Reviews

ER

Like millions of Americans in the ‘90s, Thursday nights meant one thing to me: It was time for NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. NBC had dominated Thursday prime-time programming from the moment Bill Cosby donned his first sweater in 1984, and classic shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld only tightened the network’s hold on Thursday viewership over the next decade.

 

But even the execs at NBC had to be surprised by the immediate breakout success of two shows added to that already powerful Thursday night lineup in September of 1994: Friends and ER.

 

My mother fell in love with ER (and George Clooney, of course) from the very start, so we quickly settled into a family ritual. Every Thursday night after work, I’d drive the 20 miles to Mom’s house. We’d settle in, flip on NBC, order some pizza, switch to something else when Madman of the People came on, and then switch back in time for our weekly appointment with the doctors and nurses at Chicago’s County General hospital.

We clearly were not the only ones captivated by this new drama—ER became a mainstay in the Nielsen Top 10 for the next decade, and at the height of its popularity averaged more than 35 million viewers.

 

ER finally signed off in 2009 after 15 seasons, a remarkable 331 episodes, and 124 Emmy nominations (a record for a drama). The final episode gave the series its largest rating in years, but the show seemed to disappear from the public consciousness very quickly after it left the air.

 

We live in an era of countless cable TV channels and multiple streaming platforms, yet for 10 years the only way to watch ER was on DVD. That finally changed last year, when the POP network started airing three episodes every afternoon. I soon found myself entrenched in a full show re-watch—a task that took up a Dr. Benton’s ego-sized chunk of my spare time (and about 75% of my DVR) over a six-month period.

 

Thankfully, anyone who now wants to revisit ER can do so in much simpler fashion. Earlier this year, Hulu announced it had added all 15 seasons to its streaming service. You no longer have to force yourself to watch three episodes a day just to keep pace, like I did. But that does bring up a big question: Is an ER binge really worth 331 hours of your precious screen time?

 

At the very least, I’d recommend watching the first seven or eight seasons—especially if you’re a first-time viewer. Medical dramas have always been a staple on TV, but ER was the first to expose viewers to the real blood and guts of a big-city hospital. The fast-paced, in-your-face cinematography was always a standout aspect of the show, and these early episodes look even better now that they can now be seen in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Note: ER episodes began airing in widescreen during Season Seven, but they were filmed in widescreen format from Day One.)

 

As impressive as ER was from a technical standpoint, it was always the characters that were the heart of the show. George Clooney may have become the breakout superstar, but every member of that stellar original cast created a character to remember. Even the smaller roles of the nurses and desk clerks seemed like people you wanted to have a beer with, and that only added to ER’s mass appeal.

 

Of course, with great success came great cast turnover. One by one, George Clooney and Juliana Margulies and Eric La Salle eventually left the show. Maura Tierney and Goran Ivanisevic came on board and helped to keep the quality (and ratings) at a high level, but the glory days of ER officially came to an end with the departure of Noah Wyle’s John Carter in 2005.

 

With no ties left to the original cast, ER lost much of what made it appealing in the first place. The storylines became more and more over-the-top (so many explosions!), but there were always just enough quality moments to keep me watching for all 15 seasons.

 

And as my re-watch reminded me, ER was never lacking in star power. Almost every episode seemed to feature someone who would go on to do bigger and better things—Lucy Liu, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Hendricks. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, and Jessica Chastain are just a small sampling of the many then-unknowns who made visits to County General over the years.

 

While I truly enjoyed my recent re-watch, it wasn’t always easy viewing. ER will forever remind me of my mother, even though we stopped watching together on a regular basis after she moved away in the late ‘90s. Mom is older now and going through some tough medical issues, and more than a few episodes hit just a little too close to home—but that was always the power of ER at its very best.

 

I’m sure that over the course of 331 episodes, you’ll shed some tears as well. And if you do manage to make it through to the very end, you’ll be rewarded with a final season that features return engagements from almost all of the show’s original stars. Even Anthony Edwards makes an appearance, despite the fact that Dr. Greene passed away way back in Season Eight.

 

ER may have been on life support over its last few seasons, but the final episodes provide a fitting end to one of TV’s longest-running—and best—dramas.

Gary Maxwell

 

All 15 seasons of ER are available on Hulu. It is also available for streaming from Amazon,
Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

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

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

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.

REVIEWS

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

Review: ‘The Last Jedi’ UHD Blu-ray

I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.

 

That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.

 

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.

 

If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.

 

Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.

 

It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.

 

The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.

 

At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.

 

In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.

The Last Jedi

But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.

 

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.

 

It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.

 

In my 2018 Wishlist published on the Rayva Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.

The Last Jedi

In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.

 

The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.

 

Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.

 

But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.

 

As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort. 

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.

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

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

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

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.