Netflix Tag

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.

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.

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.

The Two Popes

The Two Popes

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

 

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

seen as contributing to his decision.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Two Popes

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

 

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

 

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

 

Adam Sohmer

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

The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Dracula (2020)

Dracula (2020)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Dracula (2020)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Higgins

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