Netflix

Review: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

If you’re clicking on a review of an Oscar-nominated documentary like My Octopus Teacher at this point, it’s safe to say you’re here looking for an answer to a pretty simply question: Is it worth watching? I only wish there were a simple answer. My heart says, “Yes.” My brain says, “Still yes, but don the armor of skepticism before you dive in.”

 

This Netflix production tells the story of Craig Foster, a South African director/cinematographer who, in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts, commits to free-diving in the kelp forests near Cape Town every day to get his head together or whatever. During his dives, he quickly befriends a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and becomes obsessed with her life and daily habits.

Your enjoyment of the film will likely largely come down to whether or not you like Foster as a human being, because he not only narrates the film from beginning to end in the form of one continuous monologue but the footage often cuts to him sitting at a table, staring about three inches to the left of the camera, telling his tale Spalding Gray-style.

 

He may be a perfectly fine man. I don’t know him. But he exhibits so many infuriating quirks that I found myself struggling to connect with him. He has an annoying habit shared by all emotionally distant people, in that he often refers to himself in the second person, present tense. So, “I realized” becomes “You realize,” and “I rushed to the surface as fast as I could” becomes “You rush to the surface as fast as you can.”

OCTOPUS AT A GLANCE

Fascinating footage of an octopus in the wild marred by a forced narrative and a lot of self-indulgent, sometimes redundant, narration.

 

PICTURE
Raw, dingy amateur shots interspersed with more professionally done footage—what you would expect in a documentary. 

 

SOUND     

A Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack dominated by narration and the kind of New-Agey score typical for this kind of documentary.

Far too often, when there’s the perfect opportunity to focus on the amazing underwater imagery of the octopus, we instead cut to Foster for absolutely no reason. He also almost never shuts up—except for a few shots where he stares into the camera and gulps pensively to let us know that it’s time to have an emotion. Shots that absolutely speak for themselves are narrated like a bad audio commentary from the early days of Laserdisc and DVD, when directors hadn’t figured out yet that they can occasionally stop talking if they don’t have anything interesting to say.

 

But—this needs to be said—those are pet peeves of mine and don’t speak to the quality of My Octopus Teacher as a film. Here, too, I have some concerns, though. The bulk of the footage for this ostensibly nonfiction film was shot over the course of many months, and much of it was captured via handheld underwater cameras. In the process of stitching together a reasonably linear narrative, it’s obvious that a lot of editorializing was done, which is totally fine. The problem comes from the fact that sometimes this editorializing feels far too forced.

 

At one point in the story, for example, Foster’s octopus friend loses an arm in a shark attack. That, in itself, provides an opportunity to watch the fascinating process of her regrowing the arm over time. But since the narrative thread the filmmakers

settled on centers on all the lessons Foster learned from the octopus, he of course has to concoct some hackneyed fable about how if this cephalopod could heal such a catastrophic wound, he could find a way to crawl out of his funk and hang out with his son. To call this a stretch would be to test the limits of elasticity.

 

At any rate, it may have been my aggravation with Foster’s aloof speaking style or my frustration with the construction of the story, but about a quarter of the way into My Octopus Teacher, I really started to become distracted by the artifice of it all. And I say that as someone who is infatuated with

David Attenborough’s world-spanning documentaries, many of which rely on footage that’s practically staged.

 

The difference is that Attenborough’s series don’t present themselves as personal journeys. My Octopus Teacher does. Foster tells the tale of his treks into the kelp forest as if no one else in the world existed, not even his family. The fact that he’s alone, that this is a solitary endeavor, is half the point of the narrative. And indeed, a lot of the best footage comes directly from his hand. 

 

But then we’ll cut to a shot of him, underwater, holding his camera, which rightly raises the question: Wait, who’s filming that footage? There are also long top-down drone shots of Foster entering the ocean, which further undermine the integrity of the yarn he’s spinning about being oh-so-alone during this stretch of time. 

 

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why I still recommend watching My Octopus Teacher, despite all its problems. That simply comes down to the fact that Foster managed to capture some of the most compelling and fascinating footage I’ve ever seen of the daily life of an octopus. We get to see her hunting, hiding, and healing. We get to watch her study Foster as curiously as he studies her. But my favorite shot by far is a sequence in which Foster catches her playing, entertaining herself, staving off boredom. I wish he hadn’t intruded on this footage with his obvious observations about what she’s doing, because it’s clear to anyone with eyes. But there’s nearly literally nothing Foster could have done to diminish the value of this imagery. 

 

And there are so many other shots throughout the film that have the same impact. Far too many documentaries about cephalopods focus on animals in captivity. Here we have the opportunity to see this magnificent alien creature in her natural habitat, and I only wish I could think of a word more poignant than “revelatory” to describe my reaction to it all. Strip away the exasperating gobble-gobble-gobble of Foster’s voiceover and the gimmick of pretending he’s on some reclusive vision quest when he’s obviously surrounded by a team of filmmakers, and what you’re left with is octopus footage that’s worth its weight in unobtanium. 

 

Granted, not all of that footage is what you would describe as “home cinema reference quality.” The most compelling of it is more than a bit raw, kinda dingy, questionably lit, and obscured by silt. This is interspersed with much more professionally shot footage and the indoor interview shots of Foster. But given that so much of the video is so unpolished, it’s not surprising that Netflix’ presentation wasn’t mastered in Dolby Vision. We just get a UHD transfer with no HDR.

 

Still, even just a few short years ago, such a presentation would have been riddled with banding, so it’s heartening to see that Netflix has stepped up its game in terms of delivering non-HDR video. There’s one shot near the end of a setting sun that’s a bit clipped, but other than that, I didn’t spot any noteworthy video artifacts. 

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, is dominated by Foster’s narration and the sort of New-Agey score we’ve come to expect from nature documentaries in this vein. There’s nothing really special about it, but it serves its purpose. 

 

When you get right down to it, though, the soundtrack could have consisted of Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 Shades of Grey and I still would have suffered through My Octopus Teacher enthusiastically and with roughly the same level of frustration. You stick the word “octopus” in the title of a documentary and I’m going to watch it, just on the off chance of seeing these enigmatic beings behaving in mysterious ways I’ve never witnessed before. This one delivers on that in spades, and I imagine I’ll be watching it again sometime very soon. The next time I do, though, I think I might mute the soundtrack and cue up Pink Floyd’s Meddle on a loop in the background instead. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Mank

Mank (2020)

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

 

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

to shirk making the case against it.

 

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

 

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

MANK AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

MOON AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Early on in Malcolm & Marie, John David Washington’s character—a filmmaker whose first film debuted hours earlier—goes on an extended rant about not being elitist. “I’m not trying to make a film for the three people in my media studies class that I respect,” he screams at Zendaya’s character, his live-in girlfriend. What’s curious about this is that Malcolm & Marie is that sort of film, and this is merely the first of many self-referential moments in a story that could accurately be described as a 106-minute argument.

 

Actually, “argument” is far too benign a word. What we witness in Malcolm & Marie is over an hour and a half of two people who ostensibly love each other attempting in real time to hurt the other as much as humanly possible. It’s brutal. It’s fatiguing. 

More than once, I found myself thinking this was the first sub-two-hour film that honestly needed an intermission, if only to give the viewer a moment of respite from the vitriol.

 

What makes it worth it are the performances from Zendaya and Washington, the former of which has earned every ounce of praise heaped upon her in her relatively short career. Both she and Washington demand your attention, though—and hold it. Both make you believe, indeed feel, every bit of the pain they experience, every iota of rage. Both absolutely rise to the challenge of carrying a feature-length film that contains no other actors, not even bit extras. Both are asked to do an incredible amount of heavy lifting and make it look legitimately effortless.

 

Both are, unfortunately, also tasked with doing more heavy lifting than should be necessary. And I say that because the script, written by director Sam Levinson, isn’t fully baked. That probably has a lot to do with the rushed production, since Malcolm & Marie was only made to keep the crew of Euphoria—the HBO series created and largely 

M & M AT A GLANCE

The film consists of two characters arguing, viciously, for 100-plus minutes—which might have worked better if more time had been spent on the script.

 

PICTURE
Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is comprised almost entirely of source music, which the mix pushes around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space.

written and directed by Levinson that also just happens to star Zendaya—employed during the pandemic. It was written hastily, and under different circumstances you could argue that it would have benefitted from a few months of additional work. Hell, you could argue that under any circumstances. Because the fact is that Malcolm & Marie commits one of the sins it admonishes: It just doesn’t know when to stop.

 

As a result, it gets a bit repetitive. Its ideas get a bit belabored. And yes, there are a lot of ideas being tossed around here, despite the premise. The argument between Malcolm and Marie ventures into territory ranging from identity politics and cultural appropriation to the validity of cinema as an art form. And most of these arguments have some real meat. I just wish Levinson had trusted himself to know when he’d made his point—if indeed he was trying to make a point—and move on.

 

Then again, both of his characters suffer from the same inability, so one has to wonder if it’s intentional. In other aspects, though, Levinson’s intentions are positively crystalline. Rather than make it obvious whose side of an argument he’s on, he uses these equally flawed characters, each of whom takes a different side of every thesis, to avoid creating sympathy for one point of view or another. Sometimes this works brilliantly, especially when it comes to cultural issues. When the topic of the tête-à-tête turns toward the subject of filmmaking, though, it all becomes a little too twee. It’s as if Levinson wants to have his cake and eat it too by having Malcolm launch into a tirade that seemingly intends to shield this film from criticism, only to have Marie dismantle his argument half-heartedly. It’s the only scene in the film that feels genuinely inauthentic. (Although I have to admit to being self-conscious about using that word, since the film also riffs on the notion of artistic authenticity.)

 

At any rate, given another couple of months in the oven, the screenplay could have resulted in a truly great film. Instead, we’re left with a merely very good one. And it’s not just the performances that make it worth watching, despite its flaws. It’s also a gorgeous production, beautifully composed and wonderfully shot on Kodak Double-X 5222 film. Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation of the imagery. There isn’t much in the way of specular intensity here, but the high dynamic range is employed effectively to maintain shadow detail and mid tones, despite the preponderance of truly inky blacks.

 

Surprisingly, for such a run-and-gun production, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is straight-up fire. You’d expect it to be a center-channel-heavy affair, and it is. But it’s comprised almost entirely of source music—jazz and funk and soul pouring out of the couple’s sound system—and the mix pushes those songs around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space and to keep the viewer oriented inside the gorgeous home in which the film was shot.

 

Put it all together and Malcolm & Marie is one of the most visually and aurally engaging films I’ve seen in ages. Whether or not that makes it worth your time really comes down to whether or not you think you can endure more than 90 minutes of two humans viciously dismantling one another. It can be tough to watch, and it’s occasionally too clever by half. But all in all, the film’s merits outweigh its flaws. 

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: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Frank Mankiewicz once described Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 as “the least factual, most accurate account” of that election and the years that led up to it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, by contrast, not only the least factual account of that trial and its participants, but also the least accurate. I would call it a piece of political propaganda if I could only figure out what Sorkin was attempting to propagandize. His rewrites of history do give us a few clues, though.

 

There’s the scene, for example, in which he has Abbie Hoffman extol the virtues of our American institutions and blame their failings on a few bad actors. And hey, you may agree with that notion. I’m not here to argue whether that’s an accurate 

assessment of things. But if you’re going to put those words in anyone’s mouth, Abbie Hoffman’s would be the last lips through which they should pass.

 

Sorkin would have us believe that Hoffman actually said, “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people.” The closest Hoffman came in the trial to saying anything resembling that was, in fact, “Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.”

 

The problem is that Sorkin simply doesn’t understand the very real humans on which his characters are based and whose names they carry. Further evidence of this is the fact that he has radical pacifist David Dellinger punch a bailiff right in the middle of the trial. Is it a great dramatic 

CHICAGO 7 AT A GLANCE

Aaron Sorkin’s film makes for better courtroom drama than his A Few Good Men but plays too fast and loose with history and seems tone deaf to the personalities of the actual protagonists.

 

PICTURE
Warmed-up colors and cranked contrast give the stylized cinematography a film-like look.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is center-channel heavy, aside from the forgettable score.

moment? Sure. But the moment fist contacted face, any similarities between the real Dellinger and the one portrayed by John Carroll Lynch (quite well to that point) became null and void.

 

And, look, I understand that in compressing a five-month trial into a two-hour movie, some liberties are going to be taken. Eliding always involves some measuring of editorializing. But if you’re going to invent dialogue (and actions) for the purposes of dramatization, it’s important to at least be true to the character of the people being fictionalized. And at least with Hoffman and Dellinger, Sorkin betrays their principles to support his ideology (nebulous though it may be).

 

In the case of Dellinger, I think that probably boils down to the fact that a neoliberal like Sorkin can’t wrap his brain around radical pacifism, so he has to portray Dellinger as a bottled-up Nazi-puncher wannabe who simply controls his urges. And 

that’s not a knock against neoliberals; it’s an indictment of Sorkin for his inability to view things through any lens other than his own.

 

Really, the only character he comes close to getting right is Tom Hayden, played wonderfully by Eddie Redmayne. Actually, to call out Redmayne’s performance alone would be to slight the excellent work done by the rest of the cast, all of whom shine. It’s just a shame they’re given such flawed characterizations to work with.

 

But it isn’t merely flawed characterizations that drag The 

Trial of the Chicago 7 down. Sorkin over-sensationalizes certain aspects of history and bowdlerizes others. He reduces Bobby Seale’s ordeal, in which he was gagged and chained to a chair for three days of the trial, to a few seconds of indignity. Because to portray the events as they actually happened would be to give some small measure of ammunition to those who argue that our criminal justice system is fundamentally and systemically flawed, and Sorkin just can’t have that. Likewise, the scene of the sentencing of the seven remaining defendants is such a complete fabrication that I don’t even know where to begin picking it apart.

 

None of this really makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a bad movie, per se. As a purely fictional courtroom drama, it’s actually a lot more compelling than the other big litigation-porn picture for which Sorkin is known, A Few Good Men. As mentioned above, the performances are stunning across the board, especially that of Sacha Baron Cohen, who captures the mannerisms of Abbie Hoffman brilliantly.

 

At any rate, if you approach The Trial of the Chicago 7 as pure fiction, it’s actually one of the better-made courtroom dramas I’ve seen in quite some time, and Sorkin is proving himself to be quite the actor’s director. There are also a handful of really great scenes sprinkled throughout the film, such as one in which Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden bicker about the relative merits of electoralism versus mobilization. That exchange, like so many other aspects of the film, draws strong parallels between the political environments of the late ’60s and today.

 

The problem is that Sorkin so unartfully forces those parallels that it all feels a little too pat. And, ultimately, I think that goes back to the point I started off with: He just doesn’t understand the Left. He’s so committed to the establishment ideology of “My side is the good guys and the other side is the bad guys, and the system will all work perfectly if my side can just defeat the other side” that he can’t help but view the world through such Blue-tinted glasses. And there just isn’t any place for the Left in that worldview.

 

Despite all that, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an interesting film to look at. The cinematography is quite stylized, and the ArriRaw footage (captured at 4.5K) has obviously gone through some film-look processing. Contrasts are cranked to just this side of black crush (and probably would have crossed that line if not for the expanded dynamic range of Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation) and the colors have obviously been warmed up a good bit (although there’s a lot of warmth in the footage already, given that it was either shot with natural light or made to look like it was). The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is largely a center-channel-heavy affair, aside from the forgettable score.

 

You’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about The Trial of the Chicago 7 in the coming weeks. It has received all manner of Golden Globes nominations and will likely be the talk of the Oscars as well. That’s the only reason I’m reviewing it now. Knowing how Hollywood works, it’ll no doubt do well at both awards ceremonies. Truthfully, though, I think its accolades say more about the sorry state of cinema over the past year than anything having to do with this film on its own merits.

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: 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: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Even with theaters still closed across much of the country, this has been a big past few days for movie releases, with three big-budget titles hitting streaming services. Christmas Day saw the release of Soul on Disney+ and Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max as well as in theaters, along with the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, showing theatrically here in the States but available for streaming on Netflix in some international territories. And on December 23rd, Netflix released the George Clooney directed and starring sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

 

Unlike films that were destined for the big screen and then re-routed to streamers as a theatrical release proved unsafe (or unprofitable), it appears Sky was destined for Netflix from the get-go—though it did see a very limited theatrical release in a total of 232 theaters in the Netherlands and South Korea. With an estimated budget of nearly $100 million, Sky is one of the 

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

Most recently known for playing himself in ads pitching Nespresso coffee machines and the billion-dollar sale of his co-founded tequila brand, Casamigos, Clooney’s legacy of bankability and choosing good roles—his turn in the dismal Batman & Robin notwithstanding—still gives him quite a bit of star power, and his involvement was my primary reason for being interested in Sky.

 

Based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Sky opens in February 2049, three weeks after some unspecified cataclysmic event has poisoned the planet with radiation, wiping out most of life on Earth and rendering it uninhabitable. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the sole person at the remote Barbeau Observatory scientific base in the Arctic Circle, suffering from a terminal illness and spending his remaining days drinking, monitoring deteriorating world conditions, and performing transfusion treatments to prolong his life.

SKY AT A GLANCE

This George Clooney directed & starring straight-to-Netflix space epic will intrigue sci-fi and Clooney fans but will probably be pretty slow going for everyone else.

 

PICTURE     

Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail. There are lots of bright highlights that benefit from the HDR grading.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments with their own unique sounds.

Lofthouse discovers there is still a single active space mission, the Aether, which is returning from having explored the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23—a moon that had been discovered years before by Lofthouse. Knowing that the ship returning means a death sentence for its crew, Lofthouse attempts to contact the Aether to warn them off, but the antenna at his station isn’t powerful enough to reach the ship. One evening, he encounters a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inside the station, who refuses (or is unable) to speak but identifies herself as Iris through a drawing. Lofthouse decides to take Iris and head to another base with a larger antenna to warn off and save Aether’s crew.

 

The film bounces back and forth between Lofthouse and Iris on earth and the small five-man crew aboard the Aether, headed by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Interspersed with these events, we have flashbacks where a younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) remembers an old girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), who left him to pursue his science after a pregnancy scare.

 

Just shy of a two-hour runtime, The Midnight Sky feels a bit slow and plodding and almost like two different movies, with Lofthouse struggling on Earth and the astronauts off doing their thing in space. While Clooney—who lost 30 pounds to play the role and sports a David Letterman-esque shaggy beard—does his best, I just never felt connected to the characters enough to care about them. We find out he’s terminal in the film’s opening moments, so it isn’t like his character’s arc is a real mystery. And we barely get to know anything about the astronauts, and not caring or being invested in the six characters makes for a slow journey.

 

Clooney is essentially by himself the entire time, and the scenes between him and Iris before going on their trek to the other station are all one-sided bits of dialogue in the confines of the Observatory that wear on and don’t create the mystery I think Clooney was going for.

 

The film tries to create additional drama along the way, both on Earth and in space. Lofthouse and Iris are caught in blizzards, circled by wolves, and experience the almost requisite fall-through-ice, which, let’s be honest, would have left them dead of hypothermia within minutes in the extreme frigid conditions. In space, the ship experiences a trajectory deviation that puts them into uncharted space where they are bombarded with meteorite ice crystals that destroy critical parts that require a spacewalk to repair. And, well, if Clooney’s previous space film, Gravity, taught us anything about spacewalks, it’s that they can be . . . hazardous.

 

With the big budget, the special effects look first-rate, specifically life aboard the Aether and the exterior shots of the ship, which you get to see in great detail during the spacewalk. Had these scenes not been believable, the movie would be a real #Fail. Also, the freezing exteriors were shot on location at the top of an Icelandic glacier with sub-40-degree temps and 50 MPH winds, so Clooney’s misery and frozen beard are all real.

 

One interesting choice was having a younger actor play young Lofthouse, but with his voice mixed in with Clooney’s. Having just watched the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, where one character is digitally de-aged to questionable effect, my wife and I debated which more pulled you out of the story: The obvious CGI de-aging or the distraction of having the wrong voice come out of a real face. Ultimately, I think they were equally distracting in their own ways.

 

Framed in an unusual 2.11:1 aspect ratio, Sky was shot digitally in a combination of 4.5 and 5.1K, and the Netflix transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail, such as tight shots on Clooney’s face where you can (for better or worse) see every strand of hair in his beard, or see the fine pattern in his plaid flannel shirt.

 

There are lots of bright highlights throughout that benefit from the HDR grading, such as the constant glowing white lights and consoles aboard the Aether along with its pulsing blue engines (thrusters?), and the bright monitors and screens in the Observatory. One scene inside a crashed airplane is a darkened interior lit by the bright probing beam of a flashlight with really nice shadows and detail. K-23 also has a bright, rust-orange color that gets a boost from the wider color gamut.

 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments—inside the Observatory, inside the Aether, outside on the Arctic—with their own unique sounds. Besides the overhead speakers being used to expand the music’s soundstage, there are some nice, hard-panned height effects, such as helicopters flying overhead, swirling and howling winds, or the echoing report of gunshots. There aren’t many gunshots (three, I believe), but they are loud and dynamic, the first making my wife jump, and the meteorite strikes have some decent bass impact.

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score of 53%, and Audience Score of just 25%, The Midnight Sky isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or Clooney, there are certainly worse ways you could pass two hours. If you need your sci-fi to be filled with action and adventure—with a definitive resolution and conclusion—you’ll want to give this one a pass. Fortunately, if you do give it a go, the cost is $0 (on top of your Netflix subscription) and the movie at least looks and sounds good.

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.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

Frank Doris

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

Review: A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Could Superman beat the Incredible Hulk? Is Batman a match for Iron-Man? These sorts of questions have filled the dreams of kids and comic book geeks alike for decades now, but they’re rarely seen as any more than conversation starters or flights of fancy. And yet, for some reason, asking who is the greatest baseball player or quarterback or goalie of all time is viewed

as legitimate discourse amongst grown-ass men and scholars alike.

 

Those of us who follow motorsports (serious ones, at least) know what a ridiculous question this is when applied to our own passion. Auto racing is as much about the team as it is the pilot. It’s as much about the car as the team. It’s as much about the chaos of meteorological conditions as it is the car. And, yes, we all have our favorite drivers (shout-out to Jan Magnussen), but that often has as much to do with personality or manufacturer affiliation as it does talent.

 

But such subjectivity didn’t satisfy Dr. Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who set out in 2016 to use quantitative statistical analysis to remove (or at least account for) the differences made by cars, teams, weather, and even year-to-year variance in order to determine who was the best Formula One pilot of all time.

LIFE OF SPEED AT A GLANCE

This ambitious Netflix documentary about the greatest Formula One driver of all time will intrigue and satisfy racing fans and non fans alike.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR presentation does well with the copious archival materials but really shines with the present-day interview segments and historical reenactments.

 

SOUND

The soundtrack is marred by a New Age-y score whose power-nap vibe seriously goes against the film’s auto-racing grain.

I mention this research only because the resulting paper forms the backbone of the new Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. And this fact alone—the use of scientific parsing to answer the question of who could beat whom if they never competed head-to-head—makes for one of the most fascinating sports documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps ever.

 

As with any documentary focusing on the accomplishments of a single individual, A Life of Speed leans heavy on biography, and provides a solid understanding of who Fangio was and what made him tick, even if you’ve never heard his name before. It also provides a pretty satisfying history of Formula One, a sport that emerged just as Fangio was making a name for himself in long-distance dirt-road racing. On top of that, it sprinkles in a bit of the history of automotive engineering.

 

Truth be told, if the film weren’t so well made, it would probably crumble under its own weight. It attempts to be three or four documentaries at once—which is at least two too many—and if not for the talents of director Francisco Macri and editor Luciano Origlio, it would be a mess.

 

Somehow, though, it isn’t a mess. Quite the opposite, in fact; by juggling so many balls so effectively, A Life of Speed manages to be interesting in several simultaneous ways.

Of course, given its historical nature, the bulk of the film is comprised of archival photographs, old film stock, kinescope recordings, and even a few well-played VHS tapes, it seems. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation to latch onto, though. The present-day interviews and newly filmed historical reenactments are beautifully framed, wonderfully composed, and have a distinctive low-contrast look that still makes great use of the enhanced dynamic range and color gamut of our modern home video standards.

 

If there’s one criticism I can level at A Life of Speed from a creative perspective, it’s that the score is just awful. If you’ve ever used one of those power-nap apps that are all the rage these days, you’ll recognize the New Age-y ambience in a heartbeat.

 

There’s also the fact the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which wouldn’t be a problem except Netflix positions its subtitles halfway into the black bar at the bottom of the screen, with no way of moving them. So, if you’re using a constant-height projection setup, you’ll likely miss half the film’s dialogue and narration (unless you speak Spanish, Italian, German, and English).

 

Don’t let those quibbles turn you off of this one, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One—indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Fangio in your life—A Life of Speed is one of those rare documentaries whose quality isn’t contingent upon your interest in the subject matter.

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 Two Popes

The Two Popes

Despite its occasionally lavish cinematography and stellar supporting cast, The Two Popes is first and foremost a dialogue-driven drama that is not overly dramatic.

 

It’s an impressive feat, considering how the scandals that ultimately drove Pope Benedict XVI to even consider becoming the first pontiff in 598 years to resign continue to make national news. His explanation of “lack of strength of mind and body” combined with the continuing stream of allegations of pedophilia committed by clergy and hidden by the church were widely

seen as contributing to his decision.

 

As portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict is a frail old man dead-set in his belief that followers must adhere to a strictly conservative doctrine, whereas Pope Francis, his ultimate successor, who is brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce, is a reformer open to changes in both practice and perception of a pontiff’s day-to-day responsibilities and role on the international stage.

 

Without giving away the crux of the content, it’s widely known that as he eventually moved closer to retirement, Pope Benedict XVI summoned Cardinal Jorge Mario 

Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) to meet with him at his summer home in the Lazio region of Italy. Bergoglio, who himself was considering a move away from his position as cardinal of Buenos Aires, spent many hours with the pope discussing their respective pasts and paths, views on a changing world, and of course modern-day news stories about indiscretions in the church.

 

These conversations are at the heart of The Two Popes. More riveting than any action sequence I’ve seen over the past year, their meetings slowly build in intensity as the two men come to terms with their beliefs, differences, histories, and plans to move on from their individual roles. 

 

The Two Popes is a singularly focused film where, as in My Dinner with Andre and Killing Them Softly, backgrounds and supporting actors play a (very) distant second to the two leads’ conversations.

As a test to see if my first impressions held firm, I listened to the soundtrack while riding the subway on route to a meeting. Sure enough, the dialogue kept a grip on my interest, even as I travelled with a sea of commuters during the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan morning rush.

 

That said, The Two Popes is no slouch as a visual 

The Two Popes

treat. From breathtaking scenes of the pontiff’s summer retreat in Lazio to modern-day footage of the Vatican and city of Rome, viewers with reasonably substantial 4K displays will be drawn in by the intense beauty of the region. The visuals alone would serve as an effective promotion that could easily have been sponsored by The Italian National Tourist Board.

 

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes is more than anything an enduring vehicle for its two stars—in particular, Jonathan Pryce, who instills a believable vulnerability into his portrayal of Pope Francis. Sensitive, modest, and filled with self-doubt that teeters on self-loathing, Pryce’s pontiff is as human as his most humble followers, especially when recounting disturbing episodes from his past. Meirelles deftly switches to flashbacks that convey an old-movie sensibility in terms of both noirish presentation and the overall sense of morality in the scene.

 

Sonically, The Two Popes lets the story do the talking, with a subtle mix that made me feel as if I was sitting with the two men. Effects are sparingly placed in the surround channels, but, as I learned from my experience simply listening to the film while otherwise in motion, The Two Popes doesn’t require a modern-day surround system. On the contrary, the direct, emotionally honest simplicity of the story would likely be just as enjoyable if viewed only with the aid a budget soundbar. The noise of the crowd, calming sounds of nature, and raucous crowds are all aided by a high-end home theater, but they aren’t reliant upon it. The dialogue is the true star of this film, and it is what pulled me back for multiple viewings over several weeks.

 

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.