Netflix Tag

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.

Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

CHICAGO 7 AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

In the case of Dellinger, I think that probably boils down to the fact that a neoliberal like Sorkin can’t wrap his brain around radical pacifism, so he has to portray Dellinger as a bottled-up Nazi-puncher wannabe who simply controls his urges. And 

that’s not a knock against neoliberals; it’s an indictment of Sorkin for his inability to view things through any lens other than his own.

 

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

 

But it isn’t merely flawed characterizations that drag The 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Ep. 14: Barry Sonnenfeld on . . . a Little Bit of Everything

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Knowing that Barry Sonnenfeld has just finished shooting a series for Apple TV+—a tongue-in-cheek take on Studio Era musicals called Smigadoon—and that it was one of the first projects to go into production in the midst of the pandemic, we were curious to check in to see how he fared. He proved eager to talk not just about how he and his team rose to that challenge but about a slew of other topics as well, especially his plans to create a new screening room in a less than hospitable space.

 

Given all the ground we covered, it seemed best to opt out of the usual description of topics and provide a stripped-down road map instead:

 

4:39     His experiences shooting during the pandemic.

8:15     The virtues of filming in Vancouver.

8:52     The similarities of shooting Smigadoon and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

11:23   The similarities between Smigadoon and Pushing Daisies & his other work.

13:17   Apple TV’s and Netflix’s requirements for shooting in 4K.

15:33   Fighting HDR.

17:48   8K.

19:17   Working with Apple TV and Netflix vs. traditional studios.

22:37   The emergence of cinematic television.

23:53   His various screening rooms.

26:05   The challenges and opportunities of his new screening room.

26:44   The Apple app for accessing Academy screeners.

27:32   Jumping into Atmos.

28:38   Digital room correction.

29:06   Get Shorty.

35:45   Can they pull off the Oscars this year?

37:02   Somehow, we end up talking about the designated-hitter rule.

37:52   The fate of movie theaters and its impact on film financing.

40:21   Should streaming-only content be eligible for Oscar consideration?

41:12   Doing professional film production on an iPhone.

42:55   His James Randi project.

44:33   The intersection of art and technology.

44:59   The one good thing about 8K.

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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: Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)

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

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

 

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

 

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

SWEEPERS AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: 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.