Reviews

PS4: Celeste

As is the case with any form of media, nostalgia is a strong selling point with video games these days. Interestingly, the nostalgic push that has permeated the gaming market for the past few years has taken a few radically different forms. One example is the recreations of classic consoles with HDMI ports slapped on and built-in collections of classics pretty much in their original forms. Then you have popular games of the ‘80s and ‘90s being re-released for modern platforms, complete with remastered high-definition graphics, re-recorded audio, and modern conveniences like game-save options.

 

The most curious way nostalgia has crept into the video game market, though, is by way of brand-new offerings that look like they could have been released a quarter-century ago, including all of the pixelated graphics and controller-throwing difficulty that defined games of the 8-bit era.

 

At first blush, Celeste looks like one of the latter. Despite debuting on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, the game looks as if it could have just as easily been ported to the original Sega Master System. And that blocky, pixelated look complements its gameplay quite well.

 

At its heart, Celeste is what’s known in gamer’s parlance as a “platformer”—and if you don’t speak the lingo, just imagine the dominant genre from that era of gaming, in which you spend most of your time jumping from platform to platform as you work your way from one end of a flat 2D world to another. Think Sonic or Super Mario or Super Metroid or some other game with “Super” in the title, and you’re at least on the right track in terms of the gameplay.

Celeste

In this case, though, Celeste’s hook is more of a lure. And I’ll admit, even I was drawn in by the premise of recreating the gaming memories of my youth without actually having to actually suffer through one of the unforgiving actual games of that bygone era.

 

Spend a few hours getting sucked into this delightful little slice of neo-nostalgia, though, and it becomes apparent—not quickly, but undeniably—that Celeste isn’t merely trying to feed you a dose of the feel-goods. There’s a point to all of this: The look, the feel, the simple three-button controls. Even the luscious piano and synth score, which isn’t exactly held to the same retro standards as the rest of the game’s aesthetic, is true to the spirit of music from ‘80s and ‘90s games, thanks to its deceptive simplicity and undeniably hooky melodies.

 

All of these retro trappings combine, in a weird way, to keep you focused on the task at hand, which is jumping, dashing, and grabbing onto platforms, with a level of precision that my teenaged self never would have dreamt possible. And the thing is, due to that intense concentration on running and jumping and not dying, you sort of end up missing the point of Celeste until you’re a few hours in.

 

Masterfully woven into all this platformer action is a rich and nuanced, slow-burn story about depression and ennui and the consequences of constant aspiration. It’s not heavy handed at all, and if you’re the type of person to skip dialogue sequences, you can easily nope right past it all. But you’d be missing out on one of the most heartfelt and gripping stories I’ve encountered in any form of media in quite some time.

 

Oddly enough, it’s a narrative that’s so tightly interwoven with the presentation of the game that I can’t imagine it being quite as impactful if Celeste had been a beautifully rendered, fully modern game with 3D graphics and 14-button control schemes. In other words, all of this isn’t merely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, no matter how much it may look like such. The real brilliance of Celeste is that with its form, it sets up expectations of a silly narrative about saving princesses or whatever, then sucker-punches you with the sort of substance that would have been nearly unimaginable back when games had no choice but to look like this.

 

If you have access to a modern gaming console or computer, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. At $19.99, it’s practically a steal, and although you’ll probably burn through it in seven or eight hours the first time through, Celeste is a game with a heck of a lot of replay value. I can’t imagine putting it down anytime soon.

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.

REVIEWS

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

Morrissey: Low in High School

Low in High School

Confession: I love Steven Patrick Morrissey. I own (and revere as scripture) every Smiths album. Type the name “Morrissey” into my iTunes search box, and it returns 1,158 songs. Back in my early-‘90s college days, I once wore a different Morrissey t-shirt every day for two straight weeks.

 

Another confession: I also sometimes hate Steven Patrick Morrissey. In 1992, I attended a mediocre concert in Dallas that lasted a whopping 52 minutes including the encore. That night opened my eyes to the fact that my musical hero wasn’t perfect, and over the years Morrissey himself has hammered that point home with frustrating regularity.

 

His anti-establishment political leanings have always made for controversial headlines, but his loud stance against immigration in his native U.K. left a sour taste in the mouths of many longtime supporters. How could Morrissey, the artist so many of us saw as the ultimate champion of the outsider, continually make so many racially insensitive comments?

 

The truth is that it has been very difficult to be a Morrissey fan over the past decade. Fans have been exposed to a string of mediocre albums, cancelled tours, and increasingly confounding takes. Just last year, Morrissey essentially victim-blamed the accusers in the Harvey Weinstein/Kevin Spacey scandals. (He later claimed he was misquoted.) He did this while promoting the release of Low in High School, his eleventh solo album—and the first one I didn’t rush out and buy on the day of release.

 

But then I started to hear things.

 

“Best record in years.”

 

“As good as Vauxhall.”

 

I finally gave in and bought Low in High School. I was immediately taken by “My Love, I’d Do Anything for You,” the crackling first cut. Full of swagger and sounding like a great lost outtake from 1992’s Your Arsenal, Morrissey makes a bold declaration:

 

You know me well, my love
I’d do anything for you
Society’s hell
You need me just like I need you.

And over the course of 12 songs, Morrissey proves to me that I do need him. The playfulness that seemed to disappear years ago returns in force with “Spent the Day in Bed,” a ridiculously catchy song in which Moz decides to turn off the news and stay in bed by himself all day “even though I’m not my type.” “I Wish You Lonely” is both a great title and a great song, while “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage” somehow works both as a metaphor for Brexit and Morrissey’s own contentious public persona.

 

There’s a strong anti-war current running through the middle of the album, although the bombastic “I Bury the Living” takes things a bit too far. “In Your Lap” serves the same subject matter in much stronger fashion, and continues a running theme on the record involving Morrissey’s face and contact with various laps and crotches. Obsessions with genitalia aside, Low in High School is easily the most complete album Morrissey has released since the ‘90s.

 

Most of those t-shirts I had in college have long since vanished, but I do still own one featuring the artwork from The Queen is Dead. That seems appropriate, as the cover of Low in High School depicts a child outside Buckingham Palace with a hatchet in one hand and an “Axe the Monarchy” sign in the other.

 

“Has the world changed, or have I changed?”

 

Of course, we have all changed—after all, it has been thirty-two years since the release of The Queen is Dead. I may no longer view Morrissey through the same melancholy-tinted glasses he wore in my youth, but Low in High School proves that he can still make powerful and thought-provoking music. Now if he could just stop cancelling concerts at the last minute . . .

Gary Maxwell

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

REVIEWS

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

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious is not food porn. I don’t say that to diminish the appeal of food porn, mind you. If I flip past the Food Network and catch a glimpse of The Taste, or At My Table—or really just anything with Nigella Lawson in it—I’m so totally onboard. I’m in. And with Chef’s Table, Netflix has proven itself more than capable of producing some of the best food porn known to man.

 

So, when the first episode of Ugly Delicious popped up in my recommended watchlist, I nearly dislocated my thumb scrambling for the select button. And five minutes into the first episode, I thought I had the show pretty well figured out. It comes off, at least at first, as something like a more erudite Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with a much more likable host (chef, author, and restaurateur Dave Chang, who you may remember from PBS’ The Mind of a Chef) and much less emphasis on unabashed gluttony.

 

By the end of its first 54-minute episode, I found myself drifting away from that comparison, because if anything, the tone and spirit of Ugly Delicious reminds me less of any food show I’ve ever seen, and more of some of my favorite food podcasts. A dash of The Sporkful. A sprinkling of Gastropod. A heaping helping of The Splendid Table. But even those comparisons fall short, because the truly delightful thing about Ugly Delicious is that it manages to carve out its own unique space in the landscape of culinary media.

 

And that might be because it’s really less about food and more about our relationship with food. The first episode, which focuses on pizza, really establishes the thematic undercurrent of the series brilliantly, especially in the way it grapples with the notion of authenticity versus honesty. We meet quite a few people during the course of the episode who have strong opinions on the right or wrong way to make a pizza. (In fact, after taking us to a pizzeria in Connecticut that makes a delicious-looking clam pizza, we immediately meet another pizza chef who scoffs, “You want clams? Have spaghetti and clams! That’s where clams belong—on spaghetti!”) But if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that nothing is sacred. And yet, in a weird way, when it comes to food, everything is sacred. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such irreverential reverence.

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious manages to get away with such contradictions because, as I said above, it’s really about humanity—and humans are nothing if not contradictory. The show also manages to work in conversations about food as culture. Food as politics. Food as identity. Food as rebellion. It grapples with issues of race and ethnicity, of geographic bigotry, of tradition, and it does it all while fueling one’s desire to eat in so many of the deliciously delightful locales spotlighted in its eight criminally brief episodes.

 

Honestly, if Ugly Delicious had even a whiff of pretention about it, it might be a little too heavy-handed to enjoy. But if anything, it’s a backlash against the pretentiousness that permeates shows of its sort. True, the delightful cast rips hard into Taco Bell in the episode on tacos (while trying to come to some consensus on what even is a taco). But Dominos and KFC aren’t anywhere near as reviled in the episodes on pizza and fried chicken.

 

Perhaps the most curious thing about Ugly Delicious is that despite its use of food as a lens through which to view ourselves, it probably captures the essence of eating better than any food show I’ve ever watched. Each episode truly feels like a meal, and I don’t mean just the eating part. I mean the conversations. The camaraderie. Indeed, the arguments.

 

So, if you’re looking for some truly delicious food erotica, give it a try. And even if you’re not into watching people eat and travel and talk about food, give it a try anyway. Because Ugly Delicious isn’t merely the best slice of gastronomic programming since 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s probably one of the best new shows of any genre to drop in the past year. 

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.

Everything Sucks!

Twenty years or so ago, enamored with movies and armed with a little bit of dangerous knowledge thanks to the burgeoning trend of audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVD, I felt inspired to start writing my own movie. It was, without question, the most pop-culture referential thing that had ever existed in any form—at least until Ready Player One was published some decades later.

 

I realized something, though, after a few weeks of diligent work: These sorts of pop culture references only really work with the added benefit of nostalgia. And so, I let it die.

 

I rediscovered that forgotten screenplay a few years ago, and for a brief moment entertained the notion of starting work on it again. This time around, it died on the vine even quicker, mostly because I realized that nostalgia was the only thing it had going for it. It was all hook and no crane. A skyhook, in the parlance of philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Everything Sucks

I bring this up only because that screenplay weighed heavily in my mind as I watched Netflix’ new original series Everything Sucks!, the first episode of which is so burdened by its need to cram as many mid-90s references into 22 minutes that there really isn’t much else to talk about.

 

Mind you, one can hardly blame its creators for leaning on the crutch of nostalgia, given how well it’s worked for recent efforts like Stranger Things, another Netflix original. There’s a striking difference between the way these two series approach the decades being celebrated, though.

 

Stranger Things is an homage to the 1980s from top to bottom. It’s set in that decade because it sets out to capture the spirit of the movies ‘80s kids grew up with—in style, in substance, in tone, in subject matter. The series isn’t merely set in the 1980s–it’s a passionate and masterfully crafted love letter to that decade, aesthetically, thematically, and narratively.

 

The first episode of Everything Sucks!, on the other hand, is a hastily scribbled note that reads: “Dear 1996, I like you do you like me? Check yes or no.” Musical hits of the decade are thrown at the screen as if pulled from a Best of the 1990s compilation CD at random, in ways that often contradict the onscreen action, lyrically and thematically.

 

And not in an ironic way, either. More in a completely haphazard and careless way. The only conclusion to be drawn is that if any care went into crafting the show’s soundtrack, it was purely to make the viewer sit up and say, “I remember that song!”

 

And so it goes with everything else about the show’s setting. Everything from its soundtrack to its costumes, its winky nods to beepers and dial-up internet, serves not to reinforce some overarching theme but rather to distract from the story being told. Honestly, if Everything Sucks! were broadcast on a traditional network, it would have been canceled before the second commercial break. And I’m honestly not sure why I watched past that point. Hate-binging, perhaps? Is that a thing?

Everything Sucks

Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why I kept watching. Because for all its faults early on, Everything Sucks! has something going for it no other show—on the airwaves or streaming—has right now: Peyton Kennedy, the show’s 13-year-old female lead. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this child would elevate a pharmaceutical commercial to the level of fine art. She does more with the twitch of an eyebrow or a sidelong glance than most actors three times her age could ever do with a Shakespearean monologue. And had Everything Sucks! continued to plod along with its hollow, pointless ‘90s references for the duration of its 10-episode run, I would have continued my hate-binge just to revel in this little girl’s truly breathtaking talent.

 

A funny thing happens somewhere near the middle of Everything Sucks! brief first season, though. The show eventually starts to get good. Like, genuinely good. Rather than a cheeky vehicle for shallow nostalgia, it becomes an honest-to-goodness coming-of-age story. And it even manages at one point to truly capture the spirit of ‘90s entertainment by way of a montage that could have come straight out of a Deborah Kaplan movie. Oddly, though, the show is at its best when it forgets it’s set in the 1990s at all.

 

It strikes me as oh so very meta that a series about the awkward, gangly, fumbling search for self takes so long to find itself in such an awkward, gangly, fumbling way. That makes it sort of hard to recommend, no matter how much I liked it in the end.

 

If anything, Everything Sucks! has given me new inspiration to dust off that old screenplay again and give it another gobut this time with an eye toward capturing the real human story about what I was going through in life at the time, and what I was trying to escape by diving so heavily into cinema as I did.

 

I just wish Everything Sucks! had learned that same lesson a lot earlier in its development.

—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.

REVIEWS

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

Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers

Standup for Drummers

I don’t want you to read this review.

 

Don’t get me wrong—there are some of you who would absolutely love Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers, a new hourlong special that just dropped on Netflix. And I hope you watch it at your earliest convenience. But if a comedy special/history lesson/music-appreciation class/absurd performance-art piece written and performed exclusively for an audience of drummers sounds like the kind of thing you would dig, I want you to enjoy it without having a moment of this brilliant and ridiculous show spoiled.

 

If, on the other hand, you’re likely to nope out as soon as you see people being forced to prove their drumming skills before being allowed into the theater, Standup for Drummers is likely too esoteric for your tastes, so you might as well stop reading now. There’s nothing I could say to convince you to give this one a chance.

(Don’t watch this video.)

 

For the three of you who are still reading, though? Here’s a little amuse-bouche that hopefully prepares your palate for what’s to come: At one point during the special, Armisen leaves the stage and walks down to a series of drum kits spread throughout the audience, each of which is representative of the setup you would typically see in any given decade from the 1920s through the 2000s. At each, he stops and playfully riffs on the percussive tropes of the era, partly in homage to Karen Carpenter, partly as a cheeky sendup of those “Evolution of Dance” videos you’ve seen a hundred times on Facebook.

 

What makes it work is not only the SNL alum’s undeniable musical prowess, but also his quirky ambivalence. You’re never quite sure if Armisen is poking fun or having fun. You can never quite tell if the look on his face is awe or irreverence.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Standup for Drummers is that despite its specific audience and purpose, the show is never a shibboleth-laden, exclusive affair. In fact, Armisen goes to great lengths to take the piss out of the sorts of inside jokes that musicians typically share. My wife is a drummer. I’m not. And yet I enjoyed—and more importantly, understood—the humor every bit as much as she did. At least I think I did. Who knows?

 

If I have one regret, it’s that Armisen’s “Complicated Drumming” alter ego, Jens Hannemann, never makes an appearance. The missus and I had the chance to see Fred-as-Jens open for Joanna Newsom once, and I can safely say that it was the most entertaining hour of satirical percussion either of us has ever witnessed.

Then again, that’s the sort of thing you might expect from a Fred Armisen comedy special aimed specifically at drummers. And, if anything, the real brilliance of Standup for Drummers is in the way it subverts expectations, even if you go in expecting the unexpected.

—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.

REVIEWS

Amazon Prime "Forever"
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
https://www.cineluxe.com/the-umbrella-academy/
Lawrence of Arabia review

Altered Carbon (Season 1)

Netflix Altered Carbon

I read Altered Carbon about five or ten years ago and was blown away by its brilliant combination of sci-fi novel and detective thriller, its post-cyberpunk future-world setting, its fast-paced hard-edged evocative writing, and its all-too-believable premise, given human nature. I thought it would make a fantastic movie, but would have to be 10 or 20 hours long, so, how?

 

Enter Netflix’ new Altered Carbon TV series.

 

Richard K. Morgan’s novel is about a world a few hundred years from now where people can store their personalities into “stacks” that can be fitted into “sleeves” (new bodies). The wealthy (the “Meths,” for Methuselah) can essentially achieve immortality while those of lesser means have to settle for whatever aging bodies and lifespans they can afford, and some people won’t re-sleeve on religious grounds. As a result, the chasm between rich and poor has never been greater, nor the rich more powerfuland decadent.

 

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, a military corps whose members have been trained to survive in multiple bodies and lives and through extreme combat, including real and virtual-reality torture. He’s hired by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft’s own death. Bancroft has been re-sleeved, thanks to a personality-upload backupbut has no memory of his last two days because of his 48-hour backup schedule. It looks like a suicide, but Bancroft wants to know if he was murdered and, if so, why. He hires Kovacs to find out.

Netflix Altered Carbon

Does the series live up to the book? Well, it’s an altered Altered Carbon.

 

Most of the book’s essentials are here, including the main characters: KovacsJoel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, both utterly convincing as Kovacs in different bodies; BancroftJames Purefoy in an understatedly chilling performance; his sensuous/heartless wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); and detective/Kovacs-antagonist/ally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).

 

Altered Carbon’s visuals and cinematography are stunning, richly imaginative (although the dark, dystopian Bay City owes a lot to Blade Runner), and often hallucinatory, with the lines between actual reality, virtual reality, and flashbacks blurred. The sound is also excellent, with impeccable dialogue clarity and a superb audio mix.

 

Many of the settingsthe extraterrestrial Harlan’s World, the sleeving company Psychasec, Bancroft’s above-the-clouds residence Suntouchevoke the book’s descriptions and are spectacularly realized. (Head In the Clouds almost perfectly matched what I had pictured.) There’s a dazzling array of future drugs and tech: Combat-enhancing Neurachem, sex-enhancing artificial pheromones, intelligent weapons, “needlecasting” to remote locations, and much more. The series does a fantastic job of portraying it all. There was never a moment when I thought, nah, this could never be.

 

Conversely, there are entire storylines and characters that don’t appear in the book. Part of these alterations are beneficial, including a major subplot between Kovacs andwell, I don’t want to give it away, but it and other subplots really illuminate the characters’ motivations. Other aspects just seem like change for the sake of change.

 

Yet I know books need to be adapted to the very different medium of a TV series to play well on screen, which is why, for example, I can understand changing the nature of one of the key AI characters. And Morgan was a consultant to the series, and I doubt he was put into virtual-reality torture to agree to the final product. So I guess he’s OK with it.

 

So am I. Because the series gets the feel of the book right.

Netflix Altered Carbob

The tough, gritty, unrelenting feel. The dialogue. The tension. The fact that Kovacs has had huge swaths of human emotion bred out of himbut not all. The twists and turns. The violence. The nudity. (Since bodies are just sleeves, the nudity feels like part of the series’ texture, not gratuitous.) The flashes of humor. The sex. The scenes of brutal treatment of women-as-sex-objects, which has caused some online controversythough the men aren’t exactly immune from this objectification either. It’s not all bleak, thoughthere are moments of tenderness, caring, empathy, and love. And hope.

 

Most of all, what Altered Carbon gets right is its portrayal of the rich complexity of still-humanand indeed all-too-humanemotions and motivations in a world that’s much more complicated than the one we live in and where a basic tenet of humanityeveryone diesis no longer true.

—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.

REVIEWS

Just Mercy (2019)
The Report (2019)
The Rise of Skywalker
1917 (2019)
Little Women (2019)
Richard Jewell (2019)

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 1)

underrated entertainment

I don’t care who you are, or what sorts of entertainment you consume on a regular basis, I guarantee you there’s a TV series or movie out there somewhere that broke your heart. And I don’t mean in a Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias sort of way—I mean it spoke to your unique aesthetic so thoroughly that its cancellation or box-office failure hit you on a deep level. A personal affront, if you will.

 

For me, it’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The cancellation of this sci-fi-action-comedy-western, which debuted in the nascent days of the Fox broadcast network, still stings in a way matched only by Firefly.

 

But I’m not here to talk about cult classics. I’m here instead to talk about under-appreciated works of art with near-universal appeal that, for whatever reason, just never caught on. Maybe they were before their time. Maybe they were marketed poorly. Maybe humans just have crappy taste, I don’t know. Whatever the reasons may be, the lack of recognition for these gems doesn’t just offend me personally—it speaks, I think, to a fundamental fragmentation of our media-consuming culture that these massively appealing works don’t have mass appeal.

Take My So-Called Life, for instance. I know it may seem like a cheat, since this Claire Danes classic is one of the most critically acclaimed series in the history of the Internet. But have you seen it? No, be honest. Have you really sat down and watched it? MSCL broke new ground in the mid-90s by having teens, played by teens, actually act like teens. Seriously, that was shocking at the time. Of course, My So-Called Life has been so thoroughly mimicked by now that if you’re just watching it for the first time, it might not seem so fresh. Give it a shot anyway. It’s one of the best TV series ever made, and It’s available in its all-too-brief entirety on Hulu.

Before there was The West Wing, before The Newsroom or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (shut up—that show was amazing), there was Sports Night, a forgotten slice of brilliance that represents Aaron Sorkin at his Aarony Sorkinest, with all the impeccable timing, social commentary, and way-too-intelligent-for-humans-to-actually-utter dialogue that have made his followup efforts such critical darlings. I don’t care if you loathe the sports (because goodness knows, I do—GTLM motorsports being the rare exception), Sports Night is simply amazing television: Beautifully written, amazingly directed, perfectly performed, and infuriatingly unavailable for streaming on Netflix or Hulu. You can buy it an episode at a time on iTunes or Amazon, though.

I have two types of friends: Those who think Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time, and those who think Love Actually is the best Christmas movie of all time. For the record, I cast my lot with the latter camp, but I don’t think Love Actually is actually Richard Curtis’ best film. Sacrilege, I know, but that distinction actually belongs to About Time, perhaps one of the most misunderstood films I’ve ever seen. Misunderstood, because the handful of critics who saw it felt the need to pick nits with the rules governing this time-traveling rom-com’s temporal shenanigans, as if it were some sort of science-fiction flick. It’s not. Far from it. About Time is actually a modern-day fairy tale, whose violations of its own internal rules are actually kinda part of the point. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I silently judge people who’ve seen this film and didn’t love every frame of it.

Speaking of judgment—if you’re one of the millions of people who didn’t watch last summer’s Downward Dog when ABC snuck it onto the airwaves and left it hanging with no real support, I’m still angry with you. It wasn’t merely the best show of the summer—it was the best new comedy on TV in at least a decade. Think of it as a (sometimes) lighthearted, (often) cheeky, but nonetheless just-as-philosophically deep episodic riff on The Art of Racing in the Rain, but with a strong female lead (Fargo’s criminally under-appreciated Allison Tolman). Yes, it starred a talking dog with computer-animated lips, but this was one of the most human TV shows I think I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it too is missing from all the major streaming services. Episodes are available for download from iTunes and Vudu, though.

So, yeah, you likely missed all of the above in their heyday, but there’s one under-the-radar series airing right now that you still have a chance to catch while the getting’s good. Drunk History began its life as a series of Funny or Die clips online, but has since moved to full-length episodes on Comedy Central, where most people seem to be completely ignoring it. Seriously, when I pester my friends about whether or not they’ve seen the most recent episode, most of them squint or give me a pug head-tilt. How on earth a series in which inebriated narrators do their best to slur through some of history’s most interesting stories while some of the best actors in the world reenact their sloshed narratives isn’t the most highly rated thing on the boob tube is just beyond me. Do yourself a favor and set your DVR (new and repeats!) posthaste. You can thank me later.

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 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

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I had offered to review the Amazon original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel even before the show took home two Golden Globes earlier this week. I just wanted to spread the word about how fantastic this show is. I’m guessing those two awards—for Best Show and Best Actress in the “Television Series, Musical or Comedy” category—will do that far better than I can, but, hey, I’m going to make my case anyhow.

 

Set in 1950s Manhattan, the show tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a devoted wife and mother who tends to the every need of her husband Joel, a salesman who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. When she’s not measuring her thighs (can’t gain too much weight, after all) or getting up before dawn to apply her makeup (can’t let the man see your real face, after all), she’s using her quick wit, effortless charm, and great cooking skills to get Joel a better time slot at the Gaslight comedy club or to convince the rabbi to join the family for Yom Kippur dinner.

 

Midge’s world suddenly turns upside down when, after a particularly bad set at the Gaslight, Joel announces that he’s leaving her. After a bit too much wine and a late-night subway ride, Midge finds herself at the club, on the stage, doing her own set. Surprise, surprise—she’s actually the funny one, and aspiring manager Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) is determined to make her a star.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

As one would hope, this show about stand-up comedy has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a similar penchant for snappy, fast-paced dialogue and delightfully quirky characters. But this show also has a sharper edge to it, both in its humor and tone, as it explores what it means to be a woman in the ’50s. Midge is finally free to figure out who she is, but are the people in her life ready to accept the real her? Is society?

 

Brosnahan shines as Midge from the get-go, but what I enjoyed the most was watching the supporting players—who are drawn with broad, almost stereotypical strokes in the pilot—gain form and substance in their own right. Tony Shalhoub is especially good (when isn’t he?) as Midge’s father, Abe. At the end of Season One, the one-woman show has evolved into a strong ensemble piece with only one real flaweight episodes just ain’t enough.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

The Toys That Made Us

In the ongoing conversation about how streaming video is changing our media consumption habits, I think one thing is getting overlooked—the ways in which streaming video is changing the very nature of our media.

 

I bring that up because one of my favorite recent showsa documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us—strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. Sure, we’ve seen documentaries about toys before, almost all of which focused on one particular slice of nostalgia. But a multi-episode series that isn’t aimed at any particular fandom? One with a decidedly adult bent and a propensity for F-bombs? One that takes off the gloves and uncovers the oftentimes dirty politics that went into creating some of our favorite little pieces of plastic?

 

If I were an executive for any cable network, I would look at the pitch for The Toys That Made Us and insist its creators either narrow their focus or broaden their appeal, or at the very least avoid some of the controversy. Thank goodness I’m not a network executive, then, because having seen the first four episodes of this incredible series, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

The series kicks off with the granddaddy of all toy lines: Star Wars. Aside from a bit of predictable and unnecessary Episode I bashing that comes off as seriously hipstery, it’s an amazing exploration of the legal deals, design decisions, bickering, and fun that went into creating the toy line that changed everything.

The Toys That Made Us

Here’s the problem, though: Make a show about Star Wars toys and you’re automatically pushing all my buttons. Does that necessarily mean it’s objectively good? Ehhh, I had my doubtsespecially given that the next episode is about Barbie, a franchise I couldn’t have less interest in if I tried. The missus was vaguely interested, though (given that one of her favorite childhood pastimes was staging elaborate Barbie-vs-He-Man battles). So, we gave it a try. What followed was one of the most engrossing 44 minutes’ worth of television I’ve seen in ages. It’s bawdy. It’s tantalizing. There’s forgery and perjury and mail fraud, oh my!

 

Lest you think the entire series comes off as an E! True Hollywood Story, it doesn’t. The tales told here reflect the real history of each toy line explored, with no real agenda beyond getting to the truth. The entire Masters of the Universe toy line, for example, is portrayed as a tail-wagging-the-dog example of pure desperation and marketing hubris. G.I. Joe? While there is some history of the original 12-inch toy line (and the very origins of the phrase “action figure”), the real meat here is on the toys of the ‘80s, which were introduced mostly to capitalize on the new wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

 

Hopefully the next four episodes, which are due to drop sometime in the early part of 2018, can maintain this level of intrigue and brutal (often profane) honesty. There is the question, of course, about how much more material there is to mine going forward. We know an episode about Transformers is coming in the next batch. There are, no doubt, stories to be told at some point about Cabbage Patch dolls and LEGO.

 

I think what these first four episodes have proven, though, is that nostalgia for certain brands is just the hook. The real appeal of The Toys That Made Us is the very human stories about the people behind the scenes who made the toys that made us.

—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.

REVIEWS