Netflix

I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body

I hesitate to disparage Jérémy Clapin’s inventive animated film I Lost My Body, if only because I want animators to take more risks of exactly this sort, and I want Netflix to continue to embrace full-length animated features of its ilk. There’s so much to appreciate here, so much to root for, so much to celebrate. And yet, when I step back and reflect on the film as a whole, on its own terms, I Lost My Body just doesn’t quite work.

 

The story follows a severed hand that escapes from some sort of medical waste lab and embarks on a macabre quest to reunite with the rest of its body. Through flashbacks or time shifts or the magic of movie editing, we also learn the sweet-yet-creepy story of the young man who lost his appendage and how he lost it.

 

The problem, ultimately, is that these two converging storylines differ so drastically in tone that it’s all a bit off-putting. It’s as if you took the screenplays for Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (co-written by Guillaume Laurant, who also wrote the book on which this film is based) and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, shuffled them together like a deck of playing cards, and filmed the results. What’s more, the story’s themes about determinism and embracing the unknown are so

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Klaus

blatantly telegraphed by exposition that there really isn’t anything to figure out for yourself.

 

With all that said, the storyline that focuses on Naoufel, the lost body at the heart of the narrative, is at times worth the ride, especially in his delightful first meeting with the object of his obsession, a young woman named Gabrielle, who exists at first only as a disembodied voice on the other side of an intercom (and yes, again, there are metaphors here, but none very deep).

 

If you’re a fan of animation, and longing for something out of the ordinary, I Lost My Body does give you a lot to chew on. 

Its style is simply stunning—an artful mix of hand-drawn 2D and rendered 3D that evokes in some ways the works of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) and the Hernandez brothers (of Love and Rockets fame), but really deserves to be recognized as its own thing.

 

Unfortunately, though, Netflix does that style no favors by presenting the film in 1080p HD. Not only do the fine lines of the animation sometimes get a little aliased as a result of the lack of resolution, but the limited color gamut leads to some egregious banding that could have been smoothed over by simply delivering the film in an HDR container. Honestly, it looks fine enough on a 55-inch TV from across the room, but blow the image up to cinematic proportions and it doesn’t stand up to 

the scrutiny. So maybe skip this one in your home cinema or media room and check it out a more casual AV setup.

 

That might mean missing out on some of the nuances of the fantastic 5.1 mix, which Netflix presents both in the original French, as well as an English dub. I definitely recommend the former, by the way, even if you hate 

subtitles as a rule. Jarring as the film’s mash-up of gruesome horror and awkward love story may be, the cadence and musicality of the original French do spackle the cracks a bit. Viewing I Lost My Body a second time through in English, I found the disconnect between the bitter and the sweet to be even starker.

 

And ultimately, it’s that disconnect—that clash of styles and tones and moods and even genres—that keeps me from truly enjoying I Lost My Body. Every time we’re thrust back and forth between the gangly sacchariferousness of Naoufel’s unrequited love story to the grotesque obscenity of his hand’s journey—either of which would have worked well on its own—I found myself yanked right out of the experience. I still appreciate it, to be sure. I applaud the risks taken. But when you get right down to, the juvenile substance of the film never quite lives up to its innovative style. And what substance there is (in terms of themes and deeper meaning about free will and fate) was already handled with more maturity and less pretentiousness by the last six seasons or so of Adventure Time.

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.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this year’s Golden Globes played some part in my awareness of Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix Original film Marriage Story. Ashamed because I couldn’t care less about awards ceremonies and rarely base any of my viewing choices on self-congratulatory pomp.

 

I do, on the other hand, care quite a bit about Baumbach’s work. And I’m drawn to him, in part, because his films aren’t predictable. While I’ve loved all of his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (especially the delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox), his own directorial efforts have been a little more uneven. For every engaging The Squid and the Whale, there’s been an off-putting Margot at the Wedding. For every mercurial Frances Ha, there’s been a muddled While We’re Young.

 

But even Baumbach’s failures have been noble failures in my book, because he has a singular talent for writing dialogue that’s simply unmatched in our generation. And all of that is on full display in what I consider to be one of his best films yet.

 

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as soulmates at an impasse. It’s ostensibly the story of their divorce, territory Baumbach already explored from one perspective in The Squid and the Whale. But to call it a film about divorce (which The Squid and the Whale most certainly was) would be to miss the point of Marriage Story. Instead, it’s a story about the individual sense of identity that’s often lost in any marriage, but also the intimacy that’s gained in return. That back and forth, give and take, yin and yang ultimately influences all of the film’s themes.

 

It really isn’t the thematic or narrative heart of Marriage Story that makes it work, though. It’s the characters that drive the film, as well as Baumbach’s aforementioned gift for crafting dialogue that sounds completely organic and natural to the ear, but upon closer inspection turns out to be a masterfully assembled jigsaw puzzle agglomerated from pieces pilfered from two different boxes.

 

Characters talk past and over one another, they inject non sequiturs and distractions, they leave thoughts dangling and stumble over interruptions, and if you didn’t know better you might suspect that Baumbach is allowing his performers to improvise. They’re not improvising. Every pause, ever “uh,” every clipped and broken sentence fragment is meticulously scripted to keep the flow of what’s actually being communicated between two characters who aren’t really listening to one another unambiguous for the viewer.

Marriage Story

It helps, of course, that the film is perfectly cast. It’s seems pretty clear to me that Baumbach selected Johansson and Driver not merely because of their inherent talent, but as much for the audience’s expectations of what they bring to a film. With Johansson, we expect a certain emotional complexity—an ability to convey two contradictory emotions on her face, in her body language, in her vocal inflections. With Driver, we expect a certain caged-animal ferocity—explosions of intensity and frustrated vulnerability. Baumbach plays around with those expectations in wonderful ways, and I hesitate to say more than that.

 

The one thing I will say about characterization, though, is that Baumbach seems to be going for more universal relatability with this film than with previous efforts. Much as I love his last Netflix Original, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I’ll admit that as with most of the writer/director’s films, I found its neurotic characters as unrelatable as they were fascinating. It could simply be that I’m from Alabama, where—to paraphrase Julia Sugarbaker—we proudly display our crazy out in the open rather than bottling it up until it boils over, but there’s always been an aloof affectation to Baumbach’s characters that made them seem more than a little alien to me.

 

That’s far from the case with Marriage Story, save for a few supporting characters whose affectations are more of a contrived West Coast sort that I at least understand. At its heart, though, the two leads are less defined by their neuroses than by their sympathetic human failings.

 

If all of the above makes Marriage Story seem like the sort of film that could just as easily be viewed on a laptop or mobile screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the characters room to breathe, opting for wide shots throughout except when closeups are needed for punctuation. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen in the home, and one that rewards quality of presentation thanks largely to its distinctive, filmic look.

 

Shot on Kodak Vision3 200T and 500T film stock (depending on lighting levels, one would assume) in an increasingly uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Marriage Story is an analog cinephile’s dream. The organic grain structure and photochemical idiosyncrasies of the stock give the film a unique character that’s missing from so many modern, digitally captured movies.

 

What surprised me, though, is that Netflix’s UHD/HDR presentation—at least by way of my Roku Ultra—is more than up to the task of delivering this unabashedly analog imagery pretty much perfectly intact. Much as I love this modern era of high-efficiency, relatively low-bitrate streaming, I’m not blind to its limitations. One expects a few seconds here and there with a little light banding or digital noise. Indeed, there is a handful of shots in Marriage Story—one in particular featuring characters positioned against an inconsistently lit cream-white wall—where I leaned forward to judge just how prominent the banding would be. And yet I saw none.

 

Ask me to find a visual flaw in the presentation and I might point to one scene in which the structure of the film grain and the textures of an onscreen object interfere a little, and may have been presented a little less noisily in a much higher bandwidth download or on disc. But without being able to do direct A/B comparisons, I’m just guessing.

 

That aside (if it’s even valid), Netflix presents Marriage Story beautifully, preserving the slight golden cast of the film stock, as well as its overall low-contrast aesthetic. It’s important not to confuse contrast and dynamic range here, as the HDR does leave a lot of room between the not-very-black blacks and the never-very-intense highlights, allowing us to peer deeper into shadows and appreciate the subtle differences between, for example, two black pieces of clothing dyed differently and aged asymmetrically.

 

The sound mix, too, is one that hinges on subtleties. Mostly a mono affair, the barely-surround soundtrack makes another strong case for why the center channel is the most important speaker in your sound system. The mix does spread to the front left and right speakers occasionally, mostly to give width to Randy Newman’s sparse-but-poignant score, but also, creatively, to give some space to the often dense and chaotic cacophony of dialogue.

 

Netflix, it seems, is somewhat under siege as of late, with some criticizing the inconsistent quality of its original offerings and others (yours truly included) musing on how the service can maintain any semblance of identity in the face of new competitors like Disney+ and the upcoming HBO MAX and Peacock.

 

If the company keeps supporting the creation of films like this, though, it can count on my $15.99 every month. And if Noah Baumbach is going to keep maturing as a filmmaker and delivering consistently amazing character studies like The Meyerowitz Stories and now Marriage Story, he’s going to convert me into an unapologetic and unreserved champion.

 

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 Irishman

The Irishman

It was a big get, even for a company as big as Netflix. Martin Scorsese is one of the most lauded directors in cinema and has, save for a handful of television episodes, directed exclusively for the cinema. So what led him to abandon his primary creative home for the literal home of Netflix subscribers?

 

As with everything, it came down to money. The Irishman is a slow burn of a movie at 209 minutes (that’s just shy of three and a half hours). With a budget of $159 million, it’s both the longest and most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.

 

Before principal photography began, a few different companies worked out distribution deals to finance the movie, but as the budget grew, those companies balked and withdrew their funding. In this day of expensive blockbuster action films, a long, introspective film about the life and possible redemption of a mob hitman doesn’t fit the current studio model. Netflix swooped in and bought the film rights, agreeing to finance the film.

 

Movie theaters weren’t left completely out of the equation since there was a theatrical release, but the terms of that release caused controversy in the world of the big theater chains. A traditional release window puts a movie in the theater for at least few months before going to the home market. For The Irishman, Netflix held fast to four weeks (a week longer than they

conceded for Roma last November), with a theatrical release date of November 1st before coming to Netflix streaming on November 27th.

 

This rankled the major theater chains, which chose to sit out of the theatrical release in protest. And while Scorsese defended Netflix’s decision and acquiesced to the

The Irishman

realities of getting The Irishman made, he also lamented that people wouldn’t be able to have the communal experience of watching his movie in a theater:

 

There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem, though. We have to make the film. . . . Having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want, the tradeoff being it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take on this particular project.

 

The question is: Is the enjoyment of The Irishman hindered by relying almost solely on the home market? I’d argue no, and add that maybe it’s even aided by a more intimate viewing experience. The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, and follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets and starts working for mob boss Russell Bufalino. This eventually leads to an introduction to controversial Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, for whom he becomes chief bodyguard and close friend.

 

As with any Scorsese film, there are moments of mob violence, some beautiful, long single-take tracking shots, and a lot of dialogue-driven drama. By putting this all on our home screen instead of an expansive movie-theater screen, the presentation feels more personal. It’s easier to be drawn in.

 

And even at three and a half hours, there aren’t any points of lag in the story, which is a testament to Scorsese; his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; and an extraordinary cast, including Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and, for the first time, Al Pacino. All three actors deserve the accolades they have received, in particular Pesci as Russell Bufalino.

 

The 4K presentation is excellent and really shows off the fantastic CGI de-aging of the actors. The story takes place across six decades, and an incredible amount of attention was put into how De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino looked as time marched on. There were a few moments of digital effects that were less convincing and entered the uncanny valley (there was also some slow-motion blood splatter that looked suspect to me), but overall it was quite a technical achievement.

 

The 5.1 sound design is meticulous and subtle. Cars sounded authentic to the period, there were moments of bone crunching that made me squirm, and nothing distracted from the story, only added to it. There’s a gunshot towards the end of the film that perfectly captures the starkness and emptiness of the scene, and is in essence the culmination of where Frank has come as a character. Surrounds are primarily used for music and to fill the space with reverb for larger locations.

 

It will be interesting to see how The Irishman being a streaming release ripples across the industry, with such high-profile names as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci attached. The more our home theaters have improved over the years, the less the need for movie theaters. Yes, the communal experience Scorsese refers to is missing, but I’ve found that seeing a film with a bunch of people can detract from my own enjoyment. Getting a 4K presentation with excellent sound and no uncontrollable external distractions (plus the ability for bathroom or snack breaks without missing anything) is shifting the importance of viewing from the cinema to the home.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Klaus

Klaus

We’ve been inundated with new origin stories over the past few years. We’ve had Spider-Man, the Joker, and now . . . Santa Claus? There is, of course, the historical origin story, which likely begins in what is now Turkey, with influence from Scandinavia and Coca-Cola. In movies, Santa pops up quite a bit, although there are only a few notable films that address

where he comes from (the most popular being the stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970).

 

Klaus, the first original animated movie Netflix has released, is a brand-new take on the Santa story. It was conceived, written, and directed by Sergio Pablos, who is best known as the animator and creator of the Despicable 

Me franchise. The Klaus story follows the privileged son of the head postmaster, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), as he is tasked to establish a post office in the remote island town of Smeerensburg (an intentional misspelling of the actual Dutch town of Smeerenburg) and postmark 6,000 letters or risk being ostracized from the family and his indulgent lifestyle.

 

As he arrives, he is made aware by the sardonic boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) that the dreary, snowy, northern town is inhabited by two extended families that have been feuding for centuries. They have no interest in speaking to one another, let alone carrying out a lengthy written correspondence. But moods in town begin to change, starting with the children, after Jesper meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons) and the two brighten up the lives of the children by delivering toys. This must be done in secret, lest they be discovered spreading joy and goodwill by the angry adults.

 

As their mission continues and they evade capture, the legend of Klaus grows, giving explanation to all the traditional Santa Claus lore—flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, Santa’s elves—in new, interesting ways. While most of Klaus is based in the expected rules of our own world, there are some mystical elements that keep the story of Santa magical. The movie is beautifully heartfelt with some lovely tear-jerking moments, and shows how ingrained negative philosophies can be changed with just one new generation of open minds. Speaking as a father, there are moments that toddlers might find scary, but the overall message is an excellent one.

Klaus

The 4K animation is gorgeous with excellent detail in the character design and scenery. The 2D style is beautifully shaded to give a feel of 3D, and the use of color throughout serves the story and helps to drive the narrative. While the HDR doesn’t deliver the bright highlights you might see in something like Blade Runner 2049, the increase in bit depth and color gamut add to the intensity of the animation. Even if the story is of little interest to you, the animation will completely draw you in.

 

The 5.1 Dolby surround mix supports the storytelling without being obtrusive. There were a few moments where the dialogue moved away from the center channel to follow whoever is speaking that were a bit more drastic than I expected. For most of the film, though, the sound did an excellent job conveying the changing atmosphere of Smeerensburg.

 

Klaus is a joyful new take on Santa and, at least in our house, has already earned its place in our list of yearly holiday movies.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Most good geeks will tell you 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series is not only the greatest cartoon of all time but also the best rendition of the Dark Knight. I’m not inclined to disagree with them, but my favorite riff on the Caped Crusader is actually the oft-forgotten 2008 animated series The Brave and the Bold. Unlike every interpretation of the Batman mythos before it, The Brave and the Bold manages to integrate every contradictory aspect of the character and synthesize it into a perplexing and intriguing whole. Yes, it acknowledges the darker, broodier side of the characterbut also the campy, goofier side. It puts some of Batman’s silliest escapades on equal footing with the grimmest tales in the character’s history. It’s a celebration of everything Batman has ever been. And, somehow, it simply works.

 

Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggsthe latest film from the Coen Brothers—has absolutely nothing to do with Batman, of course. But it reminds me a lot of The Brave and the Bold in that Joel and Ethan Coen, with their quirky old-west anthology, have managed to create a homage to cowboy cinema that embraces all its disparate aspects—from the singing cowboys of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to the grimdark western revival films of the ‘90s like Clint Eastwood’s brutal Unforgiven, and everything in between.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”

The resulting pastiche definitely wouldn’t work in the hands of less capable filmmakers, and it certainly wouldn’t work as a single narrative. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six disconnected vignettes, each with its own style and tone, and each—it seems—intended to riff on different tropes from the history of old-west cinema, alternately exalting, tweaking, or subverting them. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the middle of “All Gold Canyon” (ostensibly starring Tom Waits, but more accurately starring some of the most gorgeous unspoiled vistas I’ve ever laid eyes on) why the film wasn’t shot in a wider aspect ratio, indebted as it is to some of John Ford’s later VistaVision masterpieces.

 

Put a moment’s thought into it, though, and that question seems silly. Ultra-wide aspect ratios, though possible at home, are the stuff of commercial cinemas, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was made for the small screen. It’s a film no major film

studio would have ever bankrolled. And that fact alone is one of the major reasons for the increasing cultural insignificance of commercial cinemas.

 

Does that mean we’ll see more films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime become the 800-Pound Gorillas of the film industry? One can only hope. It’s a quirky, weird,

wonderful work that ranks amongst the Coens’ best since The Big Lebowksi.

 

It’s also worth noting that the film’s use of high dynamic range is amongst the most compelling I’ve seen in ages. You no doubt have access to a few different sources capable of playing Netflix in your home entertainment system. If any of those support Dolby Vision, go that route. The luscious landscapes—and even the obvious soundstage settings of the final vignette—benefit beautifully from the enhanced contrast, shadow detail, and lighting effects.

 

And, yes, in this case that really matters. The substance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs emerges in large part from its style. That’s not a knock against it, mind you. It’s simply that you could easily sum up the narrative of any of these six episodes in a sentence or two. What makes the film work isn’t its narrative depth. It’s the artistry of its cinematography, the quality of its performances, and of course the inimitably ridiculous brilliance of the Coen Brothers’ too-clever-to-be-believable dialogue.

 

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.

Filmworker

Two hundred years from now, the equivalent of the medieval monks—be they human, cyborg, robot, or virtual mass—will look back at this slice of time and decide Stanley Kubrick was the best American movie director and Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest filmmaker. They’ll then chuckle for a moment over the absurdity of the immense energy and emotion our culture invested in the fleeting and ultimately silly phenomenon of film, and then—assuming there’s any worth left—shift their attention to weightier things.

Or at least one can hope.

 

Leon Vitali was Kubrick’s steadfastly loyal No. 2 from the time Kubrick cast him to play, exquisitely, Barry Lyndon’s petulant nemesis Lord Bullingdon, through Kubrick’s death during post production on the unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut, and apparently up to the present. The Netflix documentary Filmworker 

Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon

seems to want to paint Vitali as somehow delusional, someone deeply oppressed, a fashionable victim. But Vitali, thankfully, won’t have any part of that.

 

Anyone who’s ever paid any real attention to Kubrick and his work is already aware of, and grateful for, Vitali’s extraordinary efforts on the director’s behalf. So why, then, try to shine a bright enough light on him that he’s seen by a broader audience of the merely curious?

 

“Masochism” would be the simplest answer. Vitali is an apt poster child for an age when everyone’s a victim and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions. And the roots of that go back farther than the current “I’m strong because I’m weak”

Filmworker

Vitali (left) with Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining

fetishism to the Soviet era and the apparatchiks, determined to obliterate all extraordinary efforts and ensure no one could ever rise above the mediocre middle.

 

So, yeah, you can feel bad about some of the hell Vitali must have gone through at his boss’s hands. But then there are those brief, tantalizing clips from Kubrick’s movies—and from Barry Lyndon in 

particular—and you realize, yeah, that’s worth whatever pain and neglect and slights and abuse it took to get there.

 

This isn’t a particularly well-made film, relying on redundancies and cliches that run completely counter to Kubrick’s whole aesthetic, a documentary more concerned with fashionable truths than The Truth. But it’s worth a look—if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of a wilder, messier, more fruitful and forgiving age, before a vast army of J Crew models took over filmmaking, when the ambiguity of depths mattered more than the distracting glitter of the surface.

Michael Gaughn

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

The Polka King

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Netflix The Polka King

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Michael Gaughn

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

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Patton Oswalt: Annihilation

Patton Oswalt Annihilation

Patton Oswalt is obviously a really smart guy. He has a jaw-dropping ability to react to, dissect, build on, and recontextualize situations on the fly. And anything that brings together him, Bob Goldthwait, and M. Ward can’t be all bad.

 

But . . .

 

You always get the feeling he could do better but he’s decided to take the easier path. (Witness his decision to play second banana on the MST3K reboot.)

 

He’s obviously trying to push his personal envelope with the Netflix Annihilation special, and the result is a comedy routine that’s frequently funny even when it ventures into what, even by the current, low standards, is uncomfortable territory. But it all ultimately feels safe—nerd safe.

 

There’s vast creative potential in exploring what happens when nerds are confronted by brutal reality in ways they can’t shrug off by retreating into a womb-like fantasy world. And Oswalt comes really close to going there—but he never crosses the line into the truly risky, and that’s where the special falls short. And that failure underlines an even greater flaw.

 

Oswalt has always been a guy in a bubble talking to other people inside the same bubble. He talks a lot in Annihilation about empathizing, but it’s not really empathizing if you’re just telling people who believe exactly what you do exactly what they want to hear.

 

He spends about the first third of the special venting, with good cause, over the current sad state of things. But he ultimately just reinforces his audience’s prejudices—the same smug, judgmental, knee-jerk behavior that helped create the crisis in the first place.

 

Simply put, if he can’t acknowledge the weaknesses in his positions, and by extension the positions of his audience, he’s not really empathizing. This epidemic of people within every imaginable political and cultural subgroup preaching only to the converted, and by doing so only reinforcing the oppressive divide & conquer worldview they claim to abhor, might be the single most malignant cultural disease.

 

That doesn’t mean every comedian should stop what they’re doing and submit their philosophies and dogma to merciless scrutiny—most of them aren’t up to the task so it would only lead to another empty exercise in narcissism. But the ones who claim to be deeply disturbed by the broken social landscape should, and they should do it publicly. Otherwise, nothing’s going to change.

 

Put another way, people have gotten so desperate for constant, unqualified praise that they’re scared crapless to challenge anybody or anything directly, and instead blame all their woes on some bogeyman Other.

 

But let me make the point again: Oswalt is really funny here. And he’s obviously really smart. So Annihilation is a good use of your time. I’m just not comfortable with anyone who decries the state of the world while turning a blind eye to what they’re doing to contribute to the fiasco.

Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS

Dangal

Netflix Dangal

I have been a fan of Bollywood movies since I was still living in Greece. They’re usually melodramatic but always sincerely heartfelt, with family relationships providing the core of most plots.

 

Bollywood reminds me of the Greek movies of the ‘60s, which is considered the golden era of Greek commercial cinema. In both Greek and Indian movies, the drama usually revolves around a disciplinarian patriarch and a sonor a daughterwho want to escape the father’s rule and pursue their own destiny (usually by marrying the one they love). It’s a well-honed formula that works most of the time because nobody is trying to shove some political message down people’s throats. That family life complies to societal rules is the accepted reality in India, and the audience never gets tired of seeing their experience magnified on the big screen.

 

Dangal is no exception to this formula. Against the accepted tradition that wrestling is a man’s sport, a father (superstar Aamir Kahn in one of his most disciplined performances) trains his two reluctant daughters to become word-famous wrestling champions. The girls try to rebel at first but eventually succumb to their father’s wishes because they realize that his heart is in the right placehe wants to see his kids to bring glory to their country and family

 

In an American movie, the girls would have become independent and left their father behind, with his ambitions for them crushed. But this is an Indian movie that’s a true mirror image of Indian culture. Whether, as westerners, we accept itor even like itthe message is that, in India, family is king and “father knows best.”

 

I was surprised to read in the NY Times recently that Dangal broke attendance records not just in India but also in China. In just two months, it took in more than $194 milliona number that, until then, had been only achieved by Hollywood blockbusters like Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Trek.

 

I’m not usually a social commentator, but this highly unusual performance of a non-Hollywood film has me thinking: Are audiences around the world getting tired of movies built around special effects? Could it be that people are identifying with something more substantial and satisfying than a premise put together by a committee after “market research? In the case of Dangal, that “something” is a beating heart and a culture that audiences can identify with

Theo Kalomirakis

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

REVIEWS

The Big Short

Netflix The Big Short

The Big Short is episodic, top heavy with stars, blatantly political, shamelessly didactic, feels a lot like an economics lesson, doesn’t have any romance or sex, doesn’t have any violence, doesn’t have any role-model female leads, and is sometimes just plain ineptin other words, it’s everything a big Hollywood film’s not supposed to be. But it worksand it works so well that you wish Adam McKay would swear off Will Ferrell comedies for a while and make more serious, flawed, I’ll-try-anything-as-long-as-it-works films like this one instead.

 

I guess it’s a good thing mainstream audiences will now accept heavily fragmented movies about process. (There’s a steep downside to that that I won’t go into right now.) But there’s nothing radical about The Big Shortit’s basically an old-fashioned men-at-work tale filled with lovable losers that reaffirms some traditional values that probably haven’t had a meaningful presence in American society in over 30 years. But it does get you to consider the country’s financial and moral bankruptcy, how pervasive they are, and how deeply they’re intertwinedsomething well beyond the means of almost any American filmmaker.

 

Ryan Gosling does his Ryan Gosling thing, Christian Bale does his “No, I’m an actorreally” thing, Brad Pitt turns in another solid performance that makes you wish he’d take more chances, and Steve Carell, as usual, steals the show. McKay seems to be good at handling actors, but it’s hard to tell because the action’s so disjointed and, for the most part, superficial, and Carell is the only one who goes anywhere new.

 

It’s almost impossible to put your finger on why this film works. It’s like somebody put on a shaggy dog costume to tell a deeply serious tale, and you can’t ignore it because it won’t stop slobbering all over you. (That’s not a criticism, by the way, but said instead with a kind of awe.)

 

The cinematography is nothing spectacular, varying between undistinguished and standard-issue contemporary pretentious, so streaming doesn’t do it a lot of harm. That doesn’t mean The Big Short isn’t cinematic, but it’s one of those films you could watch on your cellphone and maybe lose only 5% of the impact. Maybe.

 

And that, in this case, is a good thing.

—Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS