Netflix Tag

Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Even with theaters still closed across much of the country, this has been a big past few days for movie releases, with three big-budget titles hitting streaming services. Christmas Day saw the release of Soul on Disney+ and Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max as well as in theaters, along with the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, showing theatrically here in the States but available for streaming on Netflix in some international territories. And on December 23rd, Netflix released the George Clooney directed and starring sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

 

Unlike films that were destined for the big screen and then re-routed to streamers as a theatrical release proved unsafe (or unprofitable), it appears Sky was destined for Netflix from the get-go—though it did see a very limited theatrical release in a total of 232 theaters in the Netherlands and South Korea. With an estimated budget of nearly $100 million, Sky is one of the 

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

Most recently known for playing himself in ads pitching Nespresso coffee machines and the billion-dollar sale of his co-founded tequila brand, Casamigos, Clooney’s legacy of bankability and choosing good roles—his turn in the dismal Batman & Robin notwithstanding—still gives him quite a bit of star power, and his involvement was my primary reason for being interested in Sky.

 

Based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Sky opens in February 2049, three weeks after some unspecified cataclysmic event has poisoned the planet with radiation, wiping out most of life on Earth and rendering it uninhabitable. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the sole person at the remote Barbeau Observatory scientific base in the Arctic Circle, suffering from a terminal illness and spending his remaining days drinking, monitoring deteriorating world conditions, and performing transfusion treatments to prolong his life.

SKY AT A GLANCE

This George Clooney directed & starring straight-to-Netflix space epic will intrigue sci-fi and Clooney fans but will probably be pretty slow going for everyone else.

 

PICTURE     

Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail. There are lots of bright highlights that benefit from the HDR grading.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments with their own unique sounds.

Lofthouse discovers there is still a single active space mission, the Aether, which is returning from having explored the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23—a moon that had been discovered years before by Lofthouse. Knowing that the ship returning means a death sentence for its crew, Lofthouse attempts to contact the Aether to warn them off, but the antenna at his station isn’t powerful enough to reach the ship. One evening, he encounters a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inside the station, who refuses (or is unable) to speak but identifies herself as Iris through a drawing. Lofthouse decides to take Iris and head to another base with a larger antenna to warn off and save Aether’s crew.

 

The film bounces back and forth between Lofthouse and Iris on earth and the small five-man crew aboard the Aether, headed by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Interspersed with these events, we have flashbacks where a younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) remembers an old girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), who left him to pursue his science after a pregnancy scare.

 

Just shy of a two-hour runtime, The Midnight Sky feels a bit slow and plodding and almost like two different movies, with Lofthouse struggling on Earth and the astronauts off doing their thing in space. While Clooney—who lost 30 pounds to play the role and sports a David Letterman-esque shaggy beard—does his best, I just never felt connected to the characters enough to care about them. We find out he’s terminal in the film’s opening moments, so it isn’t like his character’s arc is a real mystery. And we barely get to know anything about the astronauts, and not caring or being invested in the six characters makes for a slow journey.

 

Clooney is essentially by himself the entire time, and the scenes between him and Iris before going on their trek to the other station are all one-sided bits of dialogue in the confines of the Observatory that wear on and don’t create the mystery I think Clooney was going for.

 

The film tries to create additional drama along the way, both on Earth and in space. Lofthouse and Iris are caught in blizzards, circled by wolves, and experience the almost requisite fall-through-ice, which, let’s be honest, would have left them dead of hypothermia within minutes in the extreme frigid conditions. In space, the ship experiences a trajectory deviation that puts them into uncharted space where they are bombarded with meteorite ice crystals that destroy critical parts that require a spacewalk to repair. And, well, if Clooney’s previous space film, Gravity, taught us anything about spacewalks, it’s that they can be . . . hazardous.

 

With the big budget, the special effects look first-rate, specifically life aboard the Aether and the exterior shots of the ship, which you get to see in great detail during the spacewalk. Had these scenes not been believable, the movie would be a real #Fail. Also, the freezing exteriors were shot on location at the top of an Icelandic glacier with sub-40-degree temps and 50 MPH winds, so Clooney’s misery and frozen beard are all real.

 

One interesting choice was having a younger actor play young Lofthouse, but with his voice mixed in with Clooney’s. Having just watched the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, where one character is digitally de-aged to questionable effect, my wife and I debated which more pulled you out of the story: The obvious CGI de-aging or the distraction of having the wrong voice come out of a real face. Ultimately, I think they were equally distracting in their own ways.

 

Framed in an unusual 2.11:1 aspect ratio, Sky was shot digitally in a combination of 4.5 and 5.1K, and the Netflix transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail, such as tight shots on Clooney’s face where you can (for better or worse) see every strand of hair in his beard, or see the fine pattern in his plaid flannel shirt.

 

There are lots of bright highlights throughout that benefit from the HDR grading, such as the constant glowing white lights and consoles aboard the Aether along with its pulsing blue engines (thrusters?), and the bright monitors and screens in the Observatory. One scene inside a crashed airplane is a darkened interior lit by the bright probing beam of a flashlight with really nice shadows and detail. K-23 also has a bright, rust-orange color that gets a boost from the wider color gamut.

 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments—inside the Observatory, inside the Aether, outside on the Arctic—with their own unique sounds. Besides the overhead speakers being used to expand the music’s soundstage, there are some nice, hard-panned height effects, such as helicopters flying overhead, swirling and howling winds, or the echoing report of gunshots. There aren’t many gunshots (three, I believe), but they are loud and dynamic, the first making my wife jump, and the meteorite strikes have some decent bass impact.

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score of 53%, and Audience Score of just 25%, The Midnight Sky isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or Clooney, there are certainly worse ways you could pass two hours. If you need your sci-fi to be filled with action and adventure—with a definitive resolution and conclusion—you’ll want to give this one a pass. Fortunately, if you do give it a go, the cost is $0 (on top of your Netflix subscription) and the movie at least looks and sounds good.

John Sciacca

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

Review: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The 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: The Speed Cubers

The Speed Cubers (2020)

The Netflix-original documentary The Speed Cubers seems like exactly the sort of film whose very existence hinges upon the streaming provider’s ability to target the most niche of special interests. It is, after all, a film set at the 2019 World Cube Association World Championship—WCA being the governing body that organizes and regulates tournaments to see who can most quickly solve twisty puzzles (the most popular of which is the Rubik’s Cube, more commonly known these days as “The 3×3”).

Given the concept, it also seems like exactly the sort of film that you could easily nope out of if you have no interest in mechanical puzzles or how quickly they’re solved by kids you’ve never heard of. But if that’s the way you’re leaning, I implore you to give this all-too-brief 40-minute film a chance anyway. Because beneath the super-nerdy veneer, The Speed Cubers is ultimately about what all good documentaries are about: The human spirit.

 

The humans at the center of this story are Feliks Zemdegs, widely regarded as the best speed cuber of all time, and Max Park, the young hotshot who has in recent years broken many of the world records previously held by Zemdegs. To most outsiders, the two could be described as the Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt of the cubing world. As The Speed Cubers reveals, though, their relationship doesn’t quite fit into such a tidy box.

 

For the profoundly autistic Park, Zemdegs is simultaneously hero, role model, friend, and fierce competitor. When Max

CUBERS AT A GLANCE

Watching other people watch other people play with Rubik’s cubes might not sound like compelling documentary fodder but this Netflix original goes beneath the gameplay to show the deep bonds that form among competitors.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K presentation is solid enough, but comes sans HDR—which might be for the best given how much the documentary relies on cellphone and home-video footage.

 

SOUND     

The front-heavy 5.1 mix does a good job of presenting the dialogue and creates an appropriate frame for Dan Vidmar’s unobtrusive but effective score.

refuses to brush his teeth, his parents merely need to remind him that Feliks always brushes his own. When Zemdegs joins the Park family for dinner, it’s Feliks, not the Parks, who encourages Max to eat his vegetables, without a hint of condescension.

 

It may sound a little one-sided, but what the film reveals is a beautiful give-and-take—a lovely friendly rivalry quite unlike

anything I’ve ever seen captured on camera.

 

I hate to say much more than that, lest I spoil any of the surprises in this wonderful little haiku of a film. And yes, there are twists and turns along the way, though none of them is contrived. There are also laughs aplenty and even a few tears, so have some tissues ready if you’re a sympathetic crier.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing

about The Speed Cubers, though, is just how well it’s made. Cinematographer Chris Olson—whose own short film Why We Cube was previously the best documentary on the subject of twisty-puzzle competitions—shows amazing restraint in serving as the viewer’s eyes into this world, turning what could have easily been a voyeuristic exposé into a tender tribute instead. It’s a shame his work is only presented in 4K, without the benefit of HDR, but given how much of the film relies on home-video and cellphone footage of Max and Feliks in their younger years, it’s debatable whether it would have benefited from an HDR grading overall. Thankfully, Netflix’ presentation is artifact-free, save from that found in archival footage.

 

Similar restraint is shown by music composer Dan Vidmar—better known by the stage name Shy Girls in the alt-R&B music scene—whose score honestly didn’t capture my attention at all until my second viewing. That’s the mark of good film music, in my opinion. What you notice when you specifically listen for the score is that Vidmar has a knack for accentuating both action and emotion without Mickey Mousing either.

 

Don’t go in expecting the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 sound mix to fill your surround speakers or stress your subs. The front-heavy mix does its job of presenting the dialogue and music in a perfectly straightforward manner, exactly as it should in a documentary.

 

Really, the only thing you could complain about here is that The Speed Cubers is over far too quickly, leaving you wanting to know more, even if you previously had no interest in the ostensible subject matter of the film. If you’re hungry for more, most of the biggest names in the online cubing community have made their own supplements for the film, the best being Ming Dao Ting’s in-depth interview with director Sue Kim and cinematographer Chris Olson, which runs longer than The Speed Cubers itself. Search YouTube and you’ll find hours of additional commentary where that came from.

 

But if all you’re interested in is the documentary itself, what you’ll find in The Speed Cubers is one of the sweetest, tenderest, most life-affirming short films I’ve seen in ages. And I think we could all use a bit of that in our lives right now.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Social Dilemma

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. Frustrating because it has a really important message to convey, but sometimes undermines that message with cutesy animation and heavy-handed musical accompaniment. Frustrating because it wants to be equal parts documentary and drama, but fails in the latter respect. Frustrating because I wanted to write it off entirely, but ended up being won over despite my better judgment. But most of all, frustrating because it relies on some of the same tactics it decries.

 

As you could probably ascertain from its title, The Social Dilemma is about the dual-edged sword of social media and the impact it’s having on society. What makes the documentary aspect of the film work as well as it does is the reliance on 

Silicon Valley experts like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, who helped create the very tools that they’re now warning us about.

 

Harris—co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” according to The Atlantic—dominates the film with a series of cogent explanations about how the algorithms that drive everything from Google searches to Facebook interactions work. On the upside, he’s given a lot more room to breathe here than in his famous TED Talk on the subject, allowing him to connect some dots I’ve never seen connected before, at least not in the way they’re connected here.

 

But for every illuminating observation from Harris, The Social Dilemma feels compelled to spoon-feed the viewer a disjointed dramatic narrative that feels like the mutant child of an ABC Afterschool Special and one of those awful Chick Tracts that used to litter the gutters of New Orleans.

SOCIAL DILEMMA AT A GLANCE

This often penetrating look at the ill effects of social media is effective when it sticks to interviews but goes astray with inappropriate music, animation, and dramatic vignettes.

 

PICTURE     

This image displayed none of the artifact problems you would have expected from a UHD image being streamed without HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 mix has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score but doesn’t overwhelm the all-important dialogue.

It’s in these dramatizations that The Social Dilemma commits its greatest sin: Assuming the stupidity of the viewer. The story here is about a family whose two youngest children are being harmed by social media—one child whose entire sense of self-worth is based on “Likes” in response to photos she posts, the other who ends up sliding down the slippery slope of fake news and becoming radicalized.

 

Handled well, I suppose it could have worked. But in attempting to explain how the algorithms that encourage engagement trap users in a dopamine-driven feedback loop, the filmmakers decided to anthropomorphize these algorithms and give

The Social Dilemma

them dialogue, à la a twisted techie version of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This takes what is genuinely a malignant phenomenon and turns it into a seemingly malicious one, which undermines a lot of the film’s messaging. It also directly contradicts the views of the experts, who do a much better job of explaining the nuances of these wholly impersonal 

algorithms and the way they manipulate users to generate revenue, engagement, and growth. But nuance doesn’t suffice these days, I suppose, so we end up with these wholly unnecessary abstract dramatizations that do little more than confuse the uninitiated and drag down the film.

 

By the time its closing credits rolled, though, The Social Dilemma won me back with a well-developed conclusion that cuts straight to the heart of the divisiveness, anxiety, depression, suicide, social upheaval, and general discord sowed by social media—as well as some of the upsides of this technology. I wish some of this balance had been sprinkled more evenly through the rest of the film, because we can’t have an honest conversation about the impact of social media without covering the good as well as the bad (although, full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this respect since Facebook was responsible for my reunion with my daughter).

 

If the entire 94-minute running time of The Social Dilemma had lived up to the quality of the last 10 minutes or so, it would be much easier to recommend. But I’m left with a dilemma of my own here, because I think the message of the film is so important that you should view it despite its flaws. Just go in armed with the knowledge that director Jeff Orlowski employs some of the same psychological sleight-of-hand the film warns us about.

 

As for the presentation of the film itself, Netflix delivers The Social Dilemma in Ultra HD without HDR10 or Dolby Vision high dynamic range. As soon as I noticed this, I deliberately kept an eye out for the sort of visual artifacts inherent in high-efficiency streaming without HDR: Banding, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail, etc. Surprisingly, I couldn’t see them, which makes me think Netflix may be employing a higher-than-usual bitrate for the film, but I’m just speculating. Whatever the explanation, it points to the fact that streaming services are constantly evolving in terms of quality of presentation. Even just a couple years ago, Netflix would have had to stick this SDR film in an HDR container to deliver a stream this artifact-free.

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score that could have easily gotten out of hand with the wrong sound mixer. Thankfully, it’s a mostly front-channel affair, and dialogue clarity

is topnotch. It should sound fine whether you’re watching on a full-fledged home cinema system or a simple soundbar.

 

In the end, as I said, I’m of two minds here: I want you to watch The Social Dilemma, but I also want you to know what you’re getting into here. It’s a significantly flawed film, but it’s also an important one. If the hypnotic animation 

and ham-fisted dramatizations are too much for you to stomach, though, I highly recommend watching Tristan Harris’ TED Talk instead. It doesn’t connect the dots nearly as effectively as does The Social Dilemma, and it isn’t nearly as well-produced, but it also isn’t burdened by all the saccharine fluff that mires this docu-drama.

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: Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Space Force

Space Force

It’s not hard to figure out how this all began. Netflix had an unexpected boon when Millennials didn’t discover The Office until after it had migrated over to the subscription service but then seized on and devoured it as if they’ve just summoned up manna. As all that was playing out, NBC announced it would be bringing The Office back under its wing as part of its new Peacock streaming service, eventually depriving Netflix of what is probably its steadiest flow of viewers.

 

While they would never publicly admit it, Netflix found itself desperate for a new series that looked, walked, and smelled enough like The Office to retain a sizable portion of that show’s audience.

 

Enter Office creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell with an itch to do a service comedy—an idea as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristophanes)—and as fresh as today’s headlines. Or at least that’s how they would have presented it at the 

pitch meeting—assuming they even had to do a pitch before Netflix handed them a blank check.

 

To cut right to the chase, Space Force is nothing but a mess, way overinflated in every possible way, the most hackneyed of sitcom premises puffed up with a stupidly large budget and a random mob of a cast. If this had been made for a fraction of the money and with a little less latitude, the constraints might have brought some badly needed discipline to the exercise, yielding something tighter, funnier, and more watchable. Maybe.

 

What we have instead is the Netflix equivalent of It’s a Mad, 

Mad, Mad, Mad World—a too-big-to-fail comedy that puts a gun to your head and tells you to laugh because it’s desperate to justify its existence. There are some laughs, occasionally (I have to admit to falling for the space chimp bit), but far too rarely. Space Force is the sitcom equivalent of spending an evening watching a room full of monkeys perched at typewriters and waiting for one of them to randomly tap out a joke.

 

To go with another animal analogy, it’s a great, big slobbering Labrador of a show, utterly superficial, with no ideas or convictions of its own, desperately trying to please everybody and willing to do anything to get a little attention. If you’ve heard that it’s a spoof or satire, you heard wrong. Space Force doesn’t bite—it licks your face instead. It doesn’t have the creative courage to skewer a damn thing.

 

But enough of the generalities; let’s talk specifics. You get the sense Carell loves The Great Santini and decided, for some reason, to bring it up to date. But it would be hard to name another actor more different from Carell, with his extremely limited acting range, than Robert Duvall. That cognitive dissonance might help explain why he can’t get a bead on his character but constantly shifts between playing a pint-sized general, Michael Scott, and an ambiguous third being who might actually be Carell himself.

 

The cast is big and, almost without exception, unexceptional, the most offensive member being Ben Schwartz as Carell’s media manager. His every moment on screen is the comedy equivalent of waterboarding. Carell’s character fires him in the first episode, which seemed logical and felt definitive, and led to the hope we were rid of him forever. But this is a cliché-laden sitcom after all, so he keeps arbitrarily popping back up throughout the series, like a horror-movie villain or a rodent, even though his shtick is predictable, his actions implausible, and he fails to generate any laughs.

 

The biggest offense—although you can’t really blame the completely bland, inoffensive actress saddled with playing her—is the pilot who starts out as Carell’s whirlybird chauffeur and somehow ends up commanding a lunar mission. She’s not a character or the product of a legitimate creative act but a fashionable amalgam, born of checking off a bunch of boxes meant to suck up to contemporary sensibilities. As far as you can get from three-dimensional, she’s a direct descendant of the personified virtues in a medieval morality play.

 

More specifically, she’s only there to be the token tough-but-caring black girl who rises to a level of great responsibility because she has a massive father complex.

 

If there’s any glimmer of light in this black hole of a series, it’s John Malkovich as the lead scientist. He’s ultimately nothing but a stereotypically affected straw man, Alice to Carell’s Ralph, Felix to his Oscar. It’s only Malkovich’s ability to make something out of nothing that causes his screen time to add up to anything resembling creative redemption.

 

Pardon a little inside baseball, but I watched Space Force straight through when it debuted and planned to publish this review then. But my reaction was so strong, I felt the need to buy some distance before going public with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the weeks that have since elapsed have only reinforced my original impressions.

 

If you’re big on Anointed vs. Underclass fictions that come down firmly for the Anointed, this show is for you. If you find succor in a day-care center view of the world, you’ll probably actually enjoy the image of a military mission jubilantly jumping around the lunar surface like a bunch of infants. I didn’t. Space Force shows how far we’ve devolved since Metropolis, and suggests the Fredersens of the world have irrevocably won.

Michael Gaughn

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

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Like so many of us, when using Netflix or some other streaming service I tend to browse to find something to watch rather than zeroing in on a particular show. Since my tastes run to music, I usually seek out music-related documentaries and concert films. So I somewhat semi-randomly stumbled upon this episode of a Netflix series called Once in a Lifetime Sessions, a documentary series featuring musicians talking about their careers and performing live in concert and in the 

recording studio—including a live-to-vinyl session! If you’re looking for a “history of the band”-type documentary, this isn’t it—but it is an insightful look into Nile Rodgers’ career, life, and flat-out incredible musical chops.

 

Rodgers is the co-founder of Chic (along with bassist extraordinaire Bernard Edwards), a band that burst upon the disco and pop music scene in 1972 with hits like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and their signature, oft-sampled mega-smash “Good Times.” Rodgers is also an extremely successful producer—a small sample of songs he’s been behind the board for include David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, and a little thing you might have heard recently—Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

 

He is also known as one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time, with a distinctive funky propulsive style that, while 

NILE RODGERS AT A GLANCE

The Chic co-founder, hitmaker, and legendary rhythm guitarist dissects his most famous tracks, talks about his life, and stages a super-tight club performance with his bandmates. 

 

PICTURE     

Attractive and direct documentary-style visuals mercifully free of gimmicks.

 

SOUND

Clean, rich sound, with plenty of bass and with each instrument clearly heard—but in a mix so lacking in stereo spread it borders on mono.

deceptively simple-sounding, no one else can quite duplicate. Think of that opening riff to “Good Times.” You’re probably hearing that unstoppable guitar groove in your head right now, along with Edwards’ iconic bass line, maybe the greatest electric bass riff ever.

 

Naturally I wanted to know—how did he do it? The documentary answers that question and a whole lot more, featuring plenty of interview footage at Angel Studios, London, where Rodgers tells exactly how he did it. An engineer pulls up individual tracks from the master tapes so you can hear each musician’s parts while Rodgers explains the creative process of how and why the players came up with them. For a musician like me, fascinating, and even if you can’t play a note you’ll learn a lot about the process.

 

Rodgers goes into rich detail about how he and others wrote the songs. Just one of many quotes: “As musicians, we want our voices to be heard, right? That means we want hit records . . . We knew that we had to come up with our own formula for making hits, and we knew that the chorus somehow was what people always wanted to get to . . . So we thought, well, what if we just started with the chorus? That way we give people the dessert first!”

 

He doesn’t just talk about the song-creation process, though. The interviewer draws plenty of life experience from Rodgers, whose parents were drug-dependent. As a result, the family moved a lot and he was the only black kid in a lot of the schools he wound up in. “I didn’t fit in and I was bullied a lot.” Rodgers is unblinkingly candid about his bouts with alcohol and drug

use and falling into the vortex of the 1970s and 1980s partying lifestyle. He thought he was young and invincible and could sustain that level of excess (it worked, for a while), but after it started to affect his playing, he just stopped cold and has been clean ever since.

 

But, for me, the highlight of Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

is the live performance footage. Rodgers and his musicians and singers are incredibly tight. I mean, unbelievably tight. I mean, ridiculously superhumanly astoundingly tight. Watching them is a master class in how to play together, how to lock in as musicians, how to groove. As a musician, I can tell you it’s tough to just play through a song without hitting a “clam” (wrong note), let alone play with any kind of feel and swing and togetherness.

 

In this respect, watching Chic play together is in the true sense awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling. In both the concert footage (actually a club somewhere in the UK) and the in-studio performances, these guys and gals are killing it. Nailing it. Destroying it! Every musician is remarkable, and singer Kim Davis-Jones is hair-raisingly good, just an absolute complete knockout. I don’t care if your thing is folk, rock, hip-hop, whatever—if you’re a musician, consider this required viewing.

 

The sound quality is extremely good—clean, rich, and with plenty of that all-important bass and kick drum, and every instrument can be clearly heard. Yet the sound is somewhat mono-ish, lacking in stereo spread. Although I’m usually a sonic purist, I tried various modes on my old but great-sounding Harman Kardon A/V receiver and found the music most enjoyable while listening in surround, particularly Harman Kardon’s Logic 7 Music mode.

 

The visuals are fine—pretty much straightforward. I mean, how much “production” can you do with interview filming that wouldn’t ultimately be distracting? And the concert footage is refreshingly direct, alternating between shots of the band and the individual players with a lack of distraction and gratuitous effects. (We’ve all seen way too much of that sort of thing.)

 

Rodgers concludes the documentary by talking about his “insane” work ethic, something he’s never let go of. For him, hard work and life are one and the same. The 67-year-old Rodgers states, “I always say that I have 10 good years left. I’ve been saying that since I was 20!” Amen, brother.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

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

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

 

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

 

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

LIFE OF SPEED AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.