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By Gordon Meyer
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Back in the late 1970s, I co-produced a tribute to playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon for the USC School of Cinematic Arts at one of the most prolific periods in Simon’s career on Broadway and Hollywood.  His movie “The Sunshine Boys” came out to deservedly rave reviews just a few years before this event, so needless to say, that movie figured prominently in our tribute.

It was a contemporary piece at the time, depicting a pair of aging vaudevillians, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, given one last opportunity for a national spotlight in the form of a featured sequence on a CBS network TV special on the history of comedy where they would recreate one of their most famous skits.  The only problem was, Lewis and Clark hadn’t spoken in over 10 years and hated each other.  Jack Benny was originally signed to play Al Lewis, but had to back out due to health issues. He encouraged his best friend George Burns to take on the role that would ultimately earn him an Oscar and revive his career.  Even though technically he was a good 20 years too young for the part, Walter Matthau played Willie Clark as if the role were tailor made for him.

It’s 40 years later and a revival of the play that premiered in London’s West End last year to rave reviews is now at the Ahmanson for a brief run starring Danny DeVito as Willie and his former “Taxi” co-star Judd Hirsch as Al.  If you can set aside memories of the movie, you’re in for an exceptionally entertaining evening of theatre.  I say this because the movie itself is so memorable both in the way Simon adapted his own play to the screen and opened up the action and the iconic performances of Matthau and Burns. But plays and movies are very different animals and have to be judged on their own merits.

Even though Simon himself updated the story for a mediocre television version starring Woody Allen and Peter Falk in 1995, director Thea Sharrock, who also directed the 2012 London revival with DeVito, wisely keeps the play set in its original 1972 time period and context.  That’s important because to me, playing vintage vaudeville against the era of baby boomer television forms an important historical context for the drama and laughs.  Here was a team who had performed together for over 40 years.  They had come up in vaudeville and even successfully worked in the early days of television and its plethora of variety shows.  But in 1972, times and public tastes were dramatically changing and the comedy of Lewis and Clark was from a bygone era.  It was something that Willie Clark couldn’t accept even though his partner Al Lewis saw the writing on the wall a decade before.

This is the first time I’ve seen the play, so my point of reference is the 1975 movie, which is a genuine classic.  Needless to say, it’s a challenge to watch other actors in these roles without mentally comparing them to Matthau and Burns.  But DeVito, who starred in the recent London revival, makes the role of Willie Clark his own.  He’s cantankerous, manipulative, forgetful and ultimately charming. There’s also an interesting physical contrast between DeVito and Hirsch because of the vast difference in their heights, but Sharrock didn’t take advantage of that.

While Hirsch was good as Al Lewis, he frankly was not the strong counterpoint to Willie Clark that Simon’s story calls for, though the chemistry between him and DeVito is undeniable.  I just didn’t completely buy him as a former comedy star the way I bought DeVito’s performance.  Admittedly, my point of reference was George Burns’ Oscar winning performance, which was so nuanced.  But there’s a scene in the first act when Lewis and Clark rearrange the furniture in Clark’s apartment to simulate the set for the sketch they’re going to do on TV where the interaction and timing between the two actors is exquisite.

Justin Bartha, as Ben, Willie Clark’s nephew and agent, has the challenging job of playing straight man and referee to the pair.  Bartha pulls off this balancing act quite well, with humor, compassion and more than a little frustration and impatience. While it’s not a showy role, it’s a critical one that Bartha handles with a solid sense of humanity.

Unlike the movie, the play has only two locations – Willie Clark’s apartment and the TV studio where they run through their sketch.  Sharrock makes the most of those locales, using the space effectively to help her cast tell the story.  While much of the business on stage was carefully scripted by Simon, especially the aforementioned scene where Lewis and Clark move furniture around, Sharrock’s staging and timing of those bits of business are spot on.  Another of the joys of the play is seeing an expanded version of the classic “Doctor sketch” that Lewis and Clark were so famous for. Simon lovingly recreates vintage and mildly risqué vaudevillian comedy for this scene which was considerably truncated in the movie.  

All in all, this production of “The Sunshine Boys” is wonderfully entertaining.  It’s a real treat to see this on stage reunion of “Taxi” co-stars in a play that retains its humanity and humor in a timeless manner.

As an aside, I ran into Neil Simon in the lobby on opening night.  He was genuinely excited about seeing this production and the sold out crowd.  While I did not have the opportunity to speak with him after the performance, I can’t help but think he was pleased with the way his play holds up and how audiences in 2013 laugh just as much as they did 40 years earlier. 

“The Sunshine Boys” is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through November 3.  For more information and to order tickets, go to http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/The-Sunshine-Boys/

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Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com.  Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).

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By Gordon Meyer
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A certain Dr. Seuss story recently got a lot of press because a certain US senator read it into the Congressional record.  The story is “Green Eggs and Ham,” and it’s about this strange fellow named Sam-I-Am who’s trying for the entire book to get a grumpy person to try green eggs and ham.  When I hear about this story, that senator and his politics are the last thing on my mind.  I first remember how it was used in a sales training course I took many years ago as a practical lesson in persistence and never accepting “no” for an answer.  The textbook example of someone who successfully applied those principles was and equally strange and eccentric fellow named Gary Shusett, who succumbed to cancer about a month ago. 

Gary ran the Sherwood Oaks College, even though it was never a college in the traditional sense. But it was a place where people had the opportunity to meet and interact with some of the most talented and influential professionals in the business.  Since starting the school in the 1970s, the list of teachers, speakers and alumni is a virtual Who’s Who of Hollywood.  In the early days, Gary had legends like Lucille Ball and Rod Serling teaching classes.  Some of the people I’ve met through Gary’s classes include Peter Falk, Ridley Scott, Jeff Arch and Shane Black. 

Gary had a passion for the movie industry, storytelling and helping people break into the business.  When I first met him, Sherwood Oaks had long since moved out of their regular digs in Hollywood and his classes and workshops were held all over town, often in studio conference rooms. He deliberately kept the class sizes small to make it easier for his students to interact with his A-list Hollywood guests and, in many cases, because of that intimate situation, guests agreed to accept writing samples and pitches that normally would never get past an assistant.

How did Gary manage to get so many high level professionals to speak to his students?  He was a real life “Sam-I-Am” who fearlessly approached A-listers any way he could, whether it was by phone, fax, email or ambushing them when he saw them in person.   He was persistence personified. And the funny thing is, even though he could be quirky and annoying, more often than not, once he got a Yes from someone he wanted as a guest, more often than not, they happily came back to speak at other classes – just as the character in the Dr. Seuss book learned to love green eggs and ham once Sam-I-Am actually persuaded him to try it.

Gary’s longtime colleague Christine Owens organized a memorial celebration that took place today, appropriately enough at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax.  Appropriate not because of the “Silent” part, because while Gary could be described many ways, “silent” was rarely one of them.  It was the perfect venue for the SRO crowd because it’s a place for people who are passionate about movies and Gary was a joyfully passionate man. 

Even though I knew and worked with the man off and on for the past 15+ years, watching all those loving tributes today and talking with my fellow Sherwood Oaks alumni and supporters proved to be a touching reminder of how unique Gary was for his generosity, his passion and the number of careers he influenced.  Thankfully, he had been grooming Christine to take the reins so that Sherwood Oaks will continue.  I trust that, when it comes to recruiting A-list guests, she will continue to exemplify the kind of charismatic tenacity that Gary embodied, because Hollywood needs an institution like Sherwood Oaks. 

At today’s tribute, one of the guests commented that he could see Gary approaching Hollywood legends like Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart in heaven to get them to talk to his students up there.  Knowing Gary, he not only wouldn’t stop there, he’s already putting together an all-star roster for an ongoing series of heavenly classes.  There is only one Gary Shusett.  I am grateful, both personally and professionally, that he was a part of my life. http://www.sherwoodoakscollege.com/

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Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com.  Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).

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Smokey Joe Really Smokes

By Gordon Meyer
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Pop quiz:  What do the following classic songs from the 1950s and 60s have in common?

“Fools Fall in Love,” “On Broadway,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Love Potion #9,” “Stand By Me.”

They were all written by a couple of nice middle class Jewish guys from Los Angeles named Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, one of the most successful and prolific songwriting teams of the mid-twentieth century.  They’re also prominently featured in a revival of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the Pasadena Playhouse’s opening show for their 2013/14 season.  Let me cut to the chase.  If you like classic doo-wop music, this production of “Smokey Joe” is a must see.

There’s no plot to the show.  It’s simply a showcase of 39 songs from the Leiber and Stoller catalog performed by an incredibly talented ensemble cast of four women and five men, all of whom are both fabulous singers and wonderful dancers.  This revival was both choreographed and directed by Jeffrey Polk, who has a long standing association with the show, dating back to the original national tour.  While every member of the cast is given the opportunity to shine, both in solo and ensemble numbers, it’s Polk’s direction and often sly and humorous choreography that’s the real star of the show – well, that and the music, of course.  Although there is no story, much less dialog, Polk manages to tell dozens of mini stories through the way he moves his cast.

Unfortunately, the program doesn’t say which cast members perform the individual songs, so I can’t give as much credit as I’d like, except to say that some of the songs elicited an especially strong response from the opening night audience, either because of their overall energy and dance moves, the emotions elicited by the performers, or both.  I especially enjoyed the songs “Dance With Me,” Keep On Rolling,” You’re the Boss” and the Elvis classic “Jailhouse Rock.”  Although most of the dancing was blend of Broadway style  and Rock and Roll, the “Spanish Harlem” number included a beautiful and sensuous ballet solo both in silhouette and in front of the curtain by a very talented woman. “Stand By Me,” the penultimate song in the show, literally had the opening night audience on its feet, clapping and dancing along with the cast.

Since all of the cast members were standouts in their own way, I’d like to acknowledge them by name.  I suspect you’ll be seeing many, if not all of them in prominent roles in the future.  They are LaVance Colley, Kyra Little Da Costa, Thomas Hudson, Stu James, Adrianna Rose Lyons, Monique L. Midgette, Robert Neary, Michael A. Shepperd and Carly Thomas Smith.

The cast was backed up by a smoking hot seven piece orchestra led by Abdul Hamid Royal, who, like Polk, was part of the original national tour of the show.  Royal repeats his role as music director, conductor and pianist.  He even sings one of the songs and does so very well.

Seeing “Smokey Joe’s Café” made me realize just how influential Leiber and Stoller were for generations of songwriters.  I don’t know whether the Oscar winning songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ever acknowledged it or not, but their score for “Little Shop of Horrors” is practically a love letter to the musical genre that Leiber and Stoller helped to create, as are many of the songs from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

It turns out that Mike Stoller, though in his 80s, is a member of the Pasadena Playhouse board of directors, along with his wife.  The Playhouse dedicated this production to Stoller and his late partner – and deservedly so.  “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a wonderfully entertaining evening of musical theatre and a fitting tribute to the songwriting team that some fans call the “Rodgers and Hammerstein of Rock and Roll.”

“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through October 13.  For more information: www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org  

 

Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com.  Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).

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By Gordon Meyer
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Earlier this year, I wrote an article for P3 Update about Dolby’s new Atmos sound system.  Atmos is intended to provide a dramatically more immersive audio environment in theatres  Some of the features include object oriented mixes instead of channel oriented, and adding height with speakers on the ceiling.  For example with the opening shot from the original “Star Wars,” when the Imperial Battle Cruiser flies overhead, you’re supposed to hear the sound moving from the back of the auditorium to the front directly over your head.

So far, most of the movies released in Dolby Atmos were originally mixed in either 5.1 or 7.1 with elements re-mixed for Atmos as a sort of retrofit.  According to Dolby, only a handful of movies so far have had their audio design incorporate Atmos technology from the beginning.  And, as I said in the original article, there’s definitely a learning curve involved so that sound designers can take full advantage of what Atmos has to offer. 

I’ve now seen several movies with Atmos soundtracks at three different Los Angeles area venues – the El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard, the AMC Century City and the AMC Burbank.  AMC has been one of the more enthusiastic supporters of Dolby Atmos, incorporating it into their ETX auditoriums, which combine extra-large screen size with kick ass sound. 

There is a long history of new technologies changing the way Hollywood and the world tell stories on the silver screen.  Technologies like synchronized sound, color, stereophonic sound, 3D and wide screen all began as novelties, only to become common practice over time.  Their use became common because it was clear that, not only did these technologies provide filmmakers with exciting new storytelling tools, their use made such an important difference in the audience experience that, until they became commonplace, audiences often went out of their way to see movies using these new technologies. 

This certainly happened in the late 1970s and early 80s when Dolby’s stereo optical technology first hit the market.  The original Dolby Stereo was a matrixed four channel system in which technical limitations prevented precise sound placement.  But, compared to monophonic sound, it made a huge difference in the audience experience.  When Dolby and DTS each introduced their respective digital sound technologies which featured discreet audio channels and separate right and left surround channels, audiences could hear a dramatic difference between Dolby Digital and its analog predecessor and they bought more than enough tickets to justify the investment of new sound equipment by exhibitors.  But does Dolby Atmos provide a comparably dramatic difference in audience experience?

My own completely subjective answer is no.  At least, not yet.  When researching my June P3 Update article, I attended back to back screenings of the new “Star Trek” movie, first in 5.1 channel sound and then in Dolby Atmos.  While I could hear a difference between Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 5.1, it frankly wasn’t a terribly dramatic difference – certainly not enough of a difference for me to want to go out of my way to experience a movie in Dolby Atmos instead of 5.1 or 7.1.  I recently attended a publicity screening of Disney’s “Planes,” a CG animated film that has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.  This was at the AMC multiplex in Burbank in their ETX auditorium, which is equipped for Atmos. While it sounded very good, my experience was that, just as with “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the differences between 5.1 and Dolby Atmos were subtle, rather than dramatic.

But I had an epiphany as to at least two reasons that I wasn’t hearing as dramatic a difference as I would have liked.   The first is that there is definitely a learning curve involved for audio designers, who are just beginning to explore and discover what these new sound capabilities can do for them.  Ironically, the Dolby Atmos trailer that’s often at the beginning of movies shown with this sound system shows off the way Atmos can deliver specific sounds to specific areas within the auditorium with pinpoint accuracy.  In order to really take advantage, sound designers need to train themselves to think outside the 5.1 channel sonic model they’ve been using for over 20 years.

But there’s another key factor that really hit home.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the features of Dolby Atmos is to add an audio dimension of height in addition to its horizontal plane of sound placement.  Dolby does this by placing speakers on the ceiling.  But at the AMC Burbank, the side and rear speakers were already at least eight to ten feet above the heads of the audience.  So hearing sound that was coming from directly above instead of above and to the sides didn’t have the same kind of dramatic impact.

Ironically enough, the kind of audio dimensionality that Dolby adds to the mix with Atmos will probably be much more dramatic when it’s ultimately adapted for home use because a living room has a more intimate sound field.  First of all, the speakers themselves are much closer to listeners, often as close as three feet, depending on the speaker layout. In a living room/home theatre environment, those side channel speakers are also much more likely to be somewhat close to ear level, so that when additional speakers are added to the layout for vertical channels, whether in the front, the sides, the rear or directly above, it’s much easier to discern that dimension of height.

I think that, in time, as audio designers learn more and more what they can do with Dolby Atmos or any similar sound system, we will hear the same kind of dramatic difference between 5.1 and Atmos as audiences did between Dolby Stereo and Dolby Digital.  Or to use a visual metaphor, our ears will be treated to the same kind of difference in audio fidelity as our eyes enjoy in the difference between standard def DVDs and high def Blu-rays. But if exhibitors are going to invest in an upgrade to Dolby Atmos from their present sound systems, audiences are going to have to hear that difference loud and clear and vote on the new audio standard with their box office bucks.

Stay tuned!

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time with encore airings at 8:00 PM Wednesday evenings and 6:00 AM Saturday mornings.

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By Gordon Meyer
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Let me say it up front. “Road to Palooza,” which is part of the Pasadena Playhouse’s Summer Cirque-a-Palooza Festival, is one of the most entertaining and jaw dropping evenings of theatre I’ve been to in a very long time.  It’s a return to Vaudeville and the kind of novelty variety acts that the late Ed Sullivan used to feature in his iconic 1950s/60s CBS variety show (the same show that introduced the Beatles to the American public).  And it was just plain fun.

Conceived, directed and curated by Stefan Haves, who has worked with Cirque du Soleil as a comic act designer since 2006, the show features a cornucopia of acrobats, clowns, jugglers and aerialists performing wildly entertaining bits.  If you’ve seen a Cirque du Soleil show, you’ve already gotten a taste of what some of the gravity defying aerialists at the Pasadena Playhouse performed on twin 25 foot high silk drapes.

As with any variety show, some acts will stay with you longer than others.  Here are some of my favorites in order of appearance:

The show kicked off with Paul Newman, a one man band who first entertained in the courtyard, then did a pre-show bit in the auditorium before the show officially began. Newman sang in a kind of retro style while accompanying himself alternately on a ukulele and soprano saxophone.  Between his

lanky frame, long kinky hair and eccentric costuming, he made quite the visual impression.  Between his exceptional talent and the glow on his face from the joy of his performance proved to be the perfect way to set the tone for the evening.

 

“Hand balancer” Andrey Moraru who came out with what was probably about a 6 foot wide metal hoop that he proceeded to spin and manipulate both by itself and with him inside the hoop.

Sword swallower Brett Loudermilk, who began his set by pulling the woman sitting next to me out of the audience to supervise as he inserted the first of several swords down his throat with hilarious results from her genuine reaction.  After plenty of laughs from the audience, after my seat neighbor exited the stage, Loudermilk proceeded to swallow additional swords of various sizes and shapes.  But the real joy of his act was in the way he interacted with the audience.

Hula Hoop master Matt Piendi kept as many as a metal dozen hula hoops spinning around several parts of his body, making them magically move independently of each other in sync with some classic big band swing jazz.

Then there was pancake juggler Scott Nery.  You read that correctly.  He came out with a frying pan, a hot plate and a bottle of pancake batter and kept us laughing while the oversized pancake cooked.  When it did, he began flipping it without a spatula up to about six feet in the air, catching it back in the pan before flipping it back in the air again.  He actually juggled both the fry pan and the pancake in ways that had the audience amazed.

In addition, there were a number of songs and ensemble acts including mimes, more aerialists and even a Stomp-inspired bit.  And I have to also mention the band with original music by Emmy-nominated composer Philip Giffin and some fabulous singers.

I don’t rave often about shows, even the ones I really like.  But Road to Palooza was so much fun, that I’m going to tell everyone I know to run and see it during its four performance run.  It's general seating and tickets are only $30. Do yourself a favor and run to the Pasadena Playhouse box office to get your tickets while you can. 

http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org/box-office/special-events/road-to-palooza-a-cirque-variety-spectacular.html

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

 

 

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By Gordon Meyer
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Resolution standards for both digital cinema and home entertainment are on the rise.  For the past couple of years, there’s been a drive to bump up the Digital Cinema standard resolution of 2048 x 1080 to 4096 x 2160, commonly referred to as “4K.”  The latter resolution quadruples the resolution of the original digital cinema standard.  But here’s where it gets potentially confusing.  Because the HD standard for consumer displays is 1920 x 1080, which is not quite as wide as the digital cinema standard. Likewise, the new consumer version of 4K, officially called Ultra HD, is actually 3840 x 2160.  Again while it’s 4x the resolution of HD, it’s not quite as wide as digital cinema 4K.  So there are two different standards for digital imaging using the same name, even though they are slightly different resolutions.

Sony, of course, has been very aggressive in promoting the 4K format as an exhibition standard.  But there’s a chicken and egg dilemma for exhibitors being asked to invest in these higher resolution projection systems because the majority of movies being digitally released still master their DCPs to the 2K standard, so, at least for now, the number of movies available in a native 4K format are still the exception.  The good news is that most 4K digital cinema projectors have up-conversion circuitry built in to artificially create a 4K image.  And with the growing use of cameras shooting native 4K and higher resolution, the number of movies available in native 4K DCPs should be growing steadily.  But what about the consumer version of 4K (aka UHD)?

Like the theatrical version of 4K, there’s a dearth of native 4K content available for home consumption.  Among other things, unlike HDTV delivered via Blu-ray, there is yet to be an industry standard for UHD packaged media.  That’s key to getting a foothold in the market because the bandwidth requirements for a format that has four times the amount of data per minute means that it will probably be at least five years before there’s anything even remotely resembling a broadcast or streaming infrastructure that could support a full UHD signal.  As a stop-gap measure, both Sony and RED have UHD compatible home servers on the market.  Sony’s even comes pre-loaded with 10 features from their extensive library.  But it’s still a very niche and expensive market with most UHD displays starting at $5,000 for a 55” display.  This fall, that entry level threshold will come down dramatically with the introduction of a 50” UHD TV from Chinese manufacturer TCL, but that’s still pricey for a lot of consumers.

As for packaged media, it’s up in the air as to whether we’ll see an UHD version of the Blu-ray standard or something else.  A single layer Blu-ray disc can hold up to 25GB of data.  If it’s a double layered disc, that could go up to 50GB.  According to Blu-ray.com, future generations of the BD format could incorporate enough layers to store as much as 200GB, which theoretically should support feature length content in the UHD format.  Meanwhile, Sony and Panasonic recently announced that they are jointly developing a 300GB disc format that should hit the market sometime in 2015.  But this triggers the issue of a potential UHD disc format war as there was between Blu-ray and the now defunct HD-DVD format.

But in the home, having native UHD content is just part of the challenge.  Until the industry gets its act together, it’s probably going to get messy with so many different UHD delivery systems, which will inevitably not only confuse consumers, it will also encourage hesitancy.  After all, who wants to invest thousands of dollars on a high end display and hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on software if you’re unsure as to how long your format of choice will even be around?  Think about all those poor suckers who invested in HD-DVD players and discs, only to have them turn into over-priced DVD players and coasters once HD-DVD lost the format wars.

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at hand.  One of the reasons that DVD, and later HDTV caught on with consumers is because, in both cases, there was a dramatically noticeable improvement in picture quality over the prior format.  VHS looks like you’re watching video through a dirty fish tank compared to DVD.  And HDTV in both its broadcast/cable/satellite and Blu-ray flavors delivers near digital cinema quality picture and sound.  Most consumers can easily see and appreciate the difference.   But we’re rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to screen resolution, even theatrically.

When we get to these higher resolutions, the bigger the screen, the more you’re likely to see a tangible difference between 2K and 4K (or HDTV and UHD).  But how many people do you know can tell the difference between 2K and 4K images on a 50 foot wide movie theatre screen?  Now shrink that down to a 50” screen in the home.  How much of a difference will most people really see between HDTV and UHD resolutions?  I’ve seen a number of UHD prototypes and now floor models in retail stores. As good as they look (and they do look good), if you were to put a UHD display side by side with an HDTV display, I’d be willing to bet that most people, if they can see a difference at all, will say it’s a subtle one.

Frankly the biggest benefit I can see for UHD displays is to use them for RealD compatible 3D displays which already cut horizontal resolution in half.  With a UHD 3D screen that uses passive display technology, that would restore full 1080 resolution per eye.  But short of that, I’d have a hard time justifying paying a premium for UHD over HDTV, at least at current pricing.  And now, the consumer electronics industry is already talking about 8K UHD (7680 x 4320) resolution. 

While I can see the benefits of having cameras having that high a resolution as it gives so much more flexibility in post, I think for all but IMAX sized screens on steroids, that’s overkill even for theatrical exhibition.  Who the hell is going to be able to notice a tangible difference between 8K and 4K on even the largest home displays?  At that point, it becomes more about bragging rights than truly enhancing the home viewing experience.

All that having been said, when it comes to content creators, I do agree that it makes sense to future proof your content by creating and mastering your shows in a 4K format.  But beyond that just seems like overkill to me.

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

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By Gordon Meyer
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Back in 1977, when the very first “Star Wars” movie hit the screen, its stunning visual effects raised the bar more than any movie since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a space odyssey.”  George Lucas’ fledgling Industrial Light & Magic VFX company used a combination of classic technologies involving intricately built models shot in front of a blue screen with modified VistaVision cameras and the then-new technology of using personal computers to control camera movements.  But that was before the age of digital VFX.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I think that with the right artists, CGI technology has generated some amazing visuals, giving filmmakers the freedom to realize even more of their creative visions on the screen.  But because it’s possible to do so much with computers, I think it’s made a lot of filmmakers lazy because it’s just so easy.  Audiences can sense the difference between physical and computer generated realities.  And so can actors.

25 years ago, when Robert Zemeckis directed the groundbreaking film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” he created a cinematic world in which real people interacted with cartoon characters as if it were an everyday occurrence.  Since the movie was made prior to the era of CGI, all the effects were hand crafted and had a physical reality to them.  For example when cartoon characters interacted with their human counterparts in ways that enabled them to manipulate physical objects like pistols, clothing or cars, Zemeckis often used robotics to manipulate those physical objects.  Animation covered the robots so all the audience saw was the cartoon images. But those robots gave the scenes a special reality which helped audiences buy into that world. 

Likewise, Zemeckis had several of his stars, especially Bob Hoskins, train in pantomime techniques so that their body language would realistically replicate what it would have been like when Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant character picked up the cartoon title character by his ears.  Hoskins’ pantomime training enabled him to project the idea of Roger having physical weight and substance.

A large portion of “Star Wars” fans will tell you that, although the CG version of Yoda from the prequel trilogy was able to do things that the Muppet Yoda could not, they still prefer the latter because if just felt more real.  About 8 years ago, I interviewed “Empire Strikes Back” director Irwin Kershner in front of back to back sold out audiences at ArcLight Hollywood and we talked about working with the Muppet. Kersh told me that, after a while, his human cast forgot they were working with a Muppet because Muppeter Frank Oz did such a great job, they responded to Yoda as if he were a real live being instead of a glorified puppet.  That not only made their jobs easier as actors, as a result, both the human performances and the overall perceive reality of the scenes worked better than those with the CG Yoda.

Now, according to a recent article from the BBC, filmmakers are starting to come back to old school physical effects and the use of models.  British SFX supervisor Gavin Rothery recently turned to models in the upcoming science fiction move “Moon.”  In an interview with BBC Culture, Rothery says, “I was always keen to get the film into this space as models have a certain honesty to them that I felt CGI-savvy audience members would appreciate.”  He goes on to say that the film’s director wanted CGI, but they didn’t have the budget, so he got his wish to use models instead. “Not only did it save us millions of pounds that we didn't have, but I got to work with the legendary modelmaker Bill Pearson who worked on Alien, which was an amazing experience.” Computer graphics were added to footage of the model  vehicles to help add atmosphere.

“People seem to appreciate the reality of an image that has been captured through the lens of a camera. I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for this, but it seems that audience members do have a certain tired feeling towards a lot of VFX. To be honest, it's probably the fault of the film for the most part – if it's just not holding you for whatever reason, then you'll start picking things apart as you watch. The human eye is really good at detecting fakeness and people just don't seem to really enjoy looking at something that has been presented as reality but isn't really convincing.”

Back in the 1970s when Steven Spielberg directed “Jaws,” they were experiencing problems with the mechanical shark.  Had that movie been made today, they probably wouldn’t have even bothered with a mechanical shark and simply used a digital one instead.  But then Spielberg would have missed out on the opportunity to make a better movie.  Since he was having problems with the shark footage, Spielberg and his editor Verna Fields made the creative choice to dramatically reduce the amount of screen time the shark would have, leaving more to the audience’s imagination.  As a result, the movie became much more suspenseful, which in turn translated into mega-bucks at the box office.

There’s no doubt that CGI can be a great storytelling tool.  But it should never be used as a creative crutch.  And, as good as it’s gotten over the years, unless the entire world is a computer generated one, as in the Pixar and Dreamworks animated movies, there’s still something that registers in the human subconscious as not quite real.  So here’s to artists like Gavin Rothery who understand the creative and emotional value of physical effects and know how to effectively integrate them with CGI for the best of both worlds.

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By Gordon Meyer
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The world becomes strangely existential at the Mark Taper Forum with their new play, “A Parallelogram” by Bruce Nolan.  The play follows the experiences of a woman named Bee, who regularly has conversations with a future version of herself who’s come to visit her from a time period decades down the line.  Meanwhile, present day Bee does her best to deal with her crumbling relationship and whether or not future Bee is real or if she’s going insane.  Did I mention this is also a comedy and a very funny one at that?  The opening night audience at the Taper certainly caught on to that very quickly with lots of laughs throughout the evening.

The play, which was originally commissioned for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, offers an often riveting and often maddening exploration of human relationships and insecurities between Bee (Marin Ireland), her fiancé Jay (Tom Irwin) and the Hispanic gardener JJ (Carlo Alban) who Bee leaves Jay for.  Meanwhile, future Bee (Marylouise Burke) regularly chimes in with a mix of commentary and prophesy for Bee, trying her best to convince her younger self that her fate is essentially written in stone and nothing can change what is about to happen to her.  But if that’s the case, what’s the point of giving Bee information as to what lies ahead of her?  This is one of the many unanswered questions the play presents.

This production of “A Parallelogram” features several key members of the original Steppenwolf production, including director Anna D. Shapiro and cast members Tom Irwin and Marylouise Burke recreating their original roles. Not surprisingly, Irwin and Burke also gave the two best performances of the play, especially Burke, who stole the show playing three different versions of the woman I call “future Bee.”  Her comic timing and wry delivery made her a joy to watch on stage. 

As for the play itself, while it was entertaining and generated plenty of laughs, at the end of the evening, I also found myself less satisfied than I like to be after an evening at the theatre.  The conceit of the story is voiced by Bee in the opening minutes of the play.  “If you knew in advance what was going to happen in your life and how everything was going to turn out and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you still want to go on with your life?”  Norris goes on to answer this cynical question by showing us the ongoing exercise in frustration that Bee goes through as her future incarnation tells her what’s about to happen while almost gleefully reminding her that there’s nothing she can do to change the outcome.

One of the conceits of the play is that future Bee has a TV-style remote which enables her to turn back brief periods of time so that her present day counterpart can feebly attempt to change the outcome of these scenes by doing things differently.  Not only is this a clever idea, but Norris generates plenty of laughs from these playbacks.  Since most of these playback sequences involve Jay, they also give Irwin a chance to shine as he plays each repeated scene to perfection.

While the idea of a future-self coaching a character in present time has the potential of being an amazing character study,  Norris seemed to be more interested in exploring existentialism and philosophy than humanity in general and who Bee and Jay are as three dimensional people.  Of the two, Jay comes off as the more believable character, venting his frustrations about his ex-wife and his guilt for not making his relationship with Bee work.  Bee, on the other hand, struck me as a much more shallow and self-destructive character who is so invested in defending her sanity that she can’t or won’t see what her behavior has done to damage her relationship first with Jay and then with JJ.  

My own world view is such that I couldn’t disagree more with Norris’ core contention that life is about all of us going through a pre-destined path without hope of making changes for the better.  But I guess that’s often part of a playwright’s job, to suggest and provocatively present alternate world views. While “A Parallelogram” is a flawed work, it’s none the less very entertaining and worth checking out.

“A Parallelogram” plays at the Mark Taper Forum through August 18.  Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org  

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By Gordon Meyer
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There are those who would tell you that the current cycle of 3D entertainment is on its last legs.  They base this on the shrunken interest in 3D TVs domestically.  But they’d be wrong.  Yes, ESPN has announced the phase out of their 3D cable channel and 3D TV sales have gone down over the past few years.  If you go to your local Best Buy, Target or Costco you’ll find only a handful of models on display.  Seems that, at least for now, the CE manufacturers have decided to focus more on Smart TV technology and apps than 3D.  But a look in my crystal ball tells me this is a short term hiccup and that 3D is far from dead.

Ever since the first 3D movies appeared in the 1920s (you read that correctly), there has been strong public interest in the format.  That’s why producers kept bringing it back every 20 years or so with strong initial box office that ultimately tapered off.  The problem was a combination of technical issues and filmmakers treating the medium as more than a mere novelty.  Earlier analog incarnations of 3D were often physically painful for viewers thanks to a combination of ghostly double vision and just enough of a misalignment between the right and left images to cause eye strain.

Digital technology has largely solved the technical issues, at least theatrically and A-list filmmakers like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi are making movies that use 3D as an effective storytelling tool rather than a gimmick.  But it’s no longer a novelty to see movies in 3D and audiences are becoming resistant to that $3 surcharge at the box office.  Plus, more and more movies released in 3D are being shot in 2D and converted in post with varying results.  When done well, not only does a 2D-3D conversion look as good as, if not better than a movie shot with a 3D rig, many of the filmmakers I’ve spoken with have told me they actually have more creative flexibility shooting 2D and converting.

But I’ve been saying for a long time that 3D in the home will ultimately drive 3D in theatres than the other way around.  And it appears that the need for glasses, especially when they’re the pricey active shutter glasses, has had more of an impact than I anticipated.  Actually, it’s kind of a chicken and egg situation with not enough compelling native 3D content out there to justify the price difference between a 2D and 3D TV for consumers.

In the software industry, there’s a term called “Killer App,” which basically means a program or other type of content that’s so hot; so compelling, that consumers buy the hardware just to run that killer app.  In the early days of the personal computer, programs like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 were the killer apps that sold tons of PCs.  But video content is so diverse and fluid and demand for new content so insatiable that there is not likely to be a single 3D title so astounding as to serve as a killer app.  Instead, the killer app is having the pool of quality 3D content grow to critical mass so that consumers are confident that, not only do they have plenty of 3D titles available now, but that there is a steady stream of quality 3D titles consistently in the distribution pipeline.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  First of all, there are at least a dozen 3D movies scheduled for release between now and the end of the year according to the folks at RealD, the company whose passive glasses have become the de facto standard for most theatres running 3D and are now being used in a growing number of 3D capable TVs.  More to the point, even though 3D theatrical attendance has plateaued domestically, 3D consumption both theatrically and in the home have significantly grown in the global market, especially in Europe and China.  With international sales making such an important part of total content revenue, Hollywood studios will indefinitely continue to roll out tent pole movies in 3D.

Meanwhile, as I discussed in my recent article about the new Dolby 3D format, we’re finally getting very close to the point where glasses-free 3D TVs become a practical reality.  I’ve seen prototypes of glasses-free displays for well over 10 years and for most of that time, they’ve been interesting glimpses at what could be, but were far from ready for prime time.   But in the last year, I’ve seen some prototypes that are very nearly there.  The folks at Dolby anticipate having product in stores within the next two years.

If the Dolby folks are right, having affordable glasses-free 3D TVs should be a shot in the arm for the format.  This is assuming that A) the price difference between the glasses-free displays and conventional 3D displays is a modest one, making the decision to pay that premium an easy one; B) those displays have decent real-time 2D-3D converters so that consumers can enjoy as much 3D content as they want, even if they have to “make it” themselves; and C) that the pool of quality 3D entertainment continues to grow so that consumers have confidence they’ll have a steady stream of native quality 3D content available.

But the bottom line is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors about the death of 3D are highly exaggerated.  

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

 

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By Gordon Meyer
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Although comic books and Hollywood have been collaborators since the 1940s, it took the 1978 hit “Superman: The Movie” for Tinseltown to realize that comics could be a lucrative fountain of source material.  That relationship has been growing ever since.  Now, with the onset of transmedia and the commercial need to integrate intellectual properties across a wide variety of media, the synergy between comic books and movies has never been stronger, with more and more screenwriters scripting comics and graphic novels and vice versa.  This new generation of comic book writers, spoiled by the ease of use of programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter have been looking in vain for a similar program for this 80 year old print medium.

Shifting gears, I want to tell you a little about a guy named Steve Sashen, who is one of the unsung heroes of the motion picture industry, especially writers. Until the age of the personal computer, the physical act of writing a screenplay was a cumbersome one, especially when it came to doing re-writes and corrections.  The introduction of affordable word processing via personal computers helped a lot, but the unique formatting requirements of screenplays bogged that down as well until a couple of USC graduates came up with Scriptor, an add-in program for WordStar, an early word processing program.  Scriptor was a boon for writers as it automated the process of repaginating and reformatting scripts written in WordStar and other compatible programs.  But it was still cumbersome.

Sashen had this idea for a stand-alone word processing program for screenwriting which had all of the formatting for scripts built-in and automated.  The program was called Scriptware and began its life in the pre-Windows days of MS-DOS.  It was the very first program to use the Tab key for things like toggling to the Character Name format immediately followed by Dialog format simply by hitting the Enter key.  This has since become the industry standard for dedicated screenplay programs.  For some time, Scriptware was the dominant screenwriting program, especially in the days when Final Draft was exclusively a Mac product.  But then Sashen got bored and, although Scriptware continues to be available for sale online, the program was last updated over a decade ago.  Sashen had moved on to other things.

But someone threw a challenge at his feet to get him back into the game.  Comic books.   Glen Farrington is a screenwriter with a lifelong passion for comic books.  When he decided to turn his creative energies into comic book writing, he began looking for a Final Draft-like program specifically for the highly specialized needs of the comic book/graphic novel format.  There was none.  So Farrington and Sashen teamed up to develop the first scripting program specifically for comic book: ComiXwriter.

Farrington is far from the first screenwriter to write for comics – or vice versa.  In fact, integrating comics and graphic novels with movies and TV shows in ways that the storylines in each of these media are set in the same universe and complement each other is a growing trend dubbed “transmedia.”  So more and more studios and networks want to get in on the act.  But when it comes to writing the scripts for comic books, the format requirements can be just as specialized as they are for screenplays and involve just as many repeated elements. 

As Sashen and Farrington went about developing ComiXwriter, they spoke with a number of working writers to find out what was important. These writers wanted a program that dropped in panel addresses, remembered character names, automatically distinguished description from dialogue, allowed you to view concept art and page roughs alongside your draft script and came ready supplied with a range of script templates.

Just as importantly, they wanted an easy way for the writer to be able to collaborate with the artist and colorist.  According to Sashen, ComiXwriter allows you to bring up the artwork for the page you've written in an easy side by side viewer. This will allow you to edit that script page if necessary and even make notations on the artwork. If changes are made or requested, it saves to document for return to the artist, colorist or letterer.

Right now, ComiXwriter is still in development, though Sashen and Farrington have made beta copies available to a select group of working writers.  Meanwhile, since this is the age of social media, they’ve taken to Facebook and Kickstarter to raise the funds needed to complete the development and begin marketing ComiXwriter at a projected price of only $99 (with discounts to Kickstarter contributors).

I’m not terribly surprised that Sashen is now developing a scriptwriting program specifically for comic books and graphic novels.  The only thing that surprises me is that it took so long for anyone to think about doing it.  But then, with the geometric growth of boutique comic publishers, thanks to the power of the Internet, I guess it just took this long for the potential market for such a program to become big enough to make it worthwhile, especially at such a modest price.

If all goes well, ComiXwriter should be publicly available later this year.  Meanwhile, if you’re a comic book writer yourself or considering getting into the field, it’s well worth your while to check out their Kickstarter page.

 http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/219402484/comixwriter-scriptwriting-software-for-comic-books

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By Gordon Meyer
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A few weeks ago marked the 50th Anniversary of a movie that helped change the way Hollywood does business – for better or worse.  That movie is “Cleopatra,” a four hour road show, historical epic that ran into so many cost overruns it almost put 20th Century Fox out of business.   In today’s dollars, the troubled production would probably cost well north of $350 million, much of it blatantly wasteful.  But as notorious as the film was when it was being made, 50 years later, it stands as a remarkable demonstration of the filmmakers art in the mid-20th century.

There’s an old saying, that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” which had to be coined in reference to movies like “Cleopatra.” We’re talking the kind of “cast of thousands” epic that Hollywood at one time gloried in.    Its $44 million price tag shows on the screen.  This picture has the kind of spectacle that today’s filmmakers can only dream of – and with no digital effects.  Everything on the screen has an analog reality with some jaw dropping set pieces, like Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome.

But as we already know, you can have all the jaw dropping spectacle you want.  If you don’t have great performances and a strong story, it doesn’t matter.   With the objectivity of 50 years, Taylor’s performance in this movie reminds us of why she epitomized the term “movie star.” The movie itself turns a major chapter in world history into a big screen soap opera with plenty of intrigue, personal and national politics, and passionate romance (much easier to buy Cleopatra’s romance with Burton as Marc Antony than Harrison’s Caesar).  And yes, co-writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz did take a few creative liberties with historical facts, including set designs taken from periods of Egyptian history hundreds of years apart.  But it all works.

For the movie’s 50th Anniversary, Fox released both two and three disc versions on Blu-ray and provided me with a review copy of the two disc version.  Let’s start with the transfer.  Mankiewicz had so much material, he originally wanted the movie to be broken down into two separate three-hour epics with part 1 focusing on Caesar and Cleopatra and part 2 on Marc Antony and Cleopatra.  Between Fox’s desperate need to get the movie out in theatres ASAP and the public’s fascination with the soap opera romance between co-stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, that six hour version never happened. 

The original road show presentation ran just over four hours plus intermission before another hour was lopped off for general release.  While there remains considerable question as to whether the original footage even exists to recreate the intended six hour version, for this 50th Anniversary edition, Fox has lovingly restored the original 70mm Todd-AO four hour roadshow presentation and it looks stunning.  Even though the movie was originally shot using Eastmancolor stock, the colors are as vibrant and clear as the best dye transfer Technicolor prints of anything from that era. 

All the bonus content on the two disc version was re-purposed from earlier DVD releases and other standard def sources, including a two hour “Making of” documentary originally produced for the AMC cable network, a look at the search for missing footage, a running commentary by Chris and Tom Mankiewicz (director Joseph Mankiewicz’s sons), actor Martin Landau and publicist Jack Brody and newsreel coverage of the New York and west coast premieres.   Even though none of the bonus content on the two disc release is in HD, it’s still quite fascinating, especially the AMC special. 

No question about it.  “Cleopatra” is a lavish, eye popping classic that belongs in any film buff’s library.

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 Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

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By Gordon Meyer
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I reviewed “Oz The Great and Powerful” when it first came out theatrically earlier this year. In discussing the recent 3D Blu-ray release, I’m going to simply direct you to that earlier review and give you a very condensed version of that review here.  I thought the movie was a lot of fun and a loving tribute to both the original L. Frank Baum source material and the 1939 MGM classic.   Director Sam Raimi and his collaborators carried off the creative challenge of honoring the earlier film while making this vision of Oz all their own.  For more details, please click here so see my full review of the movie.

Disney is testing a new thing with its 3D Blu-ray releases.  Up until now, their practice had been to release their 3D titles as combo packs which also included a DVD, 2D Blu-ray and digital copy.  For those of us who are film buffs, the combo pack is great because if the 3D disc has any kind of bonus content at all, it’s limited to trailers of upcoming 3D theatrical and BD releases and whatever animated short was released theatrically with the feature.  Most, if not all the bonus features are exclusively on the 2D discs.

But with “Oz – The Great and Powerful,” Disney has taken a different business model.  While the 3D movie is priced comparably to what previous Disney 3D Blu-rays went for, this time, all you get is the feature itself and instructions on how to activate your digital copy.  If you want to 2D Blu-ray with its wealth of bonus features, you have to pony up an additional $6.00 (plus shipping) and wait around for Disney to ship you the 2D package.

As usual, Disney did a great job of transferring the 3D feature to disc.  When viewing on my Windows 7 based test platform (Supermicro PC with Intel i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 470 graphics board, NVIDIA 3D Vision playback system and 23” LG monitor), the image was pristine and Raimi’s use of 3D space looks great.   This is one of those movies that is not only very entertaining, it’s also a great title to show off whatever 3D display you have.

Since Disney did not initially provide me with a 2D disc so I can comment on the bonus content, I can only tell you that, from the list shown in the press release, it looks like a cool collection.  But that’s pure speculation since I have not yet paid them my $6.00 for the 2D version.  As a consumer, I hope they go back to the earlier combo pack version for future 3D releases.  It’s not that $6.00 is so much money.  It’s that it’s cumbersome, time consuming and takes up that much more shelf space to have two different packages for the same title.   It’s simply not all that consumer friendly.  But the movie itself is well worth adding to your library.

 

Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

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