Dennis Burger Tag

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Frank Mankiewicz once described Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 as “the least factual, most accurate account” of that election and the years that led up to it. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is, by contrast, not only the least factual account of that trial and its participants, but also the least accurate. I would call it a piece of political propaganda if I could only figure out what Sorkin was attempting to propagandize. His rewrites of history do give us a few clues, though.

 

There’s the scene, for example, in which he has Abbie Hoffman extol the virtues of our American institutions and blame their failings on a few bad actors. And hey, you may agree with that notion. I’m not here to argue whether that’s an accurate 

assessment of things. But if you’re going to put those words in anyone’s mouth, Abbie Hoffman’s would be the last lips through which they should pass.

 

Sorkin would have us believe that Hoffman actually said, “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people.” The closest Hoffman came in the trial to saying anything resembling that was, in fact, “Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.”

 

The problem is that Sorkin simply doesn’t understand the very real humans on which his characters are based and whose names they carry. Further evidence of this is the fact that he has radical pacifist David Dellinger punch a bailiff right in the middle of the trial. Is it a great dramatic 

CHICAGO 7 AT A GLANCE

Aaron Sorkin’s film makes for better courtroom drama than his A Few Good Men but plays too fast and loose with history and seems tone deaf to the personalities of the actual protagonists.

 

PICTURE
Warmed-up colors and cranked contrast give the stylized cinematography a film-like look.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is center-channel heavy, aside from the forgettable score.

moment? Sure. But the moment fist contacted face, any similarities between the real Dellinger and the one portrayed by John Carroll Lynch (quite well to that point) became null and void.

 

And, look, I understand that in compressing a five-month trial into a two-hour movie, some liberties are going to be taken. Eliding always involves some measuring of editorializing. But if you’re going to invent dialogue (and actions) for the purposes of dramatization, it’s important to at least be true to the character of the people being fictionalized. And at least with Hoffman and Dellinger, Sorkin betrays their principles to support his ideology (nebulous though it may be).

 

In the case of Dellinger, I think that probably boils down to the fact that a neoliberal like Sorkin can’t wrap his brain around radical pacifism, so he has to portray Dellinger as a bottled-up Nazi-puncher wannabe who simply controls his urges. And that’s not a knock against neoliberals; it’s an indictment of Sorkin for his inability to view things through any lens other than his own.

 

Really, the only character he comes close to getting right is Tom Hayden, played wonderfully by Eddie Redmayne. Actually, to call out Redmayne’s performance alone would be to slight the excellent work done by the rest of the cast, all of whom shine. It’s just a shame they’re given such flawed characterizations to work with.

 

But it isn’t merely flawed characterizations that drag The Trial of the Chicago 7 down. Sorkin over-sensationalizes certain aspects of history and bowdlerizes others. He reduces Bobby Seale’s ordeal, in which he was gagged and chained to a chair for three days of the trial, to a few seconds of indignity. Because to portray the events as they actually happened would be to give some small measure of ammunition to those who argue that our criminal justice system is fundamentally and systemically flawed, and Sorkin just can’t have that. Likewise, the scene of the sentencing of the seven remaining defendants is such a complete fabrication that I don’t even know where to begin picking it apart.

 

None of this really makes The Trial of the Chicago 7 a bad movie, per se. As a purely fictional courtroom drama, it’s actually a lot more compelling than the other big litigation-porn picture for which Sorkin is known, A Few Good Men. As mentioned above, the performances are stunning across the board, especially that of Sacha Baron Cohen, who captures the mannerisms of Abbie Hoffman brilliantly.

 

At any rate, if you approach The Trial of the Chicago 7 as pure fiction, it’s actually one of the better-made courtroom dramas I’ve seen in quite some time, and Sorkin is proving himself to be quite the actor’s director. There are also a handful of really great scenes sprinkled throughout the film, such as one in which Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden bicker about the relative merits of electoralism versus mobilization. That exchange, like so many other aspects of the film, draws strong parallels between the political environments of the late ’60s and today.

 

The problem is that Sorkin so unartfully forces those parallels that it all feels a little too pat. And, ultimately, I think that goes back to the point I started off with: He just doesn’t understand the Left. He’s so committed to the establishment ideology of “My side is the good guys and the other side is the bad guys, and the system will all work perfectly if my side can just defeat the other side” that he can’t help but view the world through such Blue-tinted glasses. And there just isn’t any place for the Left in that worldview.

 

Despite all that, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an interesting film to look at. The cinematography is quite stylized, and the ArriRaw footage (captured at 4.5K) has obviously gone through some film-look processing. Contrasts are cranked to just this side of black crush (and probably would have crossed that line if not for the expanded dynamic range of Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation) and the colors have obviously been warmed up a good bit (although there’s a lot of warmth in the footage already, given that it was either shot with natural light or made to look like it was). The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is largely a center-channel-heavy affair, aside from the forgettable score.

 

You’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about The Trial of the Chicago 7 in the coming weeks. It has received all manner of Golden Globes nominations and will likely be the talk of the Oscars as well. That’s the only reason I’m reviewing it now. Knowing how Hollywood works, it’ll no doubt do well at both awards ceremonies. Truthfully, though, I think its accolades say more about the sorry state of cinema over the past year than anything having to do with this film on its own merits.

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.

Dennis Burger’s 4K HDR Wish List

Over the next three days, we’re going to be publishing our wish lists of movies we’d put at the front of the queue for 4K HDR upgrades. As is obvious from our “4K HDR Essentials,” some older titles have fared really well when brought out digitally in a form that can match their original film releases. Others, for a variety of reasons, haven’t done so well. Our lists represent the ones we think will most benefit from the upgrade.

 

You’ll find that our choices are pretty eclectic and run the gamut from mega-blockbusters to the unjustly obscure. We encourage you to check out all our wish lists to get a good sense of what the UHD re-release market could have to offer over the next couple of years.

—ed.

Dennis Burger's 4K HDR Wish List

One of my favorite college courses was Econ 101, not because of the subject matter but because of the professor. He was notoriously tough and gave all-essay exams, but he had a peculiar practice with those exams. If students took issue with a question, he encouraged us to scratch it out and write a new question in its place, then answer it. If you managed to convince him that your question was better than his question, and assuming he was satisfied with your answer, he’d give you extra credit.

 

Mind you, we don’t get extra credit here at Cineluxe, but when Mike asked me for a list of movies I wanted to see in 4K HDR, I immediately flashed back to that Econ prof. If I sat down and thought about it, I could crank out a list of 100 movies that legitimately deserve the upgrade from HD. The question I want to answer instead is not “What?” but “Why?”

 

Why do I want all of these films released in 4K HDR? That’s the real question I’m attempting to answer here. As such, you could probably substitute any of the titles below for any number of others representative of their era, their style, or the format in which they were finished.

D.B.

AMÉLIE

Apparently admitting this makes me something of a Brooklyn hipster chick, but so be it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s best film makes my heart happy. I’ve never been overly happy with its presentation on DVD or Blu-ray, though (and little birdies in Hollywood have told me that Jeunet isn’t a fan of the home video master, either). Amélie was finished in a 2K digital intermediate, so I wouldn’t expect much in the way of enhanced detail in a 4K HDR re-release (short of a complete restoration, which the film honestly doesn’t need). But watching Amélie in HD is like watching a bag of sentient Skittles trying to break out of prison and

pounding on the bars in frustration at their inability to truly live free. You can literally see where the colors are raging and straining against the limitations of older home video technology.

 

 

KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2

When you get right down to it, the real benefit of 4K HDR isn’t the extra pixels or the extra colors. For me, it’s about removing distractions. And although the Blu-ray releases of this over-the-top Quentin Tarantino mashup/homage to schlocky grindhouse cinema and martial-arts flicks are pretty great overall, I still find their limitations glaring. Some of the darker scenes are graded a little too brightly to avoid the loss of all shadow detail, and although primary colors should dominate the palette, there are scenes in both films where there’s a bit too much of a push toward the primaries. I also wouldn’t mind the option to watch The Whole Bloody Affair, the 215-minute original edit of the film that existed before Harvey Weinstein forced Tarantino to either make cuts or split it into two pictures.

 

 

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

I won’t pretend that this mid-1970s Robert Redford/Faye Dunaway/Max von Sydow vehicle is the best espionage thriller of all time. It’s a little preachy and neither as engaging as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) nor as thematically coherent as its own spiritual successor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). But dammit, I still love 

the film despite its flaws and have never been satisfied with any of its home video releases.

 

Every new Blu-ray that comes out sports a drastic shift in overall color balance. That says to me that 8-bit color simply isn’t sufficient to capture the palette of the original camera negative, and the digital wizards working on new masters are having to pick and choose how and where to limit the imagery. I want to see the colors as director Sydney Pollack and cinematographer Owen Roizman saw them, and I’m not saying HDR would guarantee that, but it would certainly make it possible. What’s more,

even the best HD transfers of the film are riddled with moiré artifacts that shine a bright light on just how much extra detail there is to be extracted from the existing elements.

 

I know the film has been restored in 4K. So it shouldn’t be that much effort to actually release it in 4K.

 

 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Recent 4K HDR releases of black & white films like It’s a Wonderful Life

and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington have demonstrated how monochromatic cinematography can benefit as much from HDR as do the most colorful of films. I’m itching to see if that holds true for my favorite Gregory Peck film and one of my favorite book adaptations in the history of cinema. The Blu-ray release from a few years back was (and still is) fantastic looking, but I have to think there’s ample additional shadow detail to be eked out of the negative, especially in the nighttime scenes, like the one in which Scout, Jem, and Dill save Atticus from an angry mob.

 

 

RAN

Several years back, StudioCanal finished an extensive frame-by-frame remaster of Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear, with color grading overseen by cinematographer Shôji Ueda. And while this elusive release was a huge improvement over previous home video efforts, it was only made available in HD, despite the restoration being done in 4K.

 

There have been rumors and rumblings of a proper 4K release, perhaps in Australia, maybe in the US. Who knows? Apparently COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench in StudioCanal’s release plans. At any rate, I’m starving for this one. While I would love to see Kurosawa’s black & white classics properly remastered in 4K (if Criterion ever gets around to supporting modern video formats), this vibrant work is the film of his I think would benefit most from the enhanced resolution and especially the expanded color gamut of 4K HDR. Watching the Blu-ray release, you can tell there’s ten pounds of color here crammed into an eight-pound bag.

Dennis Burger's 4K HDR Wish List
THE RED SHOES

I’ve had the wrong impression of Technicolor for my entire life, since I’ve never seen it projected and assumed that home video releases were at least reasonably representative of how the format was supposed to look. Due mostly to the popularity of The Wizard of Oz, we’ve all come to associate the three-strip color process with hyper-saturated colors that appear more painted than filmed. But as the 4K HDR restoration of Oz revealed (at least to me), there’s a ton of chromatic subtlety to be extracted from those old Technicolor films, and I’m itching to see classics like this given more room to breathe, without every color being cranked to 11. Unfortunately, as I hinted at above, Criterion has still yet to hop aboard the 4K train, and the film’s distribution rights are firmly in their hands. If they decide to get with the times anytime soon, I hope this is their first 4K release.

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

Review: The Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)

One of my favorite books from my childhood was The Empire Strikes Back Mix or Match Storybook, a ridiculous little publication featuring split pages that allowed you to pull a character from one scene and actions from another, match them with an out-of-context plot point and setting, and put together nonsensical little koans like, “Boba Fett . . . was taking a lubrication bath . . . on the Rebel base . . . when Lando greeted him . . . and chased him into a cave . . . where old droids were stored.” Expand that concept beyond the confines of the Star Wars galaxy and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how

the script for Space Sweepers (aka Seungriho, aka Space Victory) surely must have been written.

 

Take the general premise of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Pixar’s Wall-E, mash them up with the overall tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, the character dynamics of Firefly, the aesthetic of Alien, the villain from Prometheus, sprinkle in some details from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and some of the vibe of Cowboy Beebop . . . I could go on and on.

 

The thing is, this kind of mashup can result in something truly satisfying and worthwhile when the filmmakers pilfer from so many sources with intentionality, based on what these stories mean, what they’re trying to say, the connotations built into the pop-cultural consciousness. But it doesn’t seem as if the writers of this post-post-post-postmodernist mishmash had any intention of going that

SWEEPERS AT A GLANCE

This Netflix-exclusive sci-fi action comedy is a big mess, and yet it almost works.

 

PICTURE
The artifact-free presentation alternates between Marvel-quality effects and CGI that looks like cut scenes from old video games.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos audio mix, which is beyond aggressive with something going on almost constantly in nearly every channel, is one of the few consistently good things about this film.

route. Instead, I can only imagine that the most common phrase uttered in the writer’s room must have been, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . ?”

 

It’s a shame because Space Sweepers really does seem to be trying to say something about corporatocracy and class struggles (the latter a quite common theme in Korean cinema these days), but since it lets all of its influences do the talking, especially in the first act, a coherent thematic thread fails to emerge. It ends up bordering on sound and fury signifying way too much. Or maybe I’m just a victim of pareidolia here, perceiving signals where there’s really little more than noise. It’s honestly hard to tell.

 

Mind you, none of the above means Space Sweepers should be written off entirely. Of all the properties from which it pilfers, it actually manages to be a better movie than some of them (most notably Prometheus). And it’s a more enjoyable ride than

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movie too recent to have inspired any element of Space Sweepers, but one that certainly seems to have been cobbled together in a similar manner.

 

What makes Space Sweepers work—when it works—is mostly the core cast, led by Song Joong-ki (Descendants of the Sun), Tae-ri Kim (The Handmaiden), and Seon-kyu Jin (The Outlaws). The trio has good chemistry and, when given the

chance to develop their own characters rather than merely pantomiming archetypes, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

 

At least, they are in their original Korean—which brings up an interesting point. Space Sweepers is presented on Netflix by default with a soundtrack it labels “English (Atmos).” In point of fact, there’s more non-English in the English soundtrack than anything else, as the dialogue runs the gamut from Korean to English to Russian to the sort of post-English pidgin dialect that’s common in sci-fi these days.

 

Really, the only dialogue that changes when you switch from the English dub to the original Korean soundtrack is that of the main crew of the Spaceship Victory, the beat-up ship on which most of the action takes place. (Given the number of lines ripped straight from other properties, I’m surprised no one refers to the Victory as a “bucket of bolts” or “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”)

 

But in their original Korean, the performances of the principles all feel a little more natural, a little less hokey, a lot more sincere. If only the same could be said for the rest of the cast, whose acting ranges in quality from “dinner theater” to “middle-school class play.” Even Richard Armitage (yes, that Richard Armitage) turns in such a hackneyed, scene-chewing performance that I didn’t even recognize him until very nearly the end of the movie, and even then I second-guessed myself. (“That can’t be Richard Armitage, can it? No . . . surely not. Richard Armitage is actually a good actor.”)

 

No matter which audio track you pick, the Atmos audio mix is beyond aggressive. There’s something going on in nearly every channel on a nigh-constant basis. But you know what? It just works. It’s one of the few genuinely, consistently good things about the movie. Dialogue pours out of the surround channels as characters move around and off the screen or speak over intercoms. The action creates a holographic bubble of audio that makes Space Sweepers feel like a much more polished production than it has any right to.

 

Mind you, not every element of the sound is great. The score seems less like a deliberate composition and more like a playlist created by someone who sat behind a computer screen and Googled, “Royalty-free KMFDM ripoff,” “Royalty-free Alan Silvestri soundalike,” “Royalty-free sad song.” The only thing I can say about the score is, at least it never quotes “Dies irae,” because I’m not sure anyone involved in this project would have understood the connotations of that piece enough to make it work.

 

The video is a similarly mixed bag. Mind you, I think Space Sweepers was, at some point, being set up for a big theatrical release in 2020, but then, well, you know. Things happened. As such it ended up as a Netflix exclusive.

 

It isn’t Netflix’s presentation of the movie that holds it back, mind you, since the stream is delivered artifact-free via Roku Ultra. The problem is that while some of the special effects wouldn’t look out of place in a modern Marvel movie, some of the CGI would have come off as janky in a cut-scene from a 20-year-old video game. If all of the FX had been MST3K-worthy, your brain could adapt to that and move on, but the inconsistency is jarring.

 

HDR also isn’t employed very effectively, except to stave off some black crush in the super-contrasty cinematography, as well as to provide a saturation boost for some of the crayon drawings created by the movie’s McGuffin, the is-she-a-hydrogen-bomb-or-isn’t-she? little girl known alternately as Dorothy and Kang Kot-nim.

 

In the end, the choice of whether or not to give two-plus hours of your time over to Space Sweepers really depends upon how hungry you are for some sci-fi/action/comedy right now. It certainly has its merits, and at moments it approaches something genuinely good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the third act is a downright hoot.

 

I just wish it had more of its own personality. As it stands, the shooting script resembles the narrative equivalent of temp-track score music—a cobbled together hodgepodge of other people’s work that, when used correctly, can give structure or serve as inspiration for the final work. Put this script through a couple of editing passes or hand it over to a script doctor, and it could have ended up being something kinda special. As it stands, though, it feels more like someone set their iTunes to “shuffle,” generated a playlist, and released it as an original album. But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it almost works.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you want to know how Taika Waititi—a quirky independent Kiwi filmmaker previously best known for making that mockumentary about vampires and a few episodes of that TV show about a musical-comedy duo—somehow came out of nowhere and landed a gig directing Thor movies, you’ll find some answers in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. If you’re still trying to figure out how Waititi actually managed to make a good Thor movie, when directors as celebrated as Kenneth Branagh tried the same and failed spectacularly, again, I would point you in the direction of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

 

Waititi has, of course, developed a reputation for absurdity, and this hilarious film about a troubled foster child and his reluctant guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush on the run from the law is nothing if not absurd. But who cares, really? There are any number of filmmakers out there who specialize in the absurd, and you don’t see Hollywood throwing 

money at them to helm blockbusters. (Seriously, I don’t mean to take a sideways crack at Wes Anderson here, because unlike most of my Cineluxe compatriots I actually enjoy his films. But can you imagine Anderson being asked to helm a tentpole blockbuster?)

 

What makes Waititi so sought after is that he also has a knack for something Hollywood couldn’t fake if you let an infinite number of studio monkeys tug at an infinite number of heartstrings for an infinite amount of time: Sincerity. And of all his films I’ve seen to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his most sincere.

 

There’s a moment early on that illustrates this perfectly. Little Ricky Baker, an adolescent hooligan who has bounced around the foster-care system, is first introduced to his foster mother, Bella. Her excitement is palpable and she nearly trips all over herself as a result, which of course causes her to say and do the stupidest things possible.

 

I have to think that in almost any other filmmaker’s hands, 

WILDERPEOPLE AT A GLANCE

Taika (Jojo Rabbit) Waititi’s 2016 indie-film effort is an absurd but sincere tale of a foster child and his guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush.

 

PICTURE
The limitations of the HD presentation are in no way distracting, although a handful of the scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack can get a little too clever for its own good but it’s a fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action.

Bella’s nervous awkwardness would have been played for laughs at her expense. She would have been a joke to be mocked, an out-of-touch wannabe-hip parental unit portrayed in the most clichéd way possible.

 

And don’t get me wrong: The scene is played for laughs. But not at Bella’s expense. The humor comes from the situation itself, the relatability of it all. And it’s that fact that makes the character’s transformation from doting foster parent into bad-ass backwoods farmer chick all the more believable. It’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with her, because she’s really the heart of the film. But her untimely death is the fire that fuels the entire rest of the plot, which is one of the most compelling comedies-of-errors I’ve seen in ages.

 

I’m not really spoiling the plot here because there’s not a ton to spoil, but with Bella out of the picture, Ricky is slated to be taken back into the foster system, and as a result he runs away. Bella’s husband, Hec—who professes to have no emotional investment in the boy—follows him, and before long they’re branded as fugitives and become the targets of a highly publicized manhunt.

 

And that’s it, really. That’s the story. But I’m a sucker for a simple tale, especially one this well told. It isn’t just Waititi’s utter lack of cynicism that makes it all work, though. It’s also his gift for pacing and most especially timing. He also, for whatever reason, knows how to let kids be kids. Ricky, played by Julian Dennison (who would go on to have a memorable turn in Deadpool 2 as Firefist), doesn’t just act like a kid and talk like a kid—he thinks like a kid. It’s one of those rare performances that shines an unflinching light on just how awful and inauthentic most portrayals of adolescents are in films.

 

What’s more, Dennison and Sam Neill (who plays Hec) don’t really act like they’re in a comedy. Some of the secondary characters do, hamming it up and overplaying—not to an egregious degree, but certainly in keeping with the genre. The two leads, though, play it straight. They’re both weirdos, mind you. And there’s definitely a comedy-duo dynamic between then, with Dennison playing the goof and Neill the straight man. But . . . again, I’m struggling for any word other than “sincerity” here to describe their approach. They’re hilarious, yes, but they’re not playing it up for laughs.

 

Narratively simple though Wilderpeople may be, it’s pretty thematically rich for a comedy. It’s hard to watch and not be reminded of Goethe’s famous quote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wilderpeople takes that one step in the other direction and plays with notions of what happens when we assume people to be criminals. And while it’s not too terribly deep, it’s certainly more food for thought than you’ll get from most slapstick romps.

 

Another thing that makes Wilderpeople such a joy is that it’s not nearly as predictable as most comedies tend to be. About an hour into the 100-minute runtime, anyone who’s ever seen any movie ever will have written the ending in their heads. It seems downright obvious. But Waititi doesn’t go for the obvious here, which makes the resolution just a bit more satisfying and a lot more humorous, though no less sweet than what you’ll think you see coming.

 

One word of warning, though: If you’re at all sensitive to animals being harmed, or if you have kids who are, there are a couple of scenes that are more difficult to watch than Old Yeller. I wish I’d known that ahead of time.

 

At any rate, given the relatively recent vintage of Wilderpeople, it’s a little surprising it’s not available in 4K HDR. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. Watching the film in HD via Kaleidescape, it’s evident that a handful of scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD, especially some of the landscape shots. As for HDR, though? I’m not sure it would make a huge difference. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne obviously aimed for a somewhat muted look, at least in terms of contrasts. Blacks are never fully black and at no point do any of the brighter areas of the image come close to clipping. That gives the film a rather pastel look, even when colors get a bit more vibrant. Given this deliberate aesthetic choice, I can’t help but wonder if 10-bit color and dynamic range would significantly change the look of the imagery at all.

The real question, though, is whether or not the limitations of HD are in any way distracting. And the answer to that is a resounding and enthusiastic “No!” Honestly, the film is so visually striking that you rarely have time to worry about things like pixel count and color gamut. Every shot, no matter how seemingly mundane, is framed in such a way as to be utterly engaging. The eye can’t help but explore the screen from corner to corner. There’s nothing obtrusive about the camerawork, though. All of it is in service of the story, and I have to wonder if most viewers will consciously appreciate some of the framing choices that give the film its distinctive vibe without being in any way affected.

 

I’ll admit, though, that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does get a little too clever for its own good at times. Such instances are rare, but the mix leans a bit too heavy on the surround channels on occasion, especially in scenes where music is the predominant audio element. Ignoring those rare flubs, it’s a pretty fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action. Dialogue intelligibility is also topnotch, which is much appreciated given the thick Kiwi accents of most of the actors.

 

It’s a bit of a bummer that the Kaleidescape download lacks the supplemental

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

material included with the Blu-ray release. (Kaleidescape isn’t alone, mind you. Vudu, Amazon, and other digital retailers also present Wilderpeople completely devoid of goodies since Apple seems to have nabbed the exclusive rights to the film’s extras in the digital domain.) I’m itching to listen to the commentary featuring Waititi, Neill, and Dennison, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the blooper reel, either. But I’m not motivated enough to make room for yet another disc on my movie shelves, especially given that those are the only bonus features of note.

 

Really, though, Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands on its own, and is very much worth the purchase price even without supplements.

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.

Ep. 13: 4K Changes Everything

The Cineluxe Hour logo

With the all but complete absence of new movie releases over the past year, the studios have turned their attention to beefing up older titles with 4K HDR makeovers, which has led to both some extraordinary and some subpar releases. In the first part of the podcast, Dennis Burger, Michael Gaughn, and John Sciacca talk about the impact this has had on reviewing movies and how it can be difficult to watch even Blu-ray-quality releases if there might be a UHD upgrade on the horizon.

 

At 9:55, the conversation turns to the impact of the proliferation of 75-inch and larger home displays and of streaming services now consistently offering 4K content. At 24:35, John, Mike, and Dennis talk about the differences in quality between the various streaming providers.

 

27:43 brings a discussion of the Christmas Day Soul vs. Wonder Woman 1984 matchup and of the perils of subscribing to HBO Max. At 32:39, talk pivots to whether it will be possible to have a legitimate Academy Awards presentation this year.

 

And the podcast wraps up at 36:25 with John and Dennis presenting what they’ve seen recently that’s worth watching.

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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.

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

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

Review: Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

Right off the top of my head, I can think of one entertainment-industry job that simply wouldn’t be worth the headache and heartache no matter how much it paid: Being in charge of deciding which Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons to release for home video. I say this because whoever ultimately makes that decision has to serve two completely different masters. On the one hand, you have obsessive fans like myself who simply want as many shorts as possible archived in some sort of logical order, be it grouped by character, director, or just chronologically. On the other hand, you have normal 

people, who are perfectly content to own the greatest hits like “Robin Hood Daffy” and “One Froggy Evening” and maybe some of the better Road Runner and Tweety/Granny shorts.

 

If you’re wondering which group the Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collectionrecently released on Blu-ray disc and Kaleidescape—is supposed to appeal to, my guess would be that the folks at Warner Bros. did their best to split the difference. That’s a dangerous line to walk, but this new celebratory collection mostly manages to straddle it.

 

As the name implies, this isn’t a catch-all Looney Tunes archive collection, à la the previous Golden Collection DVDs and Platinum Collection Blu-ray discs. Instead, it’s a birthday party for everyone’s favorite wascally wabbit, collecting a reasonably representative sample of the best Bugs Bunny shorts from the past eight decades. (Actually, it 

BUGS AT A GLANCE

Come for the 60 classic shorts, spanning Bugs’ career; stay for the profusion of extras, including a new retrospective documentary.

 

PICTURE     

The vibrancy and detail of these old cartoons still holds up, despite a moderate amount of film grain.

 

SOUND     

There’s enough punch and sweetness in the mono soundtracks that you don’t need more than one channel to enjoy and appreciate their brilliance.

kicks off with “Elmer’s Candid Camera,” the final short starring Happy Rabbit before he would evolve into the Bugs we know and love in the second short in this collection, “A Wild Hare.”)

 

In the crowd-pleasing department, of the 60 remastered classic shorts included on the 80th Anniversary Collection, many fall firmly into familiar territory. The big hitters like “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Baseball Bugs” are mostly all here, although there are a few no-brainers that are inexplicably missing, like “Little Red Riding Rabbit” and “Rabbit Hood.”

 

On the other hand, nearly half of the shorts in this collection have never appeared on DVD or Blu-ray in any form, much less remastered. The completist in me nearly jumps with joy to see under-appreciated gems like “Hare Lift” and “Rabbitson Crusoe” finally included in a high-quality Looney Tunes collection, especially given that Warner Bros. seems to have given up on releasing more Platinum Collections (for reasons we’ll speculate on in a bit).

 

Sure, I can gripe about the fact that only the first short in Chuck Jones’ wet-yourself-hilarious hunting trilogy (“Rabbit Fire,” “Rabbit Seasoning,” and “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!”) made the cut here (for what it’s worth, the other two were released on Blu-ray in the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2). But for every grumble of that nature, I have to concede some 

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

appreciation for the fact that “Lumber Jack-Rabbit,” which was cropped to 16:9 for its DVD release, has been restored to the proper 1:33:1 aspect ratio. And it’s not alone. All of the cartoons included here are presented as shot, many of them with their original titles restored for the first time in decades. 

 

So, on the balance sheet, I have to give kudos to WB for throwing us collectors a bone or 30, while also appealing to the casual Looney Tunes fan. That 

said, if this release represents something of a template for future Looney Tunes home video releases (as I suspect it does), chances are good Bugs won’t get another shot in the spotlight for quite some time. And there are still oodles of Bugs Bunny shorts that have yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray at all. Gems like “Apes of Wrath” and “Mississippi Hare,” as well as “Transylvania 6-5000,” the latter of which is noteworthy for being the final Bugs Bunny short directed by Chuck Jones in his original run with WB, and one of his last cartoons of the classic era.

 

As I said, though, the era of truly archival, non-themed Looney Tunes home video releases has probably come to an end, and that’s largely due HBO Max, which is home to the bulk of the major Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts that have yet to see a proper home video release. And indeed, almost all of them are restored, with audio and video that’s every bit as good as what you’ll find on Blu-ray or Kaleidescape.

 

Which is to say that if you grew up watching The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour every Saturday morning on ABC, you’ll be shocked by how well these old cartoons have held up in terms of vibrancy and detail. Sure, most of them sport some moderate level of film grain, as expected, but it’s rare that any of the shorts look noisy as a result. (Only “Baseball Bugs” comes to mind as an exception). I’m just grateful that in restoring these classics, WB didn’t go too far, as they’ve done in the past, applying too much noise reduction or digitally removing imperfections in the original negatives, like the occasional hair in the gate. Simply put, these shorts look like what they are—properly restored and archived film.

On the audio front, we’re of course limited to monophonic soundtracks for the shorts themselves. But still, there’s enough punch and sweetness in these old Carl Stalling scores and Treg Brown sound effects that you don’t need more than one channel to enjoy and appreciate their brilliance.

 

All of which, of course, raises an interesting question: If HBO Max has a more complete library of Looney Tunes shorts, all presented in quality that’s every bit the match of higher-bandwidth home video releases, why would you buy the Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection?

 

Bonus goodies.

 

It’s all about the supplemental material. To call this release a collection of 60 classic animated shorts really only tells half the story. An equally big draw are the audio commentaries (29 in all), alternative music- or vocal-only audio tracks (4 in total), documentaries/featurettes (11 by my count), and a collection of 10 new Bugs Bunny cartoons that were originally created specifically for HBO Max.

 

Granted, most of the documentaries are carryovers from previous DVD releases, but Bugs Bunny’s 80th What’s Up Doc-umentary! is all new and is definitely worth

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

your time. And as far as I can tell, this collection is the only place you can watch it. Much of the footage cobbled together for the film is archival, and you’ve almost certainly seen snippets of the old interviews included herein elsewhere. But this is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, because this one-hour feature does a better job than any Bugs Bunny retrospective I’ve ever seen of giving a thorough overview and understanding of the character’s genesis, evolution, and cultural impact.

 

Seriously, this one feature alone is almost worth the $35 (assuming you’re purchasing on Kaleidescape, that is—the Blu-ray collection will run you between $65 and $75). The fact that you also get 60 of the nearly 170 classic Bugs Bunny shorts (well, that number is actually exactly 170 if you count those early Happy Rabbit cartoons and proto-Bugs) is, needless to say, also a huge selling point. Throw in the audio commentaries and other supplemental snacks, and you’d be positively hare-brained to pass this one up.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Baumgartner Restoration

Baumgartner Restoration

I certainly don’t mean to diminish the larger economic or societal impacts of COVID-19, nor do I mean any disrespect to the two-plus million people whose lives have been lost so far. But as an entertainment writer, one of the most fascinating things about this pandemic is the way it has changed our viewing habits. And sure, you can chalk some of that up to the relative lack of new movies, but that alone isn’t enough to explain why a 20-year-old fantasy trilogy became one of the most persistent 

pop-cultural phenomena of 2020 or why its 4K re-release has so defied all studio expectations in terms of sales that it’s still nearly impossible to find at retail. People need comfort viewing right now, perhaps more than ever.

 

That said, you can’t exactly spend all your free time watching a 12-plus-hour fantasy epic over and over again. At least I can’t. Sometimes I need a shorter break from the real world—something that allows me to quick-charge my batteries so I can face reality again with renewed strength.

 

As of late, my favorite pick-me-up is a wonderful little YouTube show I’ve mentioned in passing from time to time over the past few years: Baumgartner Restoration. If you’re not familiar with the show, it falls firmly into a genre of YouTube series about fixing old stuff, most of which are hosted by amateurs with specific passions for Matchbox Cars or antique tools or vintage Star Wars collectibles.

RESTORATION AT A GLANCE

This YouTube series goes beyond providing an opportunity to watch the restoration of rarely seen works of art to become an exercise in mindfulness.

 

PICTURE

The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

SOUND

Although the audio is primarily meant to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, it still deserves to be heard on the best possible system.

Unlike the legions of YouTubers scrubbing rust off of old can openers with WD-40, though, Julian Baumgartner—the host of Baumgartner Restoration—Is the second-generation owner of the oldest private fine-art conservation studio in Chicago. And there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence because the real appeal of the show isn’t simply that it’s a restoration series. A big draw for me, as an art lover, is that the private nature of Baumgartner’s business means he gets to restore—and we the 

viewers get to see—all manner of gorgeous paintings that will never hang in a museum, and as such perhaps never otherwise make into the public consciousness. And that includes works by artists as well known as Norman Rockwell.

 

Another draw is that Baumgartner doesn’t merely restore damaged or time-worn paintings on his channel, he also meticulously narrates every step of the process, revealing why, for instance, he might use one type of 

solvent to remove a varnish on this particular painting when he used a completely different type of solvent on another. In a quirky kind of way, it’s a lesson in critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific thought. He takes nothing for granted, treats every problem as a learning experience, and most importantly he values his failures as learning experiences every bit as much as he values his successes.

 

I should back up for just a second here, because everything I said in the preceding paragraph only applies to the episodes Baumgartner narrates. Many times, he’ll actually upload two completely different versions of his restoration videos—one accompanied by narration and another completely devoid of explanation. The latter, which he labels “ASMR Videos“—a reference to autonomous sensory meridian response, a term for the pleasure some people derive from listening to soft, tactile sounds—carry soundtracks that consist of little more than the sounds of scraping, wiping, painting, and varnishing, along with the occasional light classical-music accompaniment.

 

And from the description alone, you might assume these are the videos I pull up when I’m having trouble going to sleep. Far from it, in fact. I find Baumgartner’s ASMR videos reinvigorating in the most peaceful way possible. It’s like I’m really,

seriously hyper-mindful of how calm I am while watching them, if that makes a lick of sense.

 

Whether you opt for the narrated or unnarrated videos, by the way, do what you can to watch the series on the biggest and best screen in the house instead of your laptop or—heaven forbid—your smartphone. Baumgartner Restoration is beautifully (although practically and functionally) shot, with a focus on the

art and the work Julian does to it. The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

Via a good streaming device, like the Roku Ultra, the series is delivered virtually artifact-free, with good contrast and great color reproduction. I only wish it were delivered in HDR10 (or, at a minimum, HLG high dynamic range), not necessarily for the increases in peak brightness but more to bring out the subtle chromatic variations in the artwork.

 

The audio, like the video, is more utilitarian than artful in its mixing and presentation, since the goal here is to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, and that’s about it. That said, there’s still a good case to be made for listening via a good sound system since there is quite a bit of dynamic variation in the soundtrack, quiet as it is, and you’ll certainly miss out on a lot of subtlety when listening through cheap computer speakers or—again, heaven forbid—the tiny speakers in your mobile device.

 

More than anything else, what makes Baumgartner Restoration such a beloved and indeed necessary show for me, especially right now, is that Julian has the sort of calming demeanor we haven’t really seen much of since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired its final episode in 2001. At a time when life feels like a firehose of strife, hatred, turmoil, and uncertainty, dipping into an episode of Baumgartner Restoration for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes at a time feels like taking a break to sip from a babbling brook of serenity and Zen. Yes, it’s moderately educational. Yes, it’s somewhat edifying, getting to see these works of art that I likely wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. But if I’m being entirely honest, those are more side benefits than anything else. They’re icing. The real cake, at least for me, is that Baumgartner Restoration is an oasis of calm in a world that seems increasingly anything but.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: WandaVision

WandaVision

Since the 2014 release of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has built up an increasing stockpile of trust with superhero-movie fans by pretty consistently cranking out entertaining action romps that span the genre spectrum from intense ’70s-style espionage thrillers to intergalactic comedies to dramatic epics and everything in between. With WandaVision, the studio is spending that trust on an offbeat experiment that will, in retrospect, be seen as either as massive success or an 

embarrassing failure. And two episodes into its nine-episode run, it’s nearly impossible to tell which of those outcomes is more likely.

 

The Disney+ limited series represents a few firsts for Marvel Studios. It’s their first episodic short-form production (earlier, tenuously connected TV shows like the pointless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were produced by Marvel Television, a separate subsidiary studio). It’s their first foray into the so-

WANDAVISION AT A GLANCE

Marvel Studios’ attempt to run old sitcoms through the superhero mill in this limited-run Disney+ series might turn out to be a huge success—or a massive failure.

called Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and reportedly serves as the first in a trilogy of connected stories that will continue in Jon Watts’ upcoming Spider-Man sequel and conclude with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s also the first MCU product of any sort released since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

 

But perhaps most importantly, it’s the first time Marvel Studios has placed anywhere near this much trust in the intelligence and patience of its audience. And I say that because anyone who tells you they fully understand what’s going on here either has insider information or they’re lying their asses off.

 

WandaVision is, in one sense, a portrayal of the supposedly idyllic home life of Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two star-crossed lovers whose first big-screen appearance was in the otherwise forgettable Avengers: Age of Ultron (one of the studio’s few truly bad movies post-Winter Soldier). The problem, of course, is that we saw the Vision die an awful death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War—first at the hands of Wanda herself then through some temporal trickery at the hands of Phase Three’s big bad, Thanos.

 

So the fact that he’s seemingly alive and mostly well in WandaVision is our first clue that something is amiss here. But it’s far from the last and hardly the biggest. A much more blatant clue that not all is as it seems is that the series is produced in the style of classic sitcoms, starting with a pitch-perfect homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (Van Dyke himself was a consultant and influenced a number of creative decisions, including the choice to shoot with vintage lenses and lighting and to produce the first episode in front of a live studio audience), then bleeding into time-capsule recreations of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and—if the series’ trailer is any indication—going forward in time as the story unfolds, paying loving homage to newer and newer half-hour TV shows until . . .

 

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Where is this all going? What’s the point of this classic-TV homage?

 

Fans of the comics that inspired the series—most notably the fantastic The Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series from the ’80s, the heartbreaking House of M from the early aughts, and the brilliant-but-batsh— -insane Vision standalone series from 2015-2016—certainly have a clue as to what’s going on here. Or at least we think we do.

 

From my perspective, it seems blatantly obvious that WandaVision is a story about what happens when someone with the ability to manipulate the very fabric of reality becomes so stricken with grief that they form a new reality around them. And there are clues sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that this is exactly what’s going on. Wanda, unable to process the horror of losing her one true love—indeed, of being forced to kill him herself—has snapped. Unable to cope with the real world, she creates her own world to occupy, a world whose picket fences and goofball antics are all informed by the classic sitcoms she saw in her youth. It’s important to remember that Wanda grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe, and as such never had the idyllic suburban life she’s attempting to fabricate. So any sort of normal life is, for her, purely fantasy.

 

So it makes sense that when reality begins to intrude upon that fantasy, she rejects it, once again reforming the world around her into something she can once again cope with. We see this at one point when Wanda simple exclaims, “No!” and literally rewinds the tape on her sitcom life, only to reshape it into something a little more colorful and a little more congruous with her 

unexpected pregnancy.

 

It all sounds a little trite, but series creator/writer Jac Schaeffer and Episode 1 & 2 director Matt Shakman so fully and sincerely commit to the classic Dick Van Dyke Show/ Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie tone, style, presentation, and aesthetic for so much of the running time—without a hint of spoof or parody—that you can’t help but be drawn into it. When the series ventures more toward Twilight Zone territory, as it does when

Wanda’s grasp on her faux-reality begins to slip, it’s as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the characters.

 

Of course, that’s simply my take after two episodes. It’s entirely possible MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has constructed a trap for us comic-book fans, leading us astray with red herrings before yanking the rug out from under our collective feet, leaving us exactly as disoriented as I would imagine most casual viewers are after having sat through the first two episode of this weird experiment. Maybe this isn’t all Wanda’s delusion. Maybe she isn’t shaping reality around her. Maybe it’s—who knows?—aliens tinkering with her brain. Or maybe it’s a Truman Show sort of thing.

 

All I can say for sure is that, two episodes in, I’m utterly intrigued by WandaVision and can’t wait for it all to unfold. My first inclination was to think that perhaps Disney+ should have broken with tradition and dumped all nine episodes into our laps at once. The more I think about, though, the more I realize the weeklong break between episodes is an absolute necessity, giving me time to re-watch, to ponder, to reflect, and indeed to discuss what’s happened thus far before diving into the next chapter in this slow-burn psychological mystery.

 

Again, by the time all nine episodes are available, it could all end up being one big exercise in pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, à la Tenet. Or it could be one of the most brilliant TV series to come along in years. And the wait to find out which it is consumes me like an itch I just can’t quite reach. But for now, I find myself in a Schrödinger’s Cat superposition of fascination and skepticism. It’s difficult for me to imagine any corporate machine pulling off an act of truly artistic surrealism of the sort WandaVision seems to be. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that they’re pulling it off so far.

 

And that’s largely due to not only the success of the aesthetic and stylistic conceit but also the delightful performances across the board. You could easily splice stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany into old footage of classic TV shows and anyone who didn’t know the actors already wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Kathryn Hahn is also an absolute tour de force in the role of Agnes, the nosy next-door neighbor who definitely has a major part to play in this mystery. (Indeed, most comic-book fans will have likely figured out who she is by the end of the second episode, but I won’t spoil that surprise.)

 

But world-class acting alone isn’t enough to sustain a series that’s attempting to take as big a bite as this one is. So, more than anything, I hope WandaVision doesn’t end up choking. Because if the MCU is to remain interesting, it absolutely must keep taking artistic risks like this.

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.

Want to Dig Deeper into “The Mandalorian”? This is the Way

It’s difficult these days to have any meaningful discussion about Star Wars without obsessing over The Mandalorian. This lightning-in-a-bottle Disney+ series has the sort of universal appeal that none of the main saga films have enjoyed since The Empire Strikes Back. (And let’s not forget that TESB wasn’t so universally beloved until years after its initial release.)

 

There’s good reason for the series’ universal appeal, of course. As I said in my wrapup of the first season, The Mandalorian is a wonderful deconstruction of everything that made the original Star Wars such a smash hit. In breaking the galaxy far, far away down into its essential components (the gunslinger, the samurai, the strange-but-familiar environments, the wonderful sense of mystery, the thematic through-lines of honor, familial baggage, and redemption) and recombining them into a shape

we’ve never quite seen before, the series continues to be both stimulating and comfortable, both innovative and grounded in the past.

 

One thing I said about the series’ first season no longer rings true after the second batch of episodes, though. In my Season One overview, I made an offhand comment about the show’s “tenuous connections to the larger mythology,” despite the fact that that season ended with the appearance of one of the most legendary Star Wars weapons of all time: The Darksaber.

 

In Season Two, the connections to the legendarium become much less tenuous, much more overt, and much more central to the underlying themes and meaning of The Mandalorian. And it’s that last point that’s most important, because the simple truth is that you don’t really need to know the history of Mandalorian culture or its various factions to follow the plot of this past season. That history simply helps in unpacking what it all means.

And I can say that pretty confidently, because I talk to so many of my friends who are absolutely gaga over “new” characters introduced in Season Two who aren’t new at all. Characters like Bo-Katan Kryze, played to perfection by Katee Sackhoff not only in this live-action series but also in three seasons of The Clone Wars and one particularly memorable episode of Star Wars: Rebels. I was worried, when rumors of Bo-Katan’s return started circulating on the internet, that she would feel shoehorned into this series, that her presence would feel like fan-service of the worst sort. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. To misquote Voltaire, if Bo-Katan hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent her for Season Two to make a lick of sense.

 

This season also features the return of Ahsoka Tano—perhaps the single most beloved character ever created by George Lucas, but one that many fans of The Mandalorian had never heard of or only knew secondhand thanks to hyper-nerds like myself. Again, though, due to the way showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have woven her into this series, you don’t really need to know Ahsoka’s backstory to understand her mission in The Mandalorian. But I would argue that you do need to

know where she has come from and where she’s going if you want to truly understand why she’s on that mission.

 

The point I’m trying to not-so-subtly make here is that you can go into The Mandalorian having only seen the original Star Wars films and not really feel like you’re missing anything essential in terms of plot. You may get the sense that there’s a larger story unfolding that you’re not privy to, but that’s always the case with any good Star Wars story. But if you haven’t watched The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, you actually are missing out on a deeper level of understanding that’s just sitting there waiting for you to discover.

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: Rebels . . .

Want to Dig Deeper into "The Mandalorian"? This is the Way

. . . and in The Mandalorian

I’ll give you just one example, although I feel the need to throw out an obligatory spoiler warning here for those of you who are making your way through Season Two slowly in an effort to ameliorate some of the pain caused by the long wait for Season Three.

 

In the epic finale of this season, there’s a moment in which Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, offers the Darksaber to Bo-Katan after being informed of its cultural significance. This moment (shown at the top of the page) almost perfectly mirrors a scene from “Heroes of Mandalore,” the Season Four premiere episode of Star Wars: Rebels. There, a Mandalorian named Sabine Wren offers Bo-Katan the blade and Bo-Katan accepts it, although not without some hesitation. In the season finale of The Mandalorian, she rejects it outright. And I won’t get into all of her political reasoning for doing so, as the episode spells all of this out. My point here is that the mirroring of these two scenes adds an extra level of tension to the finale and quietly tells a tale we haven’t seen unfold in any form to date.

 

The fact that Bo-Katan refuses to simply accept the Darksaber this time around, when we’ve seen her do so before under nearly identical circumstances, tells us something about the character that no amount of exposition could convey nearly as artfully. Namely, it tells us that she blames herself for the so-called Great Purge of Mandalore and the genocide of her people, an event we’ve only heard about in rumors and retellings.

 

I could go on and on, rambling about little nuggets of this sort you can glean from viewing The Mandalorian in the context of its animated forebears, and I’ve done so in private conversations with friends who love the live-action series but seem hesitant to watch “kids’ cartoons.” It honestly doesn’t help my case that The Clone Wars didn’t start off with a bang. Even as a devoted fan, I have to admit that the first season was childish and wildly uneven.

 

But by Season Two, The Clone Wars gets good. Really good. By Season Three, it’s honestly some of the best Star Wars ever made. And by Season Four it transforms into one of the best TV series of all time, subject matter be damned.

 

So, if you’ve tried getting into The Clone Wars and found it a tough pill to swallow, I recommend giving it another try—but this time around, skip the bulk of the first season. Watch “Rookies,” the fifth episode, then skip to the final four episodes in that first run: “Storm Over Ryloth,” “Innocents of Ryloth,” “Liberty on Ryloth,” and “Hostage Crisis.” Objectively, they’re nowhere near the quality of later seasons, but they’ll give you a good foundation for what’s to come, especially the second-season episodes that really lay the foundation for The Mandalorian, starting with Episode 12, “The Mandalore Plot.”

 

Star Wars: Rebels gets off to a similarly uneven start, and I wish I could give you a similar cheat sheet for which episodes are skippable. But you’ll just have to trust me on this one: By the time you get to the end of Season Four, it becomes clear that there wasn’t a throwaway moment in the entire 75-episode run. It’s simply one hell of a slow burn.

 

All seven seasons of The Clone Wars and all four seasons of Rebels are available to stream on Disney+, and it’s worth noting that the streaming provider presents the former with all of the content that was censored by Cartoon Network in the original broadcasts. Don’t go in expecting anything overtly gratuitous or vulgar, but I often advise my friends with young children that the series explores the implications of war in a way pre-teens aren’t quite mature enough to digest. So take that for what it’s worth.

 

Of course, we can’t know for sure how much of an impact the events of The Clone Wars and Rebels will have on future seasons of The Mandalorian, especially given that there’s no clear and obvious path forward for the series. Taken as a whole, the first two seasons of this wildly popular live-action show have told the tale of a man whose sense of self was predicated on a moral code that he never questioned—until forced to do so. It’s the story of a man whose ideology begins to conflict with his principles, and whose entire notion of who he is and what he stands for has been torn to shreds as a result of his own empathy and moral awakening. By the end of Season Two, Din Djarin has succeeded in his quest and as a result is left with nearly nothing—no purpose, no culture, no tradition to fall back on and believe in. As such, where his journey goes from here is nearly anyone’s guess.

 

But I have a sneaking suspicion that however this story ends up blossoming, the seeds will have been planted in The Clone Wars and Rebels.

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.