Dennis Burger Tag

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Could Superman beat the Incredible Hulk? Is Batman a match for Iron-Man? These sorts of questions have filled the dreams of kids and comic book geeks alike for decades now, but they’re rarely seen as any more than conversation starters or flights of fancy. And yet, for some reason, asking who is the greatest baseball player or quarterback or goalie of all time is viewed

as legitimate discourse amongst grown-ass men and scholars alike.

 

Those of us who follow motorsports (serious ones, at least) know what a ridiculous question this is when applied to our own passion. Auto racing is as much about the team as it is the pilot. It’s as much about the car as the team. It’s as much about the chaos of meteorological conditions as it is the car. And, yes, we all have our favorite drivers (shout-out to Jan Magnussen), but that often has as much to do with personality or manufacturer affiliation as it does talent.

 

But such subjectivity didn’t satisfy Dr. Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who set out in 2016 to use quantitative statistical analysis to remove (or at least account for) the differences made by cars, teams, weather, and even year-to-year variance in order to determine who was the best Formula One pilot of all time.

LIFE OF SPEED AT A GLANCE

This ambitious Netflix documentary about the greatest Formula One driver of all time will intrigue and satisfy racing fans and non fans alike.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR presentation does well with the copious archival materials but really shines with the present-day interview segments and historical reenactments.

 

SOUND

The soundtrack is marred by a New Age-y score whose power-nap vibe seriously goes against the film’s auto-racing grain.

I mention this research only because the resulting paper forms the backbone of the new Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. And this fact alone—the use of scientific parsing to answer the question of who could beat whom if they never competed head-to-head—makes for one of the most fascinating sports documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps ever.

 

As with any documentary focusing on the accomplishments of a single individual, A Life of Speed leans heavy on biography, and provides a solid understanding of who Fangio was and what made him tick, even if you’ve never heard his name before. It also provides a pretty satisfying history of Formula One, a sport that emerged just as Fangio was making a name for himself in long-distance dirt-road racing. On top of that, it sprinkles in a bit of the history of automotive engineering.

 

Truth be told, if the film weren’t so well made, it would probably crumble under its own weight. It attempts to be three or four documentaries at once—which is at least two too many—and if not for the talents of director Francisco Macri and editor Luciano Origlio, it would be a mess.

 

Somehow, though, it isn’t a mess. Quite the opposite, in fact; by juggling so many balls so effectively, A Life of Speed manages to be interesting in several simultaneous ways.

Of course, given its historical nature, the bulk of the film is comprised of archival photographs, old film stock, kinescope recordings, and even a few well-played VHS tapes, it seems. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation to latch onto, though. The present-day interviews and newly filmed historical reenactments are beautifully framed, wonderfully composed, and have a distinctive low-contrast look that still makes great use of the enhanced dynamic range and color gamut of our modern home video standards.

 

If there’s one criticism I can level at A Life of Speed from a creative perspective, it’s that the score is just awful. If you’ve ever used one of those power-nap apps that are all the rage these days, you’ll recognize the New Age-y ambience in a heartbeat.

 

There’s also the fact the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which wouldn’t be a problem except Netflix positions its subtitles halfway into the black bar at the bottom of the screen, with no way of moving them. So, if you’re using a constant-height projection setup, you’ll likely miss half the film’s dialogue and narration (unless you speak Spanish, Italian, German, and English).

 

Don’t let those quibbles turn you off of this one, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One—indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Fangio in your life—A Life of Speed is one of those rare documentaries whose quality isn’t contingent upon your interest in the subject matter.

Dennis Burger

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

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

photo by John Frattasi

It’s easy to think of a media room as a low-performance or “good enough” entertainment space with a cheap TV and a Best Buy soundbar—a sort of glorified version of the old family den or man cave. To put it another way, there’s this pervasive notion that to enjoy movies at home to the fullest, you need to either install a dedicated home theater or you can settle for second best.

 

That doesn’t have to be the case, though. As I’ve argued plenty of times in the pages of Cineluxe, you can actually build a high-quality media room space that legitimately qualifies as a home cinema experience. If you have a home office, master 

bedroom, kids room, or communal living space that you want to upgrade into a fantastic moving-watching space, you can totally do that.

 

 

In our ongoing Cineluxe Basics series, I’ve covered all of the things you need to keep in mind when doing so, but those articles deconstruct the modern media room a piece at a time, i.e., what you should think about when picking a TV and what you need to know about surround sound preamps. They don’t really give you a holistic overview of what a complete media room system looks like. So, if you’re looking to convert your home office or kids’ room into a top-

notch movie-watching space for the entire family without ripping out all of the walls and starting from scratch, you may be left wondering how far you need to go.

 

That’s where this new series comes in. Over the next few posts, I’ll be painting a picture of what a complete media room system looks like in terms of electronics, starting with the simplest of all high-performance luxury media room systems. In other words, a system that will have minimal impact on your décor, but maximal impact on your movie-watching enjoyment. And despite the pithy intro, I think a great TV and a really high-end soundbar is a great basis for such an essential system.

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics
WHAT KIND OF TV, EXACTLY?

That depends, really. We at Cineluxe consider home cinema to be a shared experience, so we think any good media room display should be big enough to give at least two people a viewing angle of 40 to 45 degrees. So, if you’ll just be watching your movies with your significant other, and assuming you’ll be sitting no further than six or seven feet from the screen, a 75-inch TV should be sufficient. If you have more viewers on a regular basis or you sit further away, it’s probably better to upgrade to an 85- or even 98-inch class display.

 

Splitting the difference, we think something like Sony’s Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV is a good recommendation. In terms of technology, it’s ahead of the curve. In terms of design, it’s the leader of the pack, and with its built-in Android TV operating 

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

the Kaleidescape Strato S movie player

system, the only source device you’ll really need for a complete luxury entertainment system is a Kaleidescape movie player.

 

Of course, your local integrator may not be a Sony dealer, but if not, chances are good they sell 

LG instead, whose Signature Z9 88-inch OLED is a step up in terms of design and technology, but also a big step up in price.

 

 

IS A SOUNDBAR REALLY ENOUGH?

There’s this pervasive myth that soundbars are nothing more than a compromise for people on a budget looking for a down-and-dirty surround sound solution. And that’s still largely true in the $200-and-below range. But these days, there are any number of truly high-performance soundbars that can deliver shockingly good sound.

 

If you’re simply looking for big, room-filling, impactful Dolby Atmos/DTS:X surround sound without running wires through the walls or around the perimeter of the room, Sennheiser has been turning heads in recent months with its new Ambeo Soundbar, an all-in-one sound solution that delivers 5.1.4-channel audio for $2,499. You might consider adding a subwoofer 

to the mix if you just can’t abide anything less than the deepest, hardest-hitting bass, but it’s not necessary. And if your local integrator doesn’t carry the Ambeo, the Yamaha YSP-5600 and Sony HT-ST5000 soundbars also deliver cinematic sound in a simple package. (Although, to be fair, neither of those is quite as technologically advanced as the Sennheiser.)

 

Luxury speaker manufacturers like James

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

the Leon Speakers Horizon soundbar

Loudspeaker and Leon Speakers also make some truly gorgeous soundbars that, in some cases, can even be custom-made to perfectly match the width of your TV. They may be a little more complicated to set up, since they do require amplification, but if utter aesthetic sophistication is important to you, they’re definitely worth a look.

 

In my next post, I’ll start digging into what a slightly more elaborate—and indeed expandable—media room system looks like. But if you’re just looking for the basics, and if you’re looking to minimize the disruption to your design aesthetic, the Sony Z9G Master Series paired with a Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar and a Kaleidescape movie player, properly installed and calibrated, will give you one heck of a movie-watching experience at home.

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.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

I cannot tell you how faithful Greta Gerwig’s new big-screen adaptation of Little Women is to Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age classic. I’ve never read the book. Nor can I tell you how it compares with previous adaptations, including the beloved 1994 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Claire Daines, et al. I’ve never seen any of them. What drew me to this film wasn’t the source material or any respect for its cultural significance. What lured me in was Gerwig herself, whose brilliant directorial debut—2017’s Lady Bird—earned her enough creative currency in my book that I’ll watch anything she helms going forward.

 

Still, my wife snickered when I told her we’d be watching the film.

 

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

 

“You’re way more of an Emily Brontë than a Louisa May Alcott, that’s all.”

 

I frankly have no clue what that means. But I do know this: If I honestly cared about organizing some personal ranking of the best films of 2019, Little Women would leave me scrambling to rearrange it yet again.

 

I think I can safely say that Gerwig’s film is structured very differently from Alcott’s book, if only because a novel written in such a temporally idiosyncratic way would read like James Joyce on a bad acid trip. The film follows seven years in the life of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March, played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen—but rather than following their maturation from adolescence into womanhood chronologically, Gerwig instead groups scenes thematically, jumping forward and backward in time with seemingly no rhyme or reason until you catch onto the fact that rhyme and reason are exactly what influenced the grouping of moments in time, rather than the straightforward passage thereof.

By taking this approach, Gerwig has constructed more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative, and it reminds me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in its pace and momentum; definitely not in its tone or effect) than perhaps any other film I’ve seen in recent decades. Much like that film, Little Women assumes the intelligence of its audience, and trusts the viewer to locate themselves in time and space by way of context. Only one subtitle early in the film calls out the drastic time shifts, and from there on out Gerwig seems to assume you’ll either keep up or give up and enjoy the ride.

 

Far more than merely a cinematic conceit, these near-constant temporal shifts allow the viewer to do something I honestly wasn’t quite sure I would be able to do at the beginning of the film: Truly understand the unique personality of each of the story’s numerous characters. By clumping the tale’s visual, thematic, and narrative echoes together rather than sprinkling them throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime, Gerwig invites us to ruminate more on meaning than exposition, more on character than narrative.

 

Again, I’m at a loss to compare the themes of the film to the themes of the book, but the story as Gerwig tells it is really about the creative impulse. The drive to make art. The struggle to be taken seriously not just as a woman in Civil War-era America, but as an artist in an inartistic world. In many ways, the film ends up being as much a commentary on the story as an adaptation of it, best I can tell. And while it also grapples with issues of class, gender, and societal norms—all with surprising nuance and complexity—it’s really that artistic impulse that centers the film and gives distinct personality to each of its characters.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Little Women is that it isn’t afraid to get a little weird at times. But it’s not a weirdness driven by affectation. Instead, it’s a weirdness driven by the needs of the story. As much as Gerwig’s film deviates from the structure of any comprehensible book to craft a uniquely cinematic work, it’s still in many ways a celebration of the written word. And in paying homage to the inimitable structure of written language, it relies on tropes that would normally drag a film down or cheapen it—like narration, for example. Rather than taking the safe approach or trying to bury that narration in the tried-and-true ways, Gerwig hangs a lantern on it at times and has her characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, even when they’re not speaking to the viewer.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but in Gerwig’s hands it does. And the cumulative effect is a film that’s as playful as it is heady, as sentimental as it is rebellious, as joyful as it is solemn in places. The one place where Gerwig doesn’t take bold risks is with the look of the film. I could have told you without looking that Little Women was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T stock, which gives the cinematography a decidedly warm cast, with a yellowish tint to whites

and a flush ruddiness to skin tones. But the overall look of the film is intentionally muted, and even the 4K/HDR presentation on Kaleidescape doesn’t make much obvious use of its expanded dynamic range and color gamut.

 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely film. Just not one that will be used as videophile demo material. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, on the other hand, is unapologetically adventurous. Shockingly so for a period film of this sort. The height channels are used judiciously but effectively to provide a vertical boost in scenes that need it—large parlors, big theaters, the grimy city streets of 19th century New York—but they probably get used most to expand Alexandre Desplat’s score (his best since The Shape of Water, in my opinion) into the z-axis.

 

Sadly, Kaleidescape’s release of the film is delivered sans extras for now, which is unsurprising given that it’s a Sony release. Expect those bonus goodies to drop right around the time the film is released to disc (Blu-ray and DVD only, no UHD) in April. One supplement in particular I’m eager to see is an exploration of Orchard House, the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women.

Little Women (2019)

While I wait, I think I might actually give Alcott’s book a try based purely on the strength of this film alone, and despite my wife’s objections. As the credits rolled, I looked at her and playfully scolded her: “Why have you never pestered me to read that book?!”

 

She pondered for a few moments and replied: “Don’t get me wrong. I love the book. It’s one of my favorites. But the book wasn’t that good. It’s entertainment. That film was art.”

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.

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

I can’t remember the last time any film left me feeling so conflicted as Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems. Conflicted because, on the one hand, it’s as distinctive an artistic expression as I’ve seen on film in who knows how long—meticulously scripted, inventively shot, masterfully edited, with performances that are award-worthy down to the level of the most minor secondary roles.

 

On the other hand, I can’t remember any film in recent memory that filled me with such anxiety as this one did, from the opening scene straight through to the closing credits. The film stars Adam Sandler, who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as Howard Ratner, a jewelry store proprietor and compulsive gambler who’s always one side-hustle away from either striking it rich or getting fitted for cement shoes. His fortunes seem to change when he comes into possession of a rare black opal that quickly becomes the obsession of basketball player Kevin Garnett (played equally effectively by basketball player 

Kevin Garnett). Rather than selling the stone to Garnett for a ridiculous sum of money, Ratner decides to scam him by way of an auction, and, well . . . so it goes for the rest of the film.

 

In some ways, I suppose you could call Uncut Gems a morality play, but the morality espoused seems to be pure nihilism. There isn’t a sympathetic character in the film. No 

one to root for. No opportunity for a satisfying resolution that isn’t morally bankrupt. And I’m not saying that makes it a bad film; I’m merely saying it was one that I couldn’t enjoy.

 

Which is a shame, because the Safdies draw inspiration from some of my guilty pleasures, especially the late-80s/early-90s output of Michael Mann, whose style they manage to evoke without aping, both visually and aurally. Shot on the same Kodak Vision3 500T 35mm film stock that gave Marriage Story its distinctively cinematic look, Uncut Gems is the perfect marriage of photochemical chaos and cutting-edge digital precision. It’s all unapologetically crushed blacks and cranked primary hues, and in one scene in particular—at a glitzy nightclub performance by The Weeknd—the 4K HDR presentation (sourced from a 4K digital intermediate) uses its enhanced dynamic range to effectively recreate the blacklight illumination and the DayGlo neon colors that result.

 

Even the soundtrack is a captivating mix of retro and bleeding edge, thanks in part to a score by Daniel Lopatin that breaks all the rules of both composition and mixing. The music at times evokes the Michael Mann aesthetic, with 80s-tastic droning synths and a pulse-pounding tempo that pushes the visuals forward. At other times, it veers into Blade Runner territory,

and at other times still ventures into what can only be described as artistic porn-music territory.

 

The one consistent aspect of the soundtrack—and indeed the sound mix as a whole—is that supervising sound editor Warren Shaw acts as if he’s the first person to ever work in surround sound, much less Dolby Atmos. The mix exhibits a level of aggression I would normally find irritating and distracting, but here it simply works. Dialogue is forced into the left or right channels at times when it would traditionally be locked into the center. Score music often uses the surrounds as the primary channels instead of the fronts. If it weren’t all so skillfully mixed, it would come across as pure chaos, and to be frank I find myself loving it all in spite of myself.

 

In the end, though, I have to put Uncut Gems into that growing pile of films that I appreciate but just can’t enjoy. For all the visual and auditory allusions to Michael Mann, the film ends up playing as more of a horror movie in which the lumbering antagonist isn’t a machete-wielding psychopath, but rather karma itself. It could have just as easily been titled A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Person Has a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.

 

And here’s the thing: I’m not quite sure if the Safdies have created a window

Uncut Gems

or a mirror. Am I supposed to feel any sympathy or empathy for Sandler’s awful character? If so, Uncut Gems fails in that respect, because I can’t. Am I supposed to root for his comeuppance? I hope not, because that feels just as gross.

 

And yet, for all the anxiety, for all the conflicted feelings, for all the desire to bleach my eyeballs after the credits rolled, I have to admit I was absolutely captivated by the sheer talent on the screen and behind the scenes here. And I don’t really like the way that realization makes me feel about myself.   

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.

A Guide to Luxury Control Systems

What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

In our ongoing series on the basic components of a luxury home media system, we’ve covered most of the big questions you need to ask and things you need to keep in mind when selecting your video display (TV or projector), sound system (both electronics and speakers), and the source components by which you access your entertainment. There’s one big category we haven’t covered yet, though. How do you plan on actually interacting with all of this gear? 

 

There are, of course, a number of DIY universal remote control solutions on the market, as well as basic smart-home systems you can pick up at your local Home Depot or Best Buy. And while some combination of those devices will give you control of

most of your home’s electronics, they’re not exactly the stuff of luxury (nor reliability).

 

That’s why you’ll want to invest in a professionally installed and programmed control and automation system, not only to provide you with a more reliable and elegant control experience, but also to integrate all of your home’s electronics, lighting, and comfort control into one unified system that works together.

 

What does this mean, exactly? Say, for example, you have a Kaleidescape movie server and you sit down to watch a film. With a good professional control system in place, you won’t have to worry about dimming the lights yourself or adjusting the thermostat to your preferred movie-watching temperature. A single press of a button can start the film, dim the lights, dial your Ecobee or Nest thermostat to 72 degrees, close the shades, and lock the front gate.

 

You’ll see that phrase a lot in any discussion of luxury home control, by the way: “A single press of a button.” The reality is, though, home control these days involves a lot less button-pressing than it used to. Sure, you may have a traditional wand-style hard-button remote on the end table in your home cinema or media room, as well as others of its sort near other TVs throughout the home. For channel-surfing, streaming video, or even pausing your Kaleidescape mid-movie, nothing beats a good hard-button clicker. But they’re not so great when it comes to operating lights, shades, climate control, or any number of other smart systems within the home.

 

For those, you’ll likely want to use a combination of dedicated touchscreens, mobile apps, and even voice control. Each approach—touchscreen, voice, hard-button control via remotes and keypads, and even motion-sensing—has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to fire up your AV system or initiate a lighting scene with a simple verbal command, but you wouldn’t want to use it to adjust volume in the home theater or turn on the hallway light on your trip to the fridge for a midnight snack when everyone else is asleep. The best control system is one that blends all of these methods of control to conform to your lifestyle and the way you use your home.

 

The good news is, all of today’s advanced control systems support all of these methods of control and more. Control4

Savant, and Crestron—the three biggest trendsetters in the home control and automation space—all support Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to one degree or another. All also support a more upscale digital voice assistant called Josh.ai, which was designed from the ground up to provide more intuitive voice control for luxury systems. All also offer compatibility with other, more specialized manufacturers in the luxury home control space, such as Lutron for lighting and shade control.

 

As for which of the three main control systems you should opt for, that’s really a discussion for you and your installer/dealer to have, based on your unique needs and preferences. Control4, the most economical of the three, is an easier-to-program, 

one-size-fits-all control solution that supports more third-party devices (especially off-the-shelf smart home devices) than the rest, but also has a lot of Amazon first-party control solutions, including my pick for best intercom/doorbell system on the market.

 

Control4 also offers a nice level of user personalization and customization. But for the most part, any Control4 system is going to look like any other from the standpoint of their user interfaces. In other words, the system uses a pre-made template that automatically adjusts itself depending on what other components it’s programed to control. So if you have your heart set on making your home control touchscreens 

look like exact recreations of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Control4 might not be the right solution for you.

 

Next up the ladder in terms of price and customization is Savant. While it still very much relies on a template-based interface, Savant offers a little more in terms of personalization, and it’s probably the safest bet if you want to know for certain that your touchscreens will be as pretty as possible. I also think Savant has the best hard-button remote control of any control system, which may be enticing if you do a lot of TV watching. It even has Siri built in, which is a big plus for Apple fans. Savant isn’t quite as easy to retrofit as is Control4, though, making it better suited to new construction.

 

At the top of the home control food chain is Crestron—by far the most expensive home-automation solution, but also the most customizable. Honestly, you’re only limited by the imagination and programming skills of your installer. You want that bridge of the Enterprise aesthetic? Totally doable, as long as you don’t mind paying for the custom programming. Have a palatial estate with 100 rooms or more? Crestron will thrive there, where Control4 and Savant might start to choke. 

 

Ultimately, though, no matter which control and automation solution you gravitate toward, the skill of your installer will make all the difference in terms of functionality, personalization, and reliability. So, it may be wise to ask if they have a show home or other demo space where you can see their work in action.

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.

How to Train Your YouTube

How to Train Your YouTube

When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be 

covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.

 

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.

 

So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.

 

Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)

 

We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations, 

presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”

 

He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.

 

For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.

 

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.

 

But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.

 

My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of 

Baumgartner Restoration

What Makes This Song Great?

From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill

Biffa Plays Indie Games

channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.

 

It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.

 

My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.

 

In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.

Quantum OLED

So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.

 

Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.

 

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.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

In any other year, Jojo Rabbit would be fighting for the top spot amongst my favorite recent films. This absurdist lark from Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is exactly what you would expect upon learning that the crazy bastard who actually made a great Thor movie against all odds then turned his weird attention toward the Holocaust and the Hitler Youth.

 

On the surface, Jojo Rabbit is the tale of a young lad so infatuated with der Führer that he conjures Hitler out of thin air, Calvin & Hobbes-style, not only as a best imaginary friend but also as a fellow agent of unwitting chaos and something of a conscience. Things take a turn for the weirder when little Jojo discovers a Jewish girl hiding within the walls of his home and

is forced to choose between the safety of his family and his commitment to an ideology he doesn’t understand in the slightest.

 

And if that’s as far as you decide to dig, there are loads of laughs to be had, assuming you’re not horribly offended by the premise. So many, in fact, that by the time the closing credits rolled, my cheeks legitimately hurt and I swear I felt abs forming under my tubby middle-aged tummy. 

 

But just as Waititi used the laugh-a-minute Thor: Ragnarok as a vehicle for some very real ruminations about colonialism and the lasting impacts thereof, he uses Jojo 

Rabbit to not only take the piss out of fascism, but also to explore its appeal. Seriously, what causes a precocious little boy to Sieg Heil! and buy into all manner of horrible conspiracies about the Jewish people? Furthermore, why is it that bumbling idiots seem to hold such sway over massive swaths of the general population? Waititi seems to be saying that if we can’t understand that, we’re ill-equipped to combat it. 

 

Unlike so many other filmmakers who have recently grappled with notions about why inherently good people do bad things, Waititi actually has answers. Pretty simple ones, when you get right down to it. But answers nonetheless.

 

His primary conclusion: “We’re asking the wrong questions.” Right from the opening scene of the film, Waititi uses a German dub of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” cut together with screaming crowds of Nazis that are almost indistinguishable from fawning crowds of Beatlemaniacs, to slyly point to the fact that cults of personality—any personality—are at least part of the problem.

 

Along the way from that cheeky beginning to the inglorious end of World War II, Waititi takes shots at groupthink, cognitive dissonance, nationalism, and identity politics in equal measure, but when you get right down to it, what he seems to be saying is that the root of all our problems is a lack of genuine human connection. And he uses the anachronistic disconnect between 

his setting and his choice of soundtrack music, language, and mannerisms to point out that, for all our pontification about social media and modern life, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

 

None of this should come as a surprise if you’re already familiar with Waititi’s work. What does come as a surprise is how often he plays it safe with this one. I guess he 

figured he had to tug on the reins from time to time to keep from offending literally everyone, and maybe he has a point. I wouldn’t know, since I’m not offended by much of anything. But sometimes the tonal shifts toward the conventional seem a little forced and insincere. Thankfully, the expected turn toward the sentimental at the end of the film is pulled off with such heartfelt authenticity that it’s difficult not to wooed by it all.

 

My only remaining niggle—and this is entirely subjective—is that Scarlett Johansson is somewhat miscast as Jojo’s mother. And I say this as someone who thinks Johansson is actually underrated as an actor. She positively transforms her body language and her entire demeanor for the part, but something about it all doesn’t feel quite right. Especially when the rest of the casting—especially the two adolescent leads—is so spot on.

 

Another unexpected thing is how gorgeous the film is from beginning to end. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., in his first collaboration with Waititi as far as I can tell, proves himself with this film to be an absolute master of color theory, bathing nearly every scene with a deft mix of rich warm hues and crisp, cool punctuation that’s delivered beautifully by Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR presentation. Jojo Rabbit was shot at 3.4K and finished in a 2K digital intermediate, so it might not satisfy the 

dermatologically obsessed or those who chase razor-sharp edges. But the expanded color gamut of HDR10 does wonders for the mix of subtle pastels and retina-shocking primary hues.

 

Whatever concerns you may have about resolution, this is one you’ll want to watch on as large a screen as possible, by the way. Malaimare goes for some unexpected long shots at times to capture the beauty and scope of the scenery during some dialogue-heavy scenes, where other cinematographers might have opted for tight closeups instead. In a world where streaming video is squeezing commercial cinemas out of the equation more and more every year, he defiantly composes for a massive canvas, assuming (hoping?) that the images will take up as much of the viewer’s field of view as possible.

 

The film’s sound mix isn’t quite as expansive, but Kaleidescape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a faultless presentation of it. The sound design here is far more interested in servicing the needs of the film than exercising your speakers, and as such it’s largely a three-channel mix, spread across the front, with surround channels only used to add ambience and a sense of space until late in the film when the action gets a little Looney Tunes. But that’s exactly the approach this film needs.

Jojo Rabbit

As I said in the beginning, in any other year, Jojo Rabbit would be hovering right near the top of my annual favorites. If there’s anything truly working against it, it’s not the instances in which Waititi plays it safe, or in which Johansson’s knack for emotional complexity works against her in a role that should be more one-note until it isn’t. No, the only thing really holding the film back is that it’s forced to share oxygen with a comedy like Parasite, which is more unapologetically unflinching and which navigates its tonal shifts more effectively.

 

But don’t let that keep you from watching this one. Any film that can make me guffaw as hard and as frequently as this one did without insulting my intelligence has a spot in my film library. It may not be perfect, but it’s a necessary film right now.

 

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.

Honeyland

Honeyland

If you want to have any sort of overarching context for the events that unfold in Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Oscar-nominated documentary Honeyland, prepare for some homework. Perhaps listen to some podcasts. Certainly read at least the Wikipedia entry. Dive into some interviews with the filmmakers, for sure.

 

But only do so after you’ve seen the film. You’ll be a little lost, mind you, wondering who all of these people are, how (or even whether) they know each other, how one event leads to the next in this sometimes-confusing narrative. But it’s worth it to go

in blind, I think, and explore Honeyland on its own terms.

 

Quite frankly, this is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. There’s zero narration. None of the participants looks at or speaks to the camera. There’s no indication of where the story unfolds, except for a handful of references to Skopje, the northern Macedonian city that apparently isn’t too far from the little stretch of mountainous land where the bulk of the action takes place. What you do manage to pick up from the film will mostly be gathered from hard-won context clues.

 

And in the end, I don’t think any of that really matters.

At its heart, Honeyland is a film about a middle-aged woman named Hatidze, a beekeeper who lives in harmony with nature and has a rule of always leaving the bees with exactly as much honey as she takes. “Half for me, half for you,” she says as she harvests her hives. Soon after we meet her, though, her peaceful existence is disrupted by the arrival of nomads who drag their trailer into the plot of land next to hers with a pack of farm animals and an unruly pack of loathsome children. Hatidze does her best to teach the patriarch of this traveling brood how to harvest honey sustainably, to no avail.

 

If it sounds like a simple story told simply, that’s because it is. But the way in which it’s told—without context, without explanation, without larger connective tissue—makes it as intriguing as it is inscrutable at times. When you get right down to it, the visuals are the star of the show. (Spoiler warning: In digging around for any info about the film after the closing credits rolled, I learned that the filmmakers edited purely visually, ignoring their audio recordings entirely until the final cut was locked down. And it shows.)

 

To get a sense of what I mean, simply watch the film’s trailer—perhaps the most honest and representative teaser I’ve ever watched. It’s a one-hundred-percent faithful condensation of everything this film is. Imagine another 87 minutes of exactly this, and you’ll have a pretty good indication of exactly what unfolds on the screen and how.

While limited to HD resolution even via Kaleidescape, Honeyland still exhibits more detail, crisper edges, and a richer overall look than you’ll find in most films shot and released in UHD. From the craggy terrain in and around Bekirlija to the dim and dingy interior of the hut Hatidze shares with her dying mother, every location is rendered stunningly, and every frame is a 

printable work of art.

 

And despite being of no concern to the filmmakers while editing, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack brings the environment to life almost holographically. Every gust of wind through every sparse patch of grass, every flicking flame, and every stirring swarm of bees is delivered as if they’re emanating from the air rather than speakers in a room.

 

I have to admit, though: As masterfully shot and edited as it is, I found much of Honeyland difficult to watch, and I’m not sure I’ll be returning to it again anytime soon—though part of me wants to, now that I have a better understanding of what’s going on. What keeps me from pressing Play again mostly boils down to several scenes involving child abuse (primarily verbal, but certainly with threats of the physical) and animal cruelty, which genuinely upset me to the point of near physical illness. So, if you’re squeamish about such things, perhaps it’s best that you take a pass.

 

If you can get past that, though, Honeyland is just such an unabashedly weird film that it’s worth at least one viewing. It’s a stark reminder of the importance of sustainability. But that message isn’t delivered preachily. In fact, the film is just as 

Honeyland

stark a reminder that sustainability is, at times, something of a luxury, especially to those for whom scorched-earth capitalism represents the ever-elusive but tantalizing promise of an escape from abject poverty.

 

If that gives you the impression that Honeyland is something of a Sisyphean tale, I can’t really argue with that. But it is a beautifully made documentary in the purest sense of the word, and its numerous critical accolades aren’t unwarranted.

 

Dennis Burger

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

The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body

I hesitate to disparage Jérémy Clapin’s inventive animated film I Lost My Body, if only because I want animators to take more risks of exactly this sort, and I want Netflix to continue to embrace full-length animated features of its ilk. There’s so much to appreciate here, so much to root for, so much to celebrate. And yet, when I step back and reflect on the film as a whole, on its own terms, I Lost My Body just doesn’t quite work.

 

The story follows a severed hand that escapes from some sort of medical waste lab and embarks on a macabre quest to reunite with the rest of its body. Through flashbacks or time shifts or the magic of movie editing, we also learn the sweet-yet-

creepy story of the young man who lost his appendage and how he lost it.

 

The problem, ultimately, is that these two converging storylines differ so drastically in tone that it’s all a bit off-putting. It’s as if you took the screenplays for Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (co-written by Guillaume Laurant, who also wrote the book on which this film is based) and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, shuffled them together like a deck of playing cards, and filmed the results. What’s more, the story’s themes about determinism and embracing the unknown are so blatantly telegraphed by exposition that there really isn’t anything to figure out for yourself.

 

With all that said, the storyline that focuses on Naoufel, the lost body at the heart of the narrative, is at times worth the ride, especially in his delightful first meeting with the object of his obsession, a young woman named Gabrielle, who exists at first only as a disembodied voice on the other side of an intercom (and yes, again, there are metaphors here, but none very deep).

If you’re a fan of animation, and longing for something out of the ordinary, I Lost My Body does give you a lot to chew on. Its style is simply stunning—an artful mix of hand-drawn 2D and rendered 3D that evokes in some ways the works of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) and the Hernandez brothers (of Love and Rockets fame), but really deserves to be recognized as its own thing.

 

Unfortunately, though, Netflix does that style no favors by presenting the film in 1080p HD. Not only do the fine lines of the animation sometimes get a little aliased as a result of the lack of resolution, but the limited color gamut leads to some egregious banding that could have been smoothed over by simply delivering the film in an HDR container. Honestly, it looks fine enough on a 55-inch TV from across the room, but blow the image up to cinematic proportions and it doesn’t stand up to 

the scrutiny. So maybe skip this one in your home cinema or media room and check it out a more casual AV setup.

 

That might mean missing out on some of the nuances of the fantastic 5.1 mix, which Netflix presents both in the original French, as well as an English dub. I definitely recommend the former, by the way, even if you hate 

subtitles as a rule. Jarring as the film’s mash-up of gruesome horror and awkward love story may be, the cadence and musicality of the original French do spackle the cracks a bit. Viewing I Lost My Body a second time through in English, I found the disconnect between the bitter and the sweet to be even starker.

 

And ultimately, it’s that disconnect—that clash of styles and tones and moods and even genres—that keeps me from truly enjoying I Lost My Body. Every time we’re thrust back and forth between the gangly sacchariferousness of Naoufel’s unrequited love story to the grotesque obscenity of his hand’s journey—either of which would have worked well on its own—I found myself yanked right out of the experience. I still appreciate it, to be sure. I applaud the risks taken. But when you get right down to, the juvenile substance of the film never quite lives up to its innovative style. And what substance there is (in terms of themes and deeper meaning about free will and fate) was already handled with more maturity and less pretentiousness by the last six seasons or so of Adventure Time.

Dennis Burger

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