Dennis Burger Tag

How to Cram for Infinity War in as Few Films as Possible

Like many of you, I’m sure, I already have my tickets to see Avengers: Infinity War this weekend. Unlike most of you, I hope, I won’t be using those tickets. A nasty abscess and a brief flirtation with sepsis have nipped those plans right in the bud. But oddly enough, this unintentional timeout has given me a chance to do something I probably wouldn’t have had time for otherwise: Actually prepare myself for the movie.

 

Mind you, I don’t have time, nor the desire, to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film leading up to Infinity War. But it is the 19th in the series and the culmination of every one of the films before it, so the assumption is that you’ve seen most if not all of them at some point since their release. And I have. I simply need a refresher to get me in the right mental and emotional space heading into this monumental event film.

 

So, while my buddy Dave was sitting by my side in the hospital last night, patting my head and asking if he could have all my Hot Toys figures if this whole thing goes south, we brainstormed the lazy nerd’s essential viewing guide for heading into Infinity War. Good nerds that we are, we had rules, of course. 

 

First rule: Six films, max. Reason: So people can actually get this marathon done before this weekend. 

Rule B: We’re not worried about the location and particular powers of every Infinity Stone (the powerful gems, remnants of six singularities that pre-exist our universe, which have served as MacGuffins for many Marvel films to date and which give Infinity War its name). Reason: You’d literally have to watch nearly every Marvel movie to get that, which violates Rule One. Plus, you can just look up any number of YouTube videos about the Infinity Stones and catch up that way.

Rule the Third: Try to include as many relevant characters as possible in as few films as possible without having to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. Reason: Age of Ultron was just terrible. No, seriously, y’all—that was a bad movie.

 

Rule 4: This list has to work equally well for people who’ve seen all the films and people who haven’t. Reason: Because some people haven’t. 

 

So, with those rules in mind (and with a morphine drip in my arm, so take it for what you will), here’s my list of films that should serve as a quick refresher course in the overall state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading up to the events of Infinity War

 

Captain America: Winter Soldier. Nope, don’t you dare blame the morphine for this one. Look, I realize that Winter Solider is a fully terrestrial film, with no hint of the cosmic or mystic sides of the MCU that are obviously going to be so important in the new film. But Winter Soldier is essential viewing because it sets the stage for everything that happens to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the years that follow it. On top of that, it’s simply one of the best action movies ever made (and a pretty solid espionage flick at that), completely irrespective of its status as a Marvel movie. 

Infinity War

Winter Soldier is also an essential re-watch because Captain America: Civil War doesn’t make much sense without it, and Civil War is really the film that leaves the Avengers in the personal, emotional, and legal states they’re in heading into Infinity War. If you can’t quite figure out why Captain America looks like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes in the Infinity War trailer, this one has your essential reminders. Civil War also serves as Spider-Man’s introduction to the MCU, and he looks to play an incredibly important part in the new film. (For what it’s worth, you can watch Spider-Man: Homecoming on its own if you want. It’s a hoot and a half. But it’s not essential viewing for the purposes of Infinity War prep.)

 

Next up: Guardians of the Galaxy, a film high in the running for best pop-music soundtrack of all time, and also our best glimpse at who this big, bad villain named Thanos really is, what he wants, and what he’s willing to do to get it. What’s perhaps most interesting is that we learn less about Thanos from his actual screen time than we do by watching his favorite “daughters,” Nebula and Gamora, who play central roles in this one.

 

And you just have to follow that up with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Dave reached over to check my temperature when I threw this one out, because it’s not an obvious pick. It has less to do with Thanos and the Infinity Stones than its predecessor. But again, it goes back to learning about Thanos by proxy. The interactions between Nebula and Gamora in this film tell you a lot about who the Mad Titan is. Vol. 2 also sneaks in a lot of history about the cosmic side of the MCU that I have a sneaking suspicion will become way more relevant in this upcoming film. 

Infinity War

Of course, you also need a heaping helping of immersion in the mystic side of this universe, and for that we turn to Doctor Strange. I’ve seen more than a few headlines recently along the lines of “WHY DOCTOR STRANGE IS SO IMPORTANT TO INFINITY WAR,” and I haven’t clicked on them. Any of them. Because spoilers, duh. But I can tell you this: It’s a pretty safe bet that the Time Stone featured so prominently in this film is at least one of the reasons Thanos’ sights are set on Earth in the new film. So, if nothing else, consider this (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) your essential primer on the power of Infinity Stones individually. It also has Rachel McAdams in it. Rawr. 

 

Last up, Thor: Ragnarok, the film that, as best I can tell, leads right into Infinity War. It also answers the important questions: Where the heck were Thor and Hulk during Civil War? And how are they gonna get back to Earth? Also, make doubly sure you stick around for the mid-credits scene in this one. But seriously, you should already know that by now.

 

So, lemme have it. What essential movies did I leave out? But more importantly, which of my movies would you drop from my six-film crash course to make room for your pick, and why? 

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.

Cover Me

My turn.

 

There are so many songs I could have listed here—and so many I could have called out for trying to be covers and falling so far short. (Something Dennis and I pondered a couple days ago: The world is awash in tribute albums—so why don’t they ever produce good covers?)

 

If I really took the time to suss out all the best cover songs, I could probably come up with a scary long list. But since I’m without access to most of my music collection at the moment (Die Apple! Die!), I’m just going to pluck a few favorites almost at random out of the memory stream.

 

 

Cake, “I Will Survive”

Maybe the ballsiest cover ever, and the kind of radical reinterpretation that’s been missing from pop music for a long, long time. There’s no way Cake’s loud and proud middle finger could ever make its way into the mainstream in this far less tolerant time—which is one of the most damning things you can say about the way-too-easy-to-damn present.

Ben Folds, “Songs of Love”

Only two things are guaranteed to put me in a bulletproof good mood—’20s small-group jazz and Folds’ take on this song.

 

(But I’ve gotta give an Honorable Mention to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” off the same album.)

Tom Waits, “Somewhere”

The moment Waits’ voice tumbles in after the languid, soaring, wistful string intro couldn’t be more wrong, and couldn’t be more right—which I’m pretty sure is the working definition of sublime.

 

 

Propellerheads, “Goldfinger”

Can a remix be a cover? Does it matter?

 

As long as somebody reinterprets a song in a way that simultaneously takes you someplace totally new while keeping you firmly grounded in the original, it’s a cover, no matter how they get you there. To love this track, you sort of have to shove the steep, steep downside of Bond culture off to your peripheral vision and ride the wave of the track’s giddy emotion for all it’s worth.

The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”

This one really stretches the definition of a cover—but isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that the adventure? At what point do the samples stop being independent tracks? When are they subsumed by the larger whole and become indistinguishable elements of the new song created out of their disparate parts? And, no matter how heavily manipulated, can you ever completely extinguish the spirit of the original? But those are all questions for Walter Benjamin, I guess.

Sid Vicious, “My Way”

I realize Vicious’ punk gutting of Sinatra’s creaky anthem is an obvious choice, but it’s a lot more than the one-note joke most people think it is. Just compare it to Gary Oldman’s tepid stab in Sid & Nancy and you’ll get the point. Everybody’s drooling over Oldman right now, but he didn’t even come close to capturing Vicious, the good or the bad. (That Hollywood had to give Oldman a bigger gun tells you everything you need to know about Sid & Nancy—and Hollywood.)

 

(Kubrick contemplated ending Full Metal Jacket with Vicious’ “My Way”—and he should have. It would have taken the film to a hell of a lot better place than the way too obvious “Paint It Black.”)

Zooey Deschanel, “Tonight You Belong to Me”

I’ve never been able to stomach Zooey Deschanel as an actor. Her tomboy to It Girl transformation always seemed a little too forced, and New Girl was one of the worst examples of shameless pandering I’ve ever been unlucky enough to encounter. But Zooey the media spectre and Zooey the would-be performer are two other animals completely. With She & Him, she’s somehow been able to rise above her obvious limitations as a singer/musician—and her both controlled and erratic cover of this guileless song drives that point home in spades. (And if you’ve never seen it before, check this one out too.)

—Michael Gaughn

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

My Favorite Cover Songs Are All By Ingrid Michaelson

The ball’s in my court, I suppose. A few weeks back, Ash shared some of her favorite cover songs and challenged the rest of the Roundtable to do the same. While I was hemming and hawing and trying to think of more than one cover that I truly loved, Adrienne beat me to the punch with a followup.

 

Why has it taken so long for me to do the same? Because I have rules for cover songs that are nearly impossible to abide by. For me, a good cover song absolutely must sound nothing like the original. It must force me to reinterpret my relationship with the original. It must be a product of its time, not just a nostalgic romp down memory lane. It must, in other words, be like Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

 

I realized a thing last night, though, as I put my iPhone on shuffle and let it play to drown out the memory of a pretty rough day. In constructing those rules, I forgot that my favorite cover songs absolutely violate them in the most blatant ways possible. But then again, in violating those rules, they uphold my Number One rule of music: Ingrid Michaelson can do no wrong.

Take Ingrid’s cover of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver, for instance. She isn’t really doing anything inventive with the arrangement, aside from trading guitar for her trademark ukulele. She isn’t changing the intent of the song. She isn’t putting anything resembling her own spin on it. Instead, she’s holding church, worshiping a song she loves and asking the audience to worship along.

 

Much the same could be said of her take on “Over the Rainbow,” one of the most covered songs of all time. Yes, she plays with the tempo a little, as well as the cadence of the song. But if anything, Ingrid seems to be reacting to the numerous reinterpretations of the song throughout the decades. To me, she seems to be saying, Hey, cut the crap with your theatrics and your melismatic wankery. This is a song of mournful but hopeful longing, of being trapped in a dreary world and dreaming of a better place. It’s definitely the most vulnerable version of “Over the Rainbow” recorded since 1939, and that’s exactly as it should be.

You could argue the Ingrid’s riff on Radiohead’s “Creep” takes the song to new places, but with her quiet, stripped-down cover of the song, she gets right to the heart of the self-doubt and hesitation imbedded in its lyrics. There is, of course, the fact that having said lyrics delivered by a woman instead of a man drastically changes the gender-political implications of “Creep,” and yes, that does make it fascinating on one level. But I’m not sure that was the intent here. I get the sense that this is merely Ingrid’s honest and open interpretation of what the words mean to her and how she relates to them, gender be damned.

 

As for her cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” what can I say, really, that I haven’t said already? Before my momma died, she once opined that anyone with the temerity to cover Elvis should be beaten half to death with a wet piece of cardboard. I’d like this think this one would have changed her mind.

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.

‘Flower’ and the Power of Games as Art

Flower

Tucked away in the hidden recesses of the PlayStation Network Store, amongst the shooter games and fighting games and puzzle games and what have you, there resides a little work of art named Flower that everyone should experience at least once. It doesn’t matter if you’re a jaded gamer with forty years of pwning n00bs under your belt or a complete neophyte who has never picked up a controller, this delightful little download—originally developed nine years ago for the PlayStation 3, but lovingly revamped in 1080p with 7.1-channel sound for PS4—has a message for you.

 

What that message may be, I’m not quite sure. Because your relationship with Flower will almost certainly be different from mine. I’ve had hours-long conversations with fellow gaming friends, trying our best to come to some consensus on its themes and central messages. But I won’t rehash any of those discussions here, because if you’ve never played Flower, the last thing in the world I want is to color your own interpretation.

 

But I will say this: It’s pretty clear that Flower was made as a reaction to the rather limited range of emotions normally evoked by video games. Much like the recently released Celeste, Flower grapples with notions of achievement and pursuit and their effects on the psyche. Whereas Celeste dealt with such issues by immersing you in a quest and them commenting upon it slyly, Flower takes an alternative approach. It drops you into a gaming world in which achievement isn’t the point at all. Where it’s downright discouraged, in point of fact.

 

In the game, you live out the dreams of a handful of potted plants, perched upon a windowsill overlooking a gray and dreary city. In these dreams, you don’t control a character or any other sort of visible avatar. What you control is the unseen wind. And you control it not with some sophisticated series of button presses, but rather the gentle motion of the video game controller itself. Lean your hands to the right and the wind blows to the right. Lift them up, and you send a gust skyward. And as the wind blows around these beautiful dreamscapes, you collect the petals of flowers strewn throughout their many hills and valleys and ridges and plateaus.

It’s as simple as that, really. But to understand the appeal of Flower, you really have to immerse yourself in it. Because it isn’t until you’re consumed in this experience that you understand something quite profound: Yes, there are hidden secrets in this game. Yes, there are achievements of a sort. But everything about the game forces you into a mental state in which these things aren’t actively sought, but simply appreciated all the more when you do come across them. The goal here isn’t necessarily pleasure, nor fun, nor excitement, but rather peaceful contentment.

 

More so than anything else, what Flower forces you to do is to be present in this moment, right here and right now, with no regard for what comes next. What it pushes you toward is an intrinsic appreciation of the beauty of every interaction, whether it leads to something extrinsically fruitful or not. What it evokes—at least in me—is some approximation of anattā or self-transcendence, the likes of which normally require years of practice in vipassanā meditation to achieve on one’s own.

 

Will it evoke the same in you? I can’t say, of course. But you owe it to yourself to spend seven bucks to find out.

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.

Great ‘Last Jedi’ Demo Scenes

The Last Jedi

Following up on Dennis Burger’s lengthy examination of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I thought I would detail some of my favorite scenes from the movie. While Jedi has been a bit divisive amongst Star Wars fans—read the almost 100 comments to Dennis’s post on the Rayva Facebook page—now that I’ve had the chance to view it a couple more times at home, and after viewing the fantastic included two-hour documentary titled “The Director and the Jedi,” which examines many aspects of Rian Johnson’s filmmaking decisions, I’ve come to appreciate this movie in ways I couldn’t or didn’t during my initial theatrical viewing.

Regardless of your feelings about this latest installment in our favorite space opera, this is the best the franchise has ever looked or sounded and makes for reference demo material at home.

 

Much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes place in space, and you’ll marvel at the clean, deep, dark black-level detail of this terrific 4K HDR transfer. During the film’s first moments aboard General Hux’s ship, the floor, work stations, officers’ uniforms, and General Hux’s top and trench coat are all black. But a properly calibrated video display will reveal that these are all slightly different shades of black with clearly visible texture and detail.

During the scene where Rey trains on Ahch-To, note the texture in her staff, along with the detail in the stones around her. When she lights Luke’s saber, the blade glows hot blue-white against the sunny background, the HDR image retaining the dark and deep shadow detail of the craggy rocks while the light of the saber blade exceeds that of the sun!

 

HDR is used to great effect throughout the film, but especially during the bright outdoor scenes on Ahch-To and anytime a lightsaber blade is activated. The images from the 4K DI are reference in every regard, and virtually every frame will push your video system to its limits.

 

One of my favorite scenes is when Rey visits the dark place on Ahch-To. It just looks so cool, and the Dolby Atmos sound is terrific, swirling around the room as she snaps her fingers. Just following this is a conversation between Rey and Kylo by firelight with a closeup of their hands with fingerprint detail so amazing you could submit it to the FBI for evidence.

 

Check out the detail of Kylo’s wounds when he is communicating with Rey. You can clearly see the effects Rey’s lightsaber attack had on his face and chest from the end of The Force Awakens, as well as the scar in his side from Chewbacca’s Bowcaster. These are the subtle details that really come through in full 4K resolution.

 

The lightsaber dual between Rey and Kylo and Snoke’s guards and the finale battle on Crait look and sound even more awesome at home than you remember from the theater. Kylo’s poorly constructed saber crackles and sizzles erratically, barely containing the blade’s energy, and the ultra-sharp detail makes this more visible than ever before. (Jedi’s audio levels are a bit lower than some other titles, so be sure to turn the volume up to near reference level to truly experience the full impact of the immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack!) The reds explode off the screen in HDR, producing rich, vibrant detail along with brilliant whites and deep, dark blacks. The orange-red of the Rebel pilots’ flight suits has never looked richer, and even old C3PO gets a visual upgrade from this 4K transfer, with his gold outfit shining brighter than ever before.

 

This is the demo candy you’ve been waiting for!

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.

Oppo is Dead, Long Live Oppo

Oppo

How’s this for timing? Just days after pimping my Oppo Ultra HD audiophile disc player as the king of the hill in my media room entertainment system, this happens. As of this week, the company has announced that production of its lauded disc players, audio systems, and headphones is winding down.

 

“As announced on April 2nd, 2018, OPPO Digital will gradually stop manufacturing new products,” reads a letter linked on the company’s homepage. “Existing products will continue to be supported, warranties will still be valid, and both in-warranty and out-of-warranty repair services will continue to be available. Firmware will continue to be maintained and updates released from time to time.”

 

To say the least, this is a sad day for videophiles. You could chalk this up to the gradual decline of disc sales, the prominence of streaming, the fact that people who rent their movies almost never rent physical media anymore. And you’d probably be right, to a degree.

 

The one argument I would make to counter that is that there’s still a very healthy market for discs. The massive decline in sales that everyone keeps touting? It was 14% last year. 10% the year before—the first year in which streaming overtook disc sales. That’s hardly doom and gloom.

 

What makes all of this so much worse is that there just isn’t another Oppo out there. Pick your favorite display manufacturer. Or speaker manufacturer. Or receiver manufacturer. If they disappeared tomorrow, you’d still have plenty of high-end alternatives.

 

Oppo, though, so thoroughly defined the high-end disc-player market that any alternatives I can think of off the top of my head were actually Oppo players at the core, perhaps with a different power supply or digital-to-analog converter chip.

 

When the last Oppo is boxed up and shipped to its last customer, what option does the up-and-coming videophile have? Get an Xbox One X, I guess. Or be done with discs once and for all and embrace Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect digital downloads. The former is great as a disc player and a heck of a media streamer to boot, and the latter is undoubtedly the videophile future.

 

Still, losing Oppo feels like losing a friend. In its 14-year run, I’ve owned at least one player from every generation of the company’s offerings, and the latest are, without question, its greatest. I suppose there’s something to be said for going out on top of your game. There’s also something to be said about the fact that the UDP-205 was probably going to be the last disc player I would ever need anyway—especially given that I’m still using the company’s first-ever Blu-ray player in a spare bedroom, and it still works like the day I pulled it out of the box.

 

Is it silly to mourn the passing of a company? Perhaps. But when that company literally has no peers, what can we do but mourn?

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.

How the XBox Became My Favorite Video Player

Xbox One X

I just finished reading Dennis Burger’s ode to his Roku Ultra, and it inspired me to write one of my own—to my Xbox One X gaming console, which has positioned itself as the preferred video playback device in my everyday home entertainment system.

 

I reviewed the Xbox One X for HomeTheaterReview.com a few months back. As I stressed in that review, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have reviewed my fair share of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as many generations of streaming media players from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Nvidia. My approach to the Xbox review was to answer this question: Does this gaming console succeed as a complete all-in-one media player? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the review: It does.

 

What’s my proof? Well, four months later, the Xbox One X remains the sole set-top box connected to my living-room TV, while an Apple TV 4K, Roku 4, and Amazon Fire TV sit idle in a box in my office/test studio. Sure, I’ll pull one of those players out when I’m reviewing a TV or projector, along with my Oppo UDP-103 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

But the player I choose to use on an everyday basis is the Xbox. Why? Because it really does give me everything I want in one box, with one common user experience.

 

First of all, the Xbox One X is the only gaming console to sport an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, so I can pop in UHD Blu-ray discs when I want the highest-quality video experience. I use a Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in this everyday space—but if I had a surround sound/Atmos system here, the Xbox One X could accommodate it, too. I can also pop CDs into the disc drive . . . and only listen to them halfway through.

 

Second, the Microsoft Store includes all the streaming apps my kiddo and I use on a regular basis. That includes Netflix, Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Tablo, PBS Kids, YouTube, and Pandora. Here I will confess that I do miss the convenience of voice search offered by Roku, Amazon, and Apple . . . but apparently not enough to make a switch.

 

As a cord cutter, I no longer have a cable or satellite set-top box. If I did, though, I could pass it through the Xbox’s HDMI input and unite that source into the user experience as well.

Xbox One X

And then there are the games. Over the years, the kiddo and I have casually enjoyed the simple, family-friendly games that are available through platforms like Fire TV and Apple TV—such as Crossy Road, Pacman 256, and Hill Climb Racing. But now my daughter’s eyes have been opened to a glorious new world filled with Minecraft, Super Lucky’s Tale, Star Wars Battlefront, and Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure—and I’m afraid there ain’t no going back to Minion Rush.

 

As I said in my original review, if you look at each of the above categories individually—UHD Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or music player—of course you’ll find better performers. Products that deliver a higher level of AV performance or a better user interface. But the Xbox One X does it all quite well, and for me the convenience of being able to jump from a game like Minecraft to a streaming source like Netflix to live TV through Tablo and then to Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray—without having to switch inputs or remotes—is just too darn enticing to pass up.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

An Ode to My Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra

In her latest missive in our ongoing back-and-forth about media rooms—how to define them, how to design them, how to get the most out of them—Adrienne Maxwell made a point I want to make sure doesn’t get overlooked. In her discussion of sources that support High Dynamic Range, Ultra High Definition video, she points out that streaming media players like Roku are a great way to bring some truly great video content into your media room without breaking the bank.

 

Nothing could be truer. But I hope readers don’t mistakenly think Adrienne is positioning the Roku Ultra (or new Apple TV, or the Nvidia Shield—take your pick) as merely the low rung on the ladder of AV bliss.

 

Sure, if pixel-perfect presentation is the only criterion we’re talking about, my Roku Ultra fits into the “better” box of the good/better/best hierarchy in my own media room, with my satellite receiver holding down the “good enough” fort and my Oppo Ultra HD audiophile disc player currently sitting at the top of the hill.

 

But are perfect pixels the only thing I care about? When I’m watching Blade Runner 2049, absolutely. I’ll accept no less than perfection. At times like that, only a shiny silver disc will do. But what about the nightly news program I stream via YouTube? Or my weekly fix of The Star Wars Show? Honestly, nearly every box connected to my home theater system will stream those programs just fine. But none do so nearly as well as my Roku Ultra, with its instant-on accessibility and its ridiculously intuitive user interface.

 

All of the bonus features for The Last Jedi I recently reviewed? I didn’t plop in the bonus Blu-ray disc. I redeemed the digital code and streamed them via my Roku. It loads faster and is easier to navigate. When my mother-in-law visited last week and wanted to catch up on This is Us? I didn’t slog through the OnDemand menus from my satellite provider and wait for each episode to buffer. I turned to my Roku Ultra and asked it which streaming service had past episodes available for free.

 

If I won the lottery tomorrow and had the opportunity to build the home theater of my dreams, I can assure you, without question, that my first purchase would be a Kaleidescape Premiere System with banks of servers to store my massive movie collection. But I can also guarantee you this: Alongside those racks of hard drives—out of view, perhaps, but never out of mind—there would still be a space reserved for my lowly Roku Ultra.

 

Because other source components may outclass it, but nothing can replace 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 Last Jedi’ UHD Blu-ray

I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.

 

That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.

 

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.

 

If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.

 

Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.

 

It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.

 

The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.

 

At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.

 

In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.

The Last Jedi

But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.

 

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.

 

It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.

 

In my 2018 Wishlist published here on the Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.

The Last Jedi

In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.

 

The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.

 

Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.

 

But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.

 

As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort. 

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.

PS4: Celeste

As is the case with any form of media, nostalgia is a strong selling point with video games these days. Interestingly, the nostalgic push that has permeated the gaming market for the past few years has taken a few radically different forms. One example is the recreations of classic consoles with HDMI ports slapped on and built-in collections of classics pretty much in their original forms. Then you have popular games of the ‘80s and ‘90s being re-released for modern platforms, complete with remastered high-definition graphics, re-recorded audio, and modern conveniences like game-save options.

 

The most curious way nostalgia has crept into the video game market, though, is by way of brand-new offerings that look like they could have been released a quarter-century ago, including all of the pixelated graphics and controller-throwing difficulty that defined games of the 8-bit era.

 

At first blush, Celeste looks like one of the latter. Despite debuting on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, the game looks as if it could have just as easily been ported to the original Sega Master System. And that blocky, pixelated look complements its gameplay quite well.

 

At its heart, Celeste is what’s known in gamer’s parlance as a “platformer”—and if you don’t speak the lingo, just imagine the dominant genre from that era of gaming, in which you spend most of your time jumping from platform to platform as you work your way from one end of a flat 2D world to another. Think Sonic or Super Mario or Super Metroid or some other game with “Super” in the title, and you’re at least on the right track in terms of the gameplay.

Celeste

In this case, though, Celeste’s hook is more of a lure. And I’ll admit, even I was drawn in by the premise of recreating the gaming memories of my youth without actually having to actually suffer through one of the unforgiving actual games of that bygone era.

 

Spend a few hours getting sucked into this delightful little slice of neo-nostalgia, though, and it becomes apparent—not quickly, but undeniably—that Celeste isn’t merely trying to feed you a dose of the feel-goods. There’s a point to all of this: The look, the feel, the simple three-button controls. Even the luscious piano and synth score, which isn’t exactly held to the same retro standards as the rest of the game’s aesthetic, is true to the spirit of music from ‘80s and ‘90s games, thanks to its deceptive simplicity and undeniably hooky melodies.

 

All of these retro trappings combine, in a weird way, to keep you focused on the task at hand, which is jumping, dashing, and grabbing onto platforms, with a level of precision that my teenaged self never would have dreamt possible. And the thing is, due to that intense concentration on running and jumping and not dying, you sort of end up missing the point of Celeste until you’re a few hours in.

 

Masterfully woven into all this platformer action is a rich and nuanced, slow-burn story about depression and ennui and the consequences of constant aspiration. It’s not heavy handed at all, and if you’re the type of person to skip dialogue sequences, you can easily nope right past it all. But you’d be missing out on one of the most heartfelt and gripping stories I’ve encountered in any form of media in quite some time.

 

Oddly enough, it’s a narrative that’s so tightly interwoven with the presentation of the game that I can’t imagine it being quite as impactful if Celeste had been a beautifully rendered, fully modern game with 3D graphics and 14-button control schemes. In other words, all of this isn’t merely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, no matter how much it may look like such. The real brilliance of Celeste is that with its form, it sets up expectations of a silly narrative about saving princesses or whatever, then sucker-punches you with the sort of substance that would have been nearly unimaginable back when games had no choice but to look like this.

 

If you have access to a modern gaming console or computer, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. At $19.99, it’s practically a steal, and although you’ll probably burn through it in seven or eight hours the first time through, Celeste is a game with a heck of a lot of replay value. I can’t imagine putting it down anytime soon.

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.