Netflix

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.

REVIEWS

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

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

Full Metal Jacket

Netflix Full Metal Jacket

Received wisdom thinks dark, gritty movies are a recent phenomena, but they really began working their way into the mainstream right around the time the studio system began to unravel, beginning with Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly. They hit their peak—along with a lot of other styles and genres—in 1968, the year of Night of the Living Dead, and have had an insidious influence on just above every kind of film ever since.

 

Lynch, seeing the culture take the reactionary turn he wanted but sensing it couldn’t hold, took them someplace new in 1986 with Blue Velvet. But the film that’s probably had the biggest influence on contemporary grim is Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket.

 

It’s a troubling film in more than one way—partly because you can sense the master starting to lose his grip. But it’s also fearless—something you can’t say about practically any of the noisy and abusive but heavily risk-averse stuff that’s come in its wake.

 

Don’t expect to see a pristine image when you watch Jacket on Netflix—but this isn’t a pristine movie, so that’s not the end of the world. Kubrick wanted it to have a washed-out, documentary feel, and I suspect even a print as distressed as the Vietnam combat footage he was aping would be really compelling to watch. But streamed, the darker the film gets, the more the various artifacts come to the fore until by the infamous sniper scene there are whole mosaics of tiling to distract you.

 

But even Kubrick on the wane is a better investment than just about any film made by anyone ever, so this is worth watching under just about any circumstances. And Netflix’ streamed version isn’t awful—it’s just not as good as it should be.

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