Author:admin

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 1)

underrated entertainment

I don’t care who you are, or what sorts of entertainment you consume on a regular basis, I guarantee you there’s a TV series or movie out there somewhere that broke your heart. And I don’t mean in a Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias sort of way—I mean it spoke to your unique aesthetic so thoroughly that its cancellation or box-office failure hit you on a deep level. A personal affront, if you will.

 

For me, it’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The cancellation of this sci-fi-action-comedy-western, which debuted in the nascent days of the Fox broadcast network, still stings in a way matched only by Firefly.

 

But I’m not here to talk about cult classics. I’m here instead to talk about under-appreciated works of art with near-universal appeal that, for whatever reason, just never caught on. Maybe they were before their time. Maybe they were marketed poorly. Maybe humans just have crappy taste, I don’t know. Whatever the reasons may be, the lack of recognition for these gems doesn’t just offend me personally—it speaks, I think, to a fundamental fragmentation of our media-consuming culture that these massively appealing works don’t have mass appeal.

Take My So-Called Life, for instance. I know it may seem like a cheat, since this Claire Danes classic is one of the most critically acclaimed series in the history of the Internet. But have you seen it? No, be honest. Have you really sat down and watched it? MSCL broke new ground in the mid-90s by having teens, played by teens, actually act like teens. Seriously, that was shocking at the time. Of course, My So-Called Life has been so thoroughly mimicked by now that if you’re just watching it for the first time, it might not seem so fresh. Give it a shot anyway. It’s one of the best TV series ever made, and It’s available in its all-too-brief entirety on Hulu.

Before there was The West Wing, before The Newsroom or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (shut up—that show was amazing), there was Sports Night, a forgotten slice of brilliance that represents Aaron Sorkin at his Aarony Sorkinest, with all the impeccable timing, social commentary, and way-too-intelligent-for-humans-to-actually-utter dialogue that have made his followup efforts such critical darlings. I don’t care if you loathe the sports (because goodness knows, I do—GTLM motorsports being the rare exception), Sports Night is simply amazing television: Beautifully written, amazingly directed, perfectly performed, and infuriatingly unavailable for streaming on Netflix or Hulu. You can buy it an episode at a time on iTunes or Amazon, though.

I have two types of friends: Those who think Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time, and those who think Love Actually is the best Christmas movie of all time. For the record, I cast my lot with the latter camp, but I don’t think Love Actually is actually Richard Curtis’ best film. Sacrilege, I know, but that distinction actually belongs to About Time, perhaps one of the most misunderstood films I’ve ever seen. Misunderstood, because the handful of critics who saw it felt the need to pick nits with the rules governing this time-traveling rom-com’s temporal shenanigans, as if it were some sort of science-fiction flick. It’s not. Far from it. About Time is actually a modern-day fairy tale, whose violations of its own internal rules are actually kinda part of the point. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I silently judge people who’ve seen this film and didn’t love every frame of it.

Speaking of judgment—if you’re one of the millions of people who didn’t watch last summer’s Downward Dog when ABC snuck it onto the airwaves and left it hanging with no real support, I’m still angry with you. It wasn’t merely the best show of the summer—it was the best new comedy on TV in at least a decade. Think of it as a (sometimes) lighthearted, (often) cheeky, but nonetheless just-as-philosophically deep episodic riff on The Art of Racing in the Rain, but with a strong female lead (Fargo’s criminally under-appreciated Allison Tolman). Yes, it starred a talking dog with computer-animated lips, but this was one of the most human TV shows I think I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it too is missing from all the major streaming services. Episodes are available for download from iTunes and Vudu, though.

So, yeah, you likely missed all of the above in their heyday, but there’s one under-the-radar series airing right now that you still have a chance to catch while the getting’s good. Drunk History began its life as a series of Funny or Die clips online, but has since moved to full-length episodes on Comedy Central, where most people seem to be completely ignoring it. Seriously, when I pester my friends about whether or not they’ve seen the most recent episode, most of them squint or give me a pug head-tilt. How on earth a series in which inebriated narrators do their best to slur through some of history’s most interesting stories while some of the best actors in the world reenact their sloshed narratives isn’t the most highly rated thing on the boob tube is just beyond me. Do yourself a favor and set your DVR (new and repeats!) posthaste. You can thank me later.

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.

The Polka King

I’ve never known what to make of Jack Black. He’s been good enough in enough things to have a steady career, but he’s always got that smartass look in his eye that makes everything he does feels like a comedy sketch he’s not all in on.

 

He almost busts through that handicap in Netflix’ The Polka King, thanks partly to a heavy, mannered foreign accent that helps him create the semblance of a character. But he doesn’t completely make it—partly because the accent and his delivery have more than a touch of vaudeville, and partly because the movie’s uncertain tone doesn’t allow him—or any of the actors—to completely settle into their roles.

 

The Polka King is based on a documentary about the self-made and self-proclaimed polka legend Jan Lewan, but it’s not really a biopic or a docudrama. Actually, I don’t know what the hell it is, and that’s one of its biggest problems. The first hour feels like textbook Farrelly Brothers—which means there are some really big laughs along the way (which is at least half the reason why I’d recommend checking it out).

 

But then it radically shifts subject matter and tone for a while, and then shifts them again, feeling like three distinctly different scripts grafted onto each other, with the grafts refusing to take. Add to that some basic technical incompetence—some of the shots just don’t match, so you get the sense the setups were rushed—and you’re left wondering how firm the controlling hand was on the rudder.

Netflix The Polka King

Black is entertaining, even if he never manages to step completely beyond doing his standard Jack Black thing. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) are killer, pushing well past the limitations of the material. Even Jason Schwartzman is interesting.

 

Yes, I have very mixed feelings about this thing, but it’s worth your time, one, because it does have some big laughs (Black’s “No! I have America up the wazoo!” line is a classic); two, because, even though it’s set mainly in the 80s and 90s, it almost succeeds as an acid-dripping snapshot of the present moment. And, three, any movie with an electric ukulele in it can’t be all bad.

 

Probably its biggest problem is its patrician condescension. The nobility has a tough time portraying the working class without reducing it to caricaturesor, like here, cartoon characters. Also, the desperate need to convince viewers that we’re all the same on the level that counts (a bald-faced lie but essential to attracting a large audience) turns this into another one of those slobbering puppy dog movies that wants to have some grit but ultimately settles for a pat on the head.

 

But The Polka King is worth a look because it at least wants to mean something instead of nothing at all.

 

Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

The Lost Art of Album Listening

album listening

I have a confession to make: I can no longer listen to an entire album in one sitting. I can binge-watch an entire season of Game of Thrones over a weekend, but I can’t devote 60 to 75 minutes of real concentration to absorb the latest creation from a favored musical artist. I get maybe six or seven songs in, then I just tune out. The music may still be playing, but my brain ain’t listening.

 

I would not call myself an audiophile, but I’m definitely a music junkie. For me, music is an indispensable part of each and every day—when I’m driving in the car, working at my desk, going for my daily walk, or making dinner. Music is always playing. The thing is, that music is always in the form of a playlist. I almost never listen to complete albums anymore, even my most treasured faves.

 

I’ve always been a playlist kind of gal, dating back to the days when playlists were called mix tapes. Oh, could I make a mean mix tape. The hours spent picking a theme, agonizing over song selection, and then arranging the songs just right to ensure that minimal time was left at the end of each side of the tape. Give me a mix tape that cut off part of a song, and I would think less of you as a human being. But there was a balance between my love of mix tapes and my love of albums. How do you think I found all the songs to mix?

 

Mix tapes evolved into CD mixes, which evolved into iTunes playlists, which evolved into Pandora artist-inspired radio stations, which evolved into curated playlists from Apple, Amazon, or Tidal. The ease of playlist listening, combined with the ability to buy just one song off any album, has simply removed “the album experience” from my repertoire . . . apparently to the point that I can’t even do it when I want to.

album listening

This became painfully obvious when I recently picked up U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience. We’re talking about my all-time favorite band here, and I was determined to sit down and really absorb the album from start to finish. Didn’t happen. Got distracted. The snarky response is that perhaps the album just isn’t good enough to merit my full attention, but how can I even make a fair assessment without one serious listen? Believe it or not, Achtung Baby didn’t jump out at me at first, and now it’s my favorite U2 album, start to finish.

 

It seems there is no “start to finish” anymore. I wonder, if I forced myself to use nothing but a CD player—to ban iTunes and all streaming music services—for six months, could my love of album listening be revived? Or are the days of sitting in front of the record player, reading liner notes, and learning lyrics far behind me? I could say I don’t have time for such indulgences, but the hard truth is that I don’t make time for it. I don’t give music the attention it deserves anymore.

 

As for liner notes, who can even read the text in CD packaging these days? Maybe that’s the real reason for vinyl’s resurgence—it’s not the sound quality, it’s the larger print.

    —Adrienne Maxwell

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

What a Media Room Isn’t

Last week, the Roundtable’s Michael Gaughn hit me with an interesting question: “How do you build a better media room?” I love that question, because it immediately made me ask another: What even is a media room?

 

Dig through the post history here on the Roundtable and you’ll find plenty of thoughts about media rooms vs. home theaters and the relative merits of each. And from that you can start to draw some conclusions. A media room is definitely a multi-purpose media space—a place to watch films and TV, play video games, perhaps listen to music, but also to read, play board games, do yoga, and maybe even eat supper.

 

But none of the above really gets to the heart of what makes a media room different from any number of spaces in which you could do all of those activities and more.

 

So, what is a media room? Perhaps to get to the heart of that question, we need to describe what a media room isn’t—quite like the old joke about a sculptor who explained his artistic process as taking a piece of stone and carving away anything that didn’t look like a horse. To illustrate this subtractive thought process, let’s take a look at my dad’s entertainment system.

 

Pop has a gigantic 4K TV. He has a pricey surround sound receiver connected to a fantastic GoldenEar in-ceiling speaker system. He has a Blu-ray player, an Apple TV, a TiVo, and even a pretty solid one-room remote control solution, complete with voice control.

 

But calling my dad’s system a media room is a bit like calling my refrigerator a Quiche Lorraine just because it’s got eggs, milk, cheese, and turkey bacon in it.

 

Why, though?

media room

Well, for one thing, he also has a gigantic floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looks out over his pond, flooding the space with sunlight during the day and glaring reflections at night. The gigantic 4K TV? It’s tucked in a corner, in such position that you really have to turn your head to watch it from anywhere in the room. Behind it sits his subwoofer—a nice, high-performance option whose potential is held back by its less-than-ideal positioning. But he refuses to have it anywhere else, for purely aesthetic reasons.

 

Give me an afternoon and a modest budget for some motorized draperies and a few soft bits to dull the harsh surfaces of his room, and I could turn it into a media room. Let me pull the TV out of its hiding spot, rearrange the furniture, maybe put in a good in-ceiling subwoofer to alleviate his concerns about looks, and I could turn it into a damned fine media room—one that still allowed him to look out over his pond at the press of a button.

 

The truth is, though, Pop just doesn’t care enough to warrant the effort. AV performance is pretty much at the bottom of his priority list.

 

So, despite owning all the components typically associated with a media room, he most certainly doesn’t have a media room. What he has is a 21st-century den. And he’s perfectly happy with that.

 

Mind you, I realize I haven’t even begun to answer the question originally posed to me. But I’d love for my fellow Roundtable writers—and even our readers—to pick up the ball and run with it from here. What are the essential elements of a media room? What must it do, and what must it not do? Because I think we really need a firmer grasp on the concept before we start waxing on how to improve 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.

My New Tech Resolution

There are two people in my life whose book recommendations I never ignore. The first is my daughter, with whom I share a brain. The second is my friend and mentor Brent Butterworth, who is, without question, the smartest human I know. So when he casually dropped a reference to Robert Lustig’s The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains in a conversation last week, I immediately rushed out and bought it. What followed was two days of outright fascination, a bit of righteous anger, and a ton of self-reflection.

tech gadgets--Hacking of the American Mind

I mention this merely because that book was weighing heavily on my mind when I read Adrienne Maxwell’s missive about all the technology that enters our lives during the Holidays, and the stress some of it brings with it.

 

What could those two things possibly have to do with one another? Well, perhaps it’s worth explaining what the book is actually about, because its title is a little vague. In its 352 pages, Lustig digs deep into three of the primary limbic pathways in our brains and bodies: cortisol (stress), dopamine (pleasure), and serotonin (contentment). I won’t spoil the meat of the book, since it deserves to be read with a fresh mind, but one of the key takeaways is that we as a society have, through no fault of our own, been conditioned to conflate pleasure with happiness. And that conflation is, very literally, killing us.

tech gadgets--Roku Ultra

Adrienne’s post also hit home with me because I had my own experience with tech-related elation and stress this Christmas. One of my favorite gifts this year was a Roku Ultra, a desperately needed upgrade over my tired and overheating Roku Stick, which served me well for five years but has recently become more a source of frustration than streaming bliss.

 

Here’s where the problem begins, though: The Roku Ultra supports the latest in Ultra HD and high-dynamic-range video, but to unlock all of that video goodness it also requires the very latest in digital copy protection, which my TV supports but my surround sound processor lacks. And the Roku Ultra doesn’t have dual HDMI outputs as my Ultra HD Blu-ray player does, so there’s no workaround!

 

As soon as I unboxed it, I felt my cortisol-fueled dopamine pathway begin to kick into overdrive. I need to replace my surround sound processor, too, if I want to get the most out of this little black box!

 

In the end, of course, that’s ridiculous. I’ll eventually replace my surround processor when the time comes. For now, I’m perfectly content with the faster operation, fewer lockups, and more reliable streaming provided by the new Roku. As I should be. I wasn’t unhappy with my old Roku because it lacked the latest in video format support—I was unhappy with it because I needed to reboot it every day. The new box solved that problem. So why did I immediately find myself wanting more?

 

I don’t want to give the impression I’m anti-technology here. Someone whose home has its own operating system has no place going on any sort of anti-tech rant. My point in all this is that, going forward, I’m going to focus more on tech upgrades that alleviate frustrations from my life rather than give me a quick dose of dopamine and long-term stress.

tech gadgets--Ecobee thermostat

My Ecobee thermostat, for example? It gives me all sorts of fascinating readouts and data to peruse. It feeds my dopamine pathways by rewarding me for making slight tweaks to my programming, informed by the charts and graphs it generates each month. In the end, though, all of that fuss saves me mere pennies. My time and energy are better spent letting it do its own thing. In other words, as with most of the technology in my life, I’m happier when it disappears—when it doesn’t call for my constant attention.

 

I’m generally not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m making one this year: Any new tech I add to my home (and believe me, there’ll be plenty) must meet that criterion. It must remove stress from my life, not add to it. So, instead of that shiny new iPhone X I’ve been drooling over and absolutely don’t need? I think I’ll add a motion sensor to my shower instead, to automatically turn on the bathroom vent fan when I bathe, which I always forget to do on my own (much to the displeasure of the missus). Instead of upgrading my Control4 remote in the bedroom to the latest model? I think I’ll add a second remote to the media room, so my wife and I stop bickering over the one in there now.

 

In other words, all new tech purchases this year will be made with an eye toward happiness, not pleasure. Because I never realized before just how much those two emotions conflict with one another.

—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.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I had offered to review the Amazon original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel even before the show took home two Golden Globes earlier this week. I just wanted to spread the word about how fantastic this show is. I’m guessing those two awards—for Best Show and Best Actress in the “Television Series, Musical or Comedy” category—will do that far better than I can, but, hey, I’m going to make my case anyhow.

 

Set in 1950s Manhattan, the show tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a devoted wife and mother who tends to the every need of her husband Joel, a salesman who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. When she’s not measuring her thighs (can’t gain too much weight, after all) or getting up before dawn to apply her makeup (can’t let the man see your real face, after all), she’s using her quick wit, effortless charm, and great cooking skills to get Joel a better time slot at the Gaslight comedy club or to convince the rabbi to join the family for Yom Kippur dinner.

 

Midge’s world suddenly turns upside down when, after a particularly bad set at the Gaslight, Joel announces that he’s leaving her. After a bit too much wine and a late-night subway ride, Midge finds herself at the club, on the stage, doing her own set. Surprise, surprise—she’s actually the funny one, and aspiring manager Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) is determined to make her a star.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

As one would hope, this show about stand-up comedy has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a similar penchant for snappy, fast-paced dialogue and delightfully quirky characters. But this show also has a sharper edge to it, both in its humor and tone, as it explores what it means to be a woman in the ’50s. Midge is finally free to figure out who she is, but are the people in her life ready to accept the real her? Is society?

 

Brosnahan shines as Midge from the get-go, but what I enjoyed the most was watching the supporting players—who are drawn with broad, almost stereotypical strokes in the pilot—gain form and substance in their own right. Tony Shalhoub is especially good (when isn’t he?) as Midge’s father, Abe. At the end of Season One, the one-woman show has evolved into a strong ensemble piece with only one real flaweight episodes just ain’t enough.

—Adrienne Maxwell

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

A Visit to the Leon Loft

I had heard a lot about Leon Speakers and the artistic culture that permeates the company. Noah Kaplan, its CEO, is the driving force behind Leon in more than one way. He runs a well-oiled machine that is producing top-performance speakers with an emphasis on customization. But he also understands that technology without design is half as powerful. An artist himself, Noah knows instinctively that design makes technology more “relatable” to the end-user.

 

That understanding defines Leon Speakers. It also defines Rayva’s mission, which is why my trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan was so invigorating.

 

Noah has surrounded himself with a team of artistic-minded engineers. The energy that comes out of the Leon Loft (as they call their facility) is palpable. When I took a tour of their offices and factory, two things drew my attention: One, every wall is filled with eclectic artwork, an extension of Noah’s artistic personality.

And, two, everybody I was introduced to seems to have an artistic backgroundthey all paint or sculpt or play music. This has an obvious impact of the work they do for Leonthey don’t see themselves as laborers who work 9 to 5 producing impersonal widgets. They are artists who take ownership of what they do, and they are proud of their factory’s culture.

The main purpose of my trip to Ann Arbor was to find out more about Leon’s speakers and how they could be incorporated into a media-room wall unit I am in the process of designing for Rayva. But my extensive tour of their factory gave me additional ideas about working with Leon besides just using their speakers for the media-room unit.

The design principle behind Rayva is to commission artwork from painters, photographers, and sculptors that I then help incorporate into dedicated theaters as limited-edition designs. During the Leon tour, I saw an exciting sculptural piece Leon produces that is meant to hide an array of speakers. I recognized it right away as something that can be developed into an additional design for Rayva. Leon’s Senior Industrial Designer Rob Waissi and I are working together to make this happen. We also plan to develop a media-room unit inspired by the various pieces of industrial artwork that hang on the walls of the Leon Loft.

I spent the evening of my visit to Ann Arbor having dinner with Noah Kaplan and his Senior Account Manager Camila Ballario. Camila lives and breathes the Leon Speakers culture and seems to be an extension of Noah’s energetic personality. During dinner, Noah started drawing something on his plate using his finger as brush and wine from his glass as paint. The drawing, an impression of me, was done with the same focus and commitment that define Noah’s personality. I was impressed and surprised at the same timeexactly how I felt throughout my brief visit to the Leon Loft.

 

—Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.

The Toys That Made Us

In the ongoing conversation about how streaming video is changing our media consumption habits, I think one thing is getting overlooked—the ways in which streaming video is changing the very nature of our media.

 

I bring that up because one of my favorite recent showsa documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us—strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. Sure, we’ve seen documentaries about toys before, almost all of which focused on one particular slice of nostalgia. But a multi-episode series that isn’t aimed at any particular fandom? One with a decidedly adult bent and a propensity for F-bombs? One that takes off the gloves and uncovers the oftentimes dirty politics that went into creating some of our favorite little pieces of plastic?

 

If I were an executive for any cable network, I would look at the pitch for The Toys That Made Us and insist its creators either narrow their focus or broaden their appeal, or at the very least avoid some of the controversy. Thank goodness I’m not a network executive, then, because having seen the first four episodes of this incredible series, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

The series kicks off with the granddaddy of all toy lines: Star Wars. Aside from a bit of predictable and unnecessary Episode I bashing that comes off as seriously hipstery, it’s an amazing exploration of the legal deals, design decisions, bickering, and fun that went into creating the toy line that changed everything.

The Toys That Made Us

Here’s the problem, though: Make a show about Star Wars toys and you’re automatically pushing all my buttons. Does that necessarily mean it’s objectively good? Ehhh, I had my doubtsespecially given that the next episode is about Barbie, a franchise I couldn’t have less interest in if I tried. The missus was vaguely interested, though (given that one of her favorite childhood pastimes was staging elaborate Barbie-vs-He-Man battles). So, we gave it a try. What followed was one of the most engrossing 44 minutes’ worth of television I’ve seen in ages. It’s bawdy. It’s tantalizing. There’s forgery and perjury and mail fraud, oh my!

 

Lest you think the entire series comes off as an E! True Hollywood Story, it doesn’t. The tales told here reflect the real history of each toy line explored, with no real agenda beyond getting to the truth. The entire Masters of the Universe toy line, for example, is portrayed as a tail-wagging-the-dog example of pure desperation and marketing hubris. G.I. Joe? While there is some history of the original 12-inch toy line (and the very origins of the phrase “action figure”), the real meat here is on the toys of the ‘80s, which were introduced mostly to capitalize on the new wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

 

Hopefully the next four episodes, which are due to drop sometime in the early part of 2018, can maintain this level of intrigue and brutal (often profane) honesty. There is the question, of course, about how much more material there is to mine going forward. We know an episode about Transformers is coming in the next batch. There are, no doubt, stories to be told at some point about Cabbage Patch dolls and LEGO.

 

I think what these first four episodes have proven, though, is that nostalgia for certain brands is just the hook. The real appeal of The Toys That Made Us is the very human stories about the people behind the scenes who made the toys that made us.

—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.

REVIEWS

Judd Apatow: The Return

Judd Apatow

Reviewing this is almost too easy. It’s like being lobbed the biggest, slowest softball ever. Apatow’s a genius. With so much comedy devoted to dragging you nose first through freshly plowed fields of shit, he always tries to bring at least a dollop of humanity to his work. He doesn’t always succeed, but that effort alone still makes him leagues better than all the schmucks who don’t even try.

 

But you have to allow for a lot before you can even start to be objective about his Netflix comedy special. Both the audience at the venue and the one at home are giving him a pretty generous free pass because they love his movies. And let’s be honest—while he’s pretty good here, he’s not polished. No other comedian could be given this big a platform and get away with so many missed beats, or lean on so much cutting to cover up that this was cobbled together from more than one show.

 

That said, it’s more than worth a viewing because, even though he fumbles his way toward most of what he wants to say, almost all of it is worth saying. It’s hard enough just being funny. Trying to add depth to it is almost impossible. Just witness all the comics—from Chaplin to Allen—who’ve been dashed against the rocks of meaning.

Apatow’s career almost foundered after Funny People, and This is 40 was a hard-won victory. This special steers well clear of the former while hugging the shores of the latter—which is both its virtue and its vice.

 

Apatow is, at the end of the day, a crowd-pleaser. But he’s not entirely comfortable in that role, so he sometimes veers toward edgy. But he’s too skittish to actually peer over the edge, so the best you’ll get is a convincing simulation. And, at a time when there are way too many people willing to tell us what we already know, and when “edgy” almost always boils down to the equivalent of somebody hitting themselves in the face with a hammer, it would be good to hear from somebody who’s got a pretty good bead on what we don’t know.

 

So, this is a pretty nice diversion, and probably a better use of your time than almost anything else recent that you could stream. But it would have been nice if it had a little more meat on its bones.

 

Big kudos, by the way, for closing with Randy Newman’s “I’m Different.” Falling on the heels of M. Ward’s close to Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, it at least shows that comedians—or anonymous others at the production company or back at Netflix headquarters—have pretty good taste in music.

—Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is either the 9th or the 11th game in the popular anti-Nazi video game series, depending on how much of a purist you are in your counting. And if that statement strikes you as somewhat confusing, well—welcome to the world of video game series reboots. The New Colossus is a direct sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a soft relaunch of the franchise that was followed up by the 2015 release of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which was equal parts expansion pack and standalone prequel.

 

If that seems like too convoluted a history for you to even bother with at this point, rest easy. All you really need to know about the Wolfenstein series is that the Nazis won World War II, they’re taking over the world, and it’s your job to shoot them. Imagine The Man in the High Castle if it had been written by Paul Verhoeven instead of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. This new game draws on characters and themes from much earlier entries and manages to tell a quite personal tale about identity, parental relationships, and indeed the very nature of freedom.

 

But at its heart, the real draw of Wolfenstein II is in shooting Nazis. Tons and tons and more tons of Nazis. Sometimes you shoot them with big guns. Sometime with pistols. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them and whack ‘em with an ax. But in the end, dead Nazis is the first, second, and only meaningful objective in the game.

 

The biggest thing setting The New Colossus apart from its forebears is that this time around the action takes place in the United States—one overrun by the Reich, whose citizens have, for the most part, acquiesced to or outright embraced their goose-stepping overlords.

Wolfenstein II

That has led to criticism from those who see the game as a critique of our current political environment. It’s not intended as such, mind you. Games like this take years to develop and its developers aren’t prognosticators. But the fact that a game about killing Nazis is seen as a commentary on American politics at all, accidentally or not, is certainly worth mentioning. As much as this is a silly, brutal, over-the-top violence-fest, the central message here is that racism is bad. Fascism is bad. But also key to the narrative is the fact that most people aren’t badthey simply play along with their own tribe.

 

One thing I can say about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that isn’t even remotely controversial is that it’s an audiovisual tour de force. It’s a game that positively begs to be experienced on as large a screen as possible, with as many channels of sound as you can throw at it. Developer MachineGames has managed to shake up the series with entirely new environments while also hanging onto the same art design and overall aesthetic flair that made the last two games such stunners. And the Hollywood-caliber sound mix is, without question, the most dynamic and raucous I’ve heard in quite some time. Attempt to play this game on your tinny TV speakers and you’re just betting to blow a driver or two.

 

Truth be told, there are times when I wish I could just pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch someone else play the game. It truly can be that compelling. Whether you experience it from the firsthand perspective or as a passive bystander, though, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

—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.

REVIEWS