Since cutting the cord to cable TV a few weeks ago, I’ve been searching for a new source of documentary content. I was always a fan of the History Channel and its Sunday night mini-series features and had hoped to find those shows on Discovery Plus. But alas, History is trying to hang onto its cable subscribers by limiting its streamed offerings. So, I have a message for the folks at The History Channel – watch out, here comes Netflix!
Netflix is not new to documentaries. There are lots of imported shows available, and I’ve been checking out many of them. But there is a ton of original content coming out that simply blows away anything I’ve seen elsewhere. I recently watched three mini-series that have made me all but forget anything I ever saw on History.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
This four-part feature talks about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the 2013 disappearance of Elisa Lam from the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer, it is a fascinating and chilling story, superbly told. Many of the detectives, journalists, and hotel workers are interviewed along with original news footage. The case became an internet sensation as thousands of amateur sleuths posted their theories online. The series comes to a logical and satisfying conclusion as the police solve the mystery. If you’re a fan of true crime, this one is a must-see. And thanks to a Dolby Vision encode, it’s also beautiful to look at.
Told in six segments, this documentary covers different aspects of life after death and the culture that has grown around belief in the supernatural. The episodes cover near-death experiences, mediums, signs from the dead, seeing the dead, and reincarnation. They are tied together by interviews with a group of academics, parapsychologists, mediums, and researchers. The second and third chapters cover mediums and I found that subject a little tedious. But the other topics are extremely compelling, especially the final episode about reincarnation. This one is also shot in Dolby Vision.
Formula 1 Drive to Survive
I have always been interested in auto racing but had trouble finding the time to watch events which can last two to four hours. This series covers the 2018, 2019, and 2020 F1 seasons with a lot of on- and off-track footage. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes material about drivers, team managers, and the multitude of people that work long hours to bring the F1 circus to exotic locations around the world. I’ve just started this one and am midway through the first series which covers the 2018 season. Not only is the ongoing story/soap opera incredibly entertaining, but the sound and video are also phenomenal. The stream comes through in Dolby Vision and even looks amazing on my 1080p projector. It’s far better than anything found on broadcast television. And I don’t have to sit through an entire race which is largely boring except for the occasional pit stop or passing maneuver.
I have a few other titles in my watchlist which I’ll cover in future columns: Spycraft, which covers the technology around modern-day espionage; Our Planet, another gorgeous BBC Earth production narrated by David Attenborough; The History of Swear Words, don’t need to say much there; and several others which I’ll hopefully have time for soon. Thanks for reading, and Happy Streaming!
The Train (1964).
Some movies are fully available to watch from the Internet for free (with advertisement commercials of course), and some are not. I don’t know the reasons for the studios choosing which ones are free to watch, but I appreciate their availability.
This one, The Train (1964) stars Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, and Jeanne Moreau. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn. It takes place in the closing years of WW-II. Nazi Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Scofield) is in France and tries to steal a train-load of classic French art and take it back to Germany before the Allies invade Paris. French railway inspector Labiche (Lancaster) sabotages the theft as long as he can.
With the help of Papa Boulle, for example, using a coin to foul the oil line in the train, and when Col Waldheim discovers the sabotage . . .
Meanwhile, along the route out of France, the allies continually attempt to bomb the train, not knowing about the art treasures in the boxcars.
Movies like this are no longer made. If you are a fan of WW-II adventure stories, this is a fantastic one and it’s free. If you have the software and hardware, you can broadcast it from your phone to your HDTV.
The Untouchables (1959).
In the late 1950s, a TV series called The Untouchables was shown. It starred Robert Stack as Elliot Ness who was hired in 1927 as a US Treasury Agent to stop Al Capone in Chicago. The series was based on his (Ness’) book by the same name, and each episode chronicles his interaction with various criminals during that period (the late 1920s – early 1930s). It is a superb TV series and well worth watching.
You can sample a few episodes for free, but I bought the entire series in a DVD collection. It is not available in HDTV format unfortunately because TV series don’t usually get the HDTV treatment. The TV series continued until the book ran out of stories. Robert Stack is shown in the first photo below, and underneath that is a photo of J. Carrol Naish who was in The Noise of Death episode. He was one of the finest character actors in film history. Google The Untouchables The Noise of Death episode, and you can see for yourself.
Eric Clapton has been conducting these Guitar-focused benefit concerts every few years. The purpose is to raise money for his Crossroads drug rehab center that he founded some years ago in Antigua. The first official benefit concert that was released on video was in 2004. I’ve been a fan of these shows and collected each of the concerts on Bluray over the years. Clapton et all are certainly showing their age in this installment but everyone including EC puts out excellent performances.
Visually and sonically this is as good as it gets without being there. Both the DTS Master Audio track and the video quality are outstanding. The crystal clear visuals combined with the immersive audio mix provide several demo-worthy moments in this 2-disc set. The cinematography is also quite excellent and brings you onto the stage and up close with the performers as well. And Comedian Bill Murray makes for an outstanding Master of Ceremonies, effectively announcing the acts and entertaining the crowd between sets.
EC and his band start things off with intimate acoustic performances of “Wonderful Tonight” and “Lay Down Sally” that are both tasteful and personal. Other standout performances on the first disc include Bonnie Raitt & Keb-Mo performing a sultry and soulful rendition of “Million Miles.” Citizen Cope with some incendiary guitar work from Gary Clarke Jr. performing “Son’s Gonna Rise.” Buddy Guy and Johnny Lang do a barnburner of a version of “Cognac.” Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt do an awesome rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Everything’s Broken.” The Marcus King Band (who I was unfamiliar with) had a great pair of songs, “How Long” and “Goodbye Carolina.” Both showcased the band leader’s soulful voice and significant guitar chops. Next was Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton performing “My Guitar Gently Weeps” and it was an absolute showstopper. This was followed up by Jeff Beck’s skillful three-song set of “Space for the Papa”, “Big Block”, and “Caroline No”, to cap off the first disc.
Disc 2 starts with a superb rendition of “Cut em Loose” from Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Randolph’s chops on slide guitar are crazy good. The Tedeschi Trucks band does an absolutely on-fire rendition of “How Blue Can You Get” as a fitting tribute to the late, great BB King. Young and new talent (at least to me) like James Bay and Lianne La Havas sounded great and unique enough that I made a mental note to check out more about them next time I boot up ROON. He has exceptional guitar chops and she had an angelic voice. The show finishes out with Clapton performing “Badge” and “Layla” accompanied by Doyle Bramhall II and John Mayer. For an encore, EC plays a stirring rendition of “Purple Rain” in honor of Prince, and then all the guests join Clapton for “It’s High Time We Went” to close out the concert in grand fashion. In place of not being at the live event, this really is a superb show to enjoy to its fullest in your home theater.
It’s an odd feeling watching people that you consider to be Gods getting old, but it’s clear that this festival doesn’t just celebrate the old generation of guitar players but it also spotlights a significant amount of younger, gifted talent too. That being said, the old guys are still the big draw and they fully hold their own.
I don’t know how many more of these Clapton has left in him but as BB King once said to EC at one of these concerts, “May I live forever, but you sir, may you live forever-and-a-day!”
Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, Paramount, 1996, Rated-R, AC3 Laserdisc.
The Kids in the Hall (Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson) were a wildly popular and irreverent Canadian comedy troupe who formed in 1984 and from 1989 -1995 had a weekly comedy sketch show that aired in Canada on the CBC and a less edited version aired on HBO in the US over the same period. The show was biting and hysterical, having an often absurd and uniquely Canadian take on everything in general. It was a staple of my viewing habits through my college years. Funny, edgy, and a bit subversive, the group produced and released their only feature-length movie in 1996. The story revolved around a scientist who develops a drug to potentially cure depression only to have the drug company that employs him forcibly rush it to market.
While the drug’s results initially seem positive, it begins to cause everyone who takes it to fall frozen into a “coma of happiness” soon after it becomes a non-prescription medication. The scientist tries to go to the media to no avail and eventually works to produce an antidote drug to return users to their original depressed state. Much humor, weirdness, and honestly a good deal of poor taste ensues through the film’s progression. The film feels like it was tough to put together and the troupe did indeed split apart not too long after the film’s release. The movie was controversial due to in particular to the character portrayal of “Cancer Boy” an impish, wheelchair-bound childlike character, who was afflicted but was constantly, creepily upbeat, yet resigned to his fate. Paramount fought to have the character edited from the film but the comedians refused. Paramount relented but subsequently reduced the number of release screens and the marketing budgets down to a bare minimum and the movie fared poorly in its run. Brain Candy recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary and I blew the dust off my old laserdisc copy (and the player too) and watched it again for the first time in over a decade. As a whole, it hasn’t exactly aged well. I think its main problem is that the humor is not universal. It’s too insider and regional of Toronto from that era. That partly prevents it from appealing to a broader scale. That and the fact that it was too audaciously weird for the time. There are however several moments of comedic brilliance throughout the film, from the drug company president, being a caricature of producer Lorne Michaels, to Sisko the sadistic drug company marketing exec, to the closeted in-denial husband character whose family (and neighborhood) know that he is gay and just want him to finally admit it, to the crass Croatian cab driver who narrates the opening and closing of the film. The five troupe members play a relentless variety of characters in the film, both male and female, and each one has some perfectly funny moments to commit to the film. Whether the humor was sick, twisted, incongruous, tasteless, or just traditionally funny, doesn’t matter. For the time, these guys pushed the comedy envelope every conceivable way, and a few inconceivable ways too. They put SNL of the time to shame and everyone who was into comedy knew it. Brain Candy is a bizarre, disturbed, and seriously demented cult classic, and I still love it. But honestly “It sounds better in the original Croatian!”
The Ten Commandments
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Vincent Price
Released 1956. This 4K Blu-ray released March 30, 2021.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Video Specifications: 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray, 1.78:1 HEVC 2160p (4K UHD) encoding with HDR and Dolby Vision
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Length: 220 minutes
There’s so much to say about the Ten Commandments, both positive and negative. On the plus side, the film was a truly epic production, filmed in Hollywood and Egypt. It’s audacious, moving yet at times silly. The film cemented actor Charlton Heston as an icon of epic movies (El Cid, Ben Hur, The Agony, and the Ecstasy) and also gifted us with a terrific performance by Yul Brynner (who I think steals the movie). Everyone knows the film, with people having seen it at the 1956 premier or in the re-release in the 80s, or on TV almost every Easter on ABC. It’s corny, and a bit like an old Sunday school lesson. Still, The Ten Commandments lives on, from generation to generation.
This latest incarnation, in 4K is really astounding, and copies of this movie should be flying off the shelves for its high-quality video. The previous Blu-ray looked great, but it can’t touch the added quality rendered by the HDR and Dolby Vision encoding. I doubt the film looked this good at the theaters in 1956. The costumes simply glow, and the blues, reds, and gold are just breathtaking. The detail in the Egyptian armor and the gowns worn by the actresses are stunning in every way. The extra detail in the picture does reveal the seams and matte lines in the special effects, and reportedly Paramount did some work to make them less obvious in this new 4K offering. Of course, there was no CGI in those days, and special effects wizard John Fulton did an amazing job winning the film’s sole Oscar for his labors. The parting of the Red Sea still astounds.
The audio is a 5.1 DTS-HD mix. It’s the same as the one found on the prior Blu-ray Disc. It’s limited in dynamic range, and the surround is pretty muted, but the Elmer Bernstein music score comes across with great separation and some occasional sound from the rear. Some of the dialog is pretty stilted, and poor Anne Baxter overplays her part in an eye-rolling manner but taken as a whole, the film is still moving even if you aren’t religious.
The Ten Commandments is really the best-looking 4K disc of a classic movie I’ve ever seen. It’s worth having in any collection. Paramount has done a masterful job on the original 6K scan and restoration, done in 2010, and given us this simply spectacular 4K transfer with HDR. Even if you watched it over and over on TV, even if you’d had the DVD and the Blu-ray, this 4K UHD version is worth buying.
Extras include trailers, an excellent commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments. This is a 3 disc set, with the movie in 4K on one disc, and extras and part 1 and part two of the feature film on 1080p discs.