Dennis Burger Tag

Review: Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (2021)

Beginnings definitely aren’t Dave Filoni’s strong suit. As much as I’ve raved about his efforts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that show took at least a season to find its footing. The followup, Rebels, also went through an awkward adolescence before developing into another incredible series—seriously some of the best Star Wars storytelling in the Disney era. 

 

As the architect of the galaxy far, far away in the animated domain, Filoni puts a lot of faith in his audience’s ability to invest in a long game, but the flipside is that we in the audience have to put a lot of faith in him, to trust that things will pay off in the 

end. And they always do, at least so far. What, then, to make of the fact that The Bad Batch, the latest Star Wars series to spin from Filoni’s mind, starts off pretty darned good?

 

Before we dig too deeply into the execution of this new Disney+ series, let’s get some horse-race stuff out of the way for those of you who are interested. The Bad Batch is a direct sequel to The Clone Wars. In fact, the first four episodes of the seventh season of TCW—which aired on Disney+ last year, five years after the show’s original premature cancelation—served as a transparent backdoor pilot for this show, which follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of rogue clones in the earliest days of the Galactic Empire.

 

The first episode overlaps with the final four episodes of The Clone Wars and the third act of Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which is starting to become pretty well-worn territory in the new Star Wars canon. But rather than use 

BAD BATCH AT A GLANCE

This Disney+ followup to Clone Wars and Rebels hits its stride pretty early on for a Star Wars animated series. 

 

PICTURE
The animators take advantage of HDR to extensively explore light and shadow, resulting in one of the best uses of Dolby Vision in a cartoon to date.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack alternates between an intimate center-channel-heavy mix and a more bombastic, surround-channel-friendly affair that puts you right in the middle of the action.

the fall of the Republic, destruction of the Jedi, and rise of the Empire as a denouement or conclusion, the new show uses them as a jumping-off point, which quickly leads into territory that hasn’t been explored in live-action or animation.

 

Not to drop too much geekiness on your screen here but what makes Clone Force 99 (aka The Bad Batch) special is that they’re defective (or “deviant,” in their own words), and as such immune to the programming that causes the Clone Army to become proto-Stormtroopers in the new Empire. Each has a mutation that gives him a special skill but also makes him less controllable. And you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to guess that their uniqueness will eventually put them at odds with the new totalitarian regime. 

 

Neither do you have to be too observant—although perhaps you do need to be of a certain age—to recognize that this Bad Batch shares a lot of similarities with another group of small-screen anti-heroes, The A-Team, as well as big-screen misfits like The Dirty Dozen.

 

In the two episodes that have aired thus far—the 75-minute “Aftermath” and the 30-minute “Cut and Run”—we don’t really get a sense of what if any role this unruly team will serve in the impending rebellion. In fact, we don’t really get much of a sense of what the show’s formula will be, aside from the “formed family on the run from the Man” trope already explored in Rebels. 

 

But that sort of doesn’t matter—at least not yet. The Bad Batch doesn’t stand or fall on a unique premise. What makes the show work already is that it has established a consistent tone and style in just two episodes, something Clone Wars and Rebels fumbled around with for a bit too long. It also seems to already know what it’s about—mainly, the internal tug-of-war that arises from being an iconoclast searching for a purpose and a meaningful role in a society that seems to be falling apart.

 

In terms of its look, the series definitely builds on the foundation of Clone Wars, relying on similar character models and generally following the trend of taking a sort of Gerry Anderson-esque “Supermarionation” vibe and injecting a healthy dose of articulation and fluidity into the animation. 

 

Computing power has, of course, come a long way since Clone Wars first hit screens in 2008, though, and Filoni and his team don’t seem compelled to stick to the style of that series slavishly. The animation in The Bad Batch is much more detailed, and the backgrounds in particular benefit from much more richness, depth, and sophistication. 

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the visuals, though, is the way the imagery benefits from high dynamic range. The Bad Batch was created from the ground up for exhibition on Disney+, not broadcast TV, and as such has much more freedom to use shadows and light in interesting and effective ways. It remains to be seen if it maintains this Botticellian chiaroscuro aesthetic as it moves into new and unexplored environments—and it seems it will—but it already represents among the best application of Dolby Vision in animation to date. 

 

Big props are also owed to composer Kevin Kiner, who returns to deliver a very different musical landscape from those he developed for Clone Wars and Rebels. With the former series, his music skewed heavily toward a Star Wars prequel-era style, and with the latter he had to at least evoke the music of the original trilogy. With The Bad Batch, though, he has managed to create a new and different musical language that nonetheless feels perfect for the franchise. There’s a mix of traditional and experimental, of orchestral and electronic, that feels like Star Wars without aping John Williams or Ludwig Goransson or even Kiner’s own previous work in this universe. 

 

The sound mixers seem to realize that they have something special to work with in Kiner’s score, because they give it oodles of room to breathe, both spatially and proportionally. At its most intimate, the sound mix is a center-speaker-heavy affair. At its most bombastic, it uses the entire Dolby Atmos soundscape to drop you right into the conflict. For the most part, though, it’s a three-channel, front-heavy mix, with dialogue following the characters from left to right across the screen and Kiner’s music filling the front soundstage, leaking into the surrounds to give it some ambience and an additional sense of space.

 

In short, The Bad Batch is an audiovisual treat of the best kind. And while the series itself hasn’t quite risen to the narrative or thematic heights of its predecessors, it’s off to a consistently entertaining start, which is something that couldn’t be said of Filoni’s previous animated Star Wars adventures. It also seems to be playing things a little safe at the moment, trying too hard at times to recreate the magic of its predecessors. If it can break out of that rut (and knowing Filoni’s past work, I have every reason to suspect that it will), The Bad Batch has the potential to be something truly great. 

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.

Comfort Viewing Revisited: “Adventure Time”

Comfort Viewing Revisited: "Adventure Time"

Things are starting to feel different, aren’t they? At least here in the U.S., there’s seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel—and while we’re all hoping that light isn’t a train, all evidence indicates that we’re moving from pandemic to endemic. It’s a weird feeling, this mix of hope and hesitancy, this overwhelming feeling that it’s time for things to return to normal, mixed with the realization that our old notion of “normal” is a mythical land to which we’ll never truly be able to return.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote at length about comfort viewing—about my and my wife’s desire, bordering on need, to dive into the consoling arms of Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, that trilogy of films speaks to a longing for the mundane, for a desire to return to the way things were. Back in April 2020, the world kinda felt like the geopolitical landscape of Middle-earth, on the brink of a conflict against a nebulous foe with the power to change the course of history forever. 

 

Fast-forward a year, and circumstances seem less dire, but that hardly negates the need for the occasional comfort viewing. And I wish I could tell you I knew ahead of time the perfect fable for our current reality, but the truth is that my wife and I

stumbled upon it almost by accident.

 

Sensing that the year-long lull in entertainment is waning—that production is ramping up on all manner of new movies and TV shows and that films that have been sitting in the vault for months and months are finally emerging—the missus and I decided that now would be the perfect time for one more massive binge-watch of a TV series we’ve been meaning to revisit. We settled, after some discussion, on Adventure Time, a show I positively obsessed over in its original run from 2010 to 2018 but one my wife struggled to get into because of the erratic airing schedule and what she perceived as random weirdness.

 

In her defense, the series does start off very randomly and very weirdly. For the first few seasons, every episode is like a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot set in the Land of Ooo, an island nation populated by adorable mutants made of candy and fire and ice and slime. Its heroes—Finn the Human (the last of his kind, as far as he knows) and his brother Jake the Dog (a shape-shifting bully breed whose non-shape-shifting parents adopted Finn as an infant)—explore the world slaying monsters, delving into dungeons, honing their skills, 

collecting loot, and just generally acting like the goobers they are. In short, it’s just a really good action-adventure-comedy cartoon with its own style and vocabulary.

 

When I originally watched Adventure Time, I couldn’t put my finger on when things changed and it started to develop a consistent mythology and take itself more seriously. But watching it straight through for the second time on HBO Max (where, by the way, it looks way better than it did on Cartoon Network), it’s pretty clear things take a turn sometime in the third season. Here the dots start to connect less ambiguously and it becomes undeniable that the Land of Ooo doesn’t merely resemble the remnants of our world in many ways, it literally is the remnants of our world, one thousand years in the future, after a global nuclear conflict laid waste to civilization sometime after Cheers went off the air but before high-definition displays rose to prominence. (Those may seem like the weirdest of touchstones, but such are the calculations one has to

make when attempting to piece together the 66-million-year timeline of Adventure Time.)

 

The show’s haphazard mythology and piecemeal philosophy are actually what make it such a wonderful parable for this moment we’re living through. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, which was the meticulous creation of one man—a sort of rejection of Nietzsche wrapped up in an attempt to construct the kind of English mythology Tolkien presumed would 

have existed had the Normans not come along and Frenched everything up—Adventure Time was never the work of a single mind. True, series creator Pendleton Ward heavily shaped the direction of the show until sometime during the fifth season, when he stepped down as showrunner. But neither he nor his successor, Adam Muto, held too tight a leash. Writers and storyboard artists were free to explore whatever territory they saw fit, and as the series went on, it became increasingly more philosophical and poignant. And weirder.

 

The philosophy that emerges from that assemblage of diverse thinkers is understandably a little hard to pin down. But in broad strokes, it could be summarized as follows: People change. The world changes. A lot—unavoidably. And that’s scary. But we can persevere by joining with one another to share our art, play, and laugh at silly things while also doing the hard work of keeping civilization working.

 

The first real coalescing of that philosophy comes in the seventh-season episode “Everything Stays,” in which Marceline the Vampire Queen, in coming to terms with her own mortality, reflects on her thousand-and-three years of life and remembers a song sung to her by her mother in the days just before the civilization-ending Mushroom War. The lyrics to that song really say it all:

 

Let’s go in the garden
You’ll find something waiting
right there where you left it
lying upside down.

When you finally find it
you’ll see how it’s faded
the underside is lighter
when you turn it around.

Everything stays
right where you left it
everything stays
but it still changes
Ever so slightly
daily and nightly
in little ways
when everything stays

 

True, there’s a lot of wiggle room for interpretation in those words, as there is for everything about Adventure Time, especially in the second half of its run. It helps to know that those lyrics were inspired by a formative event in the life of series storyboard artist and songwriter Rebecca Sugar, who lost her favorite stuffed bunny in a garden when she was a child, only to find it some months later, sun-bleached and damaged by the elements. It was still the bunny she loved, but it wasn’t. It was different, and yet she loved it no less.

 

Taken in the context of the series, those lyrics also tie into larger themes of ongoing transformation and upheaval. In the mythology of Adventure Time, the world is visited once every thousand years by a catalyst comet—an agent of change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but inevitable either way. 

 

As my wife and I started to get to the part of the story where the catalyst comets start to come into play, I couldn’t help but think how apt a metaphor all of this is for our current moment. We’re coming to the end of one pandemic. We don’t really know what waits for us on the other side, but we know it won’t be like things were before. And we know that global pandemics of this sort are destined to become the rule rather than the exception if we don’t stop packing our populations so tightly and encroaching on the natural world with seeming impunity. But we’ll make it through the next one just like we made it through this one—hopefully with a little more wisdom and a lot more planning, but probably not. 

 

All of the above is a bit of a reductive view of the series. It’s about so much more than that. It’s about growing up, getting old, dying; parenting; and self-identity and self-actualization (the latter a concept Tolkien apparently found repugnant). In many ways, the later seasons almost read like a thought experiment plucked straight from the pages of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. As many others have noted, Adventure Time is also in many ways a rumination on bad fathers and the damage they do. 

 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the show’s creators exploring a lot of the same territory as Sartre and Camus, toying with existentialist notions without ever fully embracing Existentialism, acknowledging the absurdity of life without truly committing to Absurdism. In many ways, Adventure Time lands in a place Camus would have eventually reached if that tragic car accident hadn’t cut short his fascinating metaphysical evolution. 

 

In the midst of all that, it also manages to be a fascinating critique of American foreign and domestic policy (certainly a topic on a lot of people’s minds in recent years), a deconstruction of the notion of libertarian free will that avoids the trappings of fatalism, and a meditation on the merits of utilitarianism—all wrapped up in a zany cartoon that is, if not overtly aimed at children, at least kid-friendly. 

 

But when you get right down to it, all of that is really secondary to the driving ethos of the show, which is summed up beautifully by the finale (one of only two truly perfect series enders in modern television history, alongside The Good Place). In one of the show’s darkest moments, when the evil deity GOLB is unleashing unknowable chaos upon the Land of Ooo, one of the series’ main characters—BMO, a sentient portable game machine/media player with a penchant for creating elaborate film noire fantasies to entertain him/herself—accidentally stumbles upon the one weapon that can stave off such discord: Harmony. The world is literally saved by a sing-along. 

 

If there was some amazing force outside of time
to take us back to where we were
And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall
Inside a billion tiny frames so that we can see it all, all, all

It would look like:
Will happen, happening, happened
Will happen, happening, happened
And there we are, again and again
‘Cause you and I will always be back then

 

The Lord of the Rings is a comforting lie—one of the best ever told, in fact. It’s everything myth should be, and will always be the balm I reach for during the darkest hours.

 

The funny thing is, I didn’t return to Adventure Time looking for comfort, but I found it nonetheless. For all its stretchy half-alien mutant canines and bubblegum people and interdimensional weirdness, this show is the reassuring truth I didn’t know I needed right now, and in some weird ways it’s helping me come to terms with this new world ahead of us. Because if there’s one underlying message of this sweeping, chaotic, and singularly beautiful tale—aside from the fact that art is a weapon against darkness—it’s that even if things seem OK for now, they’ve gotten bad before and they’ll get bad again . . . not in exactly the same way, but close enough that there are lessons to be learned. 

 

And perhaps its most salient lesson is this: No matter how donked up the world gets—and it will indeed get donked up, over and over again—we all have the strength to persevere, so long as we open ourselves up to a bit of weirdness and embrace a lot of uncertainty. 

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: Better Days

Better Days

Derek Tsang’s Better Daysan Oscar nominee for International Feature Film—is a frustrating movie that’s worth the frustration. Its imperfections don’t keep it from being a powerful and moving story and its convolutions aren’t wholly justified, but if tasked with trimming it down a bit, I’m not sure what I would cut. It’s also plagued by issues forced upon the filmmaker by the Chinese government. But before we dig into all of that, let’s talk about what makes it unique and beautiful nonetheless.

 

Adapted from the novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days is the story of Chen Nian, a gifted young woman preparing for her college entrance exams while also suffering horrific treatment at the hands of bullies. That makes it all 

sound a bit trite, but there’s no way to convey in a few sentences how horrible the bullying on display here truly is. Think Lord of the Flies on steroids, just in an urban environment.

 

Shortly thereafter, Nian attempts to report the beating of a street thug and gets drawn into his life after nearly being killed by the gang attacking him. And again, Tsang shows a level of restraint here most directors wouldn’t. We don’t see Xiao Bei being beaten because we don’t need to. The look on her face tells us everything we need to know about the violence she’s witnessing.

 

The story that follows is equal parts Romeo and Juliet (sans the family feuds), Lord of the Flies (but with societal pressures standing in for the lack thereof), and a touch of Mean Girls (without the humor), but it combines its influences into something unique. The plot does get a bit messy at times but it holds together thanks to the 

BETTER DAYS AT A GLANCE

Nominated for the International Feature Film Oscar, this brutal tale of bullying and societal strife is compelling and satisfying despite some meddling by the Chinese censors.

 

PICTURE
Even at 1080p on Vudu, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups, without any significant artifacts.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel soundtrack manages to be creative without being gimmicky, with the ambient sound effects beautifully mixed.

performances of Dongyu Zhou as Chen Nian and Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei, as well as Tsang’s gifts for visual storytelling.

 

For all its ugliness, Better Days is a beautifully shot film, with some of the best application of color theory I’ve seen on any screen in some time. The portions that take place in Nian’s school are awash in secondary hues and pastels that starkly contrast with the browns and grays of Xiao Bei’s underworld. It’s a shame the film wasn’t released in 4K HDR because the color palette really deserves the expanded gamut 10-bit video would bring. So, too, do the darker scenes, where the dynamic range feels constrained. Shadows simply don’t reach as deep as they should, and the image lacks of a bit of dimension as a result.

 

Otherwise, Vudu’s HDX presentation is admirable. The film was shot in 3.2K resolution and finished in a 2K digital intermedia, so it’s not as if we’re losing out on a lot of resolution in the 1080p presentation. Indeed, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups. And I didn’t see any significant artifacts in Vudu’s stream. If you’re going to rent this in the digital domain, though, pick your provider carefully. I can’t imagine Amazon Prime would do justice to the cinematography, given how drab and fuzzy most of that service’s HD streams look. My advice would be to stick with Vudu or iTunes. 

 

Either way you go, though, the 5.1 soundtrack (delivered on Vudu in Dolby Digital+) is a lot better than you’d probably expect. The mix manages to be creative without being gimmicky. There’s a scene early on where a character is listening to headphones and pulls them out of her ears one at a time. The sound mix follows her lead, planting the audio she hears dead center at first, then leaning to the left before fading away completely. Ambient sound effects are also beautifully mixed, be it the sounds of rain, traffic, or simply the background din of an overpopulated cityscape. 

 

Vudu also presents the film with baked-in subtitles, and the only soundtrack option is the original Mandarin. This, of course, shouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but it sort of is.  I know next to no Mandarin, and what little I do know comes from wuxia films and kung-fu flicks. But even I picked up on the fact that the subtitles are occasionally lacking. Regional idioms in particular are stripped of all their flavor in favor of more generic translations. 

 

That does little to rob the film of its impact. What does suck a bit of soul out of it is the blatantly tacked-on coda that reads more like hostage video than a legitimate expression of the filmmaker. After the story has wrapped back on itself beautifully, like a narrative ouroboros that manages to let go of its own tail, we’re subjected to some tacked-on text—accompanied by cheery music—that would have us believe the Chinese government has stamped out all the bullying and all the societal ills represented in the film have been rectified. 

 

That left me stunned. It was so incongruous with everything else about the film that I went digging. And I found that this was far from the only meddling the Chinese government did. And with that, it all makes sense—the little plot threads that don’t feel properly resolved, the heavy-handed exposition at the hands of the film’s police characters . . . all the little nagging problems I had with the film can seemingly be blamed on the interference of the CCP. 

 

But Better Days rises above those flaws to be a compelling movie with universal applicability. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the weight of societal and familial expectations and the tolls of living in a society where the choices made in one’s youth represent a fork in the road, with one path leading to a comfortable but oppressive life and the other toward the freedom of squalor and destitution. I wish we could see the film Derek Tsang wanted us to see, because I can only imagine how much more impact it had before all the government censorship. But none of that is to say that I’m dissatisfied with the movie we got instead.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

As different as they are, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The two films overlap in time, and they both employ Fred Hampton as a character—the former in a bit part, the latter as its protagonist—and have some tangential overlap in terms of the other players involved. 

 

But while Sorkin’s film is a whitewashed work of puerile fantasy masquerading as dramatization that takes a bunch of radicals and employs them as distorted pawns in a piece of propaganda designed to glorify the safe, center-right establishment, Black Messiah is an almost entirely honest portrait of a human being who also just so happened to be a revolutionary. It may be 

one of the most honest biopics I’ve ever seen.

 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It does exhibit a few of the problems inherent in compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour narrative. But let’s set the quibbles aside for a moment and dig into what makes Black Messiah so great, despite its flaws.

 

The first thing is its acting. Almost across the board, the performances are captivating. The dialogue in particular is delivered with such authenticity that you almost have to wonder how much of it was improvised. People often misspeak and correct themselves, or stammer and repeat themselves, but almost none of it feels scripted or rehearsed.

 

This is all the more impressive when you consider that so much of what comes out of the Fred Hampton character’s mouth exactly mirrors speech uttered by the real Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya absolutely inhabits the role, and if you have

JUDAS AT A GLANCE

The story of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the people around him features consistently strong acting while avoiding most of the biopic clichés.

 

PICTURE
A study in rich, earthy hues, this is a surprisingly gorgeous film that doesn’t try to ape the look of its era.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix gives the music, which runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, room to breathe, although the improvisational approach to the acting make dialogue sometimes hard to make out.

any doubts about how well he’s captured Hampton’s mannerisms, speech patterns, gift for rhetoric, and undeniable charisma, you only need to watch a few minutes of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton.

 

In any other film, a performance like this would be a standout, but Kaluuya’s naturalism and believability is the rule rather than the exception. Equally compelling is Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. I can’t say how accurate her portrayal is since Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri) is an incredibly private person. Accurate or not, though, Fishback does more with a downturned look or a furrowed brow than most actors could convey in a soliloquy. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her because her essential humanity simply radiates off the screen.

 

LaKeith Stanfield is also fantastic as William O’Neal, the car-thief-turned-FBI-informant who acted as both agent provocateur within the Illinois Black Panther Party and also one of the key catalysts in Hampton’s assassination. Stanfield has perhaps

the most difficult job in the film, in that he has to portray internal conflict and nervous insincerity without Mickey Mousing it, and he does so almost flawlessly.

 

Also wonderful is Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who recruited O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to Hampton. It would have been really easy to play Mitchell as a villain, but as with Fishback, Plemons brings a 

lot of nuance to the part, mostly through his facial expressions. I’ve frankly rarely seen so much acting done with so few words.

 

Even the tertiary players turn in such authentic performances that at times you forget you’re watching a dramatization. The only less-than-stellar performance is by Martin Sheen, who shares the role of J. Edgar Hoover with ten pounds of prosthetics. He simply isn’t a good enough actor to do the part justice, and instead comes off like Martin Sheen wearing a good Halloween costume. If anything, he makes Hoover into an almost comedic mustache-twirler, which downplays the man’s true maliciousness.

 

As much credit as the rest of the cast deserves, some praise also needs to be aimed in the direction of screenwriter Will Berson and King himself, who shares screenplay credit. Whichever of the two wrote the lion’s share of the dialogue needs to be employed on any films set in this era, because no matter how good your actors are, it must be near impossible to write characters that deliver lines like “Right on!” and “Dig!” without devolving into parody. And there’s a lot of that sort of talk in the film—rightly so. But as with the acting, the language here simply rings true, except in those cases where its intentional inauthenticity is essential to the plot. 

 

There’s a fine line to walk when compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour dramatization, and Berson and King also deserve a lot of credit for mostly making the right choices. On the one hand, you have to pick between honesty and clarity. In almost every instance, the screenwriters err on the side of honesty, which means that some narrative threads can be a little tough to track at times, and do require you to keep a lot of data in RAM. When dealing with a film like this, I’ll take “a little too messy” over “a little too neat” any day of the week. The only time it ventures into too-neat territory is with its “thirty shekels of silver” scene near the end. I understand its metaphorical necessity, but the details of the scene are a bit of a white lie.

 

There’s also a choice to be made with a film like this between fact and truth. In almost every instance, the script errs on the side of truth. That means that sometimes similar events are amalgamated to avoid narrative redundancy. Some people are combined or, puzzlingly, renamed. But by and large, Black Messiah is more interested in providing a truthful portrayal of who Hampton was than getting every minor historical detail perfectly correct, since those details would only make sense in the context of a narrative that would span weeks or months, not mere hours. 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a surprisingly gorgeous film, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. Shot on a variety of Arri lenses in the ArriRaw format at 4.5K resolution and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, it is a study in rich, earthy hues. Its environs are dingy, its characters rarely well-dressed, and there’s a paucity of light that gives the picture a stark look at times. It’s a contrasty affair overall, and I dig the fact that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t attempt to film-look the footage. In short, Black Messiah doesn’t look like it was shot in 1969, because that would be redundant. The art design of the film establishes the setting; the processing of the imagery doesn’t need to.

 

What I like best is that there’s nearly nothing arbitrary about about the look of the film. The camera moves when it needs to move. Scenes are framed the way they need to be framed. There’s one gorgeous shot in which we stay tightly focused on O’Neal as he calls his FBI handler on a payphone. When he hangs up, the camera pulls back to take in his desolate surroundings. But it’s not a gratuitous composition. After his call, O’Neal is smaller, engulfed in a larger landscape, to spotlight the fact that he feels small, helpless, overwhelmed. It’s a subtle choice, indicative of the sort of decisions Bobbitt makes with the camera. After that scene, I stopped scrutinizing the cinematography because there’s such a wonderfully subliminal and effortless mastery to the composition of each shot that, by analyzing it, I found that I wasn’t letting it do its job. 

 

The high dynamic range is used primarily to give the imagery some expanded wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale. It’s a study in the subtle contrasts between inky blacks and nearly inky blacks. Kaluuya in particular has a very dark complexion, and in some scenes his features and facial expressions would have been lost in the shadows if not for HDR.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation preserves everything wonderful about its look, as well as its sound. You wouldn’t think this sort of film would benefit from a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it does. Interestingly, most of the ambient overhead effects are reserved for the score, which is a delightfully eclectic blend of jazz and funk with—at times—hints of Stravinsky and Holst peppered in for good measure. The music runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, and the Atmos mix gives it room to breathe, to ebb and flow in interesting ways you might not even

consciously notice.

 

If there’s any criticism to be leveled at the sound mix, it’s again an issue that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Given the natural rhythms of the dialogue, the spontaneous inflections and in-the-moment verisimilitude of it all, recording ADR for Black Messiah would have robbed it of much of its authentic energy. As such, the dialogue seems to have mostly been captured on-set, and at times it can be a little hard to parse. This movie is best experienced on a system with a lot of dynamic-range capacity and a hell of a good center speaker.

 

This is definitely a film you want to watch if you want to understand Fred Hampton—not as a mythical being, as the title would suggest, but as a man, community leader, reformer, and father-to-be. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t really interested in whether or not you like Fred Hampton or the Black Panthers. It doesn’t ask you to laud or loathe them. It’s just interested in showing you who they were, what they were about, and why they were such a threat to the institutional powers of the day. And it does so in the least heavy-handed way possible.

 

It’s hard to watch this film and not come away understanding that the most 

Judas and the Black Messiah

dangerous thing Hampton ever did was uniting the white southerners of the Young Patriots Organization and the Puerto Ricans of the Young Lords with the Black Panther Party to form the Rainbow Coalition. But King doesn’t force that realization on you. Nearly any other filmmaker would have done so, especially given how important this plot point is to the film’s overall thrust. It’s the key detail that turns Hampton’s story from one of racial struggle to one of class struggle, and most storytellers would have browbeat the viewer to drive this home. That King draws the dots but resists the urge to connect them speaks to his confidence not only in the intelligence of his audience, but also in his abilities as a filmmaker.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah may not be perfect, but it’s definitely one of the most (actually, one of the very few) important films I’ve seen in recent years. And if you missed its free-to-view run on HBO Max, you owe it to yourself to rent it as soon as possible. 

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: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

OCTOPUS AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

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

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

 

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

 

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

GODZILLA VS. KONG AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Father

The Father (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Zeller uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to force 

THE FATHER AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE
Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless.

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Father (2020)

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

MOON AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Minari

Minari (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

MINARI AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another “WandaVision”

I Hope Marvel Never Makes Another "WandaVision"

As I’ve said before (so much that regular readers are probably getting sick of hearing it), Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed everything for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the film that showed us how MCU movies could rise above the tropes and trappings of superhero cinema. And it’s the film that gave the movies that followed it the freedom to play around with genre in interesting ways. If Winter Soldier hadn’t worked and hadn’t connected with audiences, I don’t think we would have WandaVision today. I just don’t think Marvel would have had the courage to make it.

 

But WandaVision, in its own way, changes everything yet again. The precedent set by this series is that you can take the single most mainstream intellectual property in the world and get abstract with it. You can experiment. You can out-bizarre Twin Peaks and still hang onto your fanboy audience, many of whom latch onto the MCU for no other reason than the wish-

fulfillment/power-trip aspect of it all.

 

Well, you can hang onto a lot of them. I have to admit, geeky though I may be, I’ve pretty much divorced myself from geek culture since the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi—mostly due to the toxicity of it all, but also because the loudest contingent of fantasy/sci-fi fans on the internet no more understands the properties they love to wax neck-beardedly about than my American Staffordshire Terrier understands quantum chromodynamics.

 

The few discussions I’ve seen about WandaVision, now that it’s over, frustrate and infuriate me in equal measure, because here we have a story that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be human, in a way no film or TV series of any genre has in ages, and the only things the Comic-Con crowd wants to discuss are why Mephisto didn’t make an appearance or whether Agatha’s rabbit familiar, Señor Scratchy, is secretly her son Nicholas Scratch from the comic books.

 

All fun topics to talk about, mind you, as frivolous as they 

may be. But can we take a breather from the soap-opera discussions to focus on what made WandaVision legitimately good? Can we appreciate that the company known for making movies about dudes fighting robots in their pajamas had the courage to tell a story in which the primary antagonists are grief, pain, cognitive dissonance, and consequences? And not physical manifestations thereof, but the actual human emotions?

 

Can we maybe take a breather from geeking out over the big action set-pieces to appreciate the fact that the biggest knock-down, drag-out battle in the finale was won not with fists or laser eyes, but a philosophical argument centered on the Ship of TheseusCan we talk about the fact that, as weird as the first half of WandaVision was, it avoided the biggest sins of the aforementioned Twin Peaks by knowing when to back off the eccentricities, lest they lose their value?

 

Look, I’m not saying WandaVision was perfect. I found it more than a bit disappointing when the penultimate episode overexplained too many of the series’ earlier abstractions, assuming I suppose that some of its audience may not have been able to connect the dots for themselves. But such slip-ups are few and far between, which is surprising for a show that works on so many levels.

 

WandaVision is, obviously, a story about struggling with grief and the toll that struggle can take on those around us. It’s also a meditation on our weird relationship with media—how we influence it and how it influences us, both overtly and subliminally. It’s a clever examination of shifting cultural norms, and how what we accept as normal today is as much a manipulated affectation as any of the tropes of the past.

 

The series’ strengths lie in its uniqueness. And yes, you could point to previous films it resembles in the most obvious of ways, such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show. But such similarities are mostly superficial (except, of course, for the latter’s framing of tragedy disguised as comedy, which this show appropriates with devastating effectiveness). WandaVision is, for all its references and call-backs, its own thing. Which is why I’m worried it’s going to be used as a template, now that it has proven successful.

 

I’m already seeing fans start to beg for a second season, and Marvel’s suits are being coy in their responses. And that terrifies me. As a lifelong fan of these characters—one who’s smitten with how they’ve been interpreted for screens large and small—I obviously want to see their stories continued. I’m as invested as could be. But I want to see Paul Bettany and Lizzie Olsen portraying Vision and the Scarlet Witch in new stories, told in new ways, not awkwardly fumbling around with attempts at capturing lighting in a bottle.

 

WandaVision was perhaps the most satisfying and self-contained narrative I’ve seen unfold in ages. And now it’s over. It’s done. There’s no more of this story to tell. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to replicate it. And if you need evidence of that, just look at the number of new streaming services that have come out in the past year with meaningless “+” symbols stapled onto the end of their names.

 

Yes, yes, I know. A streaming service and a TV series are not the same thing. But Hollywood has a knack for aping what works without understanding why it works. When Disney+ launched back in 2019, that binary operator at the end of its name actually meant something. It was shorthand for “Disney + Pixar + Star Wars + Marvel + National Geographic.” What the hell does Apple TV+ connote? Much less Paramount+, the new name for the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access? Paramount + what, exactly?

 

And so, in keeping with that entertainment-industry tradition, it stands to reason that we’ll eventually see at least a few feeble attempts at replicating the self-referential, heartfelt-story-framed-as-classic-sitcom container in which WandaVision was delivered, with no thought given to what that device actually meant in the context of this story.

 

The most I can hope for is that Marvel doesn’t attempt to scrape this barrel again, and certainly not with these characters, because wishing for anything more than that would be like Charlie Brown, facing that football once more, hoping beyond hope that Lucy doesn’t yank it away at the last second.

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.