Netflix Tag

The Two Popes

The Two Popes

Despite its occasionally lavish cinematography and stellar supporting cast, The Two Popes is first and foremost a dialogue-driven drama that is not overly dramatic.

 

It’s an impressive feat, considering how the scandals that ultimately drove Pope Benedict XVI to even consider becoming the first pontiff in 598 years to resign continue to make national news. His explanation of “lack of strength of mind and body” combined with the continuing stream of allegations of pedophilia committed by clergy and hidden by the church were widely

seen as contributing to his decision.

 

As portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict is a frail old man dead-set in his belief that followers must adhere to a strictly conservative doctrine, whereas Pope Francis, his ultimate successor, who is brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce, is a reformer open to changes in both practice and perception of a pontiff’s day-to-day responsibilities and role on the international stage.

 

Without giving away the crux of the content, it’s widely known that as he eventually moved closer to retirement, Pope Benedict XVI summoned Cardinal Jorge Mario 

Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) to meet with him at his summer home in the Lazio region of Italy. Bergoglio, who himself was considering a move away from his position as cardinal of Buenos Aires, spent many hours with the pope discussing their respective pasts and paths, views on a changing world, and of course modern-day news stories about indiscretions in the church.

 

These conversations are at the heart of The Two Popes. More riveting than any action sequence I’ve seen over the past year, their meetings slowly build in intensity as the two men come to terms with their beliefs, differences, histories, and plans to move on from their individual roles. 

 

The Two Popes is a singularly focused film where, as in My Dinner with Andre and Killing Them Softly, backgrounds and supporting actors play a (very) distant second to the two leads’ conversations.

As a test to see if my first impressions held firm, I listened to the soundtrack while riding the subway on route to a meeting. Sure enough, the dialogue kept a grip on my interest, even as I travelled with a sea of commuters during the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan morning rush.

 

That said, The Two Popes is no slouch as a visual 

The Two Popes

treat. From breathtaking scenes of the pontiff’s summer retreat in Lazio to modern-day footage of the Vatican and city of Rome, viewers with reasonably substantial 4K displays will be drawn in by the intense beauty of the region. The visuals alone would serve as an effective promotion that could easily have been sponsored by The Italian National Tourist Board.

 

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes is more than anything an enduring vehicle for its two stars—in particular, Jonathan Pryce, who instills a believable vulnerability into his portrayal of Pope Francis. Sensitive, modest, and filled with self-doubt that teeters on self-loathing, Pryce’s pontiff is as human as his most humble followers, especially when recounting disturbing episodes from his past. Meirelles deftly switches to flashbacks that convey an old-movie sensibility in terms of both noirish presentation and the overall sense of morality in the scene.

 

Sonically, The Two Popes lets the story do the talking, with a subtle mix that made me feel as if I was sitting with the two men. Effects are sparingly placed in the surround channels, but, as I learned from my experience simply listening to the film while otherwise in motion, The Two Popes doesn’t require a modern-day surround system. On the contrary, the direct, emotionally honest simplicity of the story would likely be just as enjoyable if viewed only with the aid a budget soundbar. The noise of the crowd, calming sounds of nature, and raucous crowds are all aided by a high-end home theater, but they aren’t reliant upon it. The dialogue is the true star of this film, and it is what pulled me back for multiple viewings over several weeks.

 

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Dracula (2020)

Dracula (2020)

The myth of Dracula isn’t one I think needs retelling. It, and vampires in general, have been done to death over the past couple decades. But whenever Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss write a project together, I’m intrigued.

 

For the uninitiated, Moffat and Gatiss worked together on the sci-fi favorite Doctor Who before continuing their working relationship with the series Sherlockan intricate and deeply satisfying retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle character in modern day with fantastic performances. Even before watching Dracula, I noticed that there were already a few similarities between the two series (both being based on existing material with the season being only three 90-ish-minute episodes). If they could do for Dracula what they did for Sherlock Holmes, it would be an excellent, smash-hit TV show.

 

It certainly is a TV show. Excellent smash hit? That would be a bit of a stretch. There are aspects of the series that stay true to the source material—such as character names, Dracula’s trip to England, and his typical phobias—but the structure of the retelling is different and the purposes of the different characters are often skewed in some way. That said, it doesn’t go far enough in its reinvention to feel distinct and new.

 

The three episodes are incredibly uneven and, while there’s some great writing peppered throughout, there’s an odd mixture of modern vernacular and attitudes that doesn’t fit with the 1800s time period of the first two episodes. (The third episode 

time jumps 123 years to our present day.) The series can be a bit schlocky, and relies too much on trying to reinvent the myth without truly accomplishing the feat. There’s also rarely any subtlety to the acting or directing. It’s very in-your-face throughout.

 

Of the three episodes, I enjoyed the second the most by far. It takes place almost exclusively on the ship Demeter that brings 

Dracula (2020)

Dracula to England. There are some interesting glimpses into Dracula’s past and the relationships between the characters on the ship, and a mystery of who is traveling in one of the cabins that stays locked. It could almost be treated as a standalone story, save for some references to the first episode.

 

Where the show does consistently succeed is in it practical effects and accompanying sound design. There are moments that made my body contort and my brain not want to see what was about to be revealed (although I always did, deep down, want the reveal). The sound mix felt very much intended for someone watching it on TV without a surround setup, as it was almost entirely present in the front channels with only obligatory reverb and music sent to the surrounds.

 

The HDR presentation is used mostly in the visually dark moments, such as Dracula’s castle in Episode One or the corners of the Demeter in Episode Two. Not unexpectedly for a creature of the night, most of the scenes are dark. One moment of blaring sunlight at the (somewhat disappointing) end shows off the bright end of the HDR spectrum.

 

The Dracula delivered to us by Moffat and Gatiss feels like it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It doesn’t go far enough to be full-on camp, but there’s too much campiness to feel truly terrifying. Unless you’re aching for more Dracula, it might be best to limit your intake to just the second episode.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

American Factory

American Factory

It’s impossible to walk away from American Factory without feeling some type of emotion, whether it’s sympathy for a work force that was robbed of its livelihood only to be given the illusion of fresh, if limited opportunities, or disbelief at how anybody could believe that a Chinese company would somehow adapt to U.S. worker protections—efforts that are often an illusion or downright lie.

 

For me, having come from a pro-union, blue-collar family that had a positive experience with the American labor market in the mid/late 20th century, my first viewing left me a tad angry at the outcome and the workers’ shortsightedness when deciding

upon whether to throw their support behind a union.

 

Note that, as a review of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that covers an important chapter in the lives of rust-belt Americans, my comments may contain a spoiler or two, but nothing that wasn’t covered in the news during and after the Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. Ltd of the People’s Republic of China bought and renovated a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. As the company’s Fuyaousa.com website explains: “General Motors, Ford, BMW, Honda, Bentley and more all use Fuyao glass in their newly manufactured automobiles.”

 

All true, and when the company first started the process of buying and renovating the plant and hiring approximately 2,000 staff for a facility that had been shuttered for six years, local residents were ecstatic over a chance to return the region to its glory as a haven for U.S.-based manufacturing.

 

Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were given near-unbelievable access to film the scenario as it unfolded, from the earliest days of site inspections to staffing, 

training, and the inevitable and, at least in the beginning, almost humorous culture clashes that one would expect when blue-collar middle Americans are brought into a corporate culture that is known for formality and respect for authority. According to an article that appeared in the Dayton Daily News last August, Bognar said he and Reichert, “stand by the translations subtitled in the work.”

 

An important note, since it isn’t long before the almost idyllic melding of the cultures gives way to real-life concerns about skimping on safety standards, and the company’s firm stance against unionization. The directors, who also shot the 2009 Academy Award-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, illustrate throughout the film their talent for letting 

American Factory

the events happen without editorialization, giving it a narrative approach that tells the story as well as any well-made piece of fiction.

 

But this is real life, with both American and Chinese staff providing relatively few off-camera commentaries as the story is allowed to simply play out on screen, with the help of small, handheld 

cameras and lavalier microphones that follow one and all for months and years as the dream of a resuscitated manufacturing environment slowly unravels. The guerilla-style shoot foregoes polemics, leaving the viewer to decide where they stand on a matter that affected thousands of people in the recent past.

 

The Oscar-nominated American Factory is as good a documentary as I’ve seen in recent years, thanks in no small part to the high production values, including a surround mix that is unspectacular in the best possible way. Subtle effects such as factory noises, the crunching of gravel, and kids playing in a backyard remain in the rear, quietly supporting the voices and underlying tension on the screen. Maybe it’s a Netflix thing, but knowing that it would mostly be seen on a small screen supported by soundbars or other low-tech solutions most likely led the filmmakers to go light on the audio mix, though anybody with a 5.1 system will feel as if they are on the factory floor and in the boardrooms.

 

Likewise, video is impeccable, without the excessive grain often associated with this type of documentary. No doubt those anomalies were cleaned up in post-production, a critical element in making this so watchable on a big screen in a small-ish living room. (Apartment dwellers in NY and other big cities know what I mean.) The visual quality ranks with the most polished documentaries of the past 10 years.

 

As the first release by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is remarkably unbiased, simply telling the story as it happens without nudging the viewer to fall into any specific camp. The Obamas stated that their production company is designed to “harness the power of storytelling.” Judging by this debut release, they’re poised to become an important contributor to American cinema. From its presentation to its attention to cinematic detail, Higher Ground is well on its way to meeting and ultimately exceeding its goals.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

The Witcher

The Witcher

The sword & sorcery fantasy genre was mostly relegated to movie theaters until Game of Thrones came around and busted into popular culture. When it finished its run in May 2019, there was a hole left ready to be filled, and many prophesied that The Witcher would be that successor.

 

In truth, it isn’t, but not in a negative way. There are no question similarities between the two: Both have a rich collection of novels and short stories that were written around the same time, both have the aforementioned sword & sorcery components (although The Witcher has more outward sorcery than GoT), and both have fervent fan bases that were ecstatic to see the stories get adapted for the screen. But where Game of Thrones was a highly complex political intrigue show with an enormous cast of characters supporting that narrative, The Witcher focuses on three main characters: The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Cirilla (Freya Allan), and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra).

 

Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher Saga is a collection of five books beginning with Blood of Elves. But the two short-story collections—The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny—set up the relationships in The Witcher Saga, and it’s from those short stories that the eight episodes pull from, which can cause the storytelling to feel disjointed early on in the

The Witcher

series.

 

The episodes also follow multiple timelines that eventually converge. As viewers, we’re not made implicitly aware of the different timelines, and they only become apparent four episodes in. Add to that a slew of names that are just thrown about, and the potential for confusion is high.

 

But it all comes together and works. There are some wonderful stories that give 

a sense of how deep the mythology of this world is, and some interesting character study, particularly of Yennefer. There are frequent moments of levity and self-awareness that I found endearing, and multiple instances of a well-placed expletive from Cavill’s stoic portrayal that caused me to laugh out loud.

 

The Netflix presentation is in 4K HDR with a 5.1 surround mix. The HDR is used to great effect with a bunch of dark scenes that are aided by the depth available from the dynamic range. Moments of sunlight felt piercing as it supported the narrative of the scene. Detail is excellent and the magic visual effects look convincing and epic. The surround sound effects mix is subtle and lets the score, by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, soar. The series has been renewed for a second season that is expected at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this year’s Golden Globes played some part in my awareness of Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix Original film Marriage Story. Ashamed because I couldn’t care less about awards ceremonies and rarely base any of my viewing choices on self-congratulatory pomp.

 

I do, on the other hand, care quite a bit about Baumbach’s work. And I’m drawn to him, in part, because his films aren’t predictable. While I’ve loved all of his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (especially the delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox), his own directorial efforts have been a little more uneven. For every engaging The Squid and the Whale, there’s been an off-

putting Margot at the Wedding. For every mercurial Frances Ha, there’s been a muddled While We’re Young.

 

But even Baumbach’s failures have been noble failures in my book, because he has a singular talent for writing dialogue that’s simply unmatched in our generation. And all of that is on full display in what I consider to be one of his best films yet.

 

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as soulmates at an impasse. It’s ostensibly the story of their divorce, territory Baumbach already explored from one perspective in The Squid and the Whale. But to call it a film 

about divorce (which The Squid and the Whale most certainly was) would be to miss the point of Marriage Story. Instead, it’s a story about the individual sense of identity that’s often lost in any marriage, but also the intimacy that’s gained in return. That back and forth, give and take, yin and yang ultimately influences all of the film’s themes.

 

It really isn’t the thematic or narrative heart of Marriage Story that makes it work, though. It’s the characters that drive the film, as well as Baumbach’s aforementioned gift for crafting dialogue that sounds completely organic and natural to the ear, but upon closer inspection turns out to be a masterfully assembled jigsaw puzzle agglomerated from pieces pilfered from two different boxes.

 

Characters talk past and over one another, they inject non sequiturs and distractions, they leave thoughts dangling and stumble over interruptions, and if you didn’t know better you might suspect that Baumbach is allowing his performers to improvise. They’re not improvising. Every pause, ever “uh,” every clipped and broken sentence fragment is meticulously scripted to keep the flow of what’s actually being communicated between two characters who aren’t really listening to one another unambiguous for the viewer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film is perfectly cast. It’s seems pretty clear to me that Baumbach selected Johansson and Driver not merely because of their inherent talent, but as much for the audience’s expectations of what they bring to a film. With Johansson, we expect a certain emotional complexity—an ability to convey two contradictory emotions on her face, in her body language, in her vocal inflections. With Driver, we expect a certain caged-animal ferocity—explosions of intensity and frustrated vulnerability. Baumbach plays around with those expectations in wonderful ways, and I hesitate to say more than that.

Marriage Story

The one thing I will say about characterization, though, is that Baumbach seems to be going for more universal relatability with this film than with previous efforts. Much as I love his last Netflix Original, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I’ll admit that as with most of the writer/director’s films, I found its neurotic characters as unrelatable as they were fascinating. It could simply be that I’m from Alabama, where—to paraphrase Julia Sugarbaker—we proudly display our crazy out in the open rather than bottling it up until it boils over, but there’s always been an aloof affectation to Baumbach’s characters that made them seem more than a little alien to me.

 

That’s far from the case with Marriage Story, save for a few supporting characters whose affectations are more of a contrived West Coast sort that I at least understand. At its heart, though, the two leads are less defined by their neuroses than by their sympathetic human failings.

 

If all of the above makes Marriage Story seem like the sort of film that could just as easily be viewed on a laptop or mobile screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives the characters room to breathe, opting for wide shots throughout except when closeups are needed for punctuation. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen in the home, and one that rewards quality of presentation thanks largely to its distinctive, filmic look.

 

Shot on Kodak Vision3 200T and 500T film stock (depending on lighting levels, one would assume) in an increasingly uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Marriage Story is an analog cinephile’s dream. The organic grain structure and photochemical idiosyncrasies of the stock give the film a unique character that’s missing from so many modern, digitally captured movies.

 

What surprised me, though, is that Netflix’s UHD/HDR presentation—at least by way of my Roku Ultra—is more than up to the task of delivering this unabashedly analog imagery pretty much perfectly intact. Much as I love this modern era of high-efficiency, relatively low-bitrate streaming, I’m not blind to its limitations. One expects a few seconds here and there with a little light banding or digital noise. Indeed, there is a handful of shots in Marriage Story—one in particular featuring characters positioned against an inconsistently lit cream-white wall—where I leaned forward to judge just how prominent the banding would be. And yet I saw none.

 

Ask me to find a visual flaw in the presentation and I might point to one scene in which the structure of the film grain and the textures of an onscreen object interfere a little, and may have been presented a little less noisily in a much higher bandwidth download or on disc. But without being able to do direct A/B comparisons, I’m just guessing.

 

That aside (if it’s even valid), Netflix presents Marriage Story beautifully, preserving the slight golden cast of the film stock, as well as its overall low-contrast aesthetic. It’s important not to confuse contrast and dynamic range here, as the HDR does leave a lot of room between the not-very-black blacks and the never-very-intense highlights, allowing us to peer deeper into shadows and appreciate the subtle differences between, for example, two black pieces of clothing dyed differently and aged asymmetrically.

 

The sound mix, too, is one that hinges on subtleties. Mostly a mono affair, the barely-surround soundtrack makes another strong case for why the center channel is the most important speaker in your sound system. The mix does spread to the front left and right speakers occasionally, mostly to give width to Randy Newman’s sparse-but-poignant score, but also, creatively, to give some space to the often dense and chaotic cacophony of dialogue.

 

Netflix, it seems, is somewhat under siege as of late, with some criticizing the inconsistent quality of its original offerings and others (yours truly included) musing on how the service can maintain any semblance of identity in the face of new competitors like Disney+ and the upcoming HBO MAX and Peacock.

 

If the company keeps supporting the creation of films like this, though, it can count on my $15.99 every month. And if Noah Baumbach is going to keep maturing as a filmmaker and delivering consistently amazing character studies like The Meyerowitz Stories and now Marriage Story, he’s going to convert me into an unapologetic and unreserved champion.

 

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.

2019: The Year in Streaming

2019: The Year in Streaming

It might feel like the words “streaming” and “cord cutting” have dominated content conversations for the past few years, but once the dust has settled from the streaming vs. cable vs. disc conflict, 2019 will stand out as maybe the most important year in the shift toward the dominance of streaming content. Many of us still love our discs, but with the exponential

improvements in streaming quality over the past couple years, the end is nigh. The year in streaming wasn’t all highlights, but the bumps in the road look to be remnants of an aging past and not trends of what’s to come.

 

End of the Old Guard?

For decades, HBO was at the forefront of cutting-edge content with shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Veep, and Game of Thrones. But it was Thrones that brought some controversy to the premium cable network at the beginning of the year. The quality of the stream for one of its most anticipated episodes, “The Long Night,” was downright disgraceful. Blame was thrown at the director, the cinematographer, and even the audience, for not properly setting up their TVs. But when it comes down to it, the fault lay primarily with HBO. The network’s antiquated compression algorithm coupled with millions of people trying to watch the show at the same time led to an atrocious viewing experience.

 

While that whole fiasco became fodder for anyone looking for a reason to denounce the rise of streaming, people did learn how to improve their home viewing, and there are plenty of services that do streaming right. If anything, it shone a bright light on the deficiencies of HBO and the other cable services when it comes to providing high-quality content delivery. Hopefully HBO will improve with the release of HBO Max, the streaming service launching early next year from WarnerMedia. It has to, really, because there’s a new kid on the block.

 

The Disney Juggernaut

Right around the same time HBO was failing at “The Long Night,” Disney rocked the streaming world by announcing that its new service, Disney+, would only be $6.99 a month. And deals soon appeared that let you get the service for around $4 a month if you paid for three years up front (which I did). Compared to the competition, the price was surprisingly low for the expected content being provided.

 

What exactly we’d be getting, and at what quality, wasn’t fully known until Disney+ finally launched in November. Many titles are being offered in 4K HDR, including almost all of the Star Wars movies which, until then, had been capped at 1080p. (The two Star Wars titles that had previously been released on disc in 4K HDR—The Last Jedi and Solo—aren’t available yet on Disney+.)

 

The launch had its problems, namely that a lot of people couldn’t log on to their authentication servers and were left waiting for traffic to calm down and a fix to be deployed. But once that was resolved, we were all able to revel in the incredible content, like The Mandalorian, which is being released at one episode per week and not the drop-it-all-at-once-and-binge structure Netflix and Amazon Prime have followed. The Disney+ interface is also better than what other streaming services offer, and provides a good model for the others to follow—which they likely will in response.

 

Moving Away From Theaters

Toward the end of 2018, Netflix made some waves when it released a few of its films (like Roma and Bird Box) in movie theaters first, primarily to be considered for the Academy Awards, which require a minimum theatrical release of seven days. But the movies were only in the theaters from one to three weeks before they showed up on Netflix for subscribers to stream to their heart’s delight. The theaters weren’t pleased and voiced their dissent, but it blew over relatively quickly because the films, while they were awards contenders and included some incredible talent, didn’t have household names.

 

That changed this November when Netflix released Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman after only a month in theaters. Many major theater chains in both the U.S. and Europe refused to play the movie, and because of that it didn’t make anywhere near the money it could have with a traditional theatrical release. But that also was never Netflix’ intention.

 

There is still something to the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater and the magic it can evoke. Just recently, I had the option of seeing Rise of Skywalker in a movie theater on opening weekend or staying home and watching it a screener copy. I chose to complete the 42-year journey in the theater with a group of strangers I didn’t know but was connected to through Star Wars nonetheless. But my motivation to spend the money and leave the house is dwindling when I have a perfectly good home theater and high enough bandwidth to stream a 4K HDR movie with Dolby Atmos through any number of streaming services.

 

On to 2020

The immediate future for streaming could be very interesting. There will be even 

more services coming online in 2020, including the aforementioned HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. The problem is, the existing network services are still locked into 1080p. If they paid attention to their competitors at all in 2019, hopefully they’ll realize it’s time to step up their game.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

The Irishman

The Irishman

It was a big get, even for a company as big as Netflix. Martin Scorsese is one of the most lauded directors in cinema and has, save for a handful of television episodes, directed exclusively for the cinema. So what led him to abandon his primary creative home for the literal home of Netflix subscribers?

 

As with everything, it came down to money. The Irishman is a slow burn of a movie at 209 minutes (that’s just shy of three and a half hours). With a budget of $159 million, it’s both the longest and most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.

 

Before principal photography began, a few different companies worked out distribution deals to finance the movie, but as the budget grew, those companies balked and withdrew their funding. In this day of expensive blockbuster action films, a long, introspective film about the life and possible redemption of a mob hitman doesn’t fit the current studio model. Netflix swooped in and bought the film rights, agreeing to finance the film.

 

Movie theaters weren’t left completely out of the equation since there was a theatrical release, but the terms of that release caused controversy in the world of the big theater chains. A traditional release window puts a movie in the theater for at least few months before going to the home market. For The Irishman, Netflix held fast to four weeks (a week longer than they

conceded for Roma last November), with a theatrical release date of November 1st before coming to Netflix streaming on November 27th.

 

This rankled the major theater chains, which chose to sit out of the theatrical release in protest. And while Scorsese defended Netflix’s decision and acquiesced to the

The Irishman

realities of getting The Irishman made, he also lamented that people wouldn’t be able to have the communal experience of watching his movie in a theater:

 

There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem, though. We have to make the film. . . . Having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want, the tradeoff being it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take on this particular project.

 

The question is: Is the enjoyment of The Irishman hindered by relying almost solely on the home market? I’d argue no, and add that maybe it’s even aided by a more intimate viewing experience. The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, and follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets and starts working for mob boss Russell Bufalino. This eventually leads to an introduction to controversial Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, for whom he becomes chief bodyguard and close friend.

 

As with any Scorsese film, there are moments of mob violence, some beautiful, long single-take tracking shots, and a lot of dialogue-driven drama. By putting this all on our home screen instead of an expansive movie-theater screen, the presentation feels more personal. It’s easier to be drawn in.

 

And even at three and a half hours, there aren’t any points of lag in the story, which is a testament to Scorsese; his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; and an extraordinary cast, including Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and, for the first time, Al Pacino. All three actors deserve the accolades they have received, in particular Pesci as Russell Bufalino.

 

The 4K presentation is excellent and really shows off the fantastic CGI de-aging of the actors. The story takes place across six decades, and an incredible amount of attention was put into how De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino looked as time marched on. There were a few moments of digital effects that were less convincing and entered the uncanny valley (there was also some slow-motion blood splatter that looked suspect to me), but overall it was quite a technical achievement.

 

The 5.1 sound design is meticulous and subtle. Cars sounded authentic to the period, there were moments of bone crunching that made me squirm, and nothing distracted from the story, only added to it. There’s a gunshot towards the end of the film that perfectly captures the starkness and emptiness of the scene, and is in essence the culmination of where Frank has come as a character. Surrounds are primarily used for music and to fill the space with reverb for larger locations.

 

It will be interesting to see how The Irishman being a streaming release ripples across the industry, with such high-profile names as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci attached. The more our home theaters have improved over the years, the less the need for movie theaters. Yes, the communal experience Scorsese refers to is missing, but I’ve found that seeing a film with a bunch of people can detract from my own enjoyment. Getting a 4K presentation with excellent sound and no uncontrollable external distractions (plus the ability for bathroom or snack breaks without missing anything) is shifting the importance of viewing from the cinema to the home.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

The Crown (Season 3)

The Crown (Season 3)

When Peter Morgan’s Netflix-original historical drama The Crown launched in 2016, it did so with an interesting conceit: In dramatizing the life of Queen Elizabeth II from 1947 to modern times, the cast would be replaced every two seasons to account for the roughly two-decade advance of the calendar. Season Three, which recently dropped on Netflix in its ten-episode entirety, is of course the first to feature such a complete re-casting.

 

It honestly never occurred to me that I might have a problem with this. But as Season Three approached, I realized just how smitten I had become with Claire Foy’s performance as Elizabeth and Vanessa Kirby’s brilliant turn as Princess Margaret. Trailers and clips of the new season, and interviews with its cast, left me cold. Made me a bit bitter, I’ll admit.

 

For anyone with similar concerns, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way from the giddy-up: The new cast is fantastic. Olivia Colman manages to capture the essence of Queen Elizabeth II perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute force of nature in the role of Princess Margaret. And I imagine Matt Smith is watching Tobias Menzies’ performance as Prince Philip right now with a tinge of envious respect. Simply put, the new cast has won me over completely, perhaps aided by the fact that John Lithgow returns ever-so-briefly as Winston Churchill (the only casting carry-over) to provide a bit of continuity to the whole affair.

 

It’s simply a shame that the writing this season doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the new cast. The thing I’ve always loved about The Crown—at least until the end of the second season—is that it was believable. I’m no Royalphile, mind you, so I’ve never really been bothered when the series had to take some liberties with reality to compress ten years’ worth of history into ten episodes of television. When it did so in its first two seasons, I rarely noticed.

 

The third season, though, takes such a turn for the tabloid that it strains the bounds of credulity. The second episode, “Margaretology,” in which Margaret attends a dinner at the White House in the midst of a vacation in the U.S., is one of the worst offenders in this respect. I have no doubt that a meeting between Princess Margaret and LBJ was a bawdy affair—by the standards of the day. The problem is that The Crown turns it into a bawdy affair by today’s standards, ripped right out of a 

modern revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, complete with a scandalous kiss on the mouth and an improvisational limerick contest so salacious I didn’t even need to fact-check it to know it didn’t happen.

 

As I said, I realize any dramatization of this sort is going to be at odds with reality from time to time.

The Crown (Season 3)

But a viewer’s reaction should be (and, speaking for myself alone here, was for the first two seasons) “Did that really happen?” not “There’s no way that happened.”

 

The third season so completely lost my trust by the end of the second episode that, had I not already committed to reviewing it, I would have cut my losses and kept my fond memories of the Claire Foy run of the series.

 

And that’s truly unfortunate, because The Crown is so beautifully made otherwise. The cinematography in particular has always been stunning, but reaches new heights of artistry this season, especially in the way it conveys the emotional isolation of Elizabeth. HDR is used brilliantly to create a tangible distinction between the interiors of Buckingham Palace and the sunlight of the outside word piercing through the windows, intruding on the space within but never able to fully illuminate it.

 

Set design, costume design, and all of the rest of the elements that contribute to the visual verisimilitude of this historical world are all captured wonderfully by the excellent 4K/HDR presentation. So, if you can stomach the unnecessary sensationalism of it all, you’re in for an absolute treat of a presentation worthy of the best home cinema setups.

 

My advice, though, if you haven’t seen any of The Crown yet, would be to watch the first two seasons and simply pretend that the series ends in early 1964 with the birth of Prince Edward. The third season of The Crown is gorgeous and brilliantly acted, sure, but simply ends up being too insulting to truly enjoy. The earlier seasons, imperfect as they may have been, deliver an emotionally fulfilling and interesting story, beautifully shot and wonderfully performed, and are still very much worth your time.

Dennis Burger

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