Reviews

Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne's American Utopia

When we think about the closures and scheduling upheavals caused by the pandemic, at Cineluxe we generally focus on what this has meant for theaters and movie releases, but it has had an equally disastrous impact on live events like plays and concerts. The Great White Way—Broadway—officially closed to the public on March 12 (and remains closed), and most large concert tours have been postponed as well.

 

At the intersection of play/performance, concert, and movie is David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee. Utopia has been available for streaming on HBO Max since October 17, and recently made available to other digital retailers like 

Kaleidescape, where it is offered for both purchase and rental.

 

Inspired by Byrne’s 2018 tour for his tenth solo studio album, American Utopia, Byrne worked the concert into a Broadway show that ran at the Hudson Theater from October 4, 2019 to February 16, 2020. (It is set to return to the Hudson for a four-month run starting September 17.)

 

For the pop-culture impaired, David Byrne is most known as the lead singer and principal creative force behind Talking Heads. In high school, I thought Byrne was about the smartest and coolest rock star around. I loved Talking Heads, owned every album, and wore out countless batteries devouring their albums on my Walkman. But, sadly, I never had the chance to see them perform live.

 

I did do the next best thing, which was to go and see the band’s seminal concert film Stop Making Sense more than

UTOPIA AT A GLANCE

This Spike Lee-directed film of Talking Heads frontman Byrne’s concert/performance piece is on par with the classic Stop Making Sense.

 

PICTURE
The image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, but the HD presentation does lead to some artifacting.

 

SOUND     

The mix is restrained and front-centric, with most of the audio in the center channel, with the surrounds deployed for light fill.

once, including several midnight showings at the Berkeley Theater, where people of all ages would get up and dance down in the aisles and down in front of the screen. It was fantastic. I’ve since seen Byrne perform live on three occasions, including the American Utopia show when it came to Charleston in September 2018.

 

While the Utopia film is very similar to the concert experience, it does differ a bit in the set list and song order. While I’m sure Byrne has reasons for the songs selected and their order in establishing and telling his story, there is plenty here for fans to enjoy. In total, the show features 21 songs, including a sampling of Talking Heads songs spanning six different albums like “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Road to Nowhere,” as well as music from five different Byrne solo albums.

 

Part of the joy of going to a live show is being able to focus on the bits you want to watch—say a particular performer, or maybe some interplay between band members happening off-center. Obviously, with a film you are limited to what the director chooses to focus on, and Spike Lee mainly opts to keep Byrne in frame (the smart choice), switching between tight, medium, and wide shots that show the full stage and all of the performers. He also offers other camera angles the paying audience would never have access to, such as some interesting overhead shots that show some of the band’s choreography. I never felt distracted by the cuts or camera selection and felt they did a good job of serving the show.

 

Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as the best concert film ever, with a lot of credit going to director Jonathan Demme, but I feel most of that film’s look, pacing, and style is really due to Byrne, who excruciatingly choreographed and stage directed everything, leaving Demme to just point cameras in the right direction and stay the hell out of the band’s way. Much the same can be said for Utopia, where Lee is just tasked with capturing Byrne’s vision and not calling attention to himself or pulling viewers out of Byrne’s performance. The fact that Sense is sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and Utopia is currently at 98% certainly speaks to the caliber of both.

 

Like with Sense, the Utopia performers don’t all take the stage at once. As Byrne described the gradual reveal of the band at the time of Sense‘s release, “If the curtain opened and everything was there, there’ll be nowhere to go. It tells the story of the band; it gets more dramatic and physical as it builds up.” The same is true here.

 

Except here we are able to better connect with the performers and truly see and appreciate everything they are doing. There are no cables, no gear, no big drum kits or other instruments, or wire tethering the performers to a single spot. Instead, they are all totally free and unencumbered to move about the stage. Some of the coordinated movements reminded me of stripped-down halftime marching band.

 

Byrne’s penchant for letting the music do the talking is also on display in the costuming, with all 12 band members identically clad in grey-suits, grey shirts, and no shoes (save for one who is discreetly wearing shoes designed to look like bare feet).

 

While the show is mostly one song flowing into another, there are little bits of non-sequitur dialogue Byrne uses to set up songs, such as how our brains lose connections as we grow from childhood or, prior to playing “I Should Watch TV,” how he used some of his original Talking Heads record contract money to purchase a Sony Triniton TV. There are also some semi-political jabs about immigrants, voter apathy, and Black Lives Matter, especially in the cover of the Janelle Monáe song “Hell You Talmbout,” which lists the names of various African-Americans who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, imploring listeners to say the names of the dead while images of the slain person held up by a family member are flashed on screen.

 

The stage is a simple grey square surrounded on three sides by silvery, vertical hanging fine metal chain that looks a bit like chainmail armor. The fine pattern in this chain produces a bit of line twitter and artifacting that is most visible on medium

range shots showing the back of the stage, potentially a limitation of the HD resolution. Still, image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, which is the focus.

 

Instead of props and gimmicks, Byrne uses stage lighting to carefully highlight and frame the performers, using bright lights to reveal and shadows to conceal where you should focus your attention.

 

The audio presentation is very front-channel centric—primarily in the center but spread out across the left/right with just a bit of musical fill into the surrounds. Bass is not overwhelming, but your sub is called into action when appropriate. I’d say it is more of a restrained audio mix versus the big sound of a live show. Bass plucks and drum beats aren’t going to cave your chest in, and the music mixed into the surround speakers is so low as to be all but inaudible at a typical listening position. Surrounds are primarily used for crowd cheers, which get big and room-filling especially following one of the hit numbers. The mix is nice and clean, though, letting you hear all of the lyrics or focus on a particular instrument.

 

One of my favorite audio moments in the show is when the band plays “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).” Here, Byrne introduces the band members 

David Byrne's American Utopia

as they start playing their instruments one at a time, letting you clearly hear how the song is assembled and appreciate that the band is actually producing all the sound you’re hearing. (This was also a highpoint for me from the live show.)

 

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, and I’d say that if you liked the one, then you’ll definitely like the other. (With the converse also probably true. Don’t expect Utopia to make a concert lover out of you if watching live music performances isn’t your thing.) And if you regret missing out on your chance of seeing Sense live, Utopia is the closest you’ll get without finding a time machine. The staging, the stark set, the performances, and even some of the song selections all feel very reminiscent of Sense, but in a good way, reimagined for a new band and performance. We also have a Byrne who is nearly 40 years older and a fair bit less nimble, and of course no Jerry, Tina, and Chris, but that’s always a wish for another day.

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: Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter (2020)

Based on the Capcom videogame franchise of the same title and coming from the same team—writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and actress Milla Jovovich—that brought us what feels like a lifetime full of Resident Evil movies, don’t expect Monster Hunter to deliver a lot in the way of subtlety, rich character development, or introspection.

 

What you do get is pretty much 90-plus minutes of pure action, maybe not so much hunting monsters but sure as heck spending the majority of time running, hiding, and avoiding them. (And, yes, there is definitely some hunting.)

 

Monster Hunter never shies away from what it is or what it’s trying to be, namely an action-packed, popcorn-munching film, which keeps our characters in mortal peril for virtually the entire time. There is no Spielbergian building of tension and 

suspense, making you wait until deep into the movie before finally letting us catch a glimpse of the monsters. Nope. From the opening minutes, Monster Hunter throws us straight in to the action, showing us these big-baddies and letting you know just what you’re in for.

 

I didn’t have any prior knowledge or experience of the game, but unlike Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, this is a case where the film’s trailer tells you exactly what you’re gonna get: Jovovich kicking ass and fighting for her life in a strange world against Kaiju-like creatures. Plus, I expected it to deliver a pretty thrilling and engaging Dolby Atmos sound mix. (Spoiler: It totally does!)

 

Like nearly every recent film, Monster had a bit of a ping-pong journey to its theatrical release. Originally scheduled to be released in September 2020, the film was delayed to April 2021, then moved back to December 30, then 

HUNTER AT A GLANCE

Based on the video game, this movie provides 90-plus minutes of pure monster-hunting action. 

 

PICTURE
Images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. HDR plays a big role, with loads of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights.

 

SOUND     

The real treat here is the dynamic and aggressive Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which is by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

Christmas week, finally debuting in the states on December 18. It bowed on home video via digital retailers February 16, with a planned physical release expected on March 2.

 

The film opens with a ship sailing through a vast ocean of sand, with a giant creature slipping under sand dunes, stalking and attacking it. The Admiral (Ron Perlman) tries to fight off the creature, but it appears he is unsuccessful and at least one of the crew is lost. We cut to “our” world and see a team of soldiers led by Captain Artemis (Jovovich) tracking a lost group of soldiers. A freak and strange storm pulls the convoy through a vortex into the sandy world, where they discover the destroyed remnants of the missing team. A bow-wielding Hunter (Tony Jaa) in the distance tries to get their attention, but they are attacked by a Diablos, the same massive horned monster that had attacked the ship. The soldiers flee from the monster into a cave where . . . well, let’s just say things aren’t a whole lot safer.

 

Artemis ultimately teams up with Hunter and they form a plan to kill the Diablos and make their way to the mysterious Sky Tower (which looks like a combination of Mordor from Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s Dark Tower) on the horizon.

 

As mentioned, the film is based on a game, and it has a real videogame pacing and structure to it. We get our mission, meet a foe, meet other enemies, add to our party, get training and level up, beat the foe, move towards an objective, and then encounter the end boss. There are also nods to anyone who played the game. like the “Meowscular Chef,” a random one-eyed sushi-preparing pirate cat creature that shows up near the end.

 

Hunter speaks in an unsubtitled foreign language not understood by Artemis, so there’s not a lot of chatting between the two beyond things like, “This is chocolate. Choc-o-late. You eat it.” In fact, the two begin their relationship ridiculously trying to kill each other, repeatedly punching, kicking, throwing, and even stabbing. I mean, they are the only humans around and we know they are going to end up working together, so why they inexplicably waste time and energy fighting is really kind of pointless. (Maybe it’s from the game, but whatever.) What we do get to see is that Jaa has some legit fighting chops, holding black belts in Wushu and Tae Kwondo, along with being highly skilled in Muay Thai and more, and from all of her years in action films, Jovovich at least appears that she can hold her own.

 

With an estimated budget of $60 million, the effects shots and world building in Monster actually look really good. There was only one scene where the CGI looked a bit janky and called attention to itself. The creatures’ world seems appropriately vast, and they never shy away from showing the creatures close up and in detail. And from the conclusion—and mid-credits sequence—it’s pretty clear they’re hoping this movie catches on and are primed for a sequel.

 

There’s no mention of the resolution used to capture Monster but images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. Closeups have sharp focus and show tons of detail, such as the texture in uniforms and helmets, or on the attached straps, buckles, and webbing. Edges are always sharp and defined, and I was never distracted by any visual flaws.

 

High dynamic range plays a big role in the image quality of Monster. Most of the film is a bright, desert sun beaming down to gleaming white sand contrasted against the blue skies and drab green/brown of the soldier’s cammies. There are also loads 

of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights—either sunlight pouring in through holes in underground caves, candles burning in the dark, or big blasts of fire in the night sky. We also get the piercing blue-white of lightning strikes and glowing runes, not to mention the preternatural white of Jovovich’s teeth.

 

For home theater viewers, the real treat here is the Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which I would say is about as dynamic and aggressive as any I can think of. There are intense audio levels from all channels, and near constant activity from the height speakers. If you’ve been looking for a movie that shows off your investment in that new processor or additional speakers, look no further!

 

From the opening moments, you’ll be immersed in the sounds of the wooden ship creaking and groaning all around, as the sails and lightning snap and crack overhead. Vehicles crash and roll over (and over) across the top of the room, creatures skitter and crawl overhead and around, Ospreys and baddies whoosh and fly overhead, bullets fly, sand and wind blows, thunder booms. This mix is non-stop and by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

 

Bass is also authoritative and powerful when called on, with monsters’ collisions and impacts energizing all the air in the viewing room. The only thing I might 

Monster Hunter (2020)

have liked was a bit more dynamics on the gunfire, but, really, in all of the cacophony, it might have been too much. And through all the mayhem, the little dialogue we do get remains clear and anchored to the center channel.

 

If you’re looking for a film that will lead to a deep discussion afterwards, this is not for you. I mean, they didn’t exactly bury the lede in the title. But if you’re in the mood to unplug, sit back, and enjoy a loud, raucous good time in your theater, have a few jump scares, and take a break from a ton of adult-language or gore, Monster Hunter should fit the bill. And for Atmos owners, the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

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 Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

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: Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

From the writing team that brought us the hilarious Bridesmaids back in 2011, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo re-team to write and star in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Originally slated for theatrical release in July 2020, it was pushed back nearly a full year to July 2021, before Lionsgate decided to go with a PVOD release via digital retailers on February 12.

 

Beyond its wide availability from sources like Apple TV, Hulu, and Fandango Now, Barb and Star is also one of the first PVOD titles to be available for rental on Kaleidescape.

 

Rental titles—PVOD or otherwise—are new for Kaleidescape, and the company takes a unique approach to delivering them. Unlike streamers, which deliver films in limited, compressed quality, Kaleidescape rentals are downloaded in full quality to an owner’s system just as if the film were purchased, meaning there’s no “rental penalty” with regards to picture or sound 

quality. As with other PVOD distributors, Kaleidescape rental titles remain on a user’s system for up to 30 days, but once viewing begins, there’s a 48-hour window in which you can watch the title as many times as you like, starting, pausing, rewinding, forwarding through the film as you would any other title. After the rental period—either the 30 days or 48 hours—has expired, the title disappears from the user’s system.

 

Another interesting twist with Kaleidescape’s rentals is that if you like the film and decide you want to own it, you can apply one-half of the rental price toward buying the film within 30 days. (This option does not apply to PVOD titles like Barb and Star as they are currently only offered for rental, not for sale.)

 

Having watched some of the trailers for Barb and Star, I thought I had a pretty good idea what the movie would be 

BARB & STAR AT A GLANCE

This wacky, absurd Kristen Wiig vehicle isn’t for everyone but makes for a nice PVOD diversion at a time when new releases are thin. 

 

PICTURE
The images feature bright and vibrant tropical pastels but are sometimes marred by “Portrait mode”-type selective focus.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is mostly restrained but really comes alive during the big musical numbers.

about: Two single, mid-life-aged female friends taking a vacation where things get a little wild. Turns out I was only about half right. About three minutes into the film, it takes a radical turn I don’t think anyone would see coming. Without spoiling the film, I’ll just say that Kristen Wiig plays two completely different roles—the titular easy-breezy, go-with-the-flow Star and another far less happy-go-lucky, sun-averse Sharon Gordon Fisherman who, due to a sleight that happened years before, has a secret lair and master-villain plot to kill everyone in Vista Del Mar with submarine-launched, weaponized killer mosquitoes.

 

Barb (Mumolo) and Star work and live together, sharing everything, and have been living a boring, beige, repetitive life lacking any adventure. After the furniture store the ladies work at suddenly closes, they decide to take the advice of friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and head down to Vista Del Mar to have an adventure and get their shimmer back.

 

While there, the ladies encounter hunky Edgar Paget (Jamie Dornan) at the bar, and after the threesome shares a “Buried Treasure” specialty drink together, they end up having a wild night where the ladies develop feelings. They try to court Edgar separately and secretly, but little do they know that Edgar is involved with Fisherman’s plot and not-so-secretly in love with her.

 

Things ultimately come to a head when the girls find out they’ve been sneaking around behind each other’s backs and that only they can save the town from the deadly mosquito attack.

 

For me, the jokes were more chuckles than big laughs. Sure, there are some funny moments scattered throughout but they were just too few and not enough, and I just kept waiting for it to hit, where everything clicked and came together. And I say that as someone who loved Kristen Wiig’s characters on SNL: Aunt Linda, Female A-Hole, Dooneese, Gilly, Sue, Target Lady . . . 

 

The movie is wacky and absurdist and jokes are often played, and played, and played. (Case in point, the whole Trish bit aboard the plane that just goes on . .  .) Characters randomly burst into song and dance, there’s a talking crab, a lounge crooner who primarily sings about boobs, and hijinks and romance ensue. It’s cheesy, ridiculous, and random but you’ve got to say this for it: Barb and Star leans-in and fully commits to its gags. And the girls’ wild exuberance, joy of life and the simple things, and comic charisma are what drive the film.

 

The cast includes cameos by several funny ladies including Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, who make up a hilarious and mean “Talking Club” (my favorite part of the film, that was sadly too brief), as well as Ian Gomez

as the girls’ boss and Daman Wayans Jr. as a spy that can’t quite keep a secret.

 

Visually, there’s a lot to love with Barb and Star, especially after the action moves to Florida, where things are filled with bright and vibrant tropical pastels—hot pinks, turquoise blues, gleaming whites. The outdoor shots, scenes around the pool and by the ocean are all sun-drenched and uber-saturated, and could be a travelogue for Florida.

 

Closeups feature great detail and sharp focus, such as Tommy Bahama’s (Andy Garcia) face, whiskers, and felt hat, or the texture and detail in Fisherman’s white-on-white cape. Many shots, however, almost felt like they were filmed with “Portrait mode” engaged, where any of the actors not in primary focus or objects in the foreground are just slightly (or not so slightly) blurred. Often objects at the edges or corners of the screen were blurred, something especially noticeable when projected on my 115-inch diagonal screen. I would describe the sharpness and detail as a bit uneven.

 

Sonically, the Kaleidescape rental (and eventual purchase) includes a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack that serves the primary role of ensuring that dialogue is clearly presented and intelligible. The mix is mostly restrained but useful for 

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

creating ambience, such as the hums and echoes in Fisherman’s lair, announcements at the airport, or sounds of seagulls and waves crashing at the ocean. Sonically, the film really comes alive during the big musical numbers, such as the girls’ welcome to Vista Del Mar, a swirling rendition of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after they finish the Buried Treasure, and a heavy bass-throbbing rave-feeling version of “My Heart Will Go On.” The sound mix isn’t enough to make or break the film, but it does an admirable job of serving it well.

 

So . . . this movie . . . I’m gonna say, Barb and Star is not going to be for everyone. In fact, I think it’s going to be one of those polarizing cult classics that people either love and watch over and over (probably with friends and while intoxicated) or they don’t understand at all and will never watch again. For me, this was the perfect rental title, as I’m not sure I’ll never need to join Barb and Star again, but hanging out with the ladies was good for a few laughs.

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 Croods: A New Age

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a sequel. Once the risk of investing in a new property has found audience favor—and the accompanying box-office success—then a sequel is almost sure to come. After grossing more than $587 million, a followup to DreamWorks’ 2013 The Croods was virtually cast in stone.

 

However, this prehistoric family had a somewhat challenging journey getting back to the screen. After the first film’s success, plans for The Croods: A New Age were announced in 2013, with original directors, Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, intending on returning. But the film was cancelled in November 2016 after Universal acquired DreamWorks. The project was revived 

with a new director, Joel Crawford, in 2017 with a planned release in November of that year. But after facing multiple delays, it finally debuted theatrically in the States on November 25, 2020, followed by a PVOD release on December 18, and available to digital retailers like Kaleidescape on February 9. (A physical 4K release is expected on February 23.) Despite all of these hurdles, the movie managed to gross nearly $150 million worldwide, and gathered favorable critics and audience scores of 77% and 94%, respectively.

 

While you could certainly jump straight into New Age without watching the initial Croods—a brief opening scene does a quick job of catching you up—you’d be doing yourself a bit of a disservice and setting yourself up to miss some of the callback gags from Age. The first film introduces us to the Croods, a prehistoric family led by ultra-protective patriarch Grug (Nicholas Cage) that lives together and sleeps in a pile in a cave, spending every moment surviving some natural disaster and hunting food. Rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) sneaks 

NEW AGE AT A GLANCE

This 2020 sequel maintains the momentum of the 2013 mega-hit original, with terrific voice acting and eye-popping visuals enhancing the new adventures of the dysfunctional Stone Age family. 

 

PICTURE
Visuals are like an entire 64-color box of Crayons projected on your screen. Sharp and vibrant, the constant digital eye candy will make your display look its best.

 

SOUND     

The immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is a little restrained during the first part of the film but really kicks in for the finale, which delivers truly deep and powerful bass.

out of the cave one night to explore when she encounters a more modern human boy, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), and after a disaster destroys their cave home, the clan sets out on a quest to find a new place to live.

 

The entire Crood family returns for this sequel including wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke), and Gran (Cloris Leachman). We pick up the story with the family still together, still dodging predators, hunting food, and sleeping in a pile, but the boy-girl relationship between Guy and Eep has evolved to the point where they are talking their tomorrow together, branching off and starting their own pack. This doesn’t sit well with Grug, who feels the pack is stronger—and safer—together.

 

One day, Grug discovers a huge wall, and on the other side discovers the far more evolved and on-the-nose named Betterman family, with husband Phil (Peter Dinklage), wife Hope (Leslie Mann), and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). The Bettermans live in a fantastic treehouse with separate rooms for all, wear sandals, take showers, farm for food, use modern tools, and more. They also happen to have been friends with Guy’s parents, and feel like life would be better if the Croods left, but that Guy stayed behind “with his kind of people” to be with Dawn.

 

The middle part of the film is the humor of watching these two clashing lifestyles trying to relate to, and interacting with, one another, with Phil and Grug in an alpha-male clash, Eep finally having a friend her age with Dawn, who feels similarly trapped under her family’s strict “no going outside the wall” rule, and Guy struggling with wanting the better life with the Bettermans while still loving cavegirl Eep.

 

During the final act, the families have their inevitable reconciliation as they work together to overcome a common, banana-loving foe.

 

While the movie doesn’t really break any new ground, the story of class struggle, love, growing up, and family are all relatable, but what makes it so entertaining are the site gags and terrific voice acting. Reynolds has repeatedly proven his great comic voicing and timing (Exhibit A and B: Deadpool and Aviation Gin ads), and Stone certainly holds her own with her

exuberance. Ugga is perfect for Cage to unleash his over-the-top self, and Dinklage is also on point as Phil, reminding me a bit of his Mighty Eagle character from The Angry Birds.

 

Besides bringing some fresh content that your home theater has been craving, New Age flat-out looks fantastic in 4K HDR. Images are razor sharp, clear, and pristine. Nearly every frame bristles with vibrant colors, like the entire 64-color box of Crayons has been projected onto your screen, with colors changing dramatically in almost every scene. From the greens of foliage to the rich red-oranges of fire to the bright blues of water to glowing bioluminescence at night, colors explode with richness and vibrancy you don’t see outside of animation. Almost the entirety of the 95-minute runtime is digital eye candy, making your display look its best.

 

While New Age uses a less realistic animation style than some Pixar films like Soul or Toy Story 4, it is consistent throughout, and images never lack for texture and detail. Closeups show the care and detail in the animation, revealing individual strands of fur, scratches, fabric detail, and grain. Some banana outfits near the end show such texture you can clearly imagine what they would feel like.

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

The Kaleidescape download of the film also boasts an immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack. While the first half of the film is a bit restrained, there are still plenty of atmospherics spread around the room to put you into the jungle action. Whether wind or insect sounds, the echoes of the environment, or the musical score, the surround channels are called on to expand the soundstage. We also get a lot of far offscreen voice work and effects, with characters announcing their locations from surround channels around the room, or as someone—or something—is thrown into a far corner.. As we move into the film’s climax, we get a lot more excitement in the audio domain, especially with the subwoofer kicking in to deliver powerful low end. Also, be sure to stay through the opening part of the end credits to enjoy a Tenacious D version of “I Think I Love You.” Dialogue is also clear and easily understandable throughout.

 

The Croods: A New Age is an entertaining, family-friendly film that also happens to looks fantastic on a good display, making it an easy recommendation for your next movie night get together.

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: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

Before diving in, I need to provide some context for why I’m reviewing a 2011 BBC series made up mainly of some pretty low-fi found footage. To the first point, when I stumbled upon this, Amazon Prime had labeled it as a 2020 release (which is when, I’m guessing, somebody spliced together the three episodes of the series). As for Point Two: This is, despite its lowly origins, the single most cinematic experience I’ve had in years.

 

Of course, I don’t need to be sold on watching anything with Adam Curtis’s name on it. He and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) are the two most innovative documentarians of recent times, and Curtis’s The Century of the Self (about the rise of modern marketing—and social control—springing from the ideas of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays), The Power of Nightmares (about September 11th and how Bin Laden and the Americans essentially collaborated to create the myth of al-Qaeda), and HyperNormalization (about the consequences of embracing societal and virtual simplifications) are stunning, troubling,

unequaled works. It’s impossible for anyone with an open mind to approach his series and not have their worldview turned on its head.

 

To define my terms: Most of what passes for documentary filmmaking in the mainstream (and by mainstream, I mean TV networks, cable channels, and, primarily, streaming services—and primarily, within streaming services, Netflix) is really the bastard child of any legitimate documentary impulse, being more exercises in propaganda, marketing, and entertainment than any valid attempt to truly document anything. The filmmakers tend to know what they think and feel about a subject before they begin the project then spend the duration of the film continually reinforcing what they already believe, using their certainty and insistence to get you to buy into it too.

 

That’s not Curtis. He poses things. While he has definitely done his due diligence, he also knows a video and audio

LOVING GRACE AT A GLANCE

Documentarian Adam Curtis’s meditation on society, self, and selfishness is troubling, but also entertaining and intensely cinematic.

 

PICTURE
The series’ rich tapestry might be composed mostly of found footage, mostly low-fi, but it adds up to an oddly satisfying big-screen experience.

 

SOUND     

An aural montage almost as nuanced as the visual one, it’s an endlessly inventive exercise in complementarity, ironic juxtaposition, and deliberate misdirection.

presentation is a pretty flawed way of dealing with anything of substance and that, even if we won’t acknowledge it, we tend to go to media for a continual stream of diversions. But he also knows the importance of having an audience. So his series tend to be exercises in connecting up big things in unexpected ways, with some of those connections tentative, balancing his material between “this is” and “what if?” and, out of both a sense of responsibility and a desire to engage viewers in a way they’re not used to from TV, allowing for enough play that you ultimately have to think a lot of this through for yourself.

 

Obviously, that’s a deeply frustrating experience for anyone who’s used to being told what to think or doesn’t want to think at all, which is why Curtis is frequently labeled a “cult” personality by both his admirers and detractors. (How anyone can have a recurring presence on the BBC and still be considered cult is a mystery to me.) For others, like me, his work is consistently  liberating, partly because it runs so determinedly against the mainstream and so adamantly refuses to go to pat places. For 

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

all his well-seasoned British manner, Curtis is beneath it all a punk.

 

One more digression before I jump in, but it’s essential: Curtis is very much the child (or spawn, depending on your viewpoint) of documentarian Bruce Conner, specifically of his breakthrough 1967 short film Report, which used found footage from the mass media to offer an alternative take on the Kennedy assassination. The whole found-footage thing has 

become commonplace of course—stiflingly so—but nobody was doing it when Conner came up with Report, which treats its subject both seriously and with a deeply subversive wit.

 

Curtis creates knowing full well that we’ve literally seen it all before—and that’s his whole point. Yes, we’ve seen it but did we get it? Did we just buy into the bright, shiny surface and the pre-packaged context or did we maintain a skeptical distance and at least try to treat it on our terms instead of theirs? The frightening answer, for almost everyone watching his series—and this is Curtis at his most disturbing—is undeniably No.

 

So Curtis isn’t for everyone (in fact, he’s for a pretty small subset of everyone). But everything he does is, again, intensely cinematic and, despite its sometimes harrowing subject matter, often entertaining—which helps explain his relative popularity. Someone could watch his series and not grasp a single fundamental point and still have a pretty good time.

 

The first thing I need to say about All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (a title I promise you’ll never remember) is that it’s hard to find anything to say about it at all—partly because it’s so damned hard to get your arms around (deliberately 

so) and because, if you allow it to do its voodoo on you, it will leave you literally speechless.

 

Curtis’s work could be summed up as ruminations on society, self, and selfishness—which I say knowing full well I’m being overly reductive. But you’ve got to start somewhere. All Watched Over could be said to analyze the overemphasis on rationality and how it tends to be trumpeted most loudly by the most 

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

deeply flawed and insecure. It begins with a meditation on Ayn Rand and by its dizzying and wrenching conclusion shows the devastating (il)logic that leads from Rand, through various too-explanatory models like the various, inherently unnatural attempts to define ecosystem and the vast computer-fed breeding grounds of narcissism, to the emergence of the selfish gene and the sad and somewhat insane ends of two of its originators, Bill Hamilton and George Price.

 

But is that really what this series is about? We’re also treated to a frightening (and exhilarating) tour of the Asian financial crisis and the subsequent backlash that then spurred the American financial crisis; the heyday of commune culture; the rise of the messiah of self-organizing networks—and, in the series climax, a searing, haunting, ultimately overwhelming recounting of the genocidal consequences of the West’s brutal meddling in every imaginable aspect of the Congo.

 

All Watched Over is far more coherent than I’m making it sound; it’s just not conveniently linear. It’s also pretty fearless. Curtis tilts boldly at sacred cows ranging from Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the Clintons to The New York Times, Stewart Brand, Dian

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

Fossey, Richard Dawkins, PS2, and, striking awfully close to his home base, David Attenborough and the BBC.

 

Try not to be put off by my description. This is nowhere near as abstract and clinical an exercise as I might make it seem. It’s not just engaging but compelling. Even if you don’t get everything Curtis is putting in front of you, you want to.

And I have to again emphasize how kinetic this all is. Nearly everything we watch now apes the conventions of cinema while dancing comfortably along the surface, oblivious to or dismissive or scared crapless of the depths. Curtis instead grabs your hand and pulls you down to the levels that matter, encouraging you to consider both the surface and the roots, inducing a sense of both terror and joy as you realize the tremendous distance and intricate relationships between them—and how much we’ve lost by coming to invest all our faith in the superficial.

 

He has never so deftly played with images, with the conscious juxtaposition and manipulation of their styles, their resolution, with their ironic and sometimes incongruous wedding, using edits to create deliberate gaps in which we’re encouraged to insert our own thoughts and emotions. His deployment of audio is similarly masterful, with the sound often creating a sense of dread that can seem out of place until you realize, with a shudder, where he’s heading. And then there’s his use of existing music, which transcends the usual, lazy “forget your troubles come on get happy” efforts to get the audience to slip back into the womb and instead radically recontextualizes cues in a way that reminds me of Kubrick at his best.

 

As brilliant as Curtis’s other work is—and everything I’ve seen of his has been brilliant—All Watched Over is the best thing he has done to date. Surprisingly, given how much of his reputation (like Morris’s) rests on his wry detachment, it functions on a more direct emotional level than his other efforts—but that’s just one of its many, many layers. If it were primarily emotional, it would run the risk of becoming sentimental or self-righteous in a hipster sort of way. But Curtis somehow maintains a delicate balance between all the elements of his inherently inchoate and unstable material, jazzed to be dancing on the edge of the void, which gives everything he does the thrill of a crime drama, like he’s constantly just one step ahead of the law.

 

I hope this hasn’t been hopelessly confusing, because that would be a disservice to Curtis and his creations. But it would also be a disservice to pretend they’re simpler or less troubling than they are. At a time when we’ve actually come to prefer things we can forget about the second we see them, Curtis’s films burn their way into you, like a brand. They’re a reminder that awareness isn’t just an awkward vestige to be purged but an essential part of any inherently and meaningfully human experience. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is cinema by other means—possibly, at a time when the world is purging its birthright en masse, by the only means that matter.

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.

Review: Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)

One of my favorite books from my childhood was The Empire Strikes Back Mix or Match Storybook, a ridiculous little publication featuring split pages that allowed you to pull a character from one scene and actions from another, match them with an out-of-context plot point and setting, and put together nonsensical little koans like, “Boba Fett . . . was taking a lubrication bath . . . on the Rebel base . . . when Lando greeted him . . . and chased him into a cave . . . where old droids were stored.” Expand that concept beyond the confines of the Star Wars galaxy and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how

the script for Space Sweepers (aka Seungriho, aka Space Victory) surely must have been written.

 

Take the general premise of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Pixar’s Wall-E, mash them up with the overall tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, the character dynamics of Firefly, the aesthetic of Alien, the villain from Prometheus, sprinkle in some details from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and some of the vibe of Cowboy Beebop . . . I could go on and on.

 

The thing is, this kind of mashup can result in something truly satisfying and worthwhile when the filmmakers pilfer from so many sources with intentionality, based on what these stories mean, what they’re trying to say, the connotations built into the pop-cultural consciousness. But it doesn’t seem as if the writers of this post-post-post-postmodernist mishmash had any intention of going that

SWEEPERS AT A GLANCE

This Netflix-exclusive sci-fi action comedy is a big mess, and yet it almost works.

 

PICTURE
The artifact-free presentation alternates between Marvel-quality effects and CGI that looks like cut scenes from old video games.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos audio mix, which is beyond aggressive with something going on almost constantly in nearly every channel, is one of the few consistently good things about this film.

route. Instead, I can only imagine that the most common phrase uttered in the writer’s room must have been, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . ?”

 

It’s a shame because Space Sweepers really does seem to be trying to say something about corporatocracy and class struggles (the latter a quite common theme in Korean cinema these days), but since it lets all of its influences do the talking, especially in the first act, a coherent thematic thread fails to emerge. It ends up bordering on sound and fury signifying way too much. Or maybe I’m just a victim of pareidolia here, perceiving signals where there’s really little more than noise. It’s honestly hard to tell.

 

Mind you, none of the above means Space Sweepers should be written off entirely. Of all the properties from which it pilfers, it actually manages to be a better movie than some of them (most notably Prometheus). And it’s a more enjoyable ride than

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movie too recent to have inspired any element of Space Sweepers, but one that certainly seems to have been cobbled together in a similar manner.

 

What makes Space Sweepers work—when it works—is mostly the core cast, led by Song Joong-ki (Descendants of the Sun), Tae-ri Kim (The Handmaiden), and Seon-kyu Jin (The Outlaws). The trio has good chemistry and, when given the

chance to develop their own characters rather than merely pantomiming archetypes, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

 

At least, they are in their original Korean—which brings up an interesting point. Space Sweepers is presented on Netflix by default with a soundtrack it labels “English (Atmos).” In point of fact, there’s more non-English in the English soundtrack than anything else, as the dialogue runs the gamut from Korean to English to Russian to the sort of post-English pidgin dialect that’s common in sci-fi these days.

 

Really, the only dialogue that changes when you switch from the English dub to the original Korean soundtrack is that of the main crew of the Spaceship Victory, the beat-up ship on which most of the action takes place. (Given the number of lines ripped straight from other properties, I’m surprised no one refers to the Victory as a “bucket of bolts” or “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”)

 

But in their original Korean, the performances of the principles all feel a little more natural, a little less hokey, a lot more sincere. If only the same could be said for the rest of the cast, whose acting ranges in quality from “dinner theater” to “middle-school class play.” Even Richard Armitage (yes, that Richard Armitage) turns in such a hackneyed, scene-chewing performance that I didn’t even recognize him until very nearly the end of the movie, and even then I second-guessed myself. (“That can’t be Richard Armitage, can it? No . . . surely not. Richard Armitage is actually a good actor.”)

 

No matter which audio track you pick, the Atmos audio mix is beyond aggressive. There’s something going on in nearly every channel on a nigh-constant basis. But you know what? It just works. It’s one of the few genuinely, consistently good things about the movie. Dialogue pours out of the surround channels as characters move around and off the screen or speak over intercoms. The action creates a holographic bubble of audio that makes Space Sweepers feel like a much more polished production than it has any right to.

 

Mind you, not every element of the sound is great. The score seems less like a deliberate composition and more like a playlist created by someone who sat behind a computer screen and Googled, “Royalty-free KMFDM ripoff,” “Royalty-free Alan Silvestri soundalike,” “Royalty-free sad song.” The only thing I can say about the score is, at least it never quotes “Dies irae,” because I’m not sure anyone involved in this project would have understood the connotations of that piece enough to make it work.

 

The video is a similarly mixed bag. Mind you, I think Space Sweepers was, at some point, being set up for a big theatrical release in 2020, but then, well, you know. Things happened. As such it ended up as a Netflix exclusive.

 

It isn’t Netflix’s presentation of the movie that holds it back, mind you, since the stream is delivered artifact-free via Roku Ultra. The problem is that while some of the special effects wouldn’t look out of place in a modern Marvel movie, some of the CGI would have come off as janky in a cut-scene from a 20-year-old video game. If all of the FX had been MST3K-worthy, your brain could adapt to that and move on, but the inconsistency is jarring.

 

HDR also isn’t employed very effectively, except to stave off some black crush in the super-contrasty cinematography, as well as to provide a saturation boost for some of the crayon drawings created by the movie’s McGuffin, the is-she-a-hydrogen-bomb-or-isn’t-she? little girl known alternately as Dorothy and Kang Kot-nim.

 

In the end, the choice of whether or not to give two-plus hours of your time over to Space Sweepers really depends upon how hungry you are for some sci-fi/action/comedy right now. It certainly has its merits, and at moments it approaches something genuinely good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the third act is a downright hoot.

 

I just wish it had more of its own personality. As it stands, the shooting script resembles the narrative equivalent of temp-track score music—a cobbled together hodgepodge of other people’s work that, when used correctly, can give structure or serve as inspiration for the final work. Put this script through a couple of editing passes or hand it over to a script doctor, and it could have ended up being something kinda special. As it stands, though, it feels more like someone set their iTunes to “shuffle,” generated a playlist, and released it as an original album. But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it almost works.

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: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Fast forward 30 years from the last Woody Allen effort I reviewed, 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and you arrive at Blue Jasmine, his best late-period work and the film that nabbed Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar. That at first glance it can be difficult to see the common DNA between these two movies shows how much Allen evolved as filmmaker over the decades and helps dispel the jaundiced myth that he is little more than an assemblage of mannerisms treading in a  rut.

 

What isn’t a myth is that Allen has struggled ever since his break with Mia Farrow after 1992’s Husbands and Wives. He earned much praise for Match Point (2005), but that film is ultimately undone by its implausibility, and its success can mainly be attributed to the public’s fascination with the bright, shiny Scarlett Johansson. Midnight in Paris (2011) was celebrated as

a return to form, and made Allen a crapload of money, but it’s basically a lazy recitation of his greatest hits that’s ultimately thinner than a cup of fast-food coffee. Wonder Wheel (2017) earned Kate Winslet some kudos (but the real standout is Jim Belushi, who’s so good it’s shocking) and the film almost works, if you’re willing to roll with its early acts, but is ultimately a noble failure.

 

Of the later films, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Vicky Christina Barcelona, the dramatic sections of Melinda and Melinda, and, much more modestly, Cafe Society, join Blue Jasmine as the ones worth a good look. (I’ve been trying to see the Sean Penn vehicle Sweet and Lowdown for years, but it flits in and out of circulation so arbitrarily that I’ve never been able to seize the opportunity on the rare occasions when it’s bobbed to the surface.)

 

Jasmine exists at a higher level than any of his other late-

JASMINE AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s late-period masterpiece looks exceptional in this Blu-ray-quality HD presentation.

 

PICTURE
Aside from some overdone gold tinting added in post, the film features a restrained but still sumptuous presentation that holds up well in HD.

 

SOUND     

Lots of dialogue, some NY and San Fran atmospherics, and some tasteful jazz cues, all well-presented—in other words, a Woody Allen movie.

period work, on par with the much earlier Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. But it’s not easy to pin down why everything suddenly clicked here. Unlike his other masterworks, it’s not a comedy, although it does have some humorous touches. The Allen persona is nowhere to be seen, even in surrogate form. And even though he has an incredibly uneven track record with dramas, Allen shows an effortless command here.

 

I suspect many would attribute its success to Blanchett, but that shows a fundamental ignorance of how movies work. She didn’t write the script, plan or execute the shots, or labor in the editing room. Without that elaborate support—which is essentially the entire edifice of a film—a performance, no matter how good, isn’t worth bupkis. I think the success of Jasmine, and the reason Allen rose to the occasion, can be actually attributed to class. But I’ll get to that.

Blue Jasmine exhibits a bounty of great acting, and it’s not really possible to appreciate the film without first considering Allen and actors. From the late ’70s on, and even in his subpar efforts, Allen has offered a place where actors can show their abilities without fear of being humiliated, relegated to reciting genre clichés, treated like the director’s marionette, or subjugated to green screen. Because he provided an oasis, a place where an actor’s abilities were treasured and given room to flourish, a tremendous diversity of talent flocked to his projects—that is, until Me Too happened (but we’re not going to go there again).

 

(It’s ironic, by the way, that someone with no traditional training turned out to be the best actor’s director of the last half century.)

 

What’s always intriguing about Allen is that he can get me to appreciate performers I can’t stomach elsewhere. I wouldn’t want to spend a nanosecond with Andrew Dice Clay outside the boundaries of this film, and yet he’s perfectly cast here. Pretty much the same can be said for Louis C.K., who’s insufferable as a comedian and elsewhere only borderline acceptable as an actor (he does do a strong turn in American Hustle, though). Here he shines. Ditto for Alec Baldwin, who’s become a caricature of himself over time but rises above his limitations in Jasmine.

 

Other standouts: Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire

brings depth and some surprising twists to what could have been a thuggish performance as Sally Hawkins’ boyfriend. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who out and out stole Men in Black 3 as the pixieish multi-dimensional alien Griffin, is far more understated but still strong here.

 

As for Blanchett: As one of those performers, like Penn and Streep, far better at “acting” than acting, I’ve always found her work rough going—her attempt to play Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator was so cringeworthy I wanted to avert my eyes from the screen—but she is perfectly in sync with Allen’s material and makes a potentially unsympathetic character compelling. And while Blanchett got most of the attention, Hawkins—another actor I could usually take or leave—I think actually bests her here.

 

The two weak spots in the chain are Peter Sarsgaard, who just doesn’t bring enough heft to his role as the aspiring diplomat, and Alden Ehrenreich as Blanchett’s son, who barely registers as a presence.

 

About the whole class thing: Allen has taken a lot of heat over the years, some of it justified, for being overly enamored with Upper East Side society. And a lot of his portrayals are so fawning they take on a peepshow quality for almost every human being on the planet who wasn’t to the manor born. But the 2008 recession caused him to put all that in perspective, and Blue Jasmine is a perceptive, even biting, look at the great class divide that doesn’t have an ax to grind for either side—and thankfully doesn’t fall into the oppressive cliché of saying the members of the lower classes are forever doomed to do

themselves in. It’s his ability to pull from his vast experience with both sides of the class equation without peddling an agenda that allows him to go deeper than most mainstream attempts to fathom the issue.

 

(Let me pause to note that Allen is one of the last filmmakers left from the era before you had to be a member of the top one percent to gain admittance to Hollywood, when lower-bred outsiders were at least tolerated as long as their movies made money, when they could still have a voice.)

 

Blue Jasmine looks really, really good in Blu-ray-quality HD—which I suspect can be attributed to the existence of a DI. I was hard pressed to find any serious flaws—not that you can’t find problems if you really want to hunt for them, but nothing that was happening with the images ever pulled me out of the film, which is all that should matter at the end of the day. My one criticism is the introduction of too many golden tones in post. Yes, I get where they were going with that, but I still suspect that future generations are going to look at the early efforts of digital filmmaking and want to slap us silly for not being able to resist fiddling with the knobs.

 

And now I once again come to the pointlessness of talking about the audio in a 

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Woody Allen film. It’s not like he’s making silent movies and audio doesn’t matter—few directors rely as heavily on dialogue—and it’s not like the mix doesn’t help create atmosphere in the scenes; and it’s not like music cues don’t have a huge impact in his work. The point is that the audio is in modest service of the material, as it should be—there are no bravura flourishes that would make you exclaim “Nice audio!” So let’s just say that it works, and works well.

 

You don’t need to know anything about Allen’s other films to appreciate Jasmine, but saying that at this moment in time sounds defensive and weak. Allen has created a tremendous and unparalleled body of work, one that deserves to continue to be appreciated. Few directors are capable of making movies that are as human, and Blue Jasmine, as a sophisticated and unsparing study of pride and vulnerability, might be his most human effort of all.

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.

Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you want to know how Taika Waititi—a quirky independent Kiwi filmmaker previously best known for making that mockumentary about vampires and a few episodes of that TV show about a musical-comedy duo—somehow came out of nowhere and landed a gig directing Thor movies, you’ll find some answers in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. If you’re still trying to figure out how Waititi actually managed to make a good Thor movie, when directors as celebrated as Kenneth Branagh tried the same and failed spectacularly, again, I would point you in the direction of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

 

Waititi has, of course, developed a reputation for absurdity, and this hilarious film about a troubled foster child and his reluctant guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush on the run from the law is nothing if not absurd. But who cares, really? There are any number of filmmakers out there who specialize in the absurd, and you don’t see Hollywood throwing 

money at them to helm blockbusters. (Seriously, I don’t mean to take a sideways crack at Wes Anderson here, because unlike most of my Cineluxe compatriots I actually enjoy his films. But can you imagine Anderson being asked to helm a tentpole blockbuster?)

 

What makes Waititi so sought after is that he also has a knack for something Hollywood couldn’t fake if you let an infinite number of studio monkeys tug at an infinite number of heartstrings for an infinite amount of time: Sincerity. And of all his films I’ve seen to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his most sincere.

 

There’s a moment early on that illustrates this perfectly. Little Ricky Baker, an adolescent hooligan who has bounced around the foster-care system, is first introduced to his foster mother, Bella. Her excitement is palpable and she nearly trips all over herself as a result, which of course causes her to say and do the stupidest things possible.

 

I have to think that in almost any other filmmaker’s hands, 

WILDERPEOPLE AT A GLANCE

Taika (Jojo Rabbit) Waititi’s 2016 indie-film effort is an absurd but sincere tale of a foster child and his guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush.

 

PICTURE
The limitations of the HD presentation are in no way distracting, although a handful of the scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack can get a little too clever for its own good but it’s a fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action.

Bella’s nervous awkwardness would have been played for laughs at her expense. She would have been a joke to be mocked, an out-of-touch wannabe-hip parental unit portrayed in the most clichéd way possible.

 

And don’t get me wrong: The scene is played for laughs. But not at Bella’s expense. The humor comes from the situation itself, the relatability of it all. And it’s that fact that makes the character’s transformation from doting foster parent into bad-ass backwoods farmer chick all the more believable. It’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with her, because she’s really the heart of the film. But her untimely death is the fire that fuels the entire rest of the plot, which is one of the most compelling comedies-of-errors I’ve seen in ages.

 

I’m not really spoiling the plot here because there’s not a ton to spoil, but with Bella out of the picture, Ricky is slated to be taken back into the foster system, and as a result he runs away. Bella’s husband, Hec—who professes to have no emotional investment in the boy—follows him, and before long they’re branded as fugitives and become the targets of a highly publicized manhunt.

 

And that’s it, really. That’s the story. But I’m a sucker for a simple tale, especially one this well told. It isn’t just Waititi’s utter lack of cynicism that makes it all work, though. It’s also his gift for pacing and most especially timing. He also, for whatever reason, knows how to let kids be kids. Ricky, played by Julian Dennison (who would go on to have a memorable turn in Deadpool 2 as Firefist), doesn’t just act like a kid and talk like a kid—he thinks like a kid. It’s one of those rare performances that shines an unflinching light on just how awful and inauthentic most portrayals of adolescents are in films.

 

What’s more, Dennison and Sam Neill (who plays Hec) don’t really act like they’re in a comedy. Some of the secondary characters do, hamming it up and overplaying—not to an egregious degree, but certainly in keeping with the genre. The two leads, though, play it straight. They’re both weirdos, mind you. And there’s definitely a comedy-duo dynamic between then, with Dennison playing the goof and Neill the straight man. But . . . again, I’m struggling for any word other than “sincerity” here to describe their approach. They’re hilarious, yes, but they’re not playing it up for laughs.

 

Narratively simple though Wilderpeople may be, it’s pretty thematically rich for a comedy. It’s hard to watch and not be reminded of Goethe’s famous quote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wilderpeople takes that one step in the other direction and plays with notions of what happens when we assume people to be criminals. And while it’s not too terribly deep, it’s certainly more food for thought than you’ll get from most slapstick romps.

 

Another thing that makes Wilderpeople such a joy is that it’s not nearly as predictable as most comedies tend to be. About an hour into the 100-minute runtime, anyone who’s ever seen any movie ever will have written the ending in their heads. It seems downright obvious. But Waititi doesn’t go for the obvious here, which makes the resolution just a bit more satisfying and a lot more humorous, though no less sweet than what you’ll think you see coming.

 

One word of warning, though: If you’re at all sensitive to animals being harmed, or if you have kids who are, there are a couple of scenes that are more difficult to watch than Old Yeller. I wish I’d known that ahead of time.

 

At any rate, given the relatively recent vintage of Wilderpeople, it’s a little surprising it’s not available in 4K HDR. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. Watching the film in HD via Kaleidescape, it’s evident that a handful of scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD, especially some of the landscape shots. As for HDR, though? I’m not sure it would make a huge difference. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne obviously aimed for a somewhat muted look, at least in terms of contrasts. Blacks are never fully black and at no point do any of the brighter areas of the image come close to clipping. That gives the film a rather pastel look, even when colors get a bit more vibrant. Given this deliberate aesthetic choice, I can’t help but wonder if 10-bit color and dynamic range would significantly change the look of the imagery at all.

The real question, though, is whether or not the limitations of HD are in any way distracting. And the answer to that is a resounding and enthusiastic “No!” Honestly, the film is so visually striking that you rarely have time to worry about things like pixel count and color gamut. Every shot, no matter how seemingly mundane, is framed in such a way as to be utterly engaging. The eye can’t help but explore the screen from corner to corner. There’s nothing obtrusive about the camerawork, though. All of it is in service of the story, and I have to wonder if most viewers will consciously appreciate some of the framing choices that give the film its distinctive vibe without being in any way affected.

 

I’ll admit, though, that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does get a little too clever for its own good at times. Such instances are rare, but the mix leans a bit too heavy on the surround channels on occasion, especially in scenes where music is the predominant audio element. Ignoring those rare flubs, it’s a pretty fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action. Dialogue intelligibility is also topnotch, which is much appreciated given the thick Kiwi accents of most of the actors.

 

It’s a bit of a bummer that the Kaleidescape download lacks the supplemental

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

material included with the Blu-ray release. (Kaleidescape isn’t alone, mind you. Vudu, Amazon, and other digital retailers also present Wilderpeople completely devoid of goodies since Apple seems to have nabbed the exclusive rights to the film’s extras in the digital domain.) I’m itching to listen to the commentary featuring Waititi, Neill, and Dennison, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the blooper reel, either. But I’m not motivated enough to make room for yet another disc on my movie shelves, especially given that those are the only bonus features of note.

 

Really, though, Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands on its own, and is very much worth the purchase price even without supplements.

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: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

It’s got maybe the worst title ever and probably the worst ending of any Woody Allen film, but wedged between the opening-title card and that third act that got away is one of Allen’s best films, an almost perfectly balanced ensemble piece that’s probably the best evocation ever of midsummer, which is especially amazing when you consider how much Allen hates the country.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was his first film with Mia Farrow and kicked off the diverse and more subdued but still fecund era that followed the tremendous creative explosion of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories. Allen shot Sex 

Comedy simultaneously with Zelig, which he now admits wasn’t such a great idea but led to two amazing miniatures. He and Farrow would then do such standouts as Broadway Danny Rose (one of his best), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the superb but troubling Husbands and Wives. After their all too public breakup, Allen would spend the following decades wandering in the woods, producing far more misses than hits, but occasionally conjuring up gems like Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Blue Jasmine that, at the end of the day, still give him a higher overall batting average than any other first-rank filmmaker.

 

What makes Sex Comedy different from almost every other one of his films (and there are a lot of them) is that he apparently decided to start by capturing a certain time of year—the feel of the peak of summer—and then build a movie around it. He and Gordon Willis had already done 

SEX COMEDY AT A GLANCE

Ignore the awful title and ending and bask in the warm midsummer glow of Woody Allen’s most underrated film.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—some of his best—comes across surprisingly well in HD, which faithfully conveys most of its nuances.

 

SOUND     

Ensemble dialogue, the sounds of summer, and an all-Mendelssohn score presented in a fine, but not flashy, stereo mix.

something similar with Manhattan, where no other film has done a better job of evoking the feel of the Upper East Side at night. You’re not just watching the people stroll the streets—you’re right there with them, which creates an irreplaceable bond with the characters.

 

Here, you’re placed in the midst of the country that sits just on the cusp of the city—more specifically, Westchester County, just north of Manhattan—which is conveyed in such a way that it feels like both the city’s complement and dialectical other. 

This is some of Willis’s best cinematography, which is saying a lot, managing to capture that elusive sense of warm days, abundant nature, and lingering light. There is a reliance on day for night, which creates some unevenness toward the end but is only really egregious in a shot of Tony Roberts leaving the front of the summer home to go off into the woods.

 

I was pleasantly surprised by how well Willis’s images came across in Kaleidescape’s Blu-ray-quality HD presentation. The subtle gradations are for the most part there and it’s possible to get lost in the frame while being only occasionally distracted by blown-out bright spots like shots of the full moon. Of course, this film would likely look superb in 4K HDR, which would pull out the wealth of detail in the fields, the interiors, and especially the period clothing but I have no significant nits with how it looks in its current incarnation. (And, given where this movie stands in Allen’s body of work, and his current status in general, it’s not like Sex Comedy and 4K are likely to cross paths any time soon.)

 

Sex Comedy marks a big step forward in Allen’s evolution as a director, displaying a new maturity with his handling of the cast. Mary Steenburgen, José Ferrer, and Farrow all give nuanced, engaging performances that help reinforce the heady atmosphere of the film. Allen is even able to make Julie Hagerty shine within her very limited range. The one false note is Roberts, who was always 

tolerable when relegated to playing Allen’s sidekick but just isn’t that good of a film actor and whose beats always feel a little forced here. But nothing he does is enough to ever disrupt the ensemble’s seemingly effortless momentum.

Allen shows an increased mastery of film technique as well, with that new-found confidence carrying over into a growing reliance on lengthy master shots, which reinforce the movie’s ensemble nature while also lending it an appropriately pastoral rhythm. The Allen of his earlier films would have never been able to pull off the extended exchange where Steenburgen confronts his character about lying about Farrow, which is brilliantly blocked and performed.

 

This is pretty much the last film where Allen allowed his character to be well-rounded and witty, for some reason opting to just spew jokes via a borderline caricature from that point on. I’m not sure why he wandered off down such a self-defeating path—it’s obvious from the documentary Wild Man Blues that he was still capable of ringing resonant changes on the persona he’d so carefully created—but Sex Comedy sadly represents the swan song of the Woody who defined an era.

 

Now, about that ending: Allen does an unimpeachable job of establishing the atmosphere, then setting the tone, then introducing the characters, and then setting the various interactions in motion, fleshing out the characters along the 

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

way. And all of that is so delicious and, yes, charming that it makes it that much more dispiriting when you have to deal with the train wreck of the final act. My surmise—and I’m really winging it here—is that working on Zelig at the same time prevented him from seeing the flaws in the Sex Comedy script and likely kept him from doing the kind of reshooting that allowed him to elevate many of his other films from pedestrian or confused to extraordinary.

 

Had he been able to solve the puzzle he created for himself, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy would have easily ranked up with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah in the mass mind. But anyone who hesitates because of what they’ve heard, or who have heard nothing at all about this film, is missing out in a big way. This is what a great movie feels like when it doesn’t feel the need to strut its stuff. It’s so light and energetic and infectious, it’s like a bracing tonic—the cinematic equivalent of a good saison. It moves and feels like no other film. It’s Woody Allen’s most underrated work—and it’s a much needed infusion of summer light during what has been, in more ways than one, the darkest time of the year.

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.