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Review: Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space

Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space (2021)

Given that it sounds like the name of a second-rate space-themed Hip Hop album from the mid ‘90s, it may be worthwhile to parse the title of Netflix’ new limited series, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space. Inspiration4, if you’ve managed to miss the relentless marketing campaign (including a Super Bowl trailer), is SpaceX’s highly publicized all-civilian orbital mission, scheduled for launch on September 15. And that knowledge gives you everything you need to know to understand

the last 40 to 60% of this inscrutable title (depending on whether you’re going by word count or character count).

 

The “Countdown” bit refers to the fact that this series will have aired 4 of its 5 episodes by the time Inspiration4 launches. And that’s somewhat surprising, given the nature of the show. This isn’t, after all, a legitimate documentary. It’s part marketing effort, part propaganda, and the cynic in me can’t help but wonder what SpaceX is going to do with the remaining episode of the series if the mission isn’t a stunning success. 

 

If it sounds like I’m being a bit too skeptical here—well, perhaps I am. But it’s hard to walk away from the series with any other impression. In the opening moments of the first of two episodes available today, Jeffrey Kluger—Senior Science Correspondent for Time—ends his introductory ode to the privatization of spaceflight by saying, “This is a hinge

COUNTDOWN AT A GLANCE

Disguised as a Netflix documentary, this marketing promotion piece for Elon Musk’s supposedly democratic “citizens in space” program shows how all involved are actually reduced to being billionaires’ playthings. 

 

PICTURE

Most of the footage looks great, with no signs of compression and no real need for HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is largely perfunctory, but dialogue clarity is fantastic.

point in history, and will kick the doors open to space for the rest of us.” He then ends the first episode by deriding the elitism of the NASA spaceflight program, insinuating that missions like Inspiration4 are more democratic.

 

What he leaves unsaid, but what the remainder of the two episodes makes abundantly clear, is that yes, any normal shlub can go to space now, but only if you’re marketable enough or have enough social-media presence to serve some billionaire’s marketing ends and PR requirements. Or, if you play along with their for-profit fundraising as a replacement for a proper social safety net.

 

The series’ creators  seem to have seen this criticism coming, and even throw a softball question at Elon Musk about the perception that space is now a billionaires’ playground. I honestly can’t remember the exact verbiage of his answer, but it 

kinda feels like Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space is a longer answer in and of itself. This is apologetics. It’s an insidious indictment of collective accomplishments of the past.

 

And yet, despite all that, I enjoyed nearly every second of it. There’s a moment in the second episode in which we meet Dr. Sian Proctor, one of the three civilians hand-selected to join billionaire Jared Isaacman—Commander & Benefactor of Inspiration4—on this mission/publicity campaign. As she was telling her story, I was acutely aware that I was being 

manipulated, that her real role in this endeavor was to make the vanity project more palatable to the masses. And yet, knowing all that, her story still moved me to actual tears. I cheered with her when she announced her acceptance into the crew. That’s the power of psyops—being fully aware of it and recognizing it is no inoculation against its effectiveness.

 

If you think this is all conspiratorial ranting, consider the closing of Episode 2. After we’ve met the second two of our lucky civilian astronauts, we’re led through a discussion of the dangers of spaceflight and the realities of how hard this all can be on the families of those rocketing into orbit. We’re taken to Cape Canaveral, where the crew is allowed to reflect on the enormity of this historical moment in front of them. And we, as an audience, are subjected to the millionth emotionally manipulative needle-drop on the series thus far. 

 

The song choice here is telling—Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited.” While the narration is all about how if these people can go to space, anyone can go to space, the lyrics of the song tell a different story:

 

Must be somewhat heartening
To watch shepherd need shepherd
But you, you’re not allowed
You’re uninvited

 

That sort of says the quiet part out loud, doesn’t it? You and I aren’t likely to make it to space anytime within my natural lifespan, despite what this series so desperately wants you to buy into. The only thing that has really changed is that instead of needing to be a highly trained scientist or pilot, you now have to be insanely rich or, conversely, somehow useful to an insanely rich person. 

 

Given all that, it’s sort of odd that Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space (and I’m going to keep typing that ridiculously clunky title until it makes a lick of sense to me) isn’t a little more polished. Mind you, for the most part, it’s a completely serviceable-looking reality-TV program. All of the interview sequences are well-lit and well-shot. Oddly, though, at least one of the cameras used in capturing the staged slice-of-life sequences throughout has a couple of dead pixels. It would have been easy enough to use a healing brush to remove those distracting speckles of white, but maybe they were left in to lend the series some veneer of authenticity. 

 

Otherwise, most of the new footage looks great, and Netflix’ Ultra HD stream is far from the weakest link in the production chain. I didn’t see any signs of compression, and I didn’t really see a need for HDR, although perhaps that could change in the final episode, which will likely focus on the launch. 

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also largely perfunctory, aside from the aforementioned needle-drops, all of which make extensive use of the surround channels and subs. Dialogue clarity is fantastic, which is the most important thing. 

 

If it sounds like I’m telling you not to watch Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, I assure you, that isn’t the case. I’ll be watching the next three episodes as soon as they’re available to stream. How could I not, as an unabashed space junky? The next episode, debuting on September 13, will focus on the training these civilians went through to get them space-ready, and I’m totally here for it.

 

All I’m saying is, when you do check the series out, realize that you’re being manipulated. Understand that this isn’t a documentary but a commercial. And, you know, maybe you should just go ahead and get used to that, because just as the future of spaceflight is all about vanity and profit, the future of space-related programming is almost certainly going to be about making sure we, the uninvited, shut up and accept 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: Ray (2021)

Ray (2021)

I need to cop to some ignorance right from the giddy-up: I’m not familiar with the literary works of beloved director, documentarian, illustrator, and composer Satyajit Ray. As such, I’m not really in a position to judge the fidelity of Netflix’ Ray, a new four-part anthology adapting four of the auteur’s short stories: Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, Bahurupi, Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, and Spotlight. All I can really tell you is whether or not the series stands on its own.

 

And the answer to that is, unfortunately, a bit complicated. Judged as a mini-series—and Netflix certainly pushes that interpretation by referring to the collection of four shorts as “Season 1″—Ray is a tonally and stylistically inconsistent mess of 

a thing that is unified only by its name.

 

Mind you, there are flashes of brilliance throughout the entire run. With the exception of the fourth short, the performances are captivating across the board. The first three episodes also do a fantastic job of establishing mood and conveying feeling.

 

There’s more that works about those first three episodes than doesn’t. But that’s not really how we determine whether or not something is worth our time, is it? We—well, I should say I, since I can only speak for myself—don’t really sit down and make a list of pros and cons and tally up the results before judging a movie or TV series or whatever the heck Ray is. Instead, I sort of intuitively gauge whether a work gave me more than it took from me.

 

And in that respect, three of the four installments of Ray have to be written off as intriguing failures. The first, “Forget Me Not,” an adaptation of Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, does a lot right. It’s beautiful to behold (although perhaps not by videophile standards, since it’s intentionally 

RAY AT A GLANCE

This Netflix anthology of works inspired by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray is highly uneven, but features one standout that more than makes up for the series’ shortcomings. 

 

PICTURE
The third, worthwhile episode is richer, more colorful, warmer, and more vibrant than the other three, with deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all accentuated by the Dolby Vision presentation.

 

SOUND     

The music in the third episode is on a whole other level of artistry from the other three, and its mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting.

flat and muted) and the acting is sublime. But at 64 minutes, it overstays its welcome. By 45 minutes in, I was ready for it to be over. Soon after that mark, the story shifts to a twist ending that flubs the landing, rendering the entire journey—as worthwhile as it is in spots—unfulfilling. The Dolby Atmos sound mix for “Forget Me Not” is also aggressive to the point of abusiveness.

 

My biggest problem with the second installment, “Bahrupiya,” adapted from the story Bahurupi, is that it’s mean-spirited and depressing, but for no real reason. To drag this short into a wholly Western context that’s borderline unfair, “Bahrupiya” had the potential to be something like Todd Phillips’ Joker, but somewhat more grounded in reality. In fact, it ends up being less so, and it fails to really convey any meaning in the end, aside from some obvious moralizing. Kudos to the makeup and prosthetics departments for some truly world-class work on this one, but it’s simply too soul-sucking to recommend.

 

The third entry, however—”Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa,” based on Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment (aka Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram)—is simply an amazing way to spend 53 minutes. My only complaint is that while other shorts in the series could have benefited from the loss of 20 or 30 minutes of runtime, “Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” could have kept me glued to the screen for at least a couple hours. 

 

This installment was directed by Abhishek Chaubey (showrunner Sayantan Mukherjee helmed the first two and Vasan Bala directed the last), with cinematography by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan, and it’s the latter’s contribution in particular that I’m most smitten with. This simply doesn’t look like any of the other installments in that it’s richer, more colorful, warmer, more vibrant, and benefits from deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all of which the Dolby Vision presentation accentuates. 

 

The episode also sounds different from the rest, in that the music is on a whole other level of artistry altogether, and the mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting. 

 

By the way, I’m speaking of the original language track there, which is labeled as Hindi, but is in fact a mix of Hindi, English, and Urdu. Skip the English track, the default track when you load up the series for the first time. The dubbing is horrible throughout, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes, the English mix loses a lot of the atmospheric ambience of the original Hindi Atmos track. It’s flatter, more constrained, and less naturalistic. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, a simple tale. It’s the story of a kleptomaniac singer, something of a local celebrity, who finds himself sharing a train compartment with a fellow traveler from whom he stole a beloved (and ostensibly magical) pocket watch many years past. The bulk of the runtime is devoted to the tension that develops as he first recognizes his old mark, relives the original theft in his vivid imagination, then tries his best to right his old wrong. That’s it, really. That’s the whole story. But it’s told in such an imaginative way that one cannot help but be mesmerized by it all. 

 

The less said about the fourth episode, “Spotlight,” the better.

 

So, my recommendation would be to check out the third episode and skip the rest. Make sure to switch over to the Hindi Atmos track, though. It’s not all in Hindi, mind you—the characters bounce around from language to language, sometimes in the course of a single sentence. And even in the English dub, you’re going to have to turn on the subtitles for at least some of the Urdu exchanges that couldn’t be translated and overdubbed for contextual reasons. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, everything you could hope for from a good home theater experience. It looks and sounds fantastic, Netflix’ presentation is unimpeachable, and it’s a lovely little tale to boot. Again, I cannot speak to its fidelity as an adaptation, but as a work of motion-picture entertainment, it’s a lovely and surprising experience from beginning to end. I only wish the other three episodes had been anywhere near as good. But they’re self-contained, so you can safely ignore them.

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: Life in Color

Life in Color (2021)

If you have someone in your life who insists that streaming simply isn’t capable of delivering an AV experience worthy of a true home cinema, here’s a fun little experiment you can perform, assuming you’re willing to spend a few bucks. If you don’t have one already, go out and buy a Roku Ultra for $75 or whatever they’re selling for at the moment. Hook it up to the biggest and best display in your home. Fire up either of the first two episodes of the new Netflix/BBC co-production Life in Color and skip past the opening credits. 

 

Then invite the bitrate dogmatist in your life to sit and watch a few minutes of the series. If they’re anything like most videophiles, they’ll soon be begging to borrow the disc or at least know what it’s called so they can order their own copy. 

 

And that’s when you spring the trap. Hit the back button on your remote and return to the Netflix homepage. If your guest balks, hit Play again and implore them to point out any visual flaws in the imagery. Challenge them to show you any 

noteworthy compression artifacts. Ask them to point out any instances of less-than-razor-sharp detail, any loss of color purity.

 

Or, you know, maybe take a kinder and gentler approach. It occurs to me as I’m writing this that perhaps there’s a good reason I don’t have more friends.

 

The point is, this series, played via good streaming hardware, needs to be put in front of the eyeballs of more home cinema enthusiasts, if only as a prime example of just how much streaming has improved in just the past few years.

 

But even if you’re not here to inspect the imagery with a magnifying glass and marvel at the masterful application of high-efficiency compression, there’s a lot to love about Life 

LIFE IN COLOR AT A GLANCE

It’s news that David Attenborough is back in front of the camera at 95; it’s even bigger news that the video presentation here is practically flawless. 

 

PICTURE
Scenes that push the bounds of image complexity in ways Attenborough’s Our Planet never did appear without a blemish.

 

SOUND
The audio is merely 5.1, but it’s a lovely mix that up-mixes into Atmos beautifully.

in Color. The series is, in many ways, a bit of a throwback for host David Attenborough, a return to a time when he wasn’t merely narrating documentary footage but actively participating in the filming. I thought we’d seen the end of that era, given Attenborough’s age (95, for those keeping count). And this may be the last time we see him traipsing through the jungle to point out something cool and eye-catching.

 

It’s also something of a return to the more specialized sort of documentaries he more commonly made in the ’80s and ’90s. For the past few years, Attenborough has been focused on making grand statements, as if every new documentary released under his name was made as if it would be his last. But, as its name in implies, Life in Color is content to go deep rather than 

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wide, focusing on one topic with laser precision: The variety of colors in nature.

 

The first episode, “Seeing in Color,” focuses on all the ways life uses chromaticity to attract mates, signal friends, and repel foes, as well as the different ways animals see in color, both within and outside of the spectrum visible to humans. The second episode, “Hiding in Color,” focuses mostly on camouflage.

 

The third episode, “Chasing Color,” is a weird one, and I mean that in the best possible way. It sets itself up as a sort of making-of for the first two episodes, exploring the new camera and lens technology developed specifically for this series. But then it veers off to answer to the question: “How do you know that?” In other words, it’s a pretty satisfying explanation of the science behind the surprising little bits of trivia dropped by Attenborough throughout the earlier episodes.

 

As much as I loved the series—although, truth be told, I 

would happily consume nine hours of Attenborough narrating golf, or paint drying, or my last colonoscopy, so maybe I’m not the best judge of its quality—I almost found myself distracted by how impossibly perfect it all looks. Just over two years ago, I absolutely raved about the gorgeousness of Our Planet. But Life in Color looks even better, mostly because the few remaining encoding flaws that made brief onscreen appearances in the older series are nowhere to be seen here.

 

There are underwater shots reminiscent of those in Our Planet, and yet with none of the minor color banding that briefly reared its head there. There are scenes here that push the bounds of image complexity in ways Our Planet never did, and yet they appear without blemish. (There’s one particular shot, in which a peacock bristles its plume in slow motion, that’s such a kaleidoscope of fine detail that I would expect it to be riddled with some digital ookiness even at 100 mbps. And yet, with my nose on my screen, I couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of HEVC reaching its breaking point. I can only assume Netflix recently adopted a new encoder, because otherwise I just cannot make sense of why this imagery looks this pristine.)

 

Dolby Vision is also employed to stunning effect. There are colors on the screen that older home video technology simply wasn’t capable of reproducing—vibrant reds and yellows and greens that fall outside the boundaries of the color space used in the HD era. 

 

I guess if you want to pick nits about the presentation, you could take issue with the fact that the audio is merely 5.1, not Dolby Atmos. But it’s still a lovely mix. And it up-mixes into Atmos quite beautifully, especially in the scenes set within jungles or forests. 

 

So, yeah, maybe don’t take my advice when it comes to confronting your streaming-skeptical friends. Perhaps take a nicer approach. But make them sit down and watch Life in Color anyway. It’s honestly some of the most compelling home cinema demo material I’ve seen in years. 

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: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth (2021)

Generally speaking, I’m not a stickler for accuracy in page-to-screen adaptations. Cinema and TV play by different rules than novels and graphic novels, and trying to translate from the latter to the former with perfect fidelity is a fool’s errand. All I ask when a beloved work of printed fiction is being adapted for audiovisual media is that the tone, spirit, characters, and thematic thrust of the original survive the process mostly intact. You’ll notice I said “generally,” though. Every so often, a TV series like Sweet Tooth comes along that violates every rule of adaptation, yet results in something that surpasses its inspiration in virtually every way.

 

I don’t mean to poo-poo Jeff Lemire’s excellent comic-book series of the same name, which I positively devoured in its initial run a decade ago. But the comic was a grim thing, as most post-apocalyptic horror stories are. It was dark and violent, and while it may have been thoughtful and thought-provoking, the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead proves that you can only 

sustain a grimdark live-action narrative for so long before it becomes fatiguing and nihilistic.

 

Perhaps that’s why showrunner Jim Mickle and executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey decided to take a cynical horror story and transform it into a decidedly anti-cynical fantasy tale, almost a fable, that nonetheless maintains so much of the emotional complexity of the original. The shift in genre brings with it sweeping changes in the plot, the characters, indeed the themes of the story, but the bones remain the same. Sweet Tooth, in both its forms, tells the story of a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (known as H5G9 onscreen and simply “The Sick” on the page) that wipes out much of the human population, at a time when all new babies born to human parents emerge as human/animal hybrids.

 

As society collapses, most of the remaining humans blame these hybrid children for causing the pandemic, which leads to the children being hunted to near extinction. 

SWEET TOOTH AT A GLANCE

The source material’s grisly horror becomes woodland whimsy in this Netflix tale of half-human/half-animal children trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. 

 

PICTURE
Splashes of rich primary & secondary hues make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded color gamut, resulting in reference-quality home-cinema eye candy.

 

SOUND     

The aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue & a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix.

Macabre stuff, right? It’s not hard to imagine why Lemire took this idea in pretty grisly directions.

 

Mickle doesn’t wholly ignore the dark implications of this story prompt but rather than dwell on them, he rebels against them. The result is a series that is bravely sentimental, boldly heartwarming, and defiantly sweet. 

 

This was a risky decision, because none of it would work if not for the talents of Christian Convery, who plays 10-year-old Gus, a half-deer child whose father sequestered him in a remote wilderness encampment shortly after the world went to hell. While the story does jump around a bit, injecting flashbacks to fill in the mysteries of what happened as the apocalypse was unfolding ten years prior, the brunt of the story revolves around Gus’s first foray into the outside world in a quest to find his mother. 

 

Convery has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, displaying a range of emotions beyond the capabilities of most child actors. But he absolutely nails Gus’s mixture of wide-eyed innocence and dogged determination. We not only see the story unfold mostly from his perspective but we also experience this strange and wonderful world through his eyes. 

 

I won’t spoil much of that here, but there’s one particularly moving moment in the second episode that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the show: While taking refuge with a family who has made a life for themselves in an old ski lodge, Gus hears music for the first time in his life. I can only imagine what sort of direction Mickle (who helmed four of the eight episodes) gave to Convery. How on earth do you prompt a ten-year-old actor to react to music as if he’s never heard it before? How many takes must they have done to get that scene right? I can only speculate. What I can say for sure, though, is that the scene is the embodiment of pure joy, the likes of which you rarely seen onscreen. 

 

If there’s a shortcoming in the show as a whole, it’s that Gus is such a compelling character that the story suffers to a degree when he’s not front and center, when the revelations unfold out of his eyeshot. But that’s a minor quibble, and it’s ameliorated by the gorgeous cinematography and Netflix’ nigh-perfect presentation, which work together to keep the eye engaged even in those rare moments when the heart isn’t. 

 

Rather than the drab post-apocalyptic environs we’re used to seeing in fiction of this sort, the world of Sweet Tooth is gorgeously verdant, with splashes of rich primary and secondary hues that make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut. The choice to film in New Zealand—despite the setting in the American Mountain West—gives the imagery a vibe that’s at once familiar and slightly askance. The flora doesn’t look quite right. The terrain feels a bit exaggerated. But all of this really works for the feel of the show, and every ounce of it is captured in stunning detail. 

 

There’s really one egregious visual blemish in the entire eight-episode run, and it occurs within the first few minutes of the first episode. In the prologue that establishes the premise—complete with narration by Josh Brolin—there’s about a half-second of posterization on one of the walls in a brightly-lit hospital. The thing is, this sequence is so heavily processed—with secondary hues pushed to their extremes and a dreamlike filter applied to the entire image—that it’s nearly impossible to tell if this is a consequence of bandwidth limitations or a byproduct of post-production. I lean toward the latter, since the rest of the show is downright reference-quality home-cinema eye candy. 

 

Some might be disappointed at the lack of an Atmos soundtrack but the series doesn’t really need it. True, some height-channel enhancements might have added to the immersiveness of the sequences set in the wilderness. But by and large, the series is a lot lighter on action than you might expect (much more so than the trailer would indicate), and the aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue and a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix. 

 

It’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ll like Sweet Tooth. You do, after all, have to have a stomach for outright weirdness and vulnerable sincerity in equal measures. If you dig Adventure Time, Where the Wild Things, and Pushing Daisies, it’s probably right up your alley. Granted, if I had a kid under the age of 10, I probably wouldn’t let them watch the series due to a few tense and scary moments here and there (most of which are in the aforementioned trailer). But for everyone else, it’s family entertainment of the best sort. 

 

My only concern is that if the show gets picked up for a second season—and it almost certainly will, given its popularity and cliffhanger ending—I hope it manages to hang onto its optimism, tenderness, and wide-eyed sense of wonder. We need more of that on TV, now more than ever.

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 Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

It’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which The Mitchells vs. the Machines is the hottest new title on Sonyflix or Sony+, or whatever Sony might have named its own studio-specific streaming platform, if only it had made it out of the gate before Disney, Warner, Paramount, and NBCUniversal flooded the market and exhausted the public’s patience for such solipsistic subscription services. In our reality, what would have been one of the most highly publicized animated blockbusters of 2020 was instead dumped unceremoniously onto Netflix and forfeit to the whims of its inscrutable algorithms. 

 

That’s a shame, really, because The Mitchells vs. the Machines deserves more of your attention than does the typical Netflix animated feature. The involvement of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is your first clue to that. In addition to writing and 

directing the surprisingly good Lego Movie and producing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—undeniably one of the best animated pictures of the past few years—the duo’s brand has become something of a seal of approval; so the fact that this one comes from their production umbrella is significant. There’s also the fact that The Mitchells was written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, both known for their work on the excellent Disney Channel/Disney XD series Gravity Falls.

 

Mush those two aesthetics together and you’ll get a good idea of the overall vibe of this energetic and delightfully weird animated adventure. On the one hand, The Mitchells vs. the Machines owes a lot to the look of Into the Spider-Verse, especially in the way it blends 3D animation with 2D tinkering, the results of which are a sort of best-of-both-worlds mashup. It’s not as if the two films look like they take place in the same reality, mind you—this one definitely exists within its own creative landscape—but you can see 

THE MITCHELLS AT A GLANCE

An oddball family takes on the robot apocalypse in what should have been a theatrical blockbuster but ended up a Netflix afterthought, thanks to the pandemic. 

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation makes excellent use of high dynamic range, with the color gradations exhibiting a smoothness you wouldn’t have seen in streaming just a few short years ago.

 

SOUND     

If you like your Atmos mixes intense and all over the place, you’ll dig this one.

many of the techniques developed for Spider-Verse employed here in new and creative ways.

 

On the other hand, Rianda and Rowe bring such a genuinely awkward and eccentric energy to The Mitchells vs. the Machines that it would be difficult to confuse it with your typical Lord and Miller production. 

 

The story revolves around a family of misfits who find themselves pressganged into saving the world after a Silicon Valley entrepreneur unwittingly unleashes the robot apocalypse in the process of attempting to give physical form to his AI digital assistant, cheekily named PAL. We’re told from the get-go that the Mitchells are dysfunctional weirdos, but the thing that makes the movie really work is that they aren’t. Not really. They’re just a normal family, with a normal family dynamic and normal family problems. What makes them seem like complete oddballs, especially in their own eyes, is the contrast between their real personalities and the illusion of homogenized perfection constantly shoved down their throats by social media.

 

And by the way, I should pause for a second and point out that if you’re expecting subtle social commentary here, you’re barking up the wrong animated tree. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is an overt parable about the current state of society and the damage we’re doing to ourselves by submitting to the tyranny of corporate-sponsored groupthink. Sometimes the dialogue gets a little too on-the-nose in broadcasting this message, but that’s honestly one of the film’s few significant flaws. 

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, as did I, that there’s a gross irony in the fact that this technological wonder of a film, produced by one corporate giant and now distributed by another, has the cajones to touch on the pitfalls of technology and the dangers of corporate greed. But grappling with this issue is one of the few subtle points made by The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The message of the film isn’t that technology is bad in and of itself, that corporations are an inherent threat. Instead, what the story is trying to show us is that our relationship with technology is unhealthy, and that our submission to corporatocracy is, by and large, the product of laziness and FOMO. 

 

Lest you think this is more a sermon than an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, The Mitchells vs. the Machines wraps this message up in a thrill-a-minute action spectacle that’s also quite hilarious. The jokes don’t always land with equal 

effectiveness, mind you—the film is far more effective when it’s blazing its own trail, and falters a bit when it leans on established tropes—but you’re guaranteed to guffaw at least once.

 

I have a few other nits to pick. While the characters are, by and large, well-rounded, the story does lean into the clueless-dad cliché a little too hard. There’s a narrative reason for that, but it still could have been handled a bit better. The decision to make the 

youngest Mitchell child a dinosaur-obsessed boy also seems lazy, and the choice to have the child voiced by Rianda was a puzzling one. In a movie packed with such believable characters (believable in the context of this weird narrative, at least), little Aaron’s blatantly adult voice drew me out of the experience unnecessarily.

 

The rest of the voice casting is spot on, though, especially Maya Rudolph as the Mitchell matriarch and Fred Armisen as one of the damaged robots that becomes part of the family. 

 

Thankfully, those voices don’t get buried in the hyper-aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This mix was a bit much for me, so much so that I had to pause the film and downgrade to a basic 5.1 option. But if you like your Atmos mixes intense and all over the place, I think you’ll dig this one quite a bit. Just one word of warning: This one is delivered at reference levels, so be sure to turn the volume of your receiver or preamp up a bit higher than you normally would for Netflix content, especially if you want to appreciate the richness and dynamics of the mix.

 

You’ll also want to watch The Mitchells vs. the Machines on the biggest and best screen available to you. The Dolby Vision presentation makes excellent use of the high dynamic range format, not only at the upper end of the value scale but also in the shadows. There’s plenty of breathing room in the image, from the darkest blacks to the brightest highlights, and although its palette is often relatively muted, the color gradations still exhibit the sort of smoothness you wouldn’t have really seen in the streaming domain just a few short years ago. 

 

You might spot a few video artifacts here and there, especially in the closing credits. But best I can tell, these glitches were intentionally baked into the image during its production in an attempt to evoke the DIY filmmaking talents of Katie, the eldest Mitchell child, and they don’t seem to be a consequence of Netflix’ high-efficiency encoding.

 

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the movie, though, is that it’s legitimate family fare. I know that’s generally used as a euphemism for children’s entertainment, but in this case, the label deserves to be taken at face value. There’s a lot of dessert here to keep the young ones in your family engaged (if you have them), but there’s also enough meat to appeal to audiences of all ages. It may not be the height of profundity, and it’s a little uneven in its execution, but the good far outweighs the bad here. And that alone elevates The Mitchells vs. the Machines way above the baseline for kid-appropriate movies distributed by Netflix.

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: Oxygen

Oxygen (2021)

It nearly beggars belief that Netflix’ Oxygen wasn’t developed entirely in the COVID-19 era. It is, after all, exactly the sort of science-fiction thriller you would expect to spring from this moment: Small, constricted, with a limited cast, restricted scenery, and a strong thematic undercurrent of fear, isolation, and uncertainty. 

 

It wasn’t until I finished watching the film, though, and went digging for a bit of background information that I realized this is a project I’ve been following for a while now. Based on a 2016 script by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen was originally supposed to be an Anne Hathaway film by the name of O2. After Hathaway left the project, it dropped off my radar. But sometime after that, Noomi Rapace stepped in to fill her shoes, only to depart the project and open the door for Mélanie Laurent to star as the film

transitioned from Hollywood vehicle to independent French/American picture distributed by Netflix.

 

Laurent stars as a character initially known only as “Omicron 267,” a medical patient of some sort who wakes up in a casket-like cryochamber with no memory of who she is, why she’s there, or what’s going on. To say that she carries the film would be an understatement. For the most part, hers is the only face we see onscreen, aside from some intermittent flashbacks. The only other major character is MILO (Medical Interface Liaison Operator), an Alexa-like A.I. digital voice assistant that operates the cryochamber and quickly informs Omicron 267, upon her waking, that her oxygen is limited and depleting rapidly.

 

This makes for a tense and interesting twist on both the ticking-clock and buried-alive story tropes, and for the most part the film plays out in real time, as Omicron 267—who eventually recovers memories of a former life as a

OXYGEN AT A GLANCE

This sci-fi take on the ticking-clock and buried-alive tropes keeps you locked in a high-tech coffin with a single actor for 100 minutes. 

 

PICTURE
The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used to good effect in Netflix’ virtually artifact-free presentation.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack keeps things interesting by using the side and height channels to introduce some sonic variety into the character’s sealed world.

cryogenic doctor named Elizabeth Hansen—attempts to call for help and, when that fails, tries to find her own way out of this high-tech coffin while also piecing together and making sense of her fragmented recollections.

 

There are some interesting and surprising narrative twists along the way, but none of them would work if not for the Laurent’s exceptional acting prowess. Without being able to move much more than her head and arms, she delivers the sort of performance most actors must dream of being able to turn in. Credit is also due to Mathieu Amalric, who gives MILO’s voice the sort of depth and nuance you wouldn’t expect from a digital assistant. In some ways, his performance recalls Douglas Rain’s turn as HAL 9000, but while Rain had the unenviable task of playing a sinister artificial intelligence, Amalric infuses MILO with the sort of ambiguity that leaves you guessing as to whether or not he’s being intentionally infuriating.

 

In those scenes where Liz struggles to stumble upon the syntactic commands that will invoke the response she’s hoping for from MILO, for example, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the arguments my wife has with Alexa as she fumbles for the exact combination of words that will result in an adjustment to the thermostat controls, or music playback in the back of the house but not the front, or the dimming of some little-used light in one corner of the house or another. 

 

It’s Liz’s interactions with MILO that make Oxygen legitimate science-fiction, though, rather than merely a high-tech, futuristic thriller, as the film has something interesting to say about our increasing reliance on A.I. and the pitfalls associated with anthropomorphizing these highly intelligent but unthinking virtual automata.

 

The other thing that keeps Oxygen consistently engaging is its cinematography and sound design. There are only so many angles from which you can photograph someone inside a box so small as to restrict its occupant entirely to a supine position, but director Alexandre Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre make it work. In many shots, the camera clings so closely to Laurent’s face that her cheeks are in focus while her nose starts to bleed into the background bokeh, which couldn’t have made the film’s transfer easy to encode. Thankfully, Netflix’s presentation remains virtually artifact-free.

 

The high dynamic range and expanded color gamut of Dolby Vision are used here to good effect, especially in rendering the various screens, readouts, and synthetic surfaces that litter Liz’s electronic coffin with high specular intensity without over- or under-doing the shadows. And all aspects of the image that are in focus at any given time are delivered with exceptional detail and sharpness. 

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also keeps things interesting by injecting MILO’s voice and the occasional phone call coming into the cryochamber into the surrounds and height channels. Normally, this sort of gee-whiz sound mixing would irritate or distract me, but it works here, mostly because it reinforces the notion that MILO serves dual functions—as a character on the one hand, but a mere function of the environment on the other. 

 

My only real beef with Netflix’ delivery of the sound is that the service defaults to the English dub, which leaves much to be desired. The voice actors chosen to replace Laurent and Amalric as Liz and MILO match neither the intensity nor the nuance of the original performances and drag the quality of the production’s down at least a letter grade and a binary operator suffix. 

 

Mind you, Oxygen isn’t a perfect film even in the original French. At 100 minutes long, it tiptoes right up to the edge of overstaying its welcome and could have stood to lose about 15 or 20 minutes in the editing room, even at the risk of further undermining the film’s nigh-real-time conceit. But Laurent’s performance in particular, combined with the interesting concept and fascinating visuals, make it a worthwhile film despite its flaws. 

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: Mank

Mank (2020)

For proof that it was a really bad idea to have the Oscars during the same year as a pandemic, you don’t need to look any further than David Fincher’s Mank. It’s had a ton of nominations heaped upon it and it’s the kind of film that stands a good chance of walking away with most of the major awards. But it’s also an astonishingly bad movie, and in a legitimate year—like say 2019—it wouldn’t have been allowed to even stick its head in the Academy’s door.

 

I’m going to offer up my rationale for the above conclusions not because I want to let this thing reside in my brain for a single second longer than necessary, but since it’s being puffed up as a really big deal, an important film, it would be irresponsible 

to shirk making the case against it.

 

First off, the story it tries to tell is incredibly old news. The myth that Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, is responsible for the greatness of Citizen Kane has been Hollywood folklore from the time of Kane’s creation. The tiresome Pauline Kael later latched onto it and made it the subject of her notorious Raising Kane. HBO’s unforgivable RKO 281 (1999) tread the same ground. It’s an argument that’s so easily picked apart I won’t even bother going there, but comes down to being yet one more instance of the American terror of the outsider. Mank breaks no new ground here.

 

The film’s deepest flaw is one common to all of Fincher’s work—he’s just an overgrown kid who approaches everything he does like a giggly teenager who’s adopted a completely unearned cynicism to mask his fundamental immaturity. That leads him to take an incredibly complex and potentially rich tale and reduce it to the overstylized 

MANK AT A GLANCE

That this bankrupt telling of a potentially interesting tale has racked up so many nominations proves they should have skipped handing out Oscars during a pandemic.

 

PICTURE
Super-contrasty black & white images with pumped-up highlights add up to video that’s actually painful to watch. 

 

SOUND     

The dialogue is consistently hard to make out, which is probably a blessing, while the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack is so predictable you don’t even notice it’s there.

and remedial presentation of a comic book. The film is full of superficial busyness. All of the actors speak in exposition. All plausibility is optional, and only grudgingly deployed. There is no nuance.

 

A key example: Fincher is so obsessed with pulling off clever shots and editing patterns, and is so fundamentally limited as an actor’s director, that he lacks the interest, ability, or trust to just let his players sit in the same space and organically interact. To resonate at all, this needed to be a tale of very real, very vulnerable people striving in some very heightened worlds. It instead feels like a bunch of puerile stick figures meant to serve some storyboard hopelessly stuck in Fincher’s head.

Also, for the movie to have any power, it needed to stay true to who these people were and what these institutions were within the world of 1930s California and Hollywood. But Fincher, for all his faux cynicism, is really just a big lapdog of a director, so he can’t resist the temptation to draw contemporary parallels throughout and give his characters contemporary attitudes. Remolding Welles as a hipster is faintly amusing but also a little too pat, like everything else here.

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

be. I’ve always felt he was an “actor,” not an actor, and have been suspicious of his work ever since he was overpraised for his Sid Vicious impression in Sid and Nancy (1986). He’s almost engaging here, I suspect, because everything else in the film is so barely and poorly formed that even a yeoman-like turn seems intriguing.

 

It’s so easy to pick apart the movie’s Potemkin-village visual plan that I’ll leave that to others. The one thing I will point out is that the black & white cinematography is so contrasty, with the whites pumped up wretchedly high, that most of the images are painful to look at. Add to that a lot of fundamentally ill-conceived CGI work and you’ve got the visual equivalent of sandpaper.

 

There’s really nothing to be said about the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score except that it’s so predictable it’s like it’s not even there. But I was surprised by how badly this film is mixed. Since the dialogue was frequently unintelligible, I watched Mank a second time listening on headphones just to make out most of the lines. I can’t say it was worth it.

 

If you like movies that are full of a sense of their own cleverness and that tell you exactly what to think and feel—and I realize there’s a substantial audience for that—then by all means wallow in Mank. But it’s hard not to watch something like this and continually sense how much more the movies can do, how much more they have done, and not see it as a deeply troubling sign that this kind of simplistic twaddle is somehow seen as important. Citizen Kane brought an unprecedented depth to film; Mank is a celebration of the kind of bright, shiny surfaces Welles’ thrust was meant to pierce.

Michael Gaughn

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

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: Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Early on in Malcolm & Marie, John David Washington’s character—a filmmaker whose first film debuted hours earlier—goes on an extended rant about not being elitist. “I’m not trying to make a film for the three people in my media studies class that I respect,” he screams at Zendaya’s character, his live-in girlfriend. What’s curious about this is that Malcolm & Marie is that sort of film, and this is merely the first of many self-referential moments in a story that could accurately be described as a 106-minute argument.

 

Actually, “argument” is far too benign a word. What we witness in Malcolm & Marie is over an hour and a half of two people who ostensibly love each other attempting in real time to hurt the other as much as humanly possible. It’s brutal. It’s fatiguing. 

More than once, I found myself thinking this was the first sub-two-hour film that honestly needed an intermission, if only to give the viewer a moment of respite from the vitriol.

 

What makes it worth it are the performances from Zendaya and Washington, the former of which has earned every ounce of praise heaped upon her in her relatively short career. Both she and Washington demand your attention, though—and hold it. Both make you believe, indeed feel, every bit of the pain they experience, every iota of rage. Both absolutely rise to the challenge of carrying a feature-length film that contains no other actors, not even bit extras. Both are asked to do an incredible amount of heavy lifting and make it look legitimately effortless.

 

Both are, unfortunately, also tasked with doing more heavy lifting than should be necessary. And I say that because the script, written by director Sam Levinson, isn’t fully baked. That probably has a lot to do with the rushed production, since Malcolm & Marie was only made to keep the crew of Euphoria—the HBO series created and largely 

M & M AT A GLANCE

The film consists of two characters arguing, viciously, for 100-plus minutes—which might have worked better if more time had been spent on the script.

 

PICTURE
Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is comprised almost entirely of source music, which the mix pushes around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space.

written and directed by Levinson that also just happens to star Zendaya—employed during the pandemic. It was written hastily, and under different circumstances you could argue that it would have benefitted from a few months of additional work. Hell, you could argue that under any circumstances. Because the fact is that Malcolm & Marie commits one of the sins it admonishes: It just doesn’t know when to stop.

 

As a result, it gets a bit repetitive. Its ideas get a bit belabored. And yes, there are a lot of ideas being tossed around here, despite the premise. The argument between Malcolm and Marie ventures into territory ranging from identity politics and cultural appropriation to the validity of cinema as an art form. And most of these arguments have some real meat. I just wish Levinson had trusted himself to know when he’d made his point—if indeed he was trying to make a point—and move on.

 

Then again, both of his characters suffer from the same inability, so one has to wonder if it’s intentional. In other aspects, though, Levinson’s intentions are positively crystalline. Rather than make it obvious whose side of an argument he’s on, he uses these equally flawed characters, each of whom takes a different side of every thesis, to avoid creating sympathy for one point of view or another. Sometimes this works brilliantly, especially when it comes to cultural issues. When the topic of the tête-à-tête turns toward the subject of filmmaking, though, it all becomes a little too twee. It’s as if Levinson wants to have his cake and eat it too by having Malcolm launch into a tirade that seemingly intends to shield this film from criticism, only to have Marie dismantle his argument half-heartedly. It’s the only scene in the film that feels genuinely inauthentic. (Although I have to admit to being self-conscious about using that word, since the film also riffs on the notion of artistic authenticity.)

 

At any rate, given another couple of months in the oven, the screenplay could have resulted in a truly great film. Instead, we’re left with a merely very good one. And it’s not just the performances that make it worth watching, despite its flaws. It’s also a gorgeous production, beautifully composed and wonderfully shot on Kodak Double-X 5222 film. Netflix’s Dolby Vision presentation handles the monochromatic cinematography quite well, preserving all of the rich film grain and the delicious tonal variation of the imagery. There isn’t much in the way of specular intensity here, but the high dynamic range is employed effectively to maintain shadow detail and mid tones, despite the preponderance of truly inky blacks.

 

Surprisingly, for such a run-and-gun production, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is straight-up fire. You’d expect it to be a center-channel-heavy affair, and it is. But it’s comprised almost entirely of source music—jazz and funk and soul pouring out of the couple’s sound system—and the mix pushes those songs around like pieces on a chessboard to create a palpable sense of space and to keep the viewer oriented inside the gorgeous home in which the film was shot.

 

Put it all together and Malcolm & Marie is one of the most visually and aurally engaging films I’ve seen in ages. Whether or not that makes it worth your time really comes down to whether or not you think you can endure more than 90 minutes of two humans viciously dismantling one another. It can be tough to watch, and it’s occasionally too clever by half. But all in all, the film’s merits outweigh its flaws. 

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.