Netflix

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.

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.

The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy is one of the most infuriating, frustrating, and foreboding films I’ve seen in ages, but also one of the most compelling, and without a doubt the most haunting. Had it been your typical faux-objective political documentary, I’m not sure that would have been the case. But in telling the story of Brazil’s relatively recent political struggles, filmmaker Petra Costa makes no pretenses about objectivity. What she’s really telling here is her own story—a story about watching her civilization collapse around her.

 

Right from the giddy-up, Costa lays all of her cards on the table. Her parents were revolutionaries who fought against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. She was only five when the country officially returned to

democracy in 1988. Her first vote in a national election was cast for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The ideology of Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Worker’s Party, runs through her veins.

 

As such, when she began documenting the crumbling of Brazil’s fragile democracy, starting with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2015, she didn’t do so dispassionately, with the eye of a historian. More than anything, The Edge of Democracy centers on her own frustrations, her own sense of foreboding, her own fury as she watches her country being torn apart by partisanship, fueled by the corruption of oligarchs and the malfeasance of the media.

 

You wouldn’t think this would be fodder for twists and turns, but it is. Rather than plot twists, though, the film dwells in personal, emotional twists. There’s the revelation, for example, that Costa has just as many familial ties to the oligarchs at the center of the corruption scandal that rocked the country as she does to revolutionaries.

 

That adds another shade of gray to a very personal story that’s all shades of gray, really. It’s a story told with nuance, 

but also with passion. More than anything, though, what impresses me is Costa’s ability to deftly and clearly straddle the line between the specific and the general. She never fails to articulate the unique failures of the Brazilian political and judicial system that make all of this a distinctly Brazilian problem. On the other hand, she clearly illuminates some universal truths about the ways in which any representative government can devolve into plutocracy and then autocracy through demagoguery and manufactured consent.

 

The rhythm with which she oscillates between these two perspectives is frighteningly effective. Just as I started to settle into a “Phew, that couldn’t happen here” sense of security, Costa blindsided me with a stark reminder that, yeah, it totally could. The

tempo and pacing of the film are also aided by deft editing and a non-linear unfolding of the story that emphasizes both the personal, emotional trauma this film represents, as well as its effectiveness as a warning to the rest of the world.

 

Much of the film’s imagery is taken from archival film footage and television broadcasts, some of it

from source tapes and some of it from cell phones pointed at TV screens, mixed with handheld video that looks to be prosumer level and drone shots interspersed throughout for flavor. It definitely makes for a visually interesting film, though not one you’ll watch as demo material. Netflix’s HD transfer does the imagery justice, and is almost never the weak link in the delivery chain, except in those cases where a few seconds here and there of original footage might have benefited from high dynamic range and an expanded color gamut.

 

The film’s Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack unsurprisingly leans heavily on the center channel, with the mix focusing primarily on Costa’s narration (provided in your choice of English or Portuguese, although even if you opt for the former, the bulk of the audio is still in Portuguese with subtitles).

 

The sound design does occasionally get a little big for its britches, especially in its overuse of the surround channels to convey the chaos of celebratory crowds or demonstrations. I can’t help but suspect that what we’re getting here is a theatrical sound mix, not a nearfield mix made for home theaters, but the good news is that such overemphasis on surround sound is generally limited to scenes without narration or even dialogue, so it’s hard to grump about it. It never interferes with the telling of the story, although it does intrude on moments that could have served as a prompt for quiet reflection.

 

No matter. I haven’t stopped thinking about The Edge of Democracy since I saw it, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on my own time. It’s a rare political documentary I think I’ll revisit on occasion, not due to the revelation or illumination contained within its 121-minute runtime—although there is plenty of that—but more due to the fact that it’s simply one of the most engrossing and intimate human dramas I’ve seen in ages, genre be damned.

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.

American Factory

American Factory

It’s impossible to walk away from American Factory without feeling some type of emotion, whether it’s sympathy for a work force that was robbed of its livelihood only to be given the illusion of fresh, if limited opportunities, or disbelief at how anybody could believe that a Chinese company would somehow adapt to U.S. worker protections—efforts that are often an illusion or downright lie.

 

For me, having come from a pro-union, blue-collar family that had a positive experience with the American labor market in the mid/late 20th century, my first viewing left me a tad angry at the outcome and the workers’ shortsightedness when deciding

upon whether to throw their support behind a union.

 

Note that, as a review of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that covers an important chapter in the lives of rust-belt Americans, my comments may contain a spoiler or two, but nothing that wasn’t covered in the news during and after the Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. Ltd of the People’s Republic of China bought and renovated a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. As the company’s Fuyaousa.com website explains: “General Motors, Ford, BMW, Honda, Bentley and more all use Fuyao glass in their newly manufactured automobiles.”

 

All true, and when the company first started the process of buying and renovating the plant and hiring approximately 2,000 staff for a facility that had been shuttered for six years, local residents were ecstatic over a chance to return the region to its glory as a haven for U.S.-based manufacturing.

 

Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were given near-unbelievable access to film the scenario as it unfolded, from the earliest days of site inspections to staffing, 

training, and the inevitable and, at least in the beginning, almost humorous culture clashes that one would expect when blue-collar middle Americans are brought into a corporate culture that is known for formality and respect for authority. According to an article that appeared in the Dayton Daily News last August, Bognar said he and Reichert, “stand by the translations subtitled in the work.”

 

An important note, since it isn’t long before the almost idyllic melding of the cultures gives way to real-life concerns about skimping on safety standards, and the company’s firm stance against unionization. The directors, who also shot the 2009 Academy Award-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, illustrate throughout the film their talent for letting 

American Factory

the events happen without editorialization, giving it a narrative approach that tells the story as well as any well-made piece of fiction.

 

But this is real life, with both American and Chinese staff providing relatively few off-camera commentaries as the story is allowed to simply play out on screen, with the help of small, handheld 

cameras and lavalier microphones that follow one and all for months and years as the dream of a resuscitated manufacturing environment slowly unravels. The guerilla-style shoot foregoes polemics, leaving the viewer to decide where they stand on a matter that affected thousands of people in the recent past.

 

The Oscar-nominated American Factory is as good a documentary as I’ve seen in recent years, thanks in no small part to the high production values, including a surround mix that is unspectacular in the best possible way. Subtle effects such as factory noises, the crunching of gravel, and kids playing in a backyard remain in the rear, quietly supporting the voices and underlying tension on the screen. Maybe it’s a Netflix thing, but knowing that it would mostly be seen on a small screen supported by soundbars or other low-tech solutions most likely led the filmmakers to go light on the audio mix, though anybody with a 5.1 system will feel as if they are on the factory floor and in the boardrooms.

 

Likewise, video is impeccable, without the excessive grain often associated with this type of documentary. No doubt those anomalies were cleaned up in post-production, a critical element in making this so watchable on a big screen in a small-ish living room. (Apartment dwellers in NY and other big cities know what I mean.) The visual quality ranks with the most polished documentaries of the past 10 years.

 

As the first release by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is remarkably unbiased, simply telling the story as it happens without nudging the viewer to fall into any specific camp. The Obamas stated that their production company is designed to “harness the power of storytelling.” Judging by this debut release, they’re poised to become an important contributor to American cinema. From its presentation to its attention to cinematic detail, Higher Ground is well on its way to meeting and ultimately exceeding its goals.

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.

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 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.

 

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.

Marriage Story

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.