Netflix

Review: The Forgotten Battle

The Forgotten Battle (2020)

The Forgotten Battle made me realize why I don’t like war pictures, for the most part, largely by proving itself the exception to rules I haven’t really put much conscious thought into until now. And I could spend pages detailing why this moving little Dutch film works for me, when so many Hollywood WWII flicks fail to resonate, but most of that pontification would boil down to two essential observations: The film takes its time in telling its story and it never strains the bounds of credulity. 

 

Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who hasn’t occupied the director’s chair since 2011’s unfortunate prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Forgotten Battle is, as its name implies, the story of the Battle of the Scheldt, a military operation 

that has largely been ignored in the pop-culture retelling of World War II.

 

The film tells the story in an unconventional manner, breaking its narrative fabric into three distinct threads that interweave loosely for nearly two hours before intertwining more tightly right near the end. One thread follows a young woman named Teuntje, who unintentionally becomes involved with the Dutch Resistance. Another follows Marinus, a young Dutchman serving in the Wehrmacht who grows increasingly leery of the Nazis he serves. The third follows RAF glider pilot Will Sinclair, whose crew becomes stranded in Zeeland after their glider is shot down. 

 

Constructing the narrative in this way was risky. Tie things up in too neat a bow and you run the risk of telling a tale that’s far too convenient to be believably connected to real 

FORGOTTEN BATTLAT A GLANCE

Three eventually intertwined narrative threads make up this well balanced portrayal of the World War II Battle of the Scheldt.

 

PICTURE

Netflix’ UHD presentation is stunning from beginning to end, with no noticeable flaws to be seen in the encoding.

 

SOUND 

A very well-mixed audio experience, naturalistic in its approach and mostly effortless in its delivery.

events. Fail to tie them up sufficiently, though, and you end up with a jumbled mess that’s hard to follow, no matter how believable it may be.


Credit goes to screenwriter Paula van der Oest and her co-writers for crafting a story that threads the needle beautifully, never feeling too convenient nor too disjointed. And I’m no mind-reader but I get the sense they pulled it off because they knew exactly what they wanted their film to be about—what they wanted it to mean—and had a clear vision for how each of these threads would support their intended themes. 

 

Kudos also to editor Marc Bechtold for knowing exactly when to intercut between these narrative stems. And to Heijningen for pulling the best performances out of everyone involved, as well as for crafting a film that has all the polish and apparent production values of a big-budget Hollywood spectacle despite a meager shooting budget of just €14 million (roughly $16 million). 

 

Mind you, I don’t mean to imply that The Forgotten Battle looks exactly like a Hollywood production—merely that it looks every bit as good as one. And Netflix’ UHD presentation of the film is stunning from beginning to end. Note there that I said “UHD” but not “HDR.” It worried me a bit to see the lack of high dynamic range grading, especially given that the streaming provider still struggles at times when attempting to deliver 8-bit video at any resolution. But if there are flaws to be seen in the company’s encoding, I didn’t spot them.

 

That may be in part due to the fact that The Forgotten Battle is very gray, with muted contrasts and desaturated colors. So there are fewer opportunities for banding in hue or value. Still, the fact that Netflix delivers the film with no noticeable artifacts is impressive, and speaks to the continual advancements in streaming quality we’ve seen in recent years. 

 

As for the audio, though, Netflix has created some unnecessary confusion with the way it labels the film’s various soundtrack options. The original soundtrack is listed as “Dutch,” which is misleading. It’s actually a tri-lingual mix of Dutch, English, and German. 

 

The soundtrack labeled “English” merely dubs over the Dutch, leaving the German intact. But in doing so, the dub—which is competently performed at best—also destroys some of the natural ambiance of the original 5.1 mix, making voices recorded in situ (or mixed to give the impression that they were) sound flat and dry and disconnected from the onscreen environments.

 

Long story short? Stick with the original soundtrack. Overall, it’s a very well-mixed audio experience, naturalistic in its approach and mostly effortless in its delivery. My only beef is that some of the dialogue gets a little buried at times, especially in the chaos of battle. There isn’t a ton of action in the film, though, so that’s a minor and brief quibble. 

 

Put it all together—the untidy narrative, the solemn aesthetic of the film, and the messy realities of history at the heart of the story—and The Forgotten Battle could have easily been a mess. It also could have just as easily veered too far in the direction of nihilism on the one hand or heroic bravado on the other. Thankfully it avoids both traps. It is, in the end, one of the most grounded and human WWII pictures I’ve seen in years. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space

Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space (2021)

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

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

 

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

 

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

COUNTDOWN AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE MITCHELLS AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Oxygen

Oxygen (2021)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

OXYGEN AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Review: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

If you’re clicking on a review of an Oscar-nominated documentary like My Octopus Teacher at this point, it’s safe to say you’re here looking for an answer to a pretty simply question: Is it worth watching? I only wish there were a simple answer. My heart says, “Yes.” My brain says, “Still yes, but don the armor of skepticism before you dive in.”

 

This Netflix production tells the story of Craig Foster, a South African director/cinematographer who, in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts, commits to free-diving in the kelp forests near Cape Town every day to get his head together or whatever. During his dives, he quickly befriends a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and becomes obsessed with her life and daily habits.

Your enjoyment of the film will likely largely come down to whether or not you like Foster as a human being, because he not only narrates the film from beginning to end in the form of one continuous monologue but the footage often cuts to him sitting at a table, staring about three inches to the left of the camera, telling his tale Spalding Gray-style.

 

He may be a perfectly fine man. I don’t know him. But he exhibits so many infuriating quirks that I found myself struggling to connect with him. He has an annoying habit shared by all emotionally distant people, in that he often refers to himself in the second person, present tense. So, “I realized” becomes “You realize,” and “I rushed to the surface as fast as I could” becomes “You rush to the surface as fast as you can.”

OCTOPUS AT A GLANCE

Fascinating footage of an octopus in the wild marred by a forced narrative and a lot of self-indulgent, sometimes redundant, narration.

 

PICTURE
Raw, dingy amateur shots interspersed with more professionally done footage—what you would expect in a documentary. 

 

SOUND     

A Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack dominated by narration and the kind of New-Agey score typical for this kind of documentary.

Far too often, when there’s the perfect opportunity to focus on the amazing underwater imagery of the octopus, we instead cut to Foster for absolutely no reason. He also almost never shuts up—except for a few shots where he stares into the camera and gulps pensively to let us know that it’s time to have an emotion. Shots that absolutely speak for themselves are narrated like a bad audio commentary from the early days of Laserdisc and DVD, when directors hadn’t figured out yet that they can occasionally stop talking if they don’t have anything interesting to say.

 

But—this needs to be said—those are pet peeves of mine and don’t speak to the quality of My Octopus Teacher as a film. Here, too, I have some concerns, though. The bulk of the footage for this ostensibly nonfiction film was shot over the course of many months, and much of it was captured via handheld underwater cameras. In the process of stitching together a reasonably linear narrative, it’s obvious that a lot of editorializing was done, which is totally fine. The problem comes from the fact that sometimes this editorializing feels far too forced.

 

At one point in the story, for example, Foster’s octopus friend loses an arm in a shark attack. That, in itself, provides an opportunity to watch the fascinating process of her regrowing the arm over time. But since the narrative thread the filmmakers

settled on centers on all the lessons Foster learned from the octopus, he of course has to concoct some hackneyed fable about how if this cephalopod could heal such a catastrophic wound, he could find a way to crawl out of his funk and hang out with his son. To call this a stretch would be to test the limits of elasticity.

 

At any rate, it may have been my aggravation with Foster’s aloof speaking style or my frustration with the construction of the story, but about a quarter of the way into My Octopus Teacher, I really started to become distracted by the artifice of it all. And I say that as someone who is infatuated with

David Attenborough’s world-spanning documentaries, many of which rely on footage that’s practically staged.

 

The difference is that Attenborough’s series don’t present themselves as personal journeys. My Octopus Teacher does. Foster tells the tale of his treks into the kelp forest as if no one else in the world existed, not even his family. The fact that he’s alone, that this is a solitary endeavor, is half the point of the narrative. And indeed, a lot of the best footage comes directly from his hand. 

 

But then we’ll cut to a shot of him, underwater, holding his camera, which rightly raises the question: Wait, who’s filming that footage? There are also long top-down drone shots of Foster entering the ocean, which further undermine the integrity of the yarn he’s spinning about being oh-so-alone during this stretch of time. 

 

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why I still recommend watching My Octopus Teacher, despite all its problems. That simply comes down to the fact that Foster managed to capture some of the most compelling and fascinating footage I’ve ever seen of the daily life of an octopus. We get to see her hunting, hiding, and healing. We get to watch her study Foster as curiously as he studies her. But my favorite shot by far is a sequence in which Foster catches her playing, entertaining herself, staving off boredom. I wish he hadn’t intruded on this footage with his obvious observations about what she’s doing, because it’s clear to anyone with eyes. But there’s nearly literally nothing Foster could have done to diminish the value of this imagery. 

 

And there are so many other shots throughout the film that have the same impact. Far too many documentaries about cephalopods focus on animals in captivity. Here we have the opportunity to see this magnificent alien creature in her natural habitat, and I only wish I could think of a word more poignant than “revelatory” to describe my reaction to it all. Strip away the exasperating gobble-gobble-gobble of Foster’s voiceover and the gimmick of pretending he’s on some reclusive vision quest when he’s obviously surrounded by a team of filmmakers, and what you’re left with is octopus footage that’s worth its weight in unobtanium. 

 

Granted, not all of that footage is what you would describe as “home cinema reference quality.” The most compelling of it is more than a bit raw, kinda dingy, questionably lit, and obscured by silt. This is interspersed with much more professionally shot footage and the indoor interview shots of Foster. But given that so much of the video is so unpolished, it’s not surprising that Netflix’ presentation wasn’t mastered in Dolby Vision. We just get a UHD transfer with no HDR.

 

Still, even just a few short years ago, such a presentation would have been riddled with banding, so it’s heartening to see that Netflix has stepped up its game in terms of delivering non-HDR video. There’s one shot near the end of a setting sun that’s a bit clipped, but other than that, I didn’t spot any noteworthy video artifacts. 

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, is dominated by Foster’s narration and the sort of New-Agey score we’ve come to expect from nature documentaries in this vein. There’s nothing really special about it, but it serves its purpose. 

 

When you get right down to it, though, the soundtrack could have consisted of Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 Shades of Grey and I still would have suffered through My Octopus Teacher enthusiastically and with roughly the same level of frustration. You stick the word “octopus” in the title of a documentary and I’m going to watch it, just on the off chance of seeing these enigmatic beings behaving in mysterious ways I’ve never witnessed before. This one delivers on that in spades, and I imagine I’ll be watching it again sometime very soon. The next time I do, though, I think I might mute the soundtrack and cue up Pink Floyd’s Meddle on a loop in the background instead. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Mank

Mank (2020)

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

 

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

to shirk making the case against it.

 

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

 

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

MANK AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

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

 

I was more impressed by Gary Oldman than I expected to 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon (2020)

Ask most kaiju fans whether they’d rather sit down and watch 1968’s Destroy All Monsters or 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and I suspect most would opt for the former. And no, just to be clear, you haven’t stumbled into the wrong review here. This is not my hot take on Godzilla vs. Kong. That’s coming next week. I merely bring up these two movies to shine a light on the fact that most of us would probably rather watch a truly, irredeemably, laughably bad movie than one that’s just meh. If that resonates with you, you can probably skip Netflix’ Oscar-nominated Over the Moon, no matter how young your kids are. 

 

It’s a shame really, because Over the Moon is the most frustrating sort of entertainment experience in that there’s a decent movie hiding in here somewhere. The animation is fantastic, which is no surprise given that the movie was directed by Glen 

Keane, the animation supervisor for Disney classics like Tangled, Tarzan, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.

 

There’s a wonderfully non-Pixar quality to the 3D animation, which isn’t to say that I don’t love—and even prefer—Pixar’s house aesthetic; it’s merely nice to see something different for a change. The Dolby Vision presentation on Netflix is also a frog-hair short of truly reference quality, with only a very, very minor bit of banding in one brief scene holding it back from perfection, at least via my Roku Ultra. The color palette is bold, the dynamic range is extreme, and the choreography is impeccable. Simply put, Over the Moon is eye candy in every sense of the word.

 

There are also the makings of a really good story here, as the bones of it are admirable. The movie is part of a larger initiative by Netflix to create properties based on world mythologies other than the standard Western pantheons, which I’m super excited about overall. In this case, the

MOON AT A GLANCE

This Netflix updating of Chinese folklore almost works, but falls far enough short to make its Oscar nod for Animated Feature seem questionable.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation is a frog-hair short of truly reference quality, with only one very minor bit of banding. 

 

SOUND     

The music is banal and the dialogue clunky, but the soundtrack is otherwise a dynamic and interesting Atmos mix that’s almost as good as the fantastic animation.

joint production between Netflix and China’s Pearl Studio is centered on the myth of the moon goddess Chang’e, and it tells the tale of a young girl named Fei Fei who’s heartbroken by the death of her mother and frustrated that the adults around her don’t seem to put much stock in the tale of Chang’e anymore, so she builds a mag-lev rocket with the intent of visiting the moon and returning with proof of the goddess’s existence.

 

There are seeds planted here that could have flourished into a story about the enduring power of myth in a post-Information Age world, about the dangers of hero worship, and about dealing with loss. The problem is that Over the Moon never really 

figures out what it wants to be about, and as such the plot is a meandering and convoluted mess that bores you to death with sensory overload.

 

To give you just one example of how poorly scripted the movie is, one plot thread revolves around Chang’e demanding the return of “the gift,” but for no reason whatsoever, she won’t tell Fei Fei what the gift actually is. The girl assumes the gift must be the doll left in the wreckage of her makeshift rocket and starts a Cannonball Run-esque race across the moon to retrieve it, only to have it stolen, only to then bite into a moon cake and discover 

half of an amulet that was baked into the treat for equally inexplicable reasons. When she rightly realizes that the cloven artifact is “the gift,” she returns it to the goddess who exclaims that it’s exactly what she was looking for.

 

This pointless side quest and its non-sequitur resolution add nothing to the thematic or narrative through-line of the story, deliver no lessons or meaning, and only pointlessly pad what’s already an overly long 100-minute movie.

 

What’s more, while the Earth-based parts of the story all take place in China, and while the cast is dominated by actors of Asian descent, the movie is just one big pile of Western animation tropes, most of them in the poor-man’s Disney vein and all of them strung together with no rhyme or reason. Why anyone would make a Chinese/American co-production based on a Chinese myth and not pepper it with at least some Eastern sensibilities and narrative stylings is beyond me.

 

But that’s hardly the movie’s biggest sin. Worse by far is the fact that the music is just awful. And I’m not talking “direct-to-VHS Disney sequel” awful. I’m talking The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers awful. And there’s just. So. Much. Of. It. There doesn’t seem to be a character capable of vocalizing their feelings without bursting into a song that sounds like it was improvised on the spot by your tone-deaf aunt who’s obsessed with Les Misérables. The most offensive musical number, though, involves a rap battle between the goddess and the protagonist’s soon-to-be-stepbrother that’s about as funky-fresh as Karl “MC” Rove’s attempt at hip-hop. I’m sorry, but Phillipa Soo—who voices Chang’e—deserves better than this.

 

Take out the banal music and the clunky dialogue, and the soundtrack is actually pretty well constructed, with a dynamic and interesting Atmos mix that’s almost as good as the fantastic animation. But that does little to rescue this mess from mediocrity. 

 

How this exercise in frustrating inconsistency ended up nabbing an Oscar nod is beyond me, especially when there were actually some pretty good animated pictures in 2020 (Onward) as well as some legitimately great ones (Soul and Wolfwalkers). And look, you could argue that I’m not in Over the Moon‘s target audience, but I beg to differ. I have roughly the same emotional maturity as your average Pokémon enthusiast and I thrive on animated features of this sort. This just isn’t a good movie, no matter how you slice it.

 

But the most infuriating thing about it is that it’s almost good. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

M & M AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

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.

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.