Review: Muppets Haunted Mansion

Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)

The Germans, in all their linguistic inventiveness, need to coin a new word for the unique mix of eagerness and hesitation Jim Henson fans feel when a new Muppets project is announced. The simple fact is that the Disney era of the franchise has been a roller coaster, reaching heights of delightful silliness like 2011’s The Muppets and plunging to depths of pointlessness like 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, when all is said and done, Muppets Haunted Mansion is far from the worst we’ve seen from the franchise this century. But it is a bit of a mixed bag.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work about the hour-long Halloween special. For one thing, it all feels a bit formulaic in its structure and narrative. You could argue that’s a consequence of the premise, and you’d have a pretty good point. But I still miss the days when the Muppets were so utterly off the rails that you felt uncomfortable watching a new movie or TV show with kids, at least the first time around, for fear Animal or Floyd might drop an F-bomb. Not that they ever would, but the Muppets at their best once gave you the impression they might. And Muppets Haunted Mansion feels far too safe and by-the-numbers to even hint at such a potential.


There’s also the fact that some of the voice acting is just atrocious. This is the first major Muppets production since Steve Whitmire, longtime performer of Kermit the Frog, was 


Not the best Muppet effort ever, it’s not the worst, either, and will likely find an audience as one of the few family-friendly Halloween specials around.



The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is so flawless that it’s, at times, startling.



The audio lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could benefit from a bit more activity in the surrounds.

fired and replaced by Matt Vogel (and yes, yes, I know about Muppets Now, but I’ve never been able to suffer through enough of it for it to leave a lasting impression). And no disrespect to Mr. Vogel—he does a perfectly fine Floyd and a darned good Sweetums—but he’s not and never will be Kermit. He just doesn’t get the character.


A problem more specific to this special is that the music is, for the most part, just awful. There are a handful of original songs, and every time I could sense another one coming, my body tensed up in anticipation of the awfulness. There are two exceptions, though. The special opens and closes with a cover of King Harvest’s version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s simply fantastic and there’s really nothing else to say about it. It rocks. 


There’s also a really fun duet between Pepe the King Prawn and Taraji P. Henson, who stars as Constance Hatchaway (aka the Black Widow Bride from the theme-park ride that inspired this crossover). Not only is the song well written and well performed, it also hints at the naughtiness of the Muppets at their best. 


But the best thing about the number is that it’s just a prime example of Pepe being Pepe. Seriously, every second that fuzzy little king prawn is on screen is pure comedy gold. It probably helps, of course, that longtime Pepe performer Bill Barretta wrote the story for Muppets Haunted Mansion, and I could take issue with the fact that he gave all the best bits to his own 

character, but who cares, really? If you’re a Pepe fan, this one is a must-watch, even if it is a bit uneven, even if the music mostly sucks, even if Kermit has been replaced by a half-assed imposter.


Another great thing about Muppets Haunted Mansion is that production values are through the roof. Seriously, the special boasts a level of cinematography and special effects you’d expect from a proper feature film. The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is also so utterly flawless that I was, at 

times, startled by it. The opening sequence features a particularly difficult-to-encode shot of Pepe and Gonzo driving to the titular haunted mansion in the midst of the sort of pea-soup fog that HEVC would have nightmares about if video codecs had subconsciousness. And while that shot is the most extreme example, there are a lot of sequences that must have required a few passes through whatever video encoder Disney+ relies on.


Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, Haunted Mansion sports some pretty dark cinematography, and the Dolby Vision grading gives the imagery a lot of depth in the shadows while also leaving some dynamic range for the specular highlights of spectral apparitions. 


Production- and presentation-wise, the only complaints I have are related to the audio, which lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could have benefited from a bit more activity in the surrounds or, at the very least, a bit more consistency in the surround mixing. Dialogue is always presented cleanly and clearly, and the music—whatever you want to say about its compositional quality—is always delivered with good fidelity. But whoever did the final mix seemingly couldn’t decide between a full-on cinematic surround experience or a front-heavy TV-special vibe, and switched between those two extremes from scene to scene with apparently no rhyme or reason. 


For all the nits picked above, though, Muppets Haunted Mansion ends up being a pretty good time, mostly due to the antics of Pepe combined with the gorgeousness of the imagery. If you have kids, I’m also pretty sure they’ll love the whole thing. And that, ultimately, is the thing I like best about this special. Fun Halloween specials that can be enjoyed by the whole family are few and far between, and it’s nice to see another one added to the mix, even if it’s not quite as good as it could have been.

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: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

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


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

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


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


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


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



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



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

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


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


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

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

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


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

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


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


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


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

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Rocco Schiavone: Ice Cold Murders

Ice Cold Murders

Every crime-solver has a routine, from Holmes puffing on his pipe as he ponders the perfidies of Moriarty to Harry Bosch at his home on stilts overlooking L.A., chilling over cold cases present and past listening to his perfectly maintained vinyl collection of the coolish jazz of George Cables and Art Pepper.


Inspector Rocco Schiavone has his routine as well. To underlings, colleagues, or superiors, he has tried to make clear that he is not to be disturbed in his office at police headquarters in Aosta in the Italian Alps until he has closed his door, opened his drawer, emptied a cigarette of its tobacco, filled it with marijuana, and taken a few deep hits of his makeshift joint.


The weed takes the edge off, but rarely lifts Schiavone out of his crankiness. The first thing we learn about this medium-boiled police detective is that he maintains a 10-point “pain in the arse” scale, which he discloses to his capable but naive junior partner Italo on their first day together. The viewer never 

learns what the first five are, but the idiosyncratic ethos begins with six (browsing shops or paying rent). Seventh-level pains in the arse (according to the English subtitles of this Italian-language show) include shopping centers and accountants. Level Eight is giving a speech, or reporting to a magistrate, as he often must in the chain of command of Italian law enforcement. Heavy-smoker Schiavone’s ninth circle of hell is closed tobacco shops, and being on duty with colleagues who don’t wash. If you freeze the frame 


This Italian whodunnit, flying under the PBS Masterpiece banner, features a cranky fish-out-of-water detective with the usual complement of eccentricities banished to a mountain town and haunted by the murder of his wife.

here, you can see the grizzled Schiavone, in the passenger seat, giving his Clint Eastwood squint, with cigarette in mouth rather than the Man With No Name cheroot, and just the slight hint of a “Come on, kid, I’m pulling your leg” smile as he looks over at Italo, driving. Italo, of course, sniffs himself to check for body odor.


There is only one Level Ten in the world according to Rocco: “Having to deal with murder. That’s a tenth-level pain in the arse.” Since investigating murders is his specialty, he spends a great deal of the 12 episodes in Season One of Rocco Schiavone in metaphorical need of a proctologist.


Played with gruff humor by 57-year-old Italian film and TV star Marco Giallini (Perfect Strangers and God Willing) and based on a series of novels by Antonio Manzini, Schiavone’s origin story is from the same template as most good European crime fiction: An outstanding cop with contempt for formalities crosses an ethical line in the capital and is exiled to the provinces. For Schiavone, a sophisticate who loved Rome, its food, coffee, culture, and climate, it is especially difficult to be assigned to Aosta, where he has trouble adjusting to the mountain climate and small-town ways.


Rocco has some specifically Italian dilemmas. Clothes, specifically shoes, are a problem. When a bloody body is found mangled in the snowy mountains of this ski-resort town, Schiavone begins his investigation with his stylish Roman footwear and a hip lightweight jacket, which are useless keeping his feet dry and body warm. Having to adapt with an insulated mountain jacket and snow boots (which he refers to disdainfully as “dinghies”) results in a sixth-level pain in the arse, because he must browse a shop to purchase the survival gear.


It also brings him down a peg, since Schiavone detests the required collegiality required to be a good cop in a small town. He is, nevertheless, a grumpy but good mentor. But though Schiavone is a master at solving murders, he is not exactly an honest cop. He is corrupt to a degree, but which level of corruption he will not countenance is based on some internal measure that is never certain.


We get a glimpse of it early when, based on a tip from one of his semi-crooked buddies in Rome, he induces his new protégé Italo to join him in a scheme to seize a truck carrying cannabis. The idea is to take the weed and whatever cash the truckers have. It looks like an easy knockover, but the inside info is inaccurate—the truck also contains a large amount of cocaine, as well as a large number of African migrants being smuggled from the Netherlands en route to somewhere else in Italy. Rocco disapproves of coke—he spills it out on the snowy highway. He and his buddies share the cash, Rocco keeps the weed, but there is some ambiguity whether Rocco is forwarding the immigrants to be intercepted by Interpol or callously sending them along to whatever misfortune awaits them.


Schiavone is also a ladies man, a fact complicated by the fact that he appears to be married to a woman he adores. In the first episode, he is forced out of bed with a winsome young woman to attend to the bloody corpse in the mountains (you will enjoy the red-on-white contrasts), but first he stops at home to talk to his lovely and understanding wife Marina. It takes a 

little time to sink in that the wife is a ghost, and that Rocco is both obsessed with avenging her death and refusing to let go of the love for her. Rocco sleeps with a lot of women in Aosta, but he lives, miserably, pining for the late Marina, who talks to him in each episode and tries to keep his head straight.


In addition to the scenic contrasts of this lovely small town set against the snowy peaks of the mountains, the musical backing by Corrado Carosio 

and Pierangelo Fornado is moody and elegant enough to stand alone as soundtrack albums released by Rai. And the song that kicks off each episode, “Mescalito,” by Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees) and Duke Garwood, is as haunting an opening track you’ll find this side of “Woke Up This Morning” by the Alabama 3 for The Sopranos. You can hear the full six-minute version of “Mescalito” on You Tube and other streaming services.

—Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History of Rock . . . Off the Record, and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and criticism at Newsday (1975–1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.

The Bletchley Circle

It’s pretty easy to take a quick glance at The Bletchley Circle and think you’ve got it figured out. Combine two parts Rosemary & Thyme, one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Numbers, boil until completely devoid of flavor, add a dash of Masterpiece Theatre saccharine and a sprinkle of tut-tut-tea-time-pass-me-a-scone English inoffensiveness, and you’ve got the recipe for my impression of the series before I actually sat down to watch it. And to be frank, if not for my interest in the

Enigma and Lorenz ciphers used by Germany in World War II, and the Allied efforts to break those codes, I likely never would have watched the first episode.


But thank goodness I did, because that initial impression couldn’t have been more off-base. True, The Bletchley Circle does owe a debt to the aforementioned properties. And yes, it is unapologetically English. But rather than being just another formulaic murder-mystery series or, worse yet, another boring period drama, the first season actually manages to be a smart, well-scripted whodunnit that carves out its own identity.


Actually, to call it a whodunnit is a little misleading. Yes, on 


This British murder-mystery series is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. 



The Kaleidescape download is a step up from the streaming version, mainly in its shadow depth and detail. Its 1080p presentation holds up better on screens 65″ and up.

the surface the show follows four former Bletchley Park colleagues who reunite seven years after the end of the war to get to the bottom of a series of murders that have the police baffled. And yes, they use all the tools of the codebreaking trade to analyze patterns and hone in on the elusive killer. But that’s not really what the show is about, and if you watch murder mysteries in an attempt to identify the killer before the big reveal, or to experience that “Ah ha! I should have seen it all along” moment, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed.


What The Bletchley Circle is really about is the relationships between these four women, and their attempts to find their respective places in society after contributing to the war effort and then being forbidden to reveal—even to their husbands—the role they played. What it’s about is a peculiar moment in time when a country is struggling to find its own post-war identity. It’s about the age-old struggle between masculinity and femininity and the social norms surrounding such constructs. And what makes The Bletchley Circle work is that it grapples with all of this without being overtly political or in any way heavy-handed. In lesser hands than those of writer Guy Burt (probably best-known for his work on Showtime’s The Borgias), the series could have easily devolved into the sort of Woman Good/Man Bad culture-war orthodoxy that I sympathize with politically, but always find boring in works of fiction.


Thankfully, the struggles the quartet faces as a result of being highly intelligent and highly skilled women living in a world that only knowns how to place them in secretary-, cashier-, librarian-, or housewife-shaped boxes are handled with enough nuance that the series feels true to its time and place. It doesn’t feel like a wholesale re-evaluation of the past through the

lens of current mores.


If there’s a criticism to be leveled against the first season of the show—three perfectly paced 46-ish-minute episodes that feel more like a single movie with two built-in potty breaks—it’s that the four leads occasionally feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out characters. In fact, at times the young Lucy (played by Sophie Rundle of Peaky Blinders and Gentleman Jack fame) feels like little more than a vehicle for her eidetic memory, which comes in handy when the plot calls for the quick recollection of dates and figures.


But such blunders are few, and on the whole The Bletchley Circle is a masterclass in economical storytelling that assumes the intelligence of its audience. Is it worth owning? I’d say yes, but only the first season, which thankfully contains a satisfying story with a proper beginning, middle, and ending. Season Two ups the production-value ante a little, and adds some color to the otherwise beige palette of Season One. It also features a somewhat more on-point storyline that ties more directly into the ladies’ time at Bletchley Park. But some sloppy scripting and puzzling anachronisms keep it from being as satisfying as Season One. My recommendation would be to check out Season Two on Amazon Prime before spending $16.99 to own it.

The Bletchley Circle

Season One, on the other hand, is an easy no-brainer purchase for anyone who likes a good (and I do mean good) period drama or murder mystery. The video transfer available from Kaleidescape is a step up from the streaming version on Amazon, mostly in its handling of shadow depth and detail. The streaming version also suffers from a few chromatic aberrations that might not be noticeable if you’re watching on a 65-inch TV all the way across the living room, but which definitely mar the presentation when blown up to cinematic proportions. The Kaleidescape transfer nips such problems in the bud and looks great on the big screen, even if its resolution is limited to 1080p.

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.

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.

Another Helping of Quaint-Location Crime Fiction


A man finds a foot in a river. It makes him nervous, but not because he does not know where it came from. He’s nervous because he seems to already know where more body parts remain unburied.


A little girl finds a hand in the same river. Her name is Silja, she is 10 years old, she seems intelligent, but does not speak. “Different.” “Sensitive.” She lives with her mother and grandmother. Grace, Silja’s pretty single mom, is a barmaid who works hard to get away from her own critical mother. Grace is so lonely that when she reluctantly has to turn a trick for some extra 

money, she tells the customer that she can stay longer. When told “that’s not necessary,” her sadness is palpable.


Welcome to Djupelv, a tiny village on the northern tip of Norway, 800 miles northeast of Oslo, the capital. Djupelv is also the name of the river (sometimes spelled Djupelva), cold, relentless, icy, that gives the show its title. The camera pans between dramatic interactions to scenes of the flowing river, as if to say corrupt human nature cannot match the elemental, pristine, power of nature.


It’s not police against criminals in the Norwegian series The River. It’s a policeman from Oslo, Thomas Lønnhøiden 

(Espen Reboli Bjerke), now working in a town from which his parents disappeared in a plane crash, along with the plane, when he was an infant. He wants to find justice for Silja, but he’s also compelled to solve the mystery of his parents’ death. He’s up against a lazy, incurious police department, an ineffectual local media, and complicit Military Intelligence. Norway’s military calls the shots in this region, where the Cold War never ended, and where Russian and Norwegian agents still play Spy vs. Spy. In some ways, it’s an oddball companion piece to the brilliant three-season thriller Occupied (Netflix), in which Russia engineers a relatively subtle invasion of Norway to maintain a steady, cheap oil supply.


In the plot-packed first episode of The River, Russian troops have been spotted at the border. A preparedness drill, led by a determined, ambitious woman sergeant Mia Holt (Ingeborg Raustol), takes on extra urgency. When the girl Silja disappears and is found dead near a ramshackle building on Army property, no one but Lønnhøiden seems to want to find out the truth. “They talk in half-truths and riddles,” he complains, and for eight episodes, through suicides, sabotage, and snowmobile chases, the lies keep on coming. Plausibility is not a strong point, but the raw beauty and frequent bursts of unpredictable action may keep you watching.


Unlike some cold-weather settings that wait for better weather to shoot, The River revels in its frosty locale. There are chases through knee-deep snow in the woods, cars skidding into snowbanks, and overhead shots of long roads cleared by snowplows 24/7.


The scenery is reason enough to enjoy much of The River, shot in tones of Arctic gray that make it difficult to guess the time of day. Everyone is dressed in thick wool and heavy parkas, so that even though some sexual chemistry develops between Thomas and Mia, there are so many layers to take off that it’s hard for them to find the time.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece


A river is also featured in the Icelandic show Hamarrin, which takes place in a rural region hundreds of miles from the capital, Reykjavik. Helgi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a special investigator from the city, is called in to help the local policewoman Inga (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir) investigate a suspicious death at a construction site. (Haraldsson and his character Helgi are also featured in The Lava Field, which has appeared on Netflix and Amazon Prime from time to time.)


Developers, with the eager participation of some local landowners, want to build a hydroelectric plant, which would require blowing up the the cliff and damning the rivers and falls that make the area a popular tourist area during the summer. Building the plant offers plenty of money and jobs, but to some the cliff is not just sacred but invested with supernatural powers. Shiny round blue lights, like small comets, or balls of lightning known as “the Moon of Urd” are sometimes spotted in the sky at night, falling near the cliff. The real moon hovers low in the sky, a natural wonder of its own.


Facing the cliffs, the few residents, and their many horses, see plain pasture. On the other side of the cliff (about 62 feet high, a brisk recreational hike to take a peek from the peak), the world looks different: a sumptuously beautiful ecosystem of hills, wild horses, streams, flowing water, and waterfalls, as gorgeous as anywhere on earth.


Environmentalists (and some residents) want to stop the project; some dynamite and blasting caps are found missing. The police “raid” the environmentalists’ encampment, looking for the dynamite, and if you want to see what citizen-friendly policing looks like, it’s a kind of comical scene. When Helgi and Inga rush to control the conflict, they come upon a lot of shouting, not shooting. The greens claim the police brought drug-sniffing dogs, which they describe as “rude.”


Obviously, there is plenty of tension beneath the façade of Icelandic cooperation. Everyone seems to have had a past with everyone else, marriages are frayed but alternatives are few. The men do have the option of visiting Halldora, who runs a massage parlor. Helgi and Inga are always knocking on her door, as she in quick turns is considered a witness, a suspect, and a victim.


Everyone suspects everyone else; even families are divided. “A bit of jealousy and envy is normal,” one of the residents says. A bit, sure. But long-buried emotions often swell, punctuated by the sometimes spare, sometimes symphonic electronic music soundtrack. In this remote place, some people (and children) are more attuned to the currents emanating from the cliff than others. Those who do not heed those powerful vibrations don’t see trouble until it’s too late.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece

Wayne Robins

Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, 
and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–
1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in
Queens, NY.

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


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



Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.



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.

Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level

After the emotional trauma Dennis Burger experienced from his review of Uncut Gems, we thought that it might be a nice palate cleanser to look at some lighter fare for the next review. Fortunately, Jumanji: The Next Level arrived on an early digital release at the Kaleidescape Store two weeks ahead of its physical media release on March 17.


For those interested in waiting for the disc release, Sony has confirmed it will be IMAX Enhanced, meaning it will contain an enhanced DTS-X IMAX soundtrack as well as feature a picture remastered using IMAX’s propriety post-production and Digital Media Restoration (DMR) techniques. (For more on IMAX Enhanced, you can read this post I wrote for another site.) While Kaleidescape is rumored to be in talks with IMAX about being an Enhanced partner —and would be the perfect and logical outlet for this premium content—the Kaleidescape version doesn’t include this feature.


It’s really no surprise that 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle received the sequel greenlight. As star Jack Black, returning to portray game character Professor Shelly Oberon, quips in one of the special features, “After the first film made $900 million, I wasn’t really surprised when they called us back to do another.”


For those unfamiliar with Jumanji, these latest films are a reboot of the 1995 original, which starred Robin Williams. Jumanji is a game (of the board variety in the original, and modernized as a video game here) where players are magically and literally sucked into the game, forced to play as one of several avatars with different skill sets, and have to work together to solve problems and survive in order to complete a quest before they can exit the game back to the real world. Each character has three lives, allowing them to die repeatedly in a variety of usually humorous ways.


Along with Black, the rest of the Jungle quintet returns to reprise their roles, including Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Kevin Hart as Mouse Finbar, Nick Jonas as Seaplane McDonough, and Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. Jake Kasdan returns as director. Joining the crew is new character, thief extraordinaire Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. We also get a new villain in the form of Jurgen the Brutal, played by Game of Thrones’ The Hound, Rory McCann.


Level picks up about three years after the events of Jungle with our four real-world cast members Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) having moved on with their lives. Everyone except for Spencer is thriving, and when they plan a reunion, depressed Spencer decides he’d be happiest returning to Jumanji, picking up life again as hero Bravestone. Worried about their friend, the others decide to re-enter the game to help him survive, thus kicking off our adventure.


Instead of rehashing the first film with a different adventure, the writers really mix things up when the game glitches, causing the avatars to be inhabited by different players. This gives the adventurers completely different personalities and allows the actors to really have fun with their roles. This time around fearless leader Bravestone is inhabited by Spencer’s uncle, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and zoologist Finbar is controlled by Eddie’s ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover). And football star Fridge is forced to play as the physically limited archaeologist Oberon, whose list of “weaknesses” now include Endurance, Heat, Sun, and Sand. We also have a new game feature that allows characters to switch avatars at certain points, once again mixing up the acting styles.


On top of the new adventure—to end a massive drought impacting Jumanji by recovering a magical necklace known as the Falcon Jewel, stolen by Jurgen —this new “casting” makes the film feel fresh, and provides lots of opportunities for hilarity. Kevin Hart does a fantastic job adopting Glover’s slow, measured speaking style; a huge contrast to his typically frantic manner. “Did I just kill Eddie . . . by talking too slow . . . like he always said I would?” Johnson also leans into the role of being inhabited by curmudgeonly old DeVito, thrust into an entirely foreign situation, and Black brings the laughs acting like Fridge, a black athlete furious that he’s forced to return to Jumanji in an even worse character this time around. “I’ve been training four hours a day for six months. How is this guy a character in an adventure game?!


At just over two hours, Level has enough time to develop a quest that feels of videogame epic length, with enough time to travel to a variety of new environments, such as a Lawrence of Arabia-esque desert, a Moroccan-type village, and a snow-topped castle. But it never felt too long or like it was wearing out its gags, keeping me interested throughout.


Sony Pictures consistently delivers terrific home video releases, and Level continues that high standard. Shot on ArriRaw at 3.4K, images consistently look terrific, with closeups that bristle with detail and razor-sharp focus. Black wears a tweed vest that has a fine plaid print with each check clearly visible. You can also see the cracks and texture in the backgrounds and costumes, and count individual strands of hair on actors’ heads.

Blacks are deep, clean, and noise-free, and there are many nighttime and indoor scenes that benefit from the film’s use of HDR. The night scenes in the Moroccan village of the Oasis look especially good, with brilliant neon lights along the streets, as well as warm interiors lit by candles and lamps, giving the film a natural and organic look. Interiors of the castle Fortress feature dark rooms lit by shafts of bright light or sun rays streaming through windows, and the snowy mountainside looks appropriately bright without crushing any detail.


Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is dynamic and active, looking for nearly every opportunity to immerse you in sound. Beyond the big action scenes, there are lots of little environmental sounds like wind blowing, birds chirping, and insects buzzing. One of the film’s recurring sonic elements is the sound of deceased players re-entering the game, with a chime that sounds overhead and has them dropping back into the game from the ceiling. Bass is also solid and weighty, either from explosions or Bravestone’s superhuman punches or the jungle drums that resonate from all around to indicate danger.


As is typical of Dolby Atmos soundtracks, dialogue is centered and easily intelligible throughout.

Jumanji: The Next Level

While watching Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoying and understanding Next Level, it is certainly suggested as it is an entertaining film in its own right. Beyond a bit of swearing and some non-bloody videogame violence, Jumanji: Next Level makes a great family night at the movies, offering a plot that will keep everyone engaged and entertained, while looking and sounding great in a luxury home environment.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at

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,
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.

The Witcher

The Witcher

The sword & sorcery fantasy genre was mostly relegated to movie theaters until Game of Thrones came around and busted into popular culture. When it finished its run in May 2019, there was a hole left ready to be filled, and many prophesied that The Witcher would be that successor.


In truth, it isn’t, but not in a negative way. There are no question similarities between the two: Both have a rich collection of novels and short stories that were written around the same time, both have the aforementioned sword & sorcery components (although The Witcher has more outward sorcery than GoT), and both have fervent fan bases that were ecstatic to see the stories get adapted for the screen. But where Game of Thrones was a highly complex political intrigue show with an enormous cast of characters supporting that narrative, The Witcher focuses on three main characters: The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Cirilla (Freya Allan), and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra).


Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher Saga is a collection of five books beginning with Blood of Elves. But the two short-story collections—The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny—set up the relationships in The Witcher Saga, and it’s from those short stories that the eight episodes pull from, which can cause the storytelling to feel disjointed early on in the

The Witcher



The episodes also follow multiple timelines that eventually converge. As viewers, we’re not made implicitly aware of the different timelines, and they only become apparent four episodes in. Add to that a slew of names that are just thrown about, and the potential for confusion is high.


But it all comes together and works. There are some wonderful stories that give 

a sense of how deep the mythology of this world is, and some interesting character study, particularly of Yennefer. There are frequent moments of levity and self-awareness that I found endearing, and multiple instances of a well-placed expletive from Cavill’s stoic portrayal that caused me to laugh out loud.


The Netflix presentation is in 4K HDR with a 5.1 surround mix. The HDR is used to great effect with a bunch of dark scenes that are aided by the depth available from the dynamic range. Moments of sunlight felt piercing as it supported the narrative of the scene. Detail is excellent and the magic visual effects look convincing and epic. The surround sound effects mix is subtle and lets the score, by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, soar. The series has been renewed for a second season that is expected at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
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.