forth to two characters talking. At first, I thought it was maybe vanity defocusing to not show Shatner’s

age (51), but it wasn’t—he’s sharp and clear in some shots, and soft and diffuse in others. This is all the more noticeable because of the generally sharp edges and images throughout most of the film, with some images looking as clean and sharp as a modern production. When focus is sharp, closeups have tons of detail, revealing every line and wrinkle in Kirk’s face, pores in Khan’s chin, or the heavy facial makeup on Spock. You can also really appreciate the rich, thick burgundy felt texture of the uniform jackets worn by the Enterprise crew.

 

There are some bright highlights in the form of some strobing lightning flashes, stars, explosions, and video screens, but where HDR really benefits is in shadow detail and just overall realistic, natural-looking images. Color gamut didn’t look especially expanded, but we get some nicely saturated reds and greens.

 

The 4K HDR download features a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which differs from the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD audio found on the Blu-ray disc (and Kaleidescape Blu-ray download). This mix is heavily focused on the front three channels, and definitely seems pretty undynamic by modern standards.

 

Audio effects like wind sounds, sirens, alarms, and explosions get a bit of width, as does James Horner’s score. My processor’s Dolby upmixer did its best to 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

expand the soundstage, with some steam and engine sounds placed overhead; and the Enterprise jumping to warp speed had it streak high up across the ceiling. Fortunately, dialogue is pretty clear throughout.

 

Time has been mostly kind to Wrath of Khan, and it certainly has never looked as it does here. For Trek fans, this is a no-brainer—it’s great to revisit the original crew of the Enterprise on one of their finest voyages. But for those new to the series—and younger viewers—they might be better served jumping into the new films, which are certainly heavier on the action, effects, and sonic bombast. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking (2021)

On paper, Chaos Walking had all the makings for the start of a major franchise. Based on the successful award-winning trilogy of novels from Patrick Ness, the film is an adaptation of the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s also led by two major young stars: Tom Holland of recent Spider-Man MCU fame and Daisy Ridley from the final trilogy of Star Wars films. And it’s directed by Doug Liman, who also helmed The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat), with a significant budget of $100 million.

But history has shown us that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, and even though you have all the right ingredients and budget for a gourmet meal, you can still end up making a nothingburger. Which isn’t to say that Chaos Walking is a bad movie. In fact, it plays really well in a modern home theater with a very clever and active Dolby Atmos soundtrack and clean, sharp visuals. It’s just that watching it, you could see that it had the potential to be so much more.

 

I’m a fan of dystopian Young Adult fiction. I’ve read the trilogies in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, but I’d never heard of the Chaos Walking series, so I can’t offer any commentary on 

CHAOS AT A GLANCE

This adaption of the ‘Tween trilogy of the same name doesn’t live up to its potential, but does provide some diverting eye and ear candy.

 

PICTURE
The film looks great, with the images always clean and sharp.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, with the height channels frequently employed for ambient effects and dialogue.

how true the movie remains to the book. Sometimes, that’s the best way to go into a series, without bringing any of the preconceived ideas and expectations from a 500-page book that a film can almost never live up to. (I’d submit The Dark Tower as a prime example on how to run totally roughshod over a beloved series of books in a single 90-minute film.)

 

Chaos Walking had a torturous path to the big screen. After announcing Liman as director in 2016, principal photography began in 2017, with an original release date set for March 2019. However, after poor initial screenings, and scheduling conflicts of the leads delaying reshoots, and then a global pandemic, the film didn’t see its theatrical debut in the States until March 5. Following poor reviews (22% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and even poorer box office (grossing just $17 million worldwide), the film arrived on PVOD on April 2. It is now available as a premium rental option from Kaleidescape for $19.99, where it includes a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

The film opens with a title card reading:

 

“The Noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.”

—Unknown New World Settler

 

It’s the year 2257, and the settlement of Prentisstown on the planet New World is inhabited only by men. Every citizen’s thoughts are on display for all to see and hear, something they call The Noise. The town is run by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) along with Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), who we learn early on doesn’t get on well with the Holland character. 

 

We’re told that the native aliens on the planet, the Spackle, came and killed off all the women. One day while out walking in the forest, Todd Hewitt (Holland) comes across the wreckage of a crashed spacecraft. The sole survivor is Viola (Ridley), a woman who has no Noise, who goes on the run after hearing and seeing Todd’s Noise. The men of Prentisstown capture Viola, and she is questioned by the Mayor where she discloses that she was in a scout ship from a larger vessel filled with 4,000 people due to land any day. Viola escapes, and when it is clear that the men mean to do her harm, she and Todd go on the run looking for help in a neighboring settlement.

 

I found the premise interesting and compelling, and the plot device of seeing/hearing all of the men’s thoughts was a nice way of delivering exposition, along with some humor courtesy Holland, whose Noise is especially chatty, with his quips reminding me a bit of his Peter Parker. I also felt that Holland and Ridley did the most with what they were given, and Mikkelsen seems to dig into his role as the Mayor. It’s just that it never really got going, or offered enough information, character development or motivation, or drama to gain any real momentum—especially when the film’s big “surprise” reveal takes place about halfway through and then just leaves us with a typical chase as Prentiss and his men try to track down Viola and Todd.

 

Fortunately, the film at least looks great. Filmed on Arri at 6.5K, this is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and images are always clean and sharp. You can appreciate the different textures, patterns, and wear in the fabric worn by characters, and see great detail in the closeups of actors’ faces. The focus is also razor sharp in scenes, with objects having clear and

defined edges, letting you see individual twigs, sticks, and branches in the forest.

 

New World is very organic, with lots of forests and the settlement a bit like an Old West mining town, with an earthy color palette. There are a few shots of Viola in space prior to landing, and these have a far more modern feel—brighter, with lots of contrast from space and planets and the mechanical elements of her ship. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, and the HDR grade helps with lots of shadow detail in the forest, as well as bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows and cracks in wooden slats.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, and there are tons of ambient sounds from the forest scenes as characters move about New World or when a gadget blasts laser bolts all around the room. One scene has characters hiding under floorboards and overhearing a conversation, and you hear the creak of wood and the conversation happening up overhead.

 

The Noise plays a big part in the film, and the mixers use this as a nice audio element, placing characters’ thoughts up into the height channels or filling the room with literal noise in large crowd scenes. Because the Noise is mixed up into the height speakers, sometimes that dialogue can be a bit tricky to understand, 

Chaos Walking (2021)

especially when many other layers of sounds are happening, but you can clearly hear all the important parts. And you’ll hear “I’m Todd Hewitt—control your noise” being thought over and over (and over . . .) as he tries to block his thoughts from others.

 

There aren’t a ton of moments requiring big low-end effects, but your subs are called into play —occasionally significantly—when appropriate, such as when Viola’s ship is entering the atmosphere or during a galloping horse chase.

 

With an audience rating of 71%, Chaos Walking definitely has some appeal. And with it being released in theaters just a month ago, it is some of the freshest content you can view at home. While its leads probably have more appeal to a ‘Tween crowd, Chaos’ premise is compelling enough to hold your attention, and the eye and ear candy certainly make for a fun evening at home. 

John Sciacca

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

Ep. 16: Kaleidescape Turns 20

The Cineluxe Hour logo

In the early 2000s, everyone assumed it would be the large electronics companies like Samsung, Pioneer, and Sony that would figure out how to best organize DVD collections so they could be enjoyed in a home theater or throughout the home. So we were all surprised when the answer came not from the big boys but from a small Silicon Valley startup called Kaleidescape.

 

Founded by Michael Malcolm, Cheena Srinivasan, and Dan Collens, Kaleidescape used its expertise in networking and data storage to create an elegant way to store, access, and enjoy movies, a solution that eluded—and continues to elude—the major electronics companies. With its iconic user interface, ability to jump past trailers and warnings straight to the film, in-house curated metadata for each movie, and compatibility with virtually every control and automation system, Kaleidescape showed the world exactly what movie management should look like. 

 

In the ensuing two decades, Kaleidescape has rolled with the emergence of Blu-ray Discs and then online digital downloads, staying one step ahead of the new delivery technologies to create solutions that always put the customer experience first. Its movie store now offers the largest and most comprehensive collection of films in highest-quality 4K HDR and lossless audio from all the major Hollywood studios.

 

To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, we recently talked with co-founder Cheena Srinivasan, Kaleidescape customer-turned-new-CEO Tayloe Stansbury, and recently appointed marketing VP Norma Garcia-Muro about the company’s history, its current status, and its future opportunities. (Click here to read bios for Cheena, Tayloe, and Norma.)

 

Here are the highlights:

 

  0:50  John Sciacca talks about his experience reviewing the first Kaleidescape product.

  2:10   An early conversation John had with Cheena about online content delivery.

  3:21  Cheena describes the reaction to Kaleidescape’s introduction.

  3:52  Cheena on the founding of the company.

  5:24  Cheena on the development of the first product.

  8:30  The revolutionary impact of the onscreen display.

12:05  How Kaleidescape is more a software company than an AV company.

14:59  Tayloe’s early experiences as a Kaleidescape customer.

18:31  The development & introduction of the movie store.

22:23  The importance of backward compatibility.

24:14  The evolution of Tayloe’s Kaleidescape system.

26:22  How the Kaleidescape experience has remained the same as the hardware has evolved.

29:16  Norma on the movie studios’ perception of Kaleidescape.

31:55  Norma on her marketing initiatives for the company.

33:25  The unique passion Kaleidescape customers feel for the product.

35:43  The introduction of rental & PVOD titles to the service.

42:38  Kaleidescape’s status as a unique product & service.

44:39  Tayloe on the company’s near-term future.

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CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Michael GaughnThe 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.

Review: The Father

The Father (2020)

I was perhaps 15 minutes into Florian Zeller’s The Father—adapted from his 2012 play Le Père—before I pushed the Stop button and began the film again. It was somewhere around that mark that I came to the stark realization I was approaching it all wrong, foisting my own expectations onto an experience that isn’t compatible with any of them. 

 

The problem, I think, comes from the fact that the trailer—and indeed the first scene—sets you up for a film of the sort Eddie Izzard once described as “Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond,” just with the added drama of a daughter 

struggling to care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Truth be told, that could have been a pretty good film, but The Father is not that film. It’s something far more interesting, challenging, impactful, infuriating, and infinitely more meaningful.

 

Much of its brilliance comes from the fact that Zeller tells the story from the father’s point of view, which has the effect of taking the unreliable-narrator trope and cranking it to 11 in the most fascinating ways. Since the father doesn’t experience time linearly and he isn’t (can’t be) certain what is real, and since the past is more vivid and tangible to him than the present, he of course goes through all the stages of confusion, disorientation, rage, and paranoia familiar to any of us who’ve watched a loved one suffer the indignities of dementia.

 

Zeller uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to force 

THE FATHER AT A GLANCE

This tale of dementia turns out to have more in common with Kubrick’s The Shining than with Room with a View.

 

PICTURE
Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack mainly uses the front three channels, which suits the movie perfectly since much of the audio is dialogue.

these emotions on the viewer, which results in a film that’s hard to pin down in terms of genre. The ratcheting tension and discomfort evoke the trappings of psychological thriller, but there are no thrills to uncover here. The elements of disorientation and alienation give the work a somewhat Kafkaesque vibe, but without the humor. The disconnect from the linear flow of time may cause some to draw parallels between this film and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but I only bring that up to dismiss it out of hand. The Father is nowhere near that gimmicky.

 

The closest comparison I could make, I suppose, would be Kubrick’s The Shining, which would put The Father in the tradition of horror, despite the complete lack of the supernatural. That notion resonates with me, but not completely. I think I kept returning to The Shining as a point of reference because Zeller uses architecture in a way that’s not dissimilar to Kubrick’s 

employment of spatial contradictions to keep the viewer off balance. The Father, by contrast, uses temporal inconsistencies, combined with spatial similarities, to pull the viewer in two different directions. There’s a false sense of security that comes from thinking we know where (and, indeed, when) we are, based on visual clues that may or may not be dependable anchors.

 

All of these points of reference and attempts to find some reliable ground to stand on did pull me out of the experience of The Father to some degree at first. I also found myself somewhat consumed by thoughts of how this story would unfold on the stage, because stagecraft must, in some way, 

change the telling of it. Unlike so many stage-to-screen adaptations, this one is nearly impossible to imagine unfolding in an auditorium, surrounded by an audience.

 

Around the halfway point of this relatively short, 97-minute film, I found myself gravitating more and more to such intrusive thoughts and reached for the remote to start the movie over once again. Thankfully, I eventually reached the state of mindfulness required to fully appreciateThe Father, but it wasn’t easy.

 

It was aided, though, by the film’s cinematography, which was captured with a combination of Sony and Zeiss lenses on Sony cameras, and recorded in the X-OCN ST format at 6K resolution. While no home video format can handle the 16-bit dynamic range of X-OCN ST, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless. And that matters here because your eye engages with The Father differently from most films. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself clinging to the most minor details in

a vain effort to position yourself within the narrative. You’ll probably spend as much time looking at backgrounds as faces. As such, the enhanced shadow depth and detail are doubly appreciated, especially given that The Father looks to have been shot largely with natural light.

 

The PVOD rental from Kaleidescape comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, although the mix really only uses the front three channels to any significant degree. And that suits it perfectly, since much of the audio is dialogue, and what remains consists mostly of diegetic music, more often than not delivered via the headphones that serve as one of the father’s hoarded objects. The choice to keep the sound mix somewhat constrained was wise. It’s a difficult enough film to watch without the added distraction of surround sound elements, clever pans, or the like.

 

As demanding an experience as it is, though, The Father is an important one. The fact that it contains one of Anthony Hopkins’ all-time best performances is, surprisingly, one of the least interesting things about it.

 

I can count the number of fictional works that have legitimately changed me without taking off my shoes, but I have to add The Father to that list. One can’t 

The Father (2020)

help but come out the other end of this film with a transformed view of those suffering from dementia. I’ve seen this struggle firsthand twice in my life, and in both cases, I’ve done my best to treat the victims of this maddening condition with sympathy. But The Father doesn’t ask you for sympathy, nor compassion. It asks you for empathy. It asks you to experience the world as a person with dementia does. And I can’t say for certain whether its portrayal is 100% accurate to the real-life experience of those so afflicted, but it certainly must be something akin to this.

 

The Father is playing now in select theaters and is available as a premium VOD rental on most major digital platforms, including Kaleidescape. One way or another, you owe it to yourself to see it.

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 Party (1968)

The Party (1968)

Blake Edwards’ The Party actually opened on the same day as 2001: A Space Odyssey in that very strange year of 1968. It took a while for 2001 to gain some traction but it eventually became a big deal (thanks largely to a faithful following of stoners) and went on to become a classic. The Party closed almost immediately, and the twin blows of that and the godawful Darling Lili almost obliterated Edwards’ career. But the movie has shown surprising tenacity, and while it doesn’t have anything like 2001’s reputation, it is, in its broad, neurotic, and fundamentally conservative way, a deeply radical film.

 

Oddly, The Party and 2001 have things in common beyond springing from a radical impulse, mainly that, while they both have sound, they’re basically widescreen silent films—an itch Jacques Tati scratched at around the same time with Playtime. (It

wouldn’t be inapt to see that retreat into virtual silence as a kind of traumatic reaction to the times.)

 

But The Party’s biggest—and highly dubious—honor is that it single-handedly created the frat-boy/gross-out comedy genre that eventually proved stupidly lucrative for the studios and still plagues us today. And that, of course, has since morphed, as the culture has grown more callous, into the even more smug and sadistic genre of horror comedy. But Edwards can’t really be held responsible for that last crime against humanity.

 

And then there’s the fact that The Party would fall somewhere near the top of that daily longer list of films that could never be made today. The announcement that anyone like Peter Sellers was going to play an Indian in a comedy would cause vast hordes of rabid Millennials to well up trailing endless miles of hangman’s rope, Edwards’ and

THE PARTY AT A GLANCE

Blake Edwards’ radically conservative all-but-silent widescreen comedy features Peter Sellers’ last great comic performance.

 

PICTURE
Lucien Ballard’s cinematography perfectly captures all of the status-driven ugliness of mid-’60s Hollywood.

 

SOUND     

A tepid and out-of-touch Mancini score adrift in a surround mix drowned out by Edwards’ visual slapstick genius.

Sellers’ intentions and the actual execution of the film be damned. The sad truth is that any form of expression outside of some very rigid and oppressive guardrails has become verboten. There was far more latitude in the mid ‘60s, obviously, but nobody was quite sure what to do with the freedom that had suddenly tumbled into their laps.

 

That anyone who could enjoy this movie might be dissuaded from watching it just because some zealots have labeled it “racist” is tragic. 

 

While Edwards tried to make important films—including some basically unwatchable dramas—and dabbled in social commentary, he was primarily an extremely gifted metteur en scène with a deeply intuitive sense of the physics of comedy who probably would have been happiest doing slapstick shorts in the 1920s but was born too late. The first Pink Panther film is a work of genius, an almost flawless classical farce in the style of Molière, Beaumarchais, and Feydeau. Its followup, A Shot in the Dark, is OK but begins to feel forced. All of the subsequent Panther films aren’t worth the time it takes to watch them. 

 

The Party is essentially Edwards’ baffled reaction—common to square-but-desperate-to-seem-hip society in the ’60s—to almost the whole of the social order being tossed into a blender. It takes the sophisticated, ’50s-inflected chaos of the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a milieu he knew well—and wonders what would happen if that anarchy-within-bounds were allowed to roam free. But since Edwards didn’t have a politically rebellious bone in his body, the best he could arrive at was something that often resembles the finale of a Beach Blanket movie. Only the fact the he was a far more talented director than William (Bewitched) Asher begins to redeem this mess.

 

But it’s a both beautiful and nasty mess, and something to be savored—beginning, of course, with Sellers. This was his last great comic performance. After reaching his peak with Strangelove, Clouseau, and, here, Bakshi, he had little left to give and spent the next decade and a half stumbling from one mediocre film and half-hearted performance to another. (Being There is such an oddity it’s hard to say where it falls in all that.)

 

This is also his most fully rounded creation. Bakshi obviously meant something to Sellers (and Edwards) and he took the time to develop him into a complete character with a resonance that goes well beyond his comedic presence. You can laugh at him but at the same time can’t help but feel for him. None of Sellers’ other performances evokes that kind of emotional response.

 

While there are some perfectly tuned supporting turns (with the exception of the unfortunate Claudine Longet), they are all, appropriately, meant to create foils and a frame for Sellers. About the only thing that approaches deserving second billing is the studio head’s cringe-worthy home. Edwards and cinematographer Lucien Ballard captured the sheer awfulness of mid-‘60s West Cost architecture and design, and, again echoing Tati, turned this hideous shrine to status into a character. It’s so ugly it’s, within the context of the film, beautiful.

 

The Party is legendary for Edwards’ and Ballard’s elaborate widescreen compositions, with multiple bits of business playing out at the same time. The dinner scene, with its endlessly cascading sight gags and virtuoso timing, especially rewards repeated viewing. (This was one of the first films to use a Sony video system for playback, which Edwards deployed deftly to 

develop his slapstick mosaics.)

 

You can’t say this movie looks amazing in Blu-ray-quality HD, but you can’t say it looks lousy either. The opening titles are better defined, less blotchy, than they’ve been in the past, and the increased detail helps enhance the impact of complex set pieces like that dinner scene, which have just been visually busy before. The film would obviously benefit from a bump up to 4K, but you can also see where certain elements would likely come across as too contrasty exercises in excess grain.

 

(One quick aside: No other Edwards film looks and moves like this one, which can probably be largely attributed to Ballard, who cut his teeth shooting shorts for The Three Stooges and would move on from The Party to shoot The Wild Bunch. Like I said, it was a very strange year.)

 

Poor Henry Mancini. Just four years earlier, on the heels of Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, he had been the king of the pop music world, but the British Invasion had since all but wiped him from the face of the planet, and you can sense him struggling mightily here to figure out how he fits into a world of Day-Glo, psychedelica, and fuzz-tone guitars. The answer, unfortunately,

The Party (1968)

is that he doesn’t, and the title song, with its sitar played with a Garden Weasel, ragtime syncopations, and Keith Moon-at-a-high-school-dance drumming, is so out of touch it’s unintentionally funny.

 

The Party deserves a surround mix on par with the brilliance of its visual gags but it would be impossible for anyone, at this late date, to get far enough onto Edwards’ wavelength to pull something like that off. So what we get instead is serviceable but not what the film deserves.

 

There’s something deeply medieval about the current moment, where the most potent and revealing creative works are being forced into hiding, held in some form of safekeeping until the day—that may never come—when they can again be appreciated for what they are. The Party, at its heart, is a tale of the outsider—and it’s exactly the iconoclasts, the outsiders, who are being purged. Edwards and Sellers couldn’t have known that by trying to fathom the ’60s, they’d end up shining a more piercing light on the fashionably dark present.

Michael Gaughn

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.

Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Of all of Woody Allen’s many films, The Purple Rose of Cairo deserves to be in, or near, the Top 5. I doubt anyone has ever treated the subject of mass-produced fantasies and their consequences as incisively. And Allen does it without turning it into the type of cold-blooded, too-clever-by-half intellectual exercise that tends to rule the roost today.

On an initial viewing, Purple Rose can seem lightweight, in a charming and quirky kind of way. It’s Allen’s most successful attempt to translate the style of his S.J. Perelman-type short pieces for The New Yorker to the screen. But while those pieces, hilarious as they often are, tend to be little more than a kind of absurdist riffing, here he manages to interweave a decent amount of earned emotion with the absurdity; and when he veers into sentimentality, it reinforces his critique of pop fantasies and comes with a bite.

 

While Mia Farrow gives what might be her best performance, it’s Jeff Daniels who walks away with the film. It’s hard to imagine the one-note Michael Keaton pulling off playing two similar yet very distinctly different roles, let alone looking like a Hollywood actor from the ‘30s. And yet 

CAIRO AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s best, it’s probably the strongest critique ever of the consequences of our cultural need to escape into fantasy worlds.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—on par with his work in Manhattanholds up surprisingly well in this Blu-ray-quality HD download

 

SOUND     

Dick Hyman’s slick and soulless score is the weakest thing in the film.

Daniels aces it, also bringing a bland Midwestern quality to his portrayal that makes Gil Shepherd’s eventual betrayal of Farrow that much more affecting.

 

Without that last-mentioned turn, the film would have been little more than a very funny confection. But Allen’s movies, as he emerged from his mid period, began to display a maturity, a grounded and often troubling depth, he’s never gotten enough credit for. If he had opted for anything resembling a traditional happy ending, Purple Rose would have been little different 

from the fluff it both embraces and skewers. Shepherd’s all-too-human duplicity is a bracing jolt that throws the dangers—and irresponsibility—of the easy retreat into fantasy into context. Nobody can stop you from escaping into fantasy worlds—something the culture industry has shifted into hyper drive to encourage since the grim turn of the century—but it always comes at a hefty price.

 

And you have to wonder if the contemporary masses aren’t so thoroughly indoctrinated, so caught up in the endless, indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-referential, and insanely lucrative exercises in overgrown child’s play, for anything like this to even begin to resonate anymore, if Allen’s point isn’t utterly lost on a world that just wants to be left alone with its toys.

 

After landing that blow, though, Allen does cheat a little with an unfortunate shot of Shepherd looking wistfully out a plane window as he flies back to Hollywood from Farrow’s bleak corner of New Jersey. That moment seems to let Daniels’ character off the hook way too easily. It’s not that Allen shouldn’t have gone there but something more ambivalent would have rung truer.

 

I need to pause for a moment to acknowledge Danny Aiello’s performance. An actor all too often typecast, Allen plays off from that here, taking an archetypical abusive goon and making him, if not palatable, at last understandable. Consider the distance from Sylvester Stallone in a black leather jacket beating up old ladies on the subway in Bananas and you have an accurate gauge of just how much Allen grew as a filmmaker. And Aiello takes the opportunity and runs with it, without ever breaking a sweat.

 

Dianne Wiest deserves similar praise. If she hadn’t been able to bring depth to her portrayal of a roaming prostitute, Daniels-as-Tom Baxter’s sojourn in a bordello would have been little more than an extended cheap laugh. But she and Allen give her a basal dignity that keeps her and her fellow co-workers from becoming objects of ridicule.

 

And now we once again come to Gordon Willis. It would be impossible to decide which film represents his best work for Allen, but I would have to put Purple Rose really near or on par with Manhattan. He doesn’t really do anything bravura here, but it’s all strong. How he and Allen were able to take 

a closed-for-the-season amusement park in the autumn chill and turn it into a subtle metaphor for the film itself and for the torpor of America in the middle of the Depression remains both stunning and sublime.

 

As with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the cinematography holds up surprisingly well in Blu-ray-quality HD. Most of the subtlety is retained, only occasionally marred by excess noise and grain. Patches of bright light remain a problem, but not

much can be done about that until the increasingly distant day when this film gets lifted up to 4K HDR.

 

The most egregious problem is the shots in the film-within-the-film that were radically enlarged on an optical printer. Allen obviously shot all of these as masters and then decided in editing that the other characters in the frame were too distracting. I don’t remember these images being this grainy and blobby when seen in a theater, but here they look like somebody spliced in some degraded VHS footage.

 

The weakest thing about Purple Rose is Dick Hyman’s score. It’s unfortunate Allen leaned so heavily on Hyman in his films because, while he was a technically proficient musician, his work tended to be slick and soulless. Fortunately Allen’s material is strong enough to not be unduly weighed down by the seemingly arbitrary and often incongruous cues, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have cobbled together the entire soundtrack out of vintage music instead.

 

Many of Allen’s films are about characters who easily—and often, too easily—slip into fantasy worlds, and many of his protagonists are haunted by fantasy projections of the past. Key films like Annie Hall and Stardust Memories show

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Allen himself, thinly disguised behind fictional monikers, having a hard time, by his own admission, separating fiction from reality. His condition, which at one time was seen as an aberration, has since become desirable, is now accepted as the norm. While he frequently played that tenuous hold on reality for laughs, he never fully accepted it, and Purple Rose remains his most trenchant look into what has become the very heart of the culture.

Michael Gaughn

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.