Reviews

Review: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

OCTOPUS AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking (2021)

On paper, Chaos Walking had all the makings for the start of a major franchise. Based on the successful award-winning trilogy of novels from Patrick Ness, the film is an adaptation of the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s also led by two major young stars: Tom Holland of recent Spider-Man MCU fame and Daisy Ridley from the final trilogy of Star Wars films. And it’s directed by Doug Liman, who also helmed The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat), with a significant budget of $100 million.

But history has shown us that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, and even though you have all the right ingredients and budget for a gourmet meal, you can still end up making a nothingburger. Which isn’t to say that Chaos Walking is a bad movie. In fact, it plays really well in a modern home theater with a very clever and active Dolby Atmos soundtrack and clean, sharp visuals. It’s just that watching it, you could see that it had the potential to be so much more.

 

I’m a fan of dystopian Young Adult fiction. I’ve read the trilogies in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, but I’d never heard of the Chaos Walking series, so I can’t offer any commentary on 

CHAOS AT A GLANCE

This adaption of the ‘Tween trilogy of the same name doesn’t live up to its potential, but does provide some diverting eye and ear candy.

 

PICTURE
The film looks great, with the images always clean and sharp.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, with the height channels frequently employed for ambient effects and dialogue.

how true the movie remains to the book. Sometimes, that’s the best way to go into a series, without bringing any of the preconceived ideas and expectations from a 500-page book that a film can almost never live up to. (I’d submit The Dark Tower as a prime example on how to run totally roughshod over a beloved series of books in a single 90-minute film.)

 

Chaos Walking had a torturous path to the big screen. After announcing Liman as director in 2016, principal photography began in 2017, with an original release date set for March 2019. However, after poor initial screenings, and scheduling conflicts of the leads delaying reshoots, and then a global pandemic, the film didn’t see its theatrical debut in the States until March 5. Following poor reviews (22% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and even poorer box office (grossing just $17 million worldwide), the film arrived on PVOD on April 2. It is now available as a premium rental option from Kaleidescape for $19.99, where it includes a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

The film opens with a title card reading:

 

“The Noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.”

—Unknown New World Settler

 

It’s the year 2257, and the settlement of Prentisstown on the planet New World is inhabited only by men. Every citizen’s thoughts are on display for all to see and hear, something they call The Noise. The town is run by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) along with Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), who we learn early on doesn’t get on well with the Holland character. 

 

We’re told that the native aliens on the planet, the Spackle, came and killed off all the women. One day while out walking in the forest, Todd Hewitt (Holland) comes across the wreckage of a crashed spacecraft. The sole survivor is Viola (Ridley), a woman who has no Noise, who goes on the run after hearing and seeing Todd’s Noise. The men of Prentisstown capture Viola, and she is questioned by the Mayor where she discloses that she was in a scout ship from a larger vessel filled with 4,000 people due to land any day. Viola escapes, and when it is clear that the men mean to do her harm, she and Todd go on the run looking for help in a neighboring settlement.

 

I found the premise interesting and compelling, and the plot device of seeing/hearing all of the men’s thoughts was a nice way of delivering exposition, along with some humor courtesy Holland, whose Noise is especially chatty, with his quips reminding me a bit of his Peter Parker. I also felt that Holland and Ridley did the most with what they were given, and Mikkelsen seems to dig into his role as the Mayor. It’s just that it never really got going, or offered enough information, character development or motivation, or drama to gain any real momentum—especially when the film’s big “surprise” reveal takes place about halfway through and then just leaves us with a typical chase as Prentiss and his men try to track down Viola and Todd.

 

Fortunately, the film at least looks great. Filmed on Arri at 6.5K, this is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and images are always clean and sharp. You can appreciate the different textures, patterns, and wear in the fabric worn by characters, and see great detail in the closeups of actors’ faces. The focus is also razor sharp in scenes, with objects having clear and

defined edges, letting you see individual twigs, sticks, and branches in the forest.

 

New World is very organic, with lots of forests and the settlement a bit like an Old West mining town, with an earthy color palette. There are a few shots of Viola in space prior to landing, and these have a far more modern feel—brighter, with lots of contrast from space and planets and the mechanical elements of her ship. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, and the HDR grade helps with lots of shadow detail in the forest, as well as bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows and cracks in wooden slats.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, and there are tons of ambient sounds from the forest scenes as characters move about New World or when a gadget blasts laser bolts all around the room. One scene has characters hiding under floorboards and overhearing a conversation, and you hear the creak of wood and the conversation happening up overhead.

 

The Noise plays a big part in the film, and the mixers use this as a nice audio element, placing characters’ thoughts up into the height channels or filling the room with literal noise in large crowd scenes. Because the Noise is mixed up into the height speakers, sometimes that dialogue can be a bit tricky to understand, 

Chaos Walking (2021)

especially when many other layers of sounds are happening, but you can clearly hear all the important parts. And you’ll hear “I’m Todd Hewitt—control your noise” being thought over and over (and over . . .) as he tries to block his thoughts from others.

 

There aren’t a ton of moments requiring big low-end effects, but your subs are called into play —occasionally significantly—when appropriate, such as when Viola’s ship is entering the atmosphere or during a galloping horse chase.

 

With an audience rating of 71%, Chaos Walking definitely has some appeal. And with it being released in theaters just a month ago, it is some of the freshest content you can view at home. While its leads probably have more appeal to a ‘Tween crowd, Chaos’ premise is compelling enough to hold your attention, and the eye and ear candy certainly make for a fun evening at home. 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

I tell people I’ve been waiting my entire life for Hollywood to make a decent Godzilla movie, but the truth is that I gave up hope on that front years ago. The 1998 farce starring Matthew Broderick, I think, speaks for itself. There’s nothing redeemable about it. Gareth Edwards’ stab at the mythology in 2014 almost worked, in that it understood the need to make the human drama the driving force of the story; but Edwards simply proved himself incapable of directing actors well enough to make the human dimension work. 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters fared better in that respect, but dropped the ball 

with a convoluted and messy screenplay that violated its own internal logic at every turn and didn’t recognize when it had worn out its welcome. At 132 minutes, it felt more like four hours. It also committed the biggest sin you could commit with a movie like this—it was absolutely joyless.

 

Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth and presumably final entry in Legendary’s MonsterVerse quadrilogy, is—at the risk of making myself sound like a total dweeb—the Godzilla movie I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid. And interestingly, it turns out the trick to making a good Godzilla flick is to not bother trying to make a Godzilla flick at all.

 

Despite the privileged position given to the King of the Monsters in the title of this lagarto a simio showdown, this is really Kong’s tale, and although it’s the same ape we grew to love in Skull Island, he’s matured a good bit in the 48 years since that movie was set. He’s bigger. He’s smarter. He’s also a lot more civilized. As such, we hairless apes viewing the movie can’t help but relate to him more. So it

GODZILLA VS. KONG AT A GLANCE

There’s finally a decent American-made Godzilla movie to enjoy—even if it’s not really a Godzilla movie.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation is practically reference quality, with stunning peak brightness, a vibrant color palette, and oodles of detail—but there’s almost too much detail at times.

 

SOUND     

If you like your height-channel effects aggressive and distracting, you’ll find a lot to love in the Dolby Atmos mix here.

was a wise decision to make it his story first and foremost and relegate Godzilla to the force-of-nature role, which he plays so well.

 

But that’s not the only wise decision made in constructing the script. Screenwriters Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (screenwriter on Godzilla and co-writer on Skull Island) have figured out what didn’t work about the first two big-lizard movies and—more importantly—what absolutely did work about this Kong’s screen debut, and they’ve applied all of those lessons to this script.

 

There are primarily two things that make this movie work, the first being its humor. Millie Bobby Brown reprises her role from King of the Monsters, but instead of standing around and crying in the rain and staring at the sky pensively, she’s the centerpiece of a comedic plot that also involves a high-school friend (played by Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Julian Dennison) and a popular conspiracy-theory podcaster (played by Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta fame). Their antics honestly prompted some of the most genuine laughter any movie has pulled out of me in a long time.

 

The other side of that equation is that the human drama also just works. I found myself legitimately caring whether characters lived or died. I was, despite myself, invested. And a lot of that is due to Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who absolutely sticks the landing as the movie’s agent of pathos. Don’t get me wrong here—this isn’t high drama or anything. But Hall gives us a glimpse of what could have been if the human storylines in Edwards’ movie had been well-directed. The thing that really makes her character tick is that Hall approaches the role with sincerity.

 

There’s a balancing act here, between the goofball comedy and the heartfelt drama, that shouldn’t work. But it does. And I think a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that the screenwriters turned to some unlikely inspiration for this story. I’ve seen the trailers. I’ve seen the movies that lead up to this one. But nothing really prepared me for the fact that there’s an undeniable Victorian-era adventure-story vibe about the whole endeavor. Hell, snatch Jules Verne out of the past, pressgang him into writing a movie about a big lizard fighting a big ape, and I kinda think this is exactly the movie he would have come up with.

 

You can’t help but go into something like this wondering, “Wait, why are these big monsters fighting?” In addition to everything else wrong with it, what made King of the Monsters such a slog is that the answer to that question didn’t make a lick of damned sense. In Godzilla vs. Kong, though, their animus builds pretty organically, for pretty logical reasons—well, as logical as you could ask for in a kaiju brawl.

 

The other thing that makes Godzilla vs. Kong work is that everyone involved (except for maybe Hall) seems to have fully and lovingly embraced the fact that they were making a B movie. So, in the end, it all comes off like Journey to the Center of the Earth as directed by Ed Wood, just with a sufficient budget and a lot more intentional humor. Combine that vibe with pretty good editing overall, and you’ve got the makings of a truly solid monster movie.

 

Is it art? No. Was I entertained? Heck, yes. I do have some curmudgeonly gripes, though. Despite the fact that HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation is practically reference quality, with stunning peak brightness, a vibrant color palette, and oodles of detail, there’s honestly almost too much detail on the screen at times. The 4K digital intermediate (taken from 6.5K ArriRaw live-action photography) does make the textures of Godzilla’s leathery skin look a little fake at times. But whatever. I’ve spent my entire life watching a dude stomp around in a rubber suit pretending to be a giant radioactive reptile—I can forgive some overly-textured CGI in a shot or two.

 

My real beef with the imagery has nothing to do with the presentation, though—it’s the fact that 90% of the movie is lit with those garish teal-and-orange hues that I thought (hoped) fell out of favor years ago. And the digital color grading pushes this aesthetic to the extremes, making it impossible to ignore.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, meanwhile, will be popular with home cinema fans who like their object-based audio mixes extreme. It was all just too much for me—so much so that I paused the movie halfway through to disable Atmos processing on my preamp. But if you like your height-channel effects aggressive and distracting, you’ll find a lot to love here. Either way, I think we could agree that the low-frequency sound effects are exactly the right amount of over-the-top you’d expect—nay, demand—for a thrill ride like this. But, come on, you knew that was going to be the case, didn’t you?

 

Unsurprisingly, given that Godzilla vs. Kong is debuting on HBO Max the same day it drops in American cinemas, it sounds like the audio mix was intended for large auditoriums, with no real effort made to remix it for the smaller confines of home cinema systems. The result is that dialogue is ever-so-slightly low in the mix, so you’ll need to turn the volume up to THX reference levels to hear it all—which does mean that the sound effects will be a touch too loud. But that kinda works for this movie, assuming you’ve got a sound system that can handle it.

 

It’s a shame, really, that Legendary couldn’t have taken the time to develop its two standalone Godzilla movies and make them this much fun, this well-balanced. But such is life. I finally have a decent American-made Godzilla movie to enjoy—even if it’s not really a Godzilla movie—and that’s the best I could have hoped for from this one.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Father

The Father (2020)

I was perhaps 15 minutes into Florian Zeller’s The Father—adapted from his 2012 play Le Père—before I pushed the Stop button and began the film again. It was somewhere around that mark that I came to the stark realization I was approaching it all wrong, foisting my own expectations onto an experience that isn’t compatible with any of them. 

 

The problem, I think, comes from the fact that the trailer—and indeed the first scene—sets you up for a film of the sort Eddie Izzard once described as “Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond,” just with the added drama of a daughter 

struggling to care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Truth be told, that could have been a pretty good film, but The Father is not that film. It’s something far more interesting, challenging, impactful, infuriating, and infinitely more meaningful.

 

Much of its brilliance comes from the fact that Zeller tells the story from the father’s point of view, which has the effect of taking the unreliable-narrator trope and cranking it to 11 in the most fascinating ways. Since the father doesn’t experience time linearly and he isn’t (can’t be) certain what is real, and since the past is more vivid and tangible to him than the present, he of course goes through all the stages of confusion, disorientation, rage, and paranoia familiar to any of us who’ve watched a loved one suffer the indignities of dementia.

 

Zeller uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to force 

THE FATHER AT A GLANCE

This tale of dementia turns out to have more in common with Kubrick’s The Shining than with Room with a View.

 

PICTURE
Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack mainly uses the front three channels, which suits the movie perfectly since much of the audio is dialogue.

these emotions on the viewer, which results in a film that’s hard to pin down in terms of genre. The ratcheting tension and discomfort evoke the trappings of psychological thriller, but there are no thrills to uncover here. The elements of disorientation and alienation give the work a somewhat Kafkaesque vibe, but without the humor. The disconnect from the linear flow of time may cause some to draw parallels between this film and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but I only bring that up to dismiss it out of hand. The Father is nowhere near that gimmicky.

 

The closest comparison I could make, I suppose, would be Kubrick’s The Shining, which would put The Father in the tradition of horror, despite the complete lack of the supernatural. That notion resonates with me, but not completely. I think I kept returning to The Shining as a point of reference because Zeller uses architecture in a way that’s not dissimilar to Kubrick’s 

employment of spatial contradictions to keep the viewer off balance. The Father, by contrast, uses temporal inconsistencies, combined with spatial similarities, to pull the viewer in two different directions. There’s a false sense of security that comes from thinking we know where (and, indeed, when) we are, based on visual clues that may or may not be dependable anchors.

 

All of these points of reference and attempts to find some reliable ground to stand on did pull me out of the experience of The Father to some degree at first. I also found myself somewhat consumed by thoughts of how this story would unfold on the stage, because stagecraft must, in some way, 

change the telling of it. Unlike so many stage-to-screen adaptations, this one is nearly impossible to imagine unfolding in an auditorium, surrounded by an audience.

 

Around the halfway point of this relatively short, 97-minute film, I found myself gravitating more and more to such intrusive thoughts and reached for the remote to start the movie over once again. Thankfully, I eventually reached the state of mindfulness required to fully appreciateThe Father, but it wasn’t easy.

 

It was aided, though, by the film’s cinematography, which was captured with a combination of Sony and Zeiss lenses on Sony cameras, and recorded in the X-OCN ST format at 6K resolution. While no home video format can handle the 16-bit dynamic range of X-OCN ST, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless. And that matters here because your eye engages with The Father differently from most films. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself clinging to the most minor details in

a vain effort to position yourself within the narrative. You’ll probably spend as much time looking at backgrounds as faces. As such, the enhanced shadow depth and detail are doubly appreciated, especially given that The Father looks to have been shot largely with natural light.

 

The PVOD rental from Kaleidescape comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, although the mix really only uses the front three channels to any significant degree. And that suits it perfectly, since much of the audio is dialogue, and what remains consists mostly of diegetic music, more often than not delivered via the headphones that serve as one of the father’s hoarded objects. The choice to keep the sound mix somewhat constrained was wise. It’s a difficult enough film to watch without the added distraction of surround sound elements, clever pans, or the like.

 

As demanding an experience as it is, though, The Father is an important one. The fact that it contains one of Anthony Hopkins’ all-time best performances is, surprisingly, one of the least interesting things about it.

 

I can count the number of fictional works that have legitimately changed me without taking off my shoes, but I have to add The Father to that list. One can’t 

The Father (2020)

help but come out the other end of this film with a transformed view of those suffering from dementia. I’ve seen this struggle firsthand twice in my life, and in both cases, I’ve done my best to treat the victims of this maddening condition with sympathy. But The Father doesn’t ask you for sympathy, nor compassion. It asks you for empathy. It asks you to experience the world as a person with dementia does. And I can’t say for certain whether its portrayal is 100% accurate to the real-life experience of those so afflicted, but it certainly must be something akin to this.

 

The Father is playing now in select theaters and is available as a premium VOD rental on most major digital platforms, including Kaleidescape. One way or another, you owe it to yourself to see it.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Mank

Mank (2020)

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

 

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

to shirk making the case against it.

 

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

 

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

MANK AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

MOON AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Minari

Minari (2020)

There’s a certain frustrating injustice in the fact that Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari came out in 2020. While this gorgeous slice-of-life drama is being hailed as one of the year’s best films, that recognition carries with it some tallest-kid-in-kindergarten connotations. The truth is that Minari would be a triumph of cinema in any year. But to be plucked from the dustbin and heralded as such this year almost seems like a consolation prize. 

 

I’ll admit, though, that I have some significant bias as far as this film is concerned, so maybe take my adulation with a grain of salt. I’m a sucker for a simple story. Writing complicated tales is easy—you string together a bunch of “what had happened was”es, cut between disparate narrative threads when one has gone on too long, throw as much as you can at the wall, and 

hope enough of it sticks to be honed in the editing. Writing a simple story is significantly more difficult, and writing one that holds together narratively and thematically is an admirable accomplishment.

 

Minari is the simplest of tales, and a familiar one at that: A family, facing unendurable financial hardship and lack of opportunity, moves to a strange new place in search of a better life. Familiar though that plot kernel may be, Chung tells it in the most unexpected of ways, never going for the obvious twists, never beholden to the traditional three-act narrative structure.

 

In some respects, a lot of what you’ll get out of the film is dependent upon what you bring into it, because Chung’s thumb never rests too heavily on the scales. Speaking purely for myself—a Caucasian southern man whose familial roots grow in rural soil very similar to the setting of 

MINARI AT A GLANCE

A Korean family’s attempts to farm in rural Arkansas told in a deceptively simple tale that adds up to one of the best films of 2020.

 

PICTURE
Shot digitally, the movie is a beauty to behold, with imagery that evokes the organic quality of Kodachrome film. 

 

SOUND     

The film surprisingly benefits from a Dolby Atmos mix that helps evoke a three-dimensional world without getting gimmicky.

Minari—I was drawn almost as much to the setting as I was to the human drama of it all. I’ll admit, though, that I tensed up the first time a white southerner appeared onscreen. You almost can’t help but expect the residents of rural Arkansas to be portrayed as caricatures, as overtly racist and malicious bumpkins. They aren’t, though. They’re portrayed as ignorant, to be sure, but the exact sort of ignorance that feels 100% authentic to the film’s setting; the sort of ignorance I’m met with at every big family gathering. This is simply one of the most accurate portraits of the rural south in the 1980s I’ve ever seen.

 

Against that backdrop, the story that unfolds is one of duty—duty to one’s parents, children, partner, and oneself. And most of the drama comes from trying to find the right balance between those interdependent dials. Duty to his parents is largely to blame for the financial struggles Jacob Yi (played to perfection by Steven Yeun) and his family suffer in California. Duty to 

their children is what forces Jacob and his wife Monica (played to equal perfection by Han Ye-ri) to the Ozark Plateau. Frustration with this tug-of-war and a disproportionate attempt to be dutiful to himself contributes to Jacob’s Sisyphean struggles in his new home, both within his family and on the land that he obsessively farms.

 

The farm, it should be said, serves as an unnamed character in the film. It embodies the tension at the center of the struggle between an untenable past and an uncertain future. Those two forces, though, receive their embodiment in the forms of David—Jacob and Monica’s ill son—and 

Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to live with the family to care for her grandchildren while their parents work at a nearby hatchery, and who plants the perennial herb that gives the film its name and so much of its meaning.

 

David and Soon-ja not only serve as the heart of the film, they also serve as its funny bone, adding some much-needed levity exactly when it’s needed most. As with the rural whites, it would have been all too easy to paint both of these characters with too broad a brush, but Chung packs each with the sort of contradictions essential to any human. In the case of David, that’s not all that surprising, since the boy serves as the writer/director’s proxy in the story. But Soon-ja must have been a much trickier character to write, no matter how much real-life inspiration Chung had for her. She represents tradition, but she’s an idiosyncratic, eccentric force of nature who defies tradition at every turn. That Chung didn’t chisel off her rough edges to force her into the symbolic mold she fills in the film is a credit to his skills as a writer and his faith in the audience.

 

Individually, David and Soon-ja are fascinating (and indeed somewhat tragic) characters. Together, they’re absolutely hilarious—the sort of duo that Taika Waititi would write if he made dramas instead of comedies. 

 

But don’t dwell too much on that comparison. I’ve simply been so primed by a culture that’s obsessed with every new thing being categorized as “this meets that” that I found myself drawing that parallel before I could catch myself. If forced to draw deeper parallels of the same sort, I would call this film Waititi meets Faulkner meets Sinclair.” But that’s hardly fair. Minari is boldly, unapologetically its own thing. 

 

It’s also beautiful to behold. The film is currently available on PVOD—or “Theater at Home,” as described by Vudu, where I rented it. Vudu presents Minari in Dolby Vision with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, both of which serve the material well. Although shot digitally, the cinematography has a very organic look that’s vaguely reminiscent of Kodachrome stock. It’s incredibly contrasty, with inky shadows and dazzling highlights; but the most prominent aspect of the cinematography is the richness and warmth of the colors, all of which are captured beautifully by the transfer. 

 

Despite the 2K digital intermediate, there’s a wealth of detail in everything from the tattered interior of the Yi family’s mobile home to the chaotic kaleidoscope of patterns caused by overlapping layers of flora blowing in the breeze. If the film’s presentation proves anything, it’s that lenses are more essential to the final look of a cinematic work than are capture resolution (3.2K in this case) or the pixel-count of the DI. 

 

Interestingly, though, when I switched between my Roku Ultra and my Apple TV 4K purely for the sake of thorough comparison, the latter didn’t hold up quite as well. On the Apple hardware, the Vudu stream was marred to a degree by some banding, digital noise, and lack of definition that was nowhere to be seen on the Roku. 

 

Minari doesn’t seem like the sort of film that would benefit from an Atmos mix, but does it ever. It’s another case where, if Atmos were handled this gracefully by every sound mixer, I would be a bigger fan of the format. The extra channels are used in this case to construct the film’s world in three dimensions. Heck, if you took away the dialogue and music, it seems like 90% of what would be left would be the chirping of crickets and tree frogs and—to borrow a beautiful turn of phrase from Randy Newman—the song that the trees sing when the wind blows. Once you get over the novelty of sounds coming from overhead, the film’s mix just sounds authentic, like strolling through the wild acreage of my dad’s property with my ears attuned to the aural landscape. 

 

And in a way, that’s an apt metaphor for the film itself as a whole. It’s obviously contrived. Every story is. But give yourself to it and there’s nearly nothing about Minari that feels contrived. It’s as honest and unforced a work of cinema as I’ve experienced in ages. Its show-don’t-tell approach to grappling with the struggles of the working poor and the realities of cultural assimilation, combined with its pitch-perfect performances and effortless artistry, make it an absolute must-see.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

While it’s probably possible to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka “The Snyder Cut”), released last week on HBO Max, on its own without discussing all of the baggage that comes with it, some context seems appropriate to establish why and how this all came to be.

 

First, we need to travel back to 2017. Snyder had completed two DC films for Warner Bros., Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which were going to establish and launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), setting it up to stand against the tide of Marvel heroes. As Snyder was deep in the process of completing his followup film, Justice League, tragedy struck his family when 20-year-old daughter Autumn took her own life. 

 

Understandably, Snyder and his wife Deborah (who was working as producer on the film) felt unable to continue with the demands of production and battling with the studio to get the film completed on his terms, and they decided to step away to focus on their family. 

 

Warner, with millions already invested and most of Snyder’s filming complete, brought in Joss Whedon to direct and bring the film across the finish line. Many had complained that Snyder’s vision for the DCEU was too dark (Batman v Superman had a 

dismal critics’ score of just 29%), and that Whedon’s more light-hearted approach combined with his prior success working on two Avengers films (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) was the right tone to help get the DCEU back on track.

 

Whedon took over the reins, rewriting, reshooting, and editing the film, injecting some humor to lighten the dark tone as well as making major trims to meet Warner’s alleged mandate of hitting a two-hour runtime—frankly an overly ambitious goal in a film planning on introducing three major new characters that would help carry the film and drive the DCEU forward, resurrecting another, setting up a new franchise Big Bad, and then having this newly assembled team save the world.

 

The result was 2017’s Justice League, a film Snyder says his wife and executive producer Christopher Nolan told him never to see as it “would break his heart,” and one that 

ZSJL AT A GLANCE

The subject of much social-media-driven fan expectation turns out to be an improvement on Joss Whedon’s stab at the film, resulting in a fuller, but not exceptionally better, experience.

 

PICTURE
Image quality is clean throughout, though never bristling with sharpness and detail—which might be due to HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth.

 

SOUND     

A pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room, but with somewhat limited low-end dynamics.

seemed to disappoint more people than it pleased. (Though it must be pointed out that both its critics’ and audience ratings were higher than Snyder’s BvS . . . )

 

Over the years, rumors started circulating that Snyder had all of the footage he shot during his time in the director’s seat and that he had assembled a rough-cut that he’d shown to some friends and insiders, and that this true vision of Justice League was a film that righted all wrongs.

 

Fans glommed onto this and started a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement filled with the usual social-media fervor, including toxic and hateful rhetoric and cyberbullying on Twitter and Reddit and at least one death threat. Even members of the Justice League cast and crew started showing support for the release of Snyder’s version of the film, and the movement continued to grow.

 

A lot of hate was spewed at Whedon, who—at least as far as I can tell—handled it all like a silent professional. Also, it’s important to remember that he never asked for any of this. He wasn’t clamoring to take the film away from Snyder—he was brought in at the 11th hour to save a major project. This is kind of like a pinch hitter being brought in to replace an injured 

player who’s told by the manager that he has to bunt, and then being crucified for not living up to the crowd’s expectations.

 

At any other time, this likely would have never gone anywhere, but then Warner launched its streaming service, HBO Max. Hungry to gobble up subscribers with unique and desirable content—and with a huge legion of rabid fans out there clamoring for it—Warner gave Snyder the go-ahead—and budget—to finish his version, announcing that it would stream exclusively on the new HBO Max platform.

 

Whether you want to compare this to negotiating with 

terrorists or not, it actually makes a lot of sense from Warner’s perspective. This groundswell of fan support created a ton of social-media buzz and free advertising that the studio literally couldn’t have purchased. At a time when much of Hollywood was shut down, it also fast-tracked a marquee title exclusively available on its streaming service, with less than a year passing between the announcement and the film’s availability. While the estimated $70 million required to finish the VFX and do some reshoots might sound like a lot—especially on top of the estimated $300 million Warner had already sunk into the film—it certainly isn’t unheard of for a tentpole title. (You might recall Disney paid $75 million for the worldwide rights to Hamilton, and Apple paid $70 million for Tom Hanks’ film Greyhound.) It also brings a ton of interest back to the DC Universe, with multiple new films in the pipeline, and likely considering any additional monies spent on the Snyder Cut as investments in future properties.

 

So . . . that kind of sets the stage for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

 

After all the protests and demands and waiting, is this four-hour-and-two-minute film a better experience that’s worth your time? Yes.

 

I can’t think that too many people would prefer Whedon’s JL to Snyder’s, as the ZSJL is just a far more complete and finished experience. (And currently stands with a critics’ score of 74% and audience score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.) 

 

But, it’s also a totally unfair comparison. Warner would have never given the four-hour-plus ZSJL cut we have here a commercial theatrical release back in 2017, especially following the dismal ratings of BvS. And it isn’t enough of a film to be split into two-parts à la the final Avengers films—which had “earned’ their two-part release over 20 films of world and character building—and even if it had been allowed to be released at an extended three-hour runtime, that would still have required an hour of trimming from what we have here.

 

Honestly, much of the film and overall experience feels overly indulgent. This isn’t to say it isn’t mostly entertaining, it just feels like . . . a journey. And sometimes a long one at that. Here, Snyder is free to do whatever he wants without the limits of time nor benefit of any outside input of test screenings to see ways to improve (reminding me a bit of George Lucas surrounding himself with “Yes!” men when working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy). 

 

Beyond the runtime, we have Snyder’s decision to release the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with a title card reading, “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision” appearing just before it begins. Sure, this might play great—and larger—on a giant commercial IMAX screen. which is Snyder’s ultimate goal, but for the 99.9% of HBO Max viewers who will be watching it on a 16:9 screen (let alone a 2.35:1 screen without the benefit of masking!) this “huge” movie feels smaller. 

 

At least Snyder pulled back from one of his original goals, to release the film in black & white. (He says “the ultimate version is the black-and-white IMAX version of the movie.”) Also, it feels like he was reaching for an edgier R rating for some reason, throwing in three completely arbitrary and out-of-place-feeling F-words to force the MPAA’s hand. Sigh . . .

 

At times, the movie feels like a kitchen-sink approach, lacking editorial restraint. Scenes like the singing after we see Aquaman entering the water or the ballad played over the lengthy slow-motion of The Flash saving future girlfriend Iris West just feel drawn out.

 

Even though Snyder has said he wouldn’t use a single frame of footage he hadn’t shot, fundamentally the ZSJL is much the same as Whedon’s 2017 movie, and watching it doesn’t feel like a wholly new experience so much as a fuller experience—kind of like skimming the Cliff’s Notes for War and Peace versus sitting down and pondering every word. The film still has Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) looking to locate and unite the same band of heroes: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Once joined, the newly formed League fights alien-baddy Steppenwolf (a CGI character voiced by Ciaran Hinds), trying to keep him from collecting three otherworldly Mother Boxes he plans to join into a planet-killing unity. After claiming the Boxes from the Amazons and Atlanteans, the League uses the box entrusted to humans centuries before to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to help in their fight—a showdown against Steppenwolf and his horde of Parademons in an abandoned nuclear reactor in Russia.

 

Much of the order of the film is the same and all the big fights and encounters remain. The tone is just darker and heavier throughout, with virtually all of the levity and quips gone. You get a sense of the difference in tone and narrative structure from the very opening. Where JL 2017 opened with (a heavily CGI de-mustached) Superman talking about hope and pondering his favorite thing about Earth after doing some Superman rescue, ZSJL opens with Superman being killed (from the end of BvS), his death screams echoing around the globe and causing the Mother Boxes to awaken, thus announcing their presence to Steppenwolf.  

 

Everything is just way more developed, with characters getting far more fleshed-out backstories, particularly pre-Cyborg Victor Stone. (One thing that isn’t “developed” is Whedon’s random Russian family stuck in a house near the power plant. That foolish little subplot has been excised.) We also get a much deeper look into Aquaman’s Atlantis. Relationships make more sense because they have two more hours to be explored and expanded, and the team coming together feels more authentic because it isn’t just thrown together over a matter of minutes. 

 

Battles are also longer, more intense, and more violent, with action shown from different angles and perspectives. In Whedon’s JL, Steppenwolf seems virtually unstoppable as he just rolls through the heroes claiming the boxes, only to ultimately have Superman appear at the 11th hour to save the day. In the ZSJL we get a sense the band of heroes could defeat Steppenwolf even without Supe, and his conquests are much harder fought along the way. Another big change—though not fundamentally affecting the film, although it would have guided the DCEU going forward had Snyder’s ultimate vision for continued films prevailed—is that Steppenwolf (who also has a completely different look here) is not the Big Bad but rather just a servant of ultimate baddy, Darkseid (another CGI character, voiced by Ray Porter), who would have been akin to Marvel’s Thanos. 

 

We have to assume that with all the trouble—and expense—Warner has gone to give Snyder this mulligan, everything we see is exactly the way he wanted. Which makes it interesting that Snyder chose to divide the experience into “chapters,” with six parts followed by an epilogue:

 

Part 1: Don’t Count on it, Batman

Part 2: The Age of Heroes

Part 3: Beloved Mother, Beloved Son

Part 4: Change Machine

Part 5: All the King’s Men

Part 6: Something Darker

Epilogue: A Father Twice Over

 

While it makes for convenient stopping points when watching (the end of Part 3 is almost a perfect halfway point), and seems ready-made for episodic streaming, these part “breaks” within the film don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to introduce what’s coming, and actually take you out of the moment a bit. 

 

Visually, you get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio fairly quickly (especially if you have some screen masking), with the more vertical presentation making our standing heroes appear taller. In practical terms, this took my 115-inch 2.35:1 screen (92-inch 16:9) down to a 75-inch 4:3 experience, which certainly was a bit less cinematic. The HBO Max presentation is in 4K HDR, including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. 

 

Shot on 35mm film and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, image quality is clean throughout, though I never felt it was bristling with sharpness and detail. In fact, in between Parts 3 and 4, we watched the first episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier on Disney+, and that looked sharper and more detailed. I was never taken by the micro detail in fabric or razor sharpness in a scene—in fact, some shots were noticeably softer than others. It certainly didn’t have the visual pop of other IMAX films, such as Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Whether this a case of the limitation of HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth or the source material is difficult to say. 

 

As mentioned, this is a dark film in tone, theme, and visual style. Much of it takes place either at night or in some darkened interior. Even the “daylight” scenes—such as between Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams)—outside in a cornfield are shot at near dusk. Blacks are nice, clean, and deep, and we get a lot of visual pop courtesy of HDR. Things like lights streaming in through windows, computer screens, and headlights all have a realistic look. We also get some nice punchy colors in the form of things like Cyborg’s glowing red eye, Amazonian’s golden outfit, and roaring flames. 

 

While I wouldn’t call the streaming experience “reference quality” video, it certainly goes beyond merely “watchable,” and makes me look forward to a second viewing in full-resolution video quality from Kaleidescape.

 

Sonically, the film has a pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room. Whether it’s sirens, alarms, machinery, echoes, birds, wind, or motor sounds, interior spaces are rich with different audio cues to place you in the space. The battles also make good use of all speakers, throwing action into all corners of the room.

 

Even viewing at reference volume level, I found the mix to be missing some of the low-end dynamics I would have expected. Again, I can’t say this is due to the mix itself (unlikely), the limitation of streaming via HBO Max (definitely a factor), or the audio output of my Apple 4K TV (also suspect). While bass wasn’t non-existent, it never had the wallop you’d expect from a big-budget superhero film, and it wasn’t until the climax with the Mother Boxes where I ever really felt like bass was reaching a tactile level I could feel in my seat. Again, it makes me look forward to a second viewing on Kaleidescape in a lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. 

 

Now that it’s finally here, you have to ask whether the film was worthy of the social movement that helped bring it about and make it a reality. I’d say, no. 

 

However, I’d also certainly concede it is the better Justice League film, offering a far richer viewing experience that is definitely more in line in with the style and tone of Snyder’s two DC films that preceded it and giving us a glimpse into where he thought the DCEU would head. And if completing it and bringing it to the public brought Snyder and his family any personal closure from their tragedy, then that’s another positive. Among movie fans—especially the superhero-loving kind—Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to be a watercooler topic for some time, and it will be interesting to see what—if any—lasting impact it will have on Warner’s plans for the DCEU going forward.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Party (1968)

The Party (1968)

Blake Edwards’ The Party actually opened on the same day as 2001: A Space Odyssey in that very strange year of 1968. It took a while for 2001 to gain some traction but it eventually became a big deal (thanks largely to a faithful following of stoners) and went on to become a classic. The Party closed almost immediately, and the twin blows of that and the godawful Darling Lili almost obliterated Edwards’ career. But the movie has shown surprising tenacity, and while it doesn’t have anything like 2001’s reputation, it is, in its broad, neurotic, and fundamentally conservative way, a deeply radical film.

 

Oddly, The Party and 2001 have things in common beyond springing from a radical impulse, mainly that, while they both have sound, they’re basically widescreen silent films—an itch Jacques Tati scratched at around the same time with Playtime. (It

wouldn’t be inapt to see that retreat into virtual silence as a kind of traumatic reaction to the times.)

 

But The Party’s biggest—and highly dubious—honor is that it single-handedly created the frat-boy/gross-out comedy genre that eventually proved stupidly lucrative for the studios and still plagues us today. And that, of course, has since morphed, as the culture has grown more callous, into the even more smug and sadistic genre of horror comedy. But Edwards can’t really be held responsible for that last crime against humanity.

 

And then there’s the fact that The Party would fall somewhere near the top of that daily longer list of films that could never be made today. The announcement that anyone like Peter Sellers was going to play an Indian in a comedy would cause vast hordes of rabid Millennials to well up trailing endless miles of hangman’s rope, Edwards’ and

THE PARTY AT A GLANCE

Blake Edwards’ radically conservative all-but-silent widescreen comedy features Peter Sellers’ last great comic performance.

 

PICTURE
Lucien Ballard’s cinematography perfectly captures all of the status-driven ugliness of mid-’60s Hollywood.

 

SOUND     

A tepid and out-of-touch Mancini score adrift in a surround mix drowned out by Edwards’ visual slapstick genius.

Sellers’ intentions and the actual execution of the film be damned. The sad truth is that any form of expression outside of some very rigid and oppressive guardrails has become verboten. There was far more latitude in the mid ‘60s, obviously, but nobody was quite sure what to do with the freedom that had suddenly tumbled into their laps.

 

That anyone who could enjoy this movie might be dissuaded from watching it just because some zealots have labeled it “racist” is tragic. 

 

While Edwards tried to make important films—including some basically unwatchable dramas—and dabbled in social commentary, he was primarily an extremely gifted metteur en scène with a deeply intuitive sense of the physics of comedy who probably would have been happiest doing slapstick shorts in the 1920s but was born too late. The first Pink Panther film is a work of genius, an almost flawless classical farce in the style of Molière, Beaumarchais, and Feydeau. Its followup, A Shot in the Dark, is OK but begins to feel forced. All of the subsequent Panther films aren’t worth the time it takes to watch them. 

 

The Party is essentially Edwards’ baffled reaction—common to square-but-desperate-to-seem-hip society in the ’60s—to almost the whole of the social order being tossed into a blender. It takes the sophisticated, ’50s-inflected chaos of the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a milieu he knew well—and wonders what would happen if that anarchy-within-bounds were allowed to roam free. But since Edwards didn’t have a politically rebellious bone in his body, the best he could arrive at was something that often resembles the finale of a Beach Blanket movie. Only the fact the he was a far more talented director than William (Bewitched) Asher begins to redeem this mess.

 

But it’s a both beautiful and nasty mess, and something to be savored—beginning, of course, with Sellers. This was his last great comic performance. After reaching his peak with Strangelove, Clouseau, and, here, Bakshi, he had little left to give and spent the next decade and a half stumbling from one mediocre film and half-hearted performance to another. (Being There is such an oddity it’s hard to say where it falls in all that.)

 

This is also his most fully rounded creation. Bakshi obviously meant something to Sellers (and Edwards) and he took the time to develop him into a complete character with a resonance that goes well beyond his comedic presence. You can laugh at him but at the same time can’t help but feel for him. None of Sellers’ other performances evokes that kind of emotional response.

 

While there are some perfectly tuned supporting turns (with the exception of the unfortunate Claudine Longet), they are all, appropriately, meant to create foils and a frame for Sellers. About the only thing that approaches deserving second billing is the studio head’s cringe-worthy home. Edwards and cinematographer Lucien Ballard captured the sheer awfulness of mid-‘60s West Cost architecture and design, and, again echoing Tati, turned this hideous shrine to status into a character. It’s so ugly it’s, within the context of the film, beautiful.

 

The Party is legendary for Edwards’ and Ballard’s elaborate widescreen compositions, with multiple bits of business playing out at the same time. The dinner scene, with its endlessly cascading sight gags and virtuoso timing, especially rewards repeated viewing. (This was one of the first films to use a Sony video system for playback, which Edwards deployed deftly to 

develop his slapstick mosaics.)

 

You can’t say this movie looks amazing in Blu-ray-quality HD, but you can’t say it looks lousy either. The opening titles are better defined, less blotchy, than they’ve been in the past, and the increased detail helps enhance the impact of complex set pieces like that dinner scene, which have just been visually busy before. The film would obviously benefit from a bump up to 4K, but you can also see where certain elements would likely come across as too contrasty exercises in excess grain.

 

(One quick aside: No other Edwards film looks and moves like this one, which can probably be largely attributed to Ballard, who cut his teeth shooting shorts for The Three Stooges and would move on from The Party to shoot The Wild Bunch. Like I said, it was a very strange year.)

 

Poor Henry Mancini. Just four years earlier, on the heels of Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, he had been the king of the pop music world, but the British Invasion had since all but wiped him from the face of the planet, and you can sense him struggling mightily here to figure out how he fits into a world of Day-Glo, psychedelica, and fuzz-tone guitars. The answer, unfortunately,

The Party (1968)

is that he doesn’t, and the title song, with its sitar played with a Garden Weasel, ragtime syncopations, and Keith Moon-at-a-high-school-dance drumming, is so out of touch it’s unintentionally funny.

 

The Party deserves a surround mix on par with the brilliance of its visual gags but it would be impossible for anyone, at this late date, to get far enough onto Edwards’ wavelength to pull something like that off. So what we get instead is serviceable but not what the film deserves.

 

There’s something deeply medieval about the current moment, where the most potent and revealing creative works are being forced into hiding, held in some form of safekeeping until the day—that may never come—when they can again be appreciated for what they are. The Party, at its heart, is a tale of the outsider—and it’s exactly the iconoclasts, the outsiders, who are being purged. Edwards and Sellers couldn’t have known that by trying to fathom the ’60s, they’d end up shining a more piercing light on the fashionably dark present.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Of all of Woody Allen’s many films, The Purple Rose of Cairo deserves to be in, or near, the Top 5. I doubt anyone has ever treated the subject of mass-produced fantasies and their consequences as incisively. And Allen does it without turning it into the type of cold-blooded, too-clever-by-half intellectual exercise that tends to rule the roost today.

On an initial viewing, Purple Rose can seem lightweight, in a charming and quirky kind of way. It’s Allen’s most successful attempt to translate the style of his S.J. Perelman-type short pieces for The New Yorker to the screen. But while those pieces, hilarious as they often are, tend to be little more than a kind of absurdist riffing, here he manages to interweave a decent amount of earned emotion with the absurdity; and when he veers into sentimentality, it reinforces his critique of pop fantasies and comes with a bite.

 

While Mia Farrow gives what might be her best performance, it’s Jeff Daniels who walks away with the film. It’s hard to imagine the one-note Michael Keaton pulling off playing two similar yet very distinctly different roles, let alone looking like a Hollywood actor from the ‘30s. And yet 

CAIRO AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s best, it’s probably the strongest critique ever of the consequences of our cultural need to escape into fantasy worlds.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—on par with his work in Manhattanholds up surprisingly well in this Blu-ray-quality HD download

 

SOUND     

Dick Hyman’s slick and soulless score is the weakest thing in the film.

Daniels aces it, also bringing a bland Midwestern quality to his portrayal that makes Gil Shepherd’s eventual betrayal of Farrow that much more affecting.

 

Without that last-mentioned turn, the film would have been little more than a very funny confection. But Allen’s movies, as he emerged from his mid period, began to display a maturity, a grounded and often troubling depth, he’s never gotten enough credit for. If he had opted for anything resembling a traditional happy ending, Purple Rose would have been little different 

from the fluff it both embraces and skewers. Shepherd’s all-too-human duplicity is a bracing jolt that throws the dangers—and irresponsibility—of the easy retreat into fantasy into context. Nobody can stop you from escaping into fantasy worlds—something the culture industry has shifted into hyper drive to encourage since the grim turn of the century—but it always comes at a hefty price.

 

And you have to wonder if the contemporary masses aren’t so thoroughly indoctrinated, so caught up in the endless, indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-referential, and insanely lucrative exercises in overgrown child’s play, for anything like this to even begin to resonate anymore, if Allen’s point isn’t utterly lost on a world that just wants to be left alone with its toys.

 

After landing that blow, though, Allen does cheat a little with an unfortunate shot of Shepherd looking wistfully out a plane window as he flies back to Hollywood from Farrow’s bleak corner of New Jersey. That moment seems to let Daniels’ character off the hook way too easily. It’s not that Allen shouldn’t have gone there but something more ambivalent would have rung truer.

 

I need to pause for a moment to acknowledge Danny Aiello’s performance. An actor all too often typecast, Allen plays off from that here, taking an archetypical abusive goon and making him, if not palatable, at last understandable. Consider the distance from Sylvester Stallone in a black leather jacket beating up old ladies on the subway in Bananas and you have an accurate gauge of just how much Allen grew as a filmmaker. And Aiello takes the opportunity and runs with it, without ever breaking a sweat.

 

Dianne Wiest deserves similar praise. If she hadn’t been able to bring depth to her portrayal of a roaming prostitute, Daniels-as-Tom Baxter’s sojourn in a bordello would have been little more than an extended cheap laugh. But she and Allen give her a basal dignity that keeps her and her fellow co-workers from becoming objects of ridicule.

 

And now we once again come to Gordon Willis. It would be impossible to decide which film represents his best work for Allen, but I would have to put Purple Rose really near or on par with Manhattan. He doesn’t really do anything bravura here, but it’s all strong. How he and Allen were able to take 

a closed-for-the-season amusement park in the autumn chill and turn it into a subtle metaphor for the film itself and for the torpor of America in the middle of the Depression remains both stunning and sublime.

 

As with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the cinematography holds up surprisingly well in Blu-ray-quality HD. Most of the subtlety is retained, only occasionally marred by excess noise and grain. Patches of bright light remain a problem, but not

much can be done about that until the increasingly distant day when this film gets lifted up to 4K HDR.

 

The most egregious problem is the shots in the film-within-the-film that were radically enlarged on an optical printer. Allen obviously shot all of these as masters and then decided in editing that the other characters in the frame were too distracting. I don’t remember these images being this grainy and blobby when seen in a theater, but here they look like somebody spliced in some degraded VHS footage.

 

The weakest thing about Purple Rose is Dick Hyman’s score. It’s unfortunate Allen leaned so heavily on Hyman in his films because, while he was a technically proficient musician, his work tended to be slick and soulless. Fortunately Allen’s material is strong enough to not be unduly weighed down by the seemingly arbitrary and often incongruous cues, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have cobbled together the entire soundtrack out of vintage music instead.

 

Many of Allen’s films are about characters who easily—and often, too easily—slip into fantasy worlds, and many of his protagonists are haunted by fantasy projections of the past. Key films like Annie Hall and Stardust Memories show

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Allen himself, thinly disguised behind fictional monikers, having a hard time, by his own admission, separating fiction from reality. His condition, which at one time was seen as an aberration, has since become desirable, is now accepted as the norm. While he frequently played that tenuous hold on reality for laughs, he never fully accepted it, and Purple Rose remains his most trenchant look into what has become the very heart of the culture.

Michael Gaughn

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