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Review: The Father

The Father (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Zeller uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to force 

THE FATHER AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE
Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless.

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Father (2020)

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Mank

Mank (2020)

For proof that it was a really bad idea to have the Oscars during the same year as a pandemic, you don’t need to look any further than David Fincher’s Mank. It’s had a ton of nominations heaped upon it and it’s the kind of film that stands a good chance of walking away with most of the major awards. But it’s also an astonishingly bad movie, and in a legitimate year—like say 2019—it wouldn’t have been allowed to even stick its head in the Academy’s door.

 

I’m going to offer up my rationale for the above conclusions not because I want to let this thing reside in my brain for a single second longer than necessary, but since it’s being puffed up as a really big deal, an important film, it would be irresponsible 

to shirk making the case against it.

 

First off, the story it tries to tell is incredibly old news. The myth that Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, is responsible for the greatness of Citizen Kane has been Hollywood folklore from the time of Kane’s creation. The tiresome Pauline Kael later latched onto it and made it the subject of her notorious Raising Kane. HBO’s unforgivable RKO 281 (1999) tread the same ground. It’s an argument that’s so easily picked apart I won’t even bother going there, but comes down to being yet one more instance of the American terror of the outsider. Mank breaks no new ground here.

 

The film’s deepest flaw is one common to all of Fincher’s work—he’s just an overgrown kid who approaches everything he does like a giggly teenager who’s adopted a completely unearned cynicism to mask his fundamental immaturity. That leads him to take an incredibly complex and potentially rich tale and reduce it to the overstylized 

MANK AT A GLANCE

That this bankrupt telling of a potentially interesting tale has racked up so many nominations proves they should have skipped handing out Oscars during a pandemic.

 

PICTURE
Super-contrasty black & white images with pumped-up highlights add up to video that’s actually painful to watch. 

 

SOUND     

The dialogue is consistently hard to make out, which is probably a blessing, while the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack is so predictable you don’t even notice it’s there.

and remedial presentation of a comic book. The film is full of superficial busyness. All of the actors speak in exposition. All plausibility is optional, and only grudgingly deployed. There is no nuance.

 

A key example: Fincher is so obsessed with pulling off clever shots and editing patterns, and is so fundamentally limited as an actor’s director, that he lacks the interest, ability, or trust to just let his players sit in the same space and organically interact. To resonate at all, this needed to be a tale of very real, very vulnerable people striving in some very heightened worlds. It instead feels like a bunch of puerile stick figures meant to serve some storyboard hopelessly stuck in Fincher’s head.

Also, for the movie to have any power, it needed to stay true to who these people were and what these institutions were within the world of 1930s California and Hollywood. But Fincher, for all his faux cynicism, is really just a big lapdog of a director, so he can’t resist the temptation to draw contemporary parallels throughout and give his characters contemporary attitudes. Remolding Welles as a hipster is faintly amusing but also a little too pat, like everything else here.

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

be. I’ve always felt he was an “actor,” not an actor, and have been suspicious of his work ever since he was overpraised for his Sid Vicious impression in Sid and Nancy (1986). He’s almost engaging here, I suspect, because everything else in the film is so barely and poorly formed that even a yeoman-like turn seems intriguing.

 

It’s so easy to pick apart the movie’s Potemkin-village visual plan that I’ll leave that to others. The one thing I will point out is that the black & white cinematography is so contrasty, with the whites pumped up wretchedly high, that most of the images are painful to look at. Add to that a lot of fundamentally ill-conceived CGI work and you’ve got the visual equivalent of sandpaper.

 

There’s really nothing to be said about the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score except that it’s so predictable it’s like it’s not even there. But I was surprised by how badly this film is mixed. Since the dialogue was frequently unintelligible, I watched Mank a second time listening on headphones just to make out most of the lines. I can’t say it was worth it.

 

If you like movies that are full of a sense of their own cleverness and that tell you exactly what to think and feel—and I realize there’s a substantial audience for that—then by all means wallow in Mank. But it’s hard not to watch something like this and continually sense how much more the movies can do, how much more they have done, and not see it as a deeply troubling sign that this kind of simplistic twaddle is somehow seen as important. Citizen Kane brought an unprecedented depth to film; Mank is a celebration of the kind of bright, shiny surfaces Welles’ thrust was meant to pierce.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon (2020)

Ask most kaiju fans whether they’d rather sit down and watch 1968’s Destroy All Monsters or 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and I suspect most would opt for the former. And no, just to be clear, you haven’t stumbled into the wrong review here. This is not my hot take on Godzilla vs. Kong. That’s coming next week. I merely bring up these two movies to shine a light on the fact that most of us would probably rather watch a truly, irredeemably, laughably bad movie than one that’s just meh. If that resonates with you, you can probably skip Netflix’ Oscar-nominated Over the Moon, no matter how young your kids are. 

 

It’s a shame really, because Over the Moon is the most frustrating sort of entertainment experience in that there’s a decent movie hiding in here somewhere. The animation is fantastic, which is no surprise given that the movie was directed by Glen 

Keane, the animation supervisor for Disney classics like Tangled, Tarzan, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.

 

There’s a wonderfully non-Pixar quality to the 3D animation, which isn’t to say that I don’t love—and even prefer—Pixar’s house aesthetic; it’s merely nice to see something different for a change. The Dolby Vision presentation on Netflix is also a frog-hair short of truly reference quality, with only a very, very minor bit of banding in one brief scene holding it back from perfection, at least via my Roku Ultra. The color palette is bold, the dynamic range is extreme, and the choreography is impeccable. Simply put, Over the Moon is eye candy in every sense of the word.

 

There are also the makings of a really good story here, as the bones of it are admirable. The movie is part of a larger initiative by Netflix to create properties based on world mythologies other than the standard Western pantheons, which I’m super excited about overall. In this case, the

MOON AT A GLANCE

This Netflix updating of Chinese folklore almost works, but falls far enough short to make its Oscar nod for Animated Feature seem questionable.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation is a frog-hair short of truly reference quality, with only one very minor bit of banding. 

 

SOUND     

The music is banal and the dialogue clunky, but the soundtrack is otherwise a dynamic and interesting Atmos mix that’s almost as good as the fantastic animation.

joint production between Netflix and China’s Pearl Studio is centered on the myth of the moon goddess Chang’e, and it tells the tale of a young girl named Fei Fei who’s heartbroken by the death of her mother and frustrated that the adults around her don’t seem to put much stock in the tale of Chang’e anymore, so she builds a mag-lev rocket with the intent of visiting the moon and returning with proof of the goddess’s existence.

 

There are seeds planted here that could have flourished into a story about the enduring power of myth in a post-Information Age world, about the dangers of hero worship, and about dealing with loss. The problem is that Over the Moon never really 

figures out what it wants to be about, and as such the plot is a meandering and convoluted mess that bores you to death with sensory overload.

 

To give you just one example of how poorly scripted the movie is, one plot thread revolves around Chang’e demanding the return of “the gift,” but for no reason whatsoever, she won’t tell Fei Fei what the gift actually is. The girl assumes the gift must be the doll left in the wreckage of her makeshift rocket and starts a Cannonball Run-esque race across the moon to retrieve it, only to have it stolen, only to then bite into a moon cake and discover 

half of an amulet that was baked into the treat for equally inexplicable reasons. When she rightly realizes that the cloven artifact is “the gift,” she returns it to the goddess who exclaims that it’s exactly what she was looking for.

 

This pointless side quest and its non-sequitur resolution add nothing to the thematic or narrative through-line of the story, deliver no lessons or meaning, and only pointlessly pad what’s already an overly long 100-minute movie.

 

What’s more, while the Earth-based parts of the story all take place in China, and while the cast is dominated by actors of Asian descent, the movie is just one big pile of Western animation tropes, most of them in the poor-man’s Disney vein and all of them strung together with no rhyme or reason. Why anyone would make a Chinese/American co-production based on a Chinese myth and not pepper it with at least some Eastern sensibilities and narrative stylings is beyond me.

 

But that’s hardly the movie’s biggest sin. Worse by far is the fact that the music is just awful. And I’m not talking “direct-to-VHS Disney sequel” awful. I’m talking The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers awful. And there’s just. So. Much. Of. It. There doesn’t seem to be a character capable of vocalizing their feelings without bursting into a song that sounds like it was improvised on the spot by your tone-deaf aunt who’s obsessed with Les Misérables. The most offensive musical number, though, involves a rap battle between the goddess and the protagonist’s soon-to-be-stepbrother that’s about as funky-fresh as Karl “MC” Rove’s attempt at hip-hop. I’m sorry, but Phillipa Soo—who voices Chang’e—deserves better than this.

 

Take out the banal music and the clunky dialogue, and the soundtrack is actually pretty well constructed, with a dynamic and interesting Atmos mix that’s almost as good as the fantastic animation. But that does little to rescue this mess from mediocrity. 

 

How this exercise in frustrating inconsistency ended up nabbing an Oscar nod is beyond me, especially when there were actually some pretty good animated pictures in 2020 (Onward) as well as some legitimately great ones (Soul and Wolfwalkers). And look, you could argue that I’m not in Over the Moon‘s target audience, but I beg to differ. I have roughly the same emotional maturity as your average Pokémon enthusiast and I thrive on animated features of this sort. This just isn’t a good movie, no matter how you slice it.

 

But the most infuriating thing about it is that it’s almost good. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Ep. 15: Theo at Home

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Legendary home theater designer (and Cineluxe contributor) Theo Kalomirakis went back to Greece last year to supervise work on his summer home only to find himself locked down in the country, thanks to the pandemic. He quickly realized his confinement was a blessing in disguise since it allowed him to enjoy the cuisine, walking on the nearby beach, his work-in-progress home—and the attention of the Athenians, who have embraced him as a long-lost son.

 

Theo decided to have his personal home theater transported from the U.S. and reconstructed in the basement of his new home, where he implemented a number of upgrades (which we discuss in the episode).

He was also able to realize a childhood dream. Greece is famous for its outdoor theaters, and, wanting to emulate those, Theo as a teenager built his first home theater out on the terrace of his parents’ apartment in Athens. Never able to find a way to do something similar at his Brooklyn home, he seized on the chance to take advantage of the 10,000 square feet of property surrounding his summer home to create the ultimate outdoor movie space.

Our conversation covers the circumstances that brought Theo to Greece and the creation of his new personal theaters along with a slew of other subjects, including his latest work and his love for movies. Here’s a road map:

 

0:00    How the pandemic brought him back to Greece.

5:06    How he planned his new home theater.

5:49    How his new yard became an outdoor theater.

7:14    The status of his archives, which document the history of home theater.

8:18    How he’s been embraced by the Greek film community.

8:26    Donating his collection of 5,000 laserdiscs.

10:13  Donating his collection of 6,000 Blu-ray Discs.

11:40  The Greek passion for movies.

13:30  The effort to finish his home theater.

13:53  The improvements over his Brooklyn theater.

16:06  Theo’s preference for a clean, modern design style vs. the “movie palace” approach.

19:16  How his outdoor theater was inspired by Greek theaters & his first home theater.

22:45  A description of the outdoor theater.

25:17  His efforts to archive his collection of Blu-ray Discs and 9,000 DVDs.

27:35  The impressive recent re-issues of Technicolor movies.

30:49  What 4K brings to re-issues.

31:42  Technicolor vs. contemporary films (The Harvey Girls vs. Tenet).

33:10  Wrap-up / tweaking his home theater.

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

Review: Minari

Minari (2020)

There’s a certain frustrating injustice in the fact that Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari came out in 2020. While this gorgeous slice-of-life drama is being hailed as one of the year’s best films, that recognition carries with it some tallest-kid-in-kindergarten connotations. The truth is that Minari would be a triumph of cinema in any year. But to be plucked from the dustbin and heralded as such this year almost seems like a consolation prize. 

 

I’ll admit, though, that I have some significant bias as far as this film is concerned, so maybe take my adulation with a grain of salt. I’m a sucker for a simple story. Writing complicated tales is easy—you string together a bunch of “what had happened was”es, cut between disparate narrative threads when one has gone on too long, throw as much as you can at the wall, and 

hope enough of it sticks to be honed in the editing. Writing a simple story is significantly more difficult, and writing one that holds together narratively and thematically is an admirable accomplishment.

 

Minari is the simplest of tales, and a familiar one at that: A family, facing unendurable financial hardship and lack of opportunity, moves to a strange new place in search of a better life. Familiar though that plot kernel may be, Chung tells it in the most unexpected of ways, never going for the obvious twists, never beholden to the traditional three-act narrative structure.

 

In some respects, a lot of what you’ll get out of the film is dependent upon what you bring into it, because Chung’s thumb never rests too heavily on the scales. Speaking purely for myself—a Caucasian southern man whose familial roots grow in rural soil very similar to the setting of 

MINARI AT A GLANCE

A Korean family’s attempts to farm in rural Arkansas told in a deceptively simple tale that adds up to one of the best films of 2020.

 

PICTURE
Shot digitally, the movie is a beauty to behold, with imagery that evokes the organic quality of Kodachrome film. 

 

SOUND     

The film surprisingly benefits from a Dolby Atmos mix that helps evoke a three-dimensional world without getting gimmicky.

Minari—I was drawn almost as much to the setting as I was to the human drama of it all. I’ll admit, though, that I tensed up the first time a white southerner appeared onscreen. You almost can’t help but expect the residents of rural Arkansas to be portrayed as caricatures, as overtly racist and malicious bumpkins. They aren’t, though. They’re portrayed as ignorant, to be sure, but the exact sort of ignorance that feels 100% authentic to the film’s setting; the sort of ignorance I’m met with at every big family gathering. This is simply one of the most accurate portraits of the rural south in the 1980s I’ve ever seen.

 

Against that backdrop, the story that unfolds is one of duty—duty to one’s parents, children, partner, and oneself. And most of the drama comes from trying to find the right balance between those interdependent dials. Duty to his parents is largely to blame for the financial struggles Jacob Yi (played to perfection by Steven Yeun) and his family suffer in California. Duty to 

their children is what forces Jacob and his wife Monica (played to equal perfection by Han Ye-ri) to the Ozark Plateau. Frustration with this tug-of-war and a disproportionate attempt to be dutiful to himself contributes to Jacob’s Sisyphean struggles in his new home, both within his family and on the land that he obsessively farms.

 

The farm, it should be said, serves as an unnamed character in the film. It embodies the tension at the center of the struggle between an untenable past and an uncertain future. Those two forces, though, receive their embodiment in the forms of David—Jacob and Monica’s ill son—and 

Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to live with the family to care for her grandchildren while their parents work at a nearby hatchery, and who plants the perennial herb that gives the film its name and so much of its meaning.

 

David and Soon-ja not only serve as the heart of the film, they also serve as its funny bone, adding some much-needed levity exactly when it’s needed most. As with the rural whites, it would have been all too easy to paint both of these characters with too broad a brush, but Chung packs each with the sort of contradictions essential to any human. In the case of David, that’s not all that surprising, since the boy serves as the writer/director’s proxy in the story. But Soon-ja must have been a much trickier character to write, no matter how much real-life inspiration Chung had for her. She represents tradition, but she’s an idiosyncratic, eccentric force of nature who defies tradition at every turn. That Chung didn’t chisel off her rough edges to force her into the symbolic mold she fills in the film is a credit to his skills as a writer and his faith in the audience.

 

Individually, David and Soon-ja are fascinating (and indeed somewhat tragic) characters. Together, they’re absolutely hilarious—the sort of duo that Taika Waititi would write if he made dramas instead of comedies. 

 

But don’t dwell too much on that comparison. I’ve simply been so primed by a culture that’s obsessed with every new thing being categorized as “this meets that” that I found myself drawing that parallel before I could catch myself. If forced to draw deeper parallels of the same sort, I would call this film Waititi meets Faulkner meets Sinclair.” But that’s hardly fair. Minari is boldly, unapologetically its own thing. 

 

It’s also beautiful to behold. The film is currently available on PVOD—or “Theater at Home,” as described by Vudu, where I rented it. Vudu presents Minari in Dolby Vision with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, both of which serve the material well. Although shot digitally, the cinematography has a very organic look that’s vaguely reminiscent of Kodachrome stock. It’s incredibly contrasty, with inky shadows and dazzling highlights; but the most prominent aspect of the cinematography is the richness and warmth of the colors, all of which are captured beautifully by the transfer. 

 

Despite the 2K digital intermediate, there’s a wealth of detail in everything from the tattered interior of the Yi family’s mobile home to the chaotic kaleidoscope of patterns caused by overlapping layers of flora blowing in the breeze. If the film’s presentation proves anything, it’s that lenses are more essential to the final look of a cinematic work than are capture resolution (3.2K in this case) or the pixel-count of the DI. 

 

Interestingly, though, when I switched between my Roku Ultra and my Apple TV 4K purely for the sake of thorough comparison, the latter didn’t hold up quite as well. On the Apple hardware, the Vudu stream was marred to a degree by some banding, digital noise, and lack of definition that was nowhere to be seen on the Roku. 

 

Minari doesn’t seem like the sort of film that would benefit from an Atmos mix, but does it ever. It’s another case where, if Atmos were handled this gracefully by every sound mixer, I would be a bigger fan of the format. The extra channels are used in this case to construct the film’s world in three dimensions. Heck, if you took away the dialogue and music, it seems like 90% of what would be left would be the chirping of crickets and tree frogs and—to borrow a beautiful turn of phrase from Randy Newman—the song that the trees sing when the wind blows. Once you get over the novelty of sounds coming from overhead, the film’s mix just sounds authentic, like strolling through the wild acreage of my dad’s property with my ears attuned to the aural landscape. 

 

And in a way, that’s an apt metaphor for the film itself as a whole. It’s obviously contrived. Every story is. But give yourself to it and there’s nearly nothing about Minari that feels contrived. It’s as honest and unforced a work of cinema as I’ve experienced in ages. Its show-don’t-tell approach to grappling with the struggles of the working poor and the realities of cultural assimilation, combined with its pitch-perfect performances and effortless artistry, make it an absolute must-see.

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: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

While it’s probably possible to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka “The Snyder Cut”), released last week on HBO Max, on its own without discussing all of the baggage that comes with it, some context seems appropriate to establish why and how this all came to be.

 

First, we need to travel back to 2017. Snyder had completed two DC films for Warner Bros., Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which were going to establish and launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), setting it up to stand against the tide of Marvel heroes. As Snyder was deep in the process of completing his followup film, Justice League, tragedy struck his family when 20-year-old daughter Autumn took her own life. 

 

Understandably, Snyder and his wife Deborah (who was working as producer on the film) felt unable to continue with the demands of production and battling with the studio to get the film completed on his terms, and they decided to step away to focus on their family. 

 

Warner, with millions already invested and most of Snyder’s filming complete, brought in Joss Whedon to direct and bring the film across the finish line. Many had complained that Snyder’s vision for the DCEU was too dark (Batman v Superman had a 

dismal critics’ score of just 29%), and that Whedon’s more light-hearted approach combined with his prior success working on two Avengers films (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) was the right tone to help get the DCEU back on track.

 

Whedon took over the reins, rewriting, reshooting, and editing the film, injecting some humor to lighten the dark tone as well as making major trims to meet Warner’s alleged mandate of hitting a two-hour runtime—frankly an overly ambitious goal in a film planning on introducing three major new characters that would help carry the film and drive the DCEU forward, resurrecting another, setting up a new franchise Big Bad, and then having this newly assembled team save the world.

 

The result was 2017’s Justice League, a film Snyder says his wife and executive producer Christopher Nolan told him never to see as it “would break his heart,” and one that 

ZSJL AT A GLANCE

The subject of much social-media-driven fan expectation turns out to be an improvement on Joss Whedon’s stab at the film, resulting in a fuller, but not exceptionally better, experience.

 

PICTURE
Image quality is clean throughout, though never bristling with sharpness and detail—which might be due to HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth.

 

SOUND     

A pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room, but with somewhat limited low-end dynamics.

seemed to disappoint more people than it pleased. (Though it must be pointed out that both its critics’ and audience ratings were higher than Snyder’s BvS . . . )

 

Over the years, rumors started circulating that Snyder had all of the footage he shot during his time in the director’s seat and that he had assembled a rough-cut that he’d shown to some friends and insiders, and that this true vision of Justice League was a film that righted all wrongs.

 

Fans glommed onto this and started a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement filled with the usual social-media fervor, including toxic and hateful rhetoric and cyberbullying on Twitter and Reddit and at least one death threat. Even members of the Justice League cast and crew started showing support for the release of Snyder’s version of the film, and the movement continued to grow.

 

A lot of hate was spewed at Whedon, who—at least as far as I can tell—handled it all like a silent professional. Also, it’s important to remember that he never asked for any of this. He wasn’t clamoring to take the film away from Snyder—he was brought in at the 11th hour to save a major project. This is kind of like a pinch hitter being brought in to replace an injured 

player who’s told by the manager that he has to bunt, and then being crucified for not living up to the crowd’s expectations.

 

At any other time, this likely would have never gone anywhere, but then Warner launched its streaming service, HBO Max. Hungry to gobble up subscribers with unique and desirable content—and with a huge legion of rabid fans out there clamoring for it—Warner gave Snyder the go-ahead—and budget—to finish his version, announcing that it would stream exclusively on the new HBO Max platform.

 

Whether you want to compare this to negotiating with 

terrorists or not, it actually makes a lot of sense from Warner’s perspective. This groundswell of fan support created a ton of social-media buzz and free advertising that the studio literally couldn’t have purchased. At a time when much of Hollywood was shut down, it also fast-tracked a marquee title exclusively available on its streaming service, with less than a year passing between the announcement and the film’s availability. While the estimated $70 million required to finish the VFX and do some reshoots might sound like a lot—especially on top of the estimated $300 million Warner had already sunk into the film—it certainly isn’t unheard of for a tentpole title. (You might recall Disney paid $75 million for the worldwide rights to Hamilton, and Apple paid $70 million for Tom Hanks’ film Greyhound.) It also brings a ton of interest back to the DC Universe, with multiple new films in the pipeline, and likely considering any additional monies spent on the Snyder Cut as investments in future properties.

 

So . . . that kind of sets the stage for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

 

After all the protests and demands and waiting, is this four-hour-and-two-minute film a better experience that’s worth your time? Yes.

 

I can’t think that too many people would prefer Whedon’s JL to Snyder’s, as the ZSJL is just a far more complete and finished experience. (And currently stands with a critics’ score of 74% and audience score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.) 

 

But, it’s also a totally unfair comparison. Warner would have never given the four-hour-plus ZSJL cut we have here a commercial theatrical release back in 2017, especially following the dismal ratings of BvS. And it isn’t enough of a film to be split into two-parts à la the final Avengers films—which had “earned’ their two-part release over 20 films of world and character building—and even if it had been allowed to be released at an extended three-hour runtime, that would still have required an hour of trimming from what we have here.

 

Honestly, much of the film and overall experience feels overly indulgent. This isn’t to say it isn’t mostly entertaining, it just feels like . . . a journey. And sometimes a long one at that. Here, Snyder is free to do whatever he wants without the limits of time nor benefit of any outside input of test screenings to see ways to improve (reminding me a bit of George Lucas surrounding himself with “Yes!” men when working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy). 

 

Beyond the runtime, we have Snyder’s decision to release the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with a title card reading, “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision” appearing just before it begins. Sure, this might play great—and larger—on a giant commercial IMAX screen. which is Snyder’s ultimate goal, but for the 99.9% of HBO Max viewers who will be watching it on a 16:9 screen (let alone a 2.35:1 screen without the benefit of masking!) this “huge” movie feels smaller. 

 

At least Snyder pulled back from one of his original goals, to release the film in black & white. (He says “the ultimate version is the black-and-white IMAX version of the movie.”) Also, it feels like he was reaching for an edgier R rating for some reason, throwing in three completely arbitrary and out-of-place-feeling F-words to force the MPAA’s hand. Sigh . . .

 

At times, the movie feels like a kitchen-sink approach, lacking editorial restraint. Scenes like the singing after we see Aquaman entering the water or the ballad played over the lengthy slow-motion of The Flash saving future girlfriend Iris West just feel drawn out.

 

Even though Snyder has said he wouldn’t use a single frame of footage he hadn’t shot, fundamentally the ZSJL is much the same as Whedon’s 2017 movie, and watching it doesn’t feel like a wholly new experience so much as a fuller experience—kind of like skimming the Cliff’s Notes for War and Peace versus sitting down and pondering every word. The film still has Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) looking to locate and unite the same band of heroes: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Once joined, the newly formed League fights alien-baddy Steppenwolf (a CGI character voiced by Ciaran Hinds), trying to keep him from collecting three otherworldly Mother Boxes he plans to join into a planet-killing unity. After claiming the Boxes from the Amazons and Atlanteans, the League uses the box entrusted to humans centuries before to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to help in their fight—a showdown against Steppenwolf and his horde of Parademons in an abandoned nuclear reactor in Russia.

 

Much of the order of the film is the same and all the big fights and encounters remain. The tone is just darker and heavier throughout, with virtually all of the levity and quips gone. You get a sense of the difference in tone and narrative structure from the very opening. Where JL 2017 opened with (a heavily CGI de-mustached) Superman talking about hope and pondering his favorite thing about Earth after doing some Superman rescue, ZSJL opens with Superman being killed (from the end of BvS), his death screams echoing around the globe and causing the Mother Boxes to awaken, thus announcing their presence to Steppenwolf.  

 

Everything is just way more developed, with characters getting far more fleshed-out backstories, particularly pre-Cyborg Victor Stone. (One thing that isn’t “developed” is Whedon’s random Russian family stuck in a house near the power plant. That foolish little subplot has been excised.) We also get a much deeper look into Aquaman’s Atlantis. Relationships make more sense because they have two more hours to be explored and expanded, and the team coming together feels more authentic because it isn’t just thrown together over a matter of minutes. 

 

Battles are also longer, more intense, and more violent, with action shown from different angles and perspectives. In Whedon’s JL, Steppenwolf seems virtually unstoppable as he just rolls through the heroes claiming the boxes, only to ultimately have Superman appear at the 11th hour to save the day. In the ZSJL we get a sense the band of heroes could defeat Steppenwolf even without Supe, and his conquests are much harder fought along the way. Another big change—though not fundamentally affecting the film, although it would have guided the DCEU going forward had Snyder’s ultimate vision for continued films prevailed—is that Steppenwolf (who also has a completely different look here) is not the Big Bad but rather just a servant of ultimate baddy, Darkseid (another CGI character, voiced by Ray Porter), who would have been akin to Marvel’s Thanos. 

 

We have to assume that with all the trouble—and expense—Warner has gone to give Snyder this mulligan, everything we see is exactly the way he wanted. Which makes it interesting that Snyder chose to divide the experience into “chapters,” with six parts followed by an epilogue:

 

Part 1: Don’t Count on it, Batman

Part 2: The Age of Heroes

Part 3: Beloved Mother, Beloved Son

Part 4: Change Machine

Part 5: All the King’s Men

Part 6: Something Darker

Epilogue: A Father Twice Over

 

While it makes for convenient stopping points when watching (the end of Part 3 is almost a perfect halfway point), and seems ready-made for episodic streaming, these part “breaks” within the film don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to introduce what’s coming, and actually take you out of the moment a bit. 

 

Visually, you get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio fairly quickly (especially if you have some screen masking), with the more vertical presentation making our standing heroes appear taller. In practical terms, this took my 115-inch 2.35:1 screen (92-inch 16:9) down to a 75-inch 4:3 experience, which certainly was a bit less cinematic. The HBO Max presentation is in 4K HDR, including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. 

 

Shot on 35mm film and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, image quality is clean throughout, though I never felt it was bristling with sharpness and detail. In fact, in between Parts 3 and 4, we watched the first episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier on Disney+, and that looked sharper and more detailed. I was never taken by the micro detail in fabric or razor sharpness in a scene—in fact, some shots were noticeably softer than others. It certainly didn’t have the visual pop of other IMAX films, such as Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Whether this a case of the limitation of HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth or the source material is difficult to say. 

 

As mentioned, this is a dark film in tone, theme, and visual style. Much of it takes place either at night or in some darkened interior. Even the “daylight” scenes—such as between Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams)—outside in a cornfield are shot at near dusk. Blacks are nice, clean, and deep, and we get a lot of visual pop courtesy of HDR. Things like lights streaming in through windows, computer screens, and headlights all have a realistic look. We also get some nice punchy colors in the form of things like Cyborg’s glowing red eye, Amazonian’s golden outfit, and roaring flames. 

 

While I wouldn’t call the streaming experience “reference quality” video, it certainly goes beyond merely “watchable,” and makes me look forward to a second viewing in full-resolution video quality from Kaleidescape.

 

Sonically, the film has a pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room. Whether it’s sirens, alarms, machinery, echoes, birds, wind, or motor sounds, interior spaces are rich with different audio cues to place you in the space. The battles also make good use of all speakers, throwing action into all corners of the room.

 

Even viewing at reference volume level, I found the mix to be missing some of the low-end dynamics I would have expected. Again, I can’t say this is due to the mix itself (unlikely), the limitation of streaming via HBO Max (definitely a factor), or the audio output of my Apple 4K TV (also suspect). While bass wasn’t non-existent, it never had the wallop you’d expect from a big-budget superhero film, and it wasn’t until the climax with the Mother Boxes where I ever really felt like bass was reaching a tactile level I could feel in my seat. Again, it makes me look forward to a second viewing on Kaleidescape in a lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. 

 

Now that it’s finally here, you have to ask whether the film was worthy of the social movement that helped bring it about and make it a reality. I’d say, no. 

 

However, I’d also certainly concede it is the better Justice League film, offering a far richer viewing experience that is definitely more in line in with the style and tone of Snyder’s two DC films that preceded it and giving us a glimpse into where he thought the DCEU would head. And if completing it and bringing it to the public brought Snyder and his family any personal closure from their tragedy, then that’s another positive. Among movie fans—especially the superhero-loving kind—Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to be a watercooler topic for some time, and it will be interesting to see what—if any—lasting impact it will have on Warner’s plans for the DCEU going forward.

John Sciacca

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

Review: The Party (1968)

The Party (1968)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

THE PARTY AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

develop his slapstick mosaics.)

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Party (1968)

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Reviews: Oscar-Nominated Films 2021

Since the studios are sitting on their best films as they wait out the pandemic, the Oscar pickings are awful slim this year. And many of the nominations feel like consolation prizes doled out to anyone who actually had the cojones to release a movie during a time of plague. But there are a few gems (if in the rough) in the otherwise lackluster heap, and hopefully we’ll be able to pluck out a few more nuggets as we pursue our reviews.

CLICK ON THE MOVIE TITLE OR IMAGE TO GO TO THE REVIEW

Mank (2020)

Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound, Original Score

The Father (2020)

Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress,
Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Production Design

Judas and the Black Messiah

Picture, Supporting Actor
Original Screenplay, Cinematography

Soul (2020)

Animated Feature Film, Original Score, Sound

Onward

Animated Feature Film

Emma (2020)

Costume Design, Makeup & Hair Styling

Mulan (2020)

Costume Design, Visual Effects

Love and Monsters (2020)

Visual Effects

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Feature Documentary

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Picture, Supporting Actor, Cinematography,
Editing, Original Song, Original Screenplay

Minari (2020)

Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay,
Original Score

News of the World (2020)

Cinematography, Original Score
Production Design, Sound

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Animated Feature Film

Over the Moon (2020)

Animated Feature Film

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Production Design, Visual Effects

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Visual Effects

Greyhound

Sound

COMING SOON

Nomadland (2020)

NOMADLAND

Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay
Cinematography, Film Editing

Better Days

BETTER DAYS

International Feature Film

A Die-Hard Rocker’s Take on the Grammys

A Die-Hard Rocker's Take on the Grammys

For the past 30 or so years, I’ve been irritated, disappointed, infuriated, and occasionally thrilled by the Grammy Awards. They’ve gone with the safe and conservative rather than the groundbreaking and deserving choice far too many times; they’ve had controversies in how they pick their nominees and winners; and, most of all, because so many great artists and bands out there are far better than the ones that get the awards, but will never have a chance in hell of winning a Grammy—unit shifters win over critics’ darlings almost every time.

 

That said, I promised myself I’d keep an open mind, even though I’m an old rocker, which in the pop music world these days is synonymous with irrelevant dinosaur. On the other hand, since I didn’t know what most of the music was going to sound like, I wouldn’t have many preconceived notions about it. An advantage: My 20-something daughter was on hand to prompt her clueless dad. I watched the CBS broadcast; I couldn’t be bothered with the various online add-on viewing options. Maybe I am a dinosaur.

 

It was surreal yet symbolic to see host Trevor Noah opening the show on a deserted outdoor stage with the Los Angeles Staples Center (stadium-sized product placement!) in the background. Clearly, the pandemic-era Grammys was going to be something different. Somehow this stark setting was simultaneously unnerving and uplifting—yes, we are living in a different, virus-ravaged world but, no, the human spirit will not be defeated. I found this much preferable to the usual Hollywood over-the-top schlock production. (The glitz and glamor would come later, with the artists spread out inside the Staples Center, waiting for the sun to go down.)

 

The Grammys always opens with star power and this time out, Harry Styles had the honors, performing “Watermelon Sugar” resplendent in a black leather suit and enviable pecs. Jeez, the guy can sing and the band was tight, but the lightweight song isn’t my kind of ear candy. This scaled-down Grammy Awards set made the awards feel more intimate and relevant. Billie Eilish immediately followed, performing “Everything I Wanted” in a post-apocalyptic glamor-twisted-inside-out outfit. I like her and her voice, but standing there with an Intense Look with four chords droning over and over again ain’t exactly Michael Jackson moonwalk-level excitement.

 

Haim was the third act, and as it turned out, the only band of the night that remotely resembled rock music, though “The Steps” was more of a pop song. In fact, while other music genres have been marginalized throughout the Grammys’ history, in 2021 it was rock’s turn—other than Haim, there were no rock performers. None! None! None!

 

But nice, friendly intimacy and Styles and Eilish and all, where was the star power? I didn’t have to wait long. Presenter Lizzo got up and gave Megan Thee Stallion her award for Best New Artist, and even though she was yet to perform, it was obvious that Stallion had that it, that indefinable something (besides looking absolutely great). Still, the show’s energy level wasn’t there yet, although Black Pumas hit some heights.

 

With Black Pumas and the emergence of rapper Dababy, who I confess I’d never heard of, the energy started kicking up and the show shifted into Full Production Mode with “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch. A young black guy dressed in white with a group of older white women, “The Baby Boomers,” dressed in black; machine-gun rapid-fire rapping against an angelic choir—it made a statement. Then came the first act that really grabbed me—Bad Bunny, the most-streamed artist of 2020 (jeez, I really gotta get with the program) performing “Dakiti” with Jhay Cortez on a striking purple-and-white set that looked like a giant eye. Great rhythm, singing, irresistible futuro-Latin beat—now we’re talking!

 

At 45 minutes in, the Grammys finally kicked into high gear with the emergence of Dua Lipa. She looked fantastic and sounded terrific performing “Levitating” and “Don’t Stop Now,” joined by Dababy on a laser-beam set that was literally dazzling with beautiful pink lasers beaming through clouds, an all-out singing, dancing, costume-changing production number. Good songs, too. Not that I’m any great seer, but this woman has got it. The absolute standout of the night. Megastar is written all over her.

 

Some tough competition immediately followed: Performing as Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak simply killed it with their new single, “Leave the Door Open,” a retro-soul song complete with matching big-collar ’70s outfits with heart-shaped glasses, smooth harmonies, and soaring vocals. Man was Mars good. Is it just me or are these kinds of interesting melodies, harmonies, and songcraft what’s missing in so much of today’s pop music? Well, when you consider bands like the Spinners, the Temptations, the Chi-Lites, Hall and Oates . . . um, it ain’t just me. Stupendous. (Their later Little Richard medley was

A Die-Hard Rocker's Take on the Grammys

Miranda Lambert

far less successful. Even talents like Mars and Paak can’t compete with a titanic talent like Richard. Then again, who can?)

 

If rock music was nonexistent during the 2021 Grammys, country music wasn’t far behind. If you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time and tuned in you’d think the entirety of country music consisted of Miranda Lambert. She won the Best Country Album award for Wildcard, and performed the song “Bluebird.” But, aside from Brandi Carlisle doing a heartfelt solo rendition of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” and Mickey Guyton (the first black woman to be nominated for a country-category Grammy) performing the decidedly un-country-sounding “Black Like Me,” that was it for this once-dominant music genre. Not sure what to make of that. Yeah, Taylor Swift did a song, but it sounded more pop than country to me.

 

I am sure what the main takeaway of the 2021 Grammys was, though—the ascendance of women in pop music, Particularly black women. The show was absolutely dominated by women and to a lesser extent black male hip-hop, R&B, 

soul, and other performers. (And do these categories even matter anymore? Sure, it’s a way to package and present music in consumer-understandable genres, but wouldn’t it be less marginalizing to just call it music and do away with ethnic and racial pigeonholing?)

 

Additional highlights included the magnificent singer Brittany Howard doing an utterly soaring version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with pianist Chris Martin and band during “the artists who passed away in 2020” tribute segment; Maren Morris bringing it to Hozier’s song “The Bones” complete with scene-stealer John Mayer on guitar; and Lil Baby making some very heavy social commentary in his song “The Bigger Picture.” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”/”Savage” combined old-school Grammy retro visual glamor with a strange musical combination of sensational state-of-the-beyond orchestration mated with songs this aging rocker didn’t like. Couldn’t listen, couldn’t take my eyes off it. Doja Cat put on a striking future-world lasers and costume show for her song “Say So”—the lighting designer should get an award for this one.

 

Another showstopper, unsurprisingly, came late in the (too long) night: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion doing “WAP” (check the official video, and the acronym will become clear) to the tune of more future-world metal-woman wardrobes (it was a popular look for Grammys 2021), absolutely insane over-the-top visual effects and animation, a bigger-than-life bed and a lot of booty shaking (another popular trend for the night and again, I’ll leave it to others to discuss the social ramifications—it felt like empowerment to me). Weird, different, creative, nasty, crazy.

 

Beyoncé made Grammy history by winning her 28th, for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” She now holds the record for most-awarded female artist. Taylor Swift also made history by winning Album of the Year for the third time, this time for Folklore. (Though deserving, the Grammy’s musical conservatism rears its head here once again.)

 

Lowlights for me? Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding”—this was a Record of the Year nominee? BTS’s “Dynamite”—this kind of fluff might be someone’s thing but not mine. And the general lack of, I’m sorry, songcraft. Where are today’s Bob Dylan, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell? I want to hear “songs,” not “tracks.”

 

To wrap up the night, Billie Eilish won Record of the Year for “Everything I Wanted.” Maybe the Grammys are getting hipper after all. Certainly the 2021 edition had less artifice and more heart, and that’s a trend I’d like to see continue.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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

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

 

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

CAIRO AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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

Michael Gaughn

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