Dennis Burger Tag

Review: Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho (2021)

Anyone interested in better understanding the art of sound mixing should study the Dolby Atmos soundtrack for Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho as if it were the Rosetta Stone. And, yes, I know I’m doing things right backwards here, talking about the sound before discussing the merits of the film itself. But the simple fact is that the shape of sound is so integral to the experience of Soho that leading with anything else would feel wrong. Wright and his sound department employ the expanded soundfield of Atmos in much the way The Wizard of Oz employs Technicolor—although in this case there’s a lot more back-and-forth and the transitions are at times so subtle as to be easily missed. 

 

And to explain what I’m on about here, I need to tell you a bit about the narrative of the film. Last Night in Soho is the story of Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a young country girl who’s noteworthy for two reasons: Firstly, she’s a talented designer who’s 

been accepted into the London College of Fashion; secondly, she is gifted—or afflicted, depending on your perspective—with psychic abilities very much akin to those of Danny from The Shining. She sees the past as vividly as she sees the present.

 

Both of those facts come into play when the introverted Ellie finds herself overwhelmed by dormitory life and rents a room in a quaint but creepy old home, then nearly immediately becomes transported via her dreams into the 1960s, where she alternatively observes and embodies a striking young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who gets mixed up with all the wrong sorts of men in her attempt to make it as a singer.

 

And it’s during those transitions between the modern, waking world and Ellie’s dreams/visions that the Atmos mix really springs to life. Until that point, the audio is a largely 

SOHO AT A GLANCE

Subtle, inventive use of the Atmos mix really makes this flashing-back-to-the-’60s thriller come to life. 

 

PICTURE

The Kaleidescape download delivers the movie’s sumptuous cinematography with all the detail and texture you could hope for.

 

SOUND 

The Atmos soundscape positively explodes into its full potential during the flashback scenes, packed with immersive overhead audio effects and aggressive use of the surround channels.

front-focused affair, with surrounds used mostly for subtle ambience and spaciousness. It honestly wouldn’t make much difference if it were straight stereo. And that subdued mixing really works well with the overall aesthetic of the film, which was shot largely on 35mm with a mix of flat and anamorphic lenses, and really evokes the feel of supernatural thrillers from the late ’60—so much so that elements of the modern world (wireless headphones, current cars) feel like an anachronistic intrusion. 

 

But when we’re yanked back to the ’60s, the film takes on a much more modern feel, and the Atmos soundscape positively explodes into its full potential, packed with immersive overhead audio effects (mostly musical in nature) and aggressive use of

the surround channels. And from here on out, that shift between the flat, enhanced-stereo approach and the full-blown Atmos experience serves as the audience’s primary indicator of whether we’re experiencing the world as Ellie experiences it or the mundane modern world in which she is quickly losing her grasp on reality.

 

As I’m writing all of this, I know it sounds like a gimmick. But this trick is so artfully—and at times subtly—orchestrated that it doesn’t feel at all gimmicky in the moment. So if you’re planning on venturing out into a commercial cinema to see Last Night in Soho while it’s still being publicly exhibited, make sure you do so in a one equipped with Atmos. But I imagine most Cineluxe readers will be better served by a good home cinema setup and access to a PVOD rental of the sort Kaleidescape is offering right now.

 

Kaleidescape’s download delivers the movie’s sumptuous cinematography with all the detail and texture you could hope for, preserving the subtle film grain, and wonderfully capturing cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s nuanced color palette. As with the audio, the imagery is a study in contrasts, with a predominantly earthy look that’s punctuated by splashes of primary hues and neon lighting. A handful of scenes might have been better served by the 

Last Night in Soho (2021)

enhanced peak brightness and dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision, but Kaleidescape’s HDR10 presentation nonetheless gives the picture a lot of breathing room at the lower end of the value scale, opening up the shadows and giving the image a lot of depth where appropriate.

 

And for a film whose substance is tied largely to its style, that’s important. Last Night in Soho won’t be to everyone’s taste, and even if you love it as much as I do, I think you’ll find some flaws with it. Wright attempts to load it with a bit more meaning than its narrative framework will support. And in paying homage to the whole of the 1960s—from its fashions to its music to the diversity of its cinema, ranging from Polanski to EON Productions—he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew. All of which makes Last Night in Soho less than perfect by any objective measure. But it’s one of the most fascinatingly flawed films I’ve seen in ages, which makes it a shoo-in for Day One purchase the instant it’s available on home video proper. 

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.

Bonus Features’ Brave New World

Bonus Features' Brave New World

It’s intuitively obvious to the casual observer that the home video market has changed substantially in the last decade. But one thing we don’t talk about much is how the shift from disc-based delivery to purely digital movie storefronts like Vudu, iTunes, and Kaleidescape has changed the nature of the supplemental materials designed to enhance movie appreciation or document the filmmaking process. What really brought this all home for me last week was an amazing little featurette in which director Denis Villeneuve deconstructed one of Dune‘s most pivotal scenes. 

 

The segment is part of Vanity Fair‘s ongoing “Notes on a Scene” series, which of course means it won’t be included with the upcoming home video release of the film given that it wasn’t produced by Warner Bros. or Legendary Entertainment.

 

And for reasons I’m not sure I could fully articulate in an article of finite length, that realization upset me at first. I want this featurette to be part of a permanent collection, attached to the film itself, either in a digital library or on a disc sitting on my 

shelf. I, in a sense, want to own that clip in some form.

 

Which, when you think about it, is silly. Unless Vanity Fair gets banned from YouTube (hardly likely) or YouTube disappears altogether, Villeneuve’s exhaustive breakdown of the “Gom Jabbar” sequence isn’t going anywhere. No matter the format in which I ultimately purchase Dune 

late this year or early next, no matter how packed with bonus goodies it may be, or no matter how threadbare, this fantastic 17-minute cinematic supplement will remain out there in cyberspace, ready to be consumed no matter when the urge strikes.

 

So, why was my initial impulse, after viewing it, to be sad that it won’t be codified as an official bonus feature and collected with all of the studio-approved supplements we’ll no doubt eventually be able to buy? Well, for the past three decades or so, I’ve been conditioned to view the supplemental material created for a film as an essential element of that film’s home video release. It started with those wonderful Criterion Collection LaserDiscs of old and continued with the amazing special-edition DVDs and Blu-rays created by documentarians like Charles de Lauzirika, Van Ling, David Prior, and Laurent Bouzereau. 

 

In those days, of course, it made sense for documentaries about the filmmaking process, audio commentaries, and puff promotional featurettes to actually come on the same disc—or at least on another disc in the same package—with the film itself. It was such an entrenched model that it has been replicated in the era of digital delivery, kept alive by the likes of iTunes, Vudu, and Kaleidescape, all of whom generally offer some sort of bonus goodies if such are available. 

 

But now that physical media has ceased to be the main vehicle for home movie consumption for most people, is there really any valid reason for this model to persist as the only method of supplementing movies? Well, my heart and my brain are in disagreement over this. 

 

The more I think about it, the more I see the advantages of this more de-centralized, less ordained method of distributing and consuming bonus features. After finishing that “Notes on a Scene,” I stumbled upon an incredible conversation between

Steve Hullfish and Dune editor Joe Walker on the Art of the Cut video podcast.

 

Would that ever appear on a two-disc special edition 4K Blu-ray release of Dune? Almost certainly not. Too many f-bombs; too much discussion of films from other studios. But it’s one of the most engaging and informative “bonus features” I’ve consumed in 

quite some time, largely due to the fact that it isn’t official, studio-sanctioned, or in any way promotional. Or at least it doesn’t feel like it.

 

But make no mistake about it: Most of these bonus materials to be found on YouTube are still undoubtedly studio-blessed, and are acceptable only because they’re created by media entities perceived as proper and legitimate. But what about the independent content creators who continue to make valiant attempts at analyzing and deconstructing films like Dune, only to keep getting shut down by illegitimate copyright strikes? 

 

Writer and critic Thomas Flight, for example, recently posted a fantastic analysis of Hans Zimmer’s score that really helped me articulate why it works for me when most of the composer’s music rubs me the wrong way. His video essay also helped me understand that Villeneuve’s Dune is essentially an opera, a realization I would have eventually come to on my own after 

a few more viewings once the shock wore off (shock that someone finally made a good film out of Herbert’s book, to be specific). But still, I appreciate the catalyst.

 

The problem, though, is that Flight has had to re-edit his video significantly, multiple times, just to avoid the algorithm-driven copyright trolling that’s rampant on YouTube, and the complete version of this particular video essay can only be found on Nebula—a streaming 

service many independent content creators are migrating to simply because YouTube always sides with established corporate media entities and takes a “guilty until proven innocent” stance when it comes to Fair Use. And that’s a real shame, because there’s no way anything as elucidating as Flight’s thoughtful analysis will end up on the special-edition home video release of Dune.

 

So, needless to say, there are advantages and disadvantages to this great decentralization of cinematic supplemental material. On the one hand, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to film commentary and deconstruction. Some filmmakers, like Rian Johnson, have even taken to using the podcast format to deliver audio commentaries for films while they’re still in theaters. Of course, if you follow that link, you’ll find the commentary for his Knives Out is no longer available now that the film is on home video proper. 

 

And for someone like me, who came of age in the era of film collecting, that tenuousness is as scary as it is exciting. 

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 Alpinist

The Alpinist (2021)

There is a well-known phenomenon in physics called the observer effect, a recognition of the fact that observing a thing fundamentally changes that thing—that by merely attempting to know more about something, you’re disturbing that something to the point where it’s no longer the thing you wished to know more about. And for the first half-hour or so of The Alpinist—a new documentary about mountain-climber Marc-André Leclerc—that’s all I could really think about. 

 

It’s easy to see right from the giddy-up why directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen wanted to make a film about this young man, who appeared out of nowhere in the alpinist community and started breaking records he didn’t care about and solo-

climbing cliffs he had no business tackling alone.

 

It’s just as easy to see, though, that Leclerc has absolutely no interest in being the subject of a documentary film. Not that he’s hostile to the filmmakers in any way. He’s a kind and gentle young man with an infectiously awkward charm. You just can’t help but get the sense that this intrinsically motivated iconoclast can’t understand why anyone would want to make a film about him.

 

Right around that 30-minute mark, though, you forget about all that. It’s here that the filmmakers document Leclerc free-climbing the Stanley Headwall, a treacherous ascent that results in some of the most vertigo-inducing footage in the entire film. It’s a slow and, at first, frustrating scene. I could feel my pulse rising as Leclerc methodically tested the ice and rock in search of handholds and footholds as he hung precariously by his heels and fingertips over certain death.

 

The odd thing, though, is that you’d expect the tension to 

THE ALPINIST AT A GLANCE

What begins as a documentary on a particularly daring mountain climber eventually becomes a meditation on what it means to try to capture a truly unique individual on film. 

 

PICTURE

Kaleidescape’s presentation does the film justice, delivering it without any artifacts that weren’t present in the source footage.

 

SOUND 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has good atmospheric effects in the surround channels but way more emphasis on a solid front soundstage and exceptional dialogue intelligibility.

ramp up as the scene goes on but exactly the opposite is true. Leclerc’s Zen mentality becomes infectious. The inner peace he attains during his mindful climb practically radiates from the screen. And in this moment, with no real commentary from the filmmakers, no voiceovers, no monologuing of any sort, you finally understand this introverted soul. It is, without question, the best example of “Show, don’t tell” I’ve seen in a documentary in quite some time.

 

And then shortly thereafter, Leclerc disappears. The mobile phone the filmmakers gave him (he’s never owned his own) starts rolling over to voicemail. And it isn’t long before they discover that the alpinist decided to solo Mount Robson’s Emperor Face

—making him the first in history to do so—without them. “It wouldn’t be a solo if someone is there,” he says, as he calls to kindly but unapologetically explain why he ghosted them.

 

He then allows them to film a second “solo” ascent of Emperor Face, and here we get right to the point of what makes The Alpinist such a captivating and interesting documentary. Most filmmakers would have used that footage with no mention of the fact that it was a staged do-over. For Mortimer and Rosen, though, all of this becomes 

part of the honest account of their time with Marc-André. And it’s somewhere around this point when The Alpinist stops trying to be a film about Leclerc and transforms into a film about trying to make a film about him.

 

From that point on, the filmmakers have to make do with whatever footage they can get, which includes what appears to be some cellphone footage self-shot by Leclerc of his dangerous winter ascent of Torre Egger, a peak in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in South America that’s dangerous even in the summer months. As a result, The Alpinist doesn’t always

look like a slick Hollywood production, and it makes sense that it was only released in HD. Watching Kaleidescape’s 1080p download, I might have seen one or two shots early on that could have benefited from high dynamic range and perhaps a bit of extra resolution. But such shots are by far the exception. 

 

Kaleidescape’s presentation does the film justice, though, delivering it without any artifacts that weren’t present in the source footage. It’s honestly somewhat surprising that the professionally shot imagery made it through the production and compression pipeline without any banding, especially in some of the shots of open, impossibly blue skies, but such is the case. The Alpinist may be a hodgepodge of disparate sources but it’s a visually captivating film nonetheless, and one that deserves to be seen on the best screen in your home.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, won’t stress the dynamic capabilities of your audio system, but it always works in service of the film, with good atmospheric effects in the surround channels but with way more emphasis on a solid front soundstage and exceptional dialogue intelligibility, even in conditions you wouldn’t think would be conducive to such.

 

Frankly, though, I don’t think many viewers will be focused on the audiovisual 

The Alpinist (2021)

presentation, lest they go in expecting a documentary about mountain climbing, because The Alpinist isn’t that film. It starts off as a documentary about a baffling young man, then becomes a documentary about trying to document the life of that young man, and in the process, it becomes a film with a strong philosophical bent. I started it wondering why and how anyone could live like Leclerc—in a tent in the woods, an upgrade from his former residence in a stairwell, disconnected from modern conveniences—but by the end, I found myself envying his freedom and his mindful approach to lived experiences. The Alpinist may not be a neat and tidy film, and it breaks most of the rules of documentary filmmaking. But it is nevertheless—or perhaps as a result—one of the most moving and fascinating documentaries I’ve seen in ages.

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.

Luxury Shades Go Wireless

Shades Go Wireless

Perhaps the most exciting trend in home entertainment over the past decade is that we can finally enjoy reference-quality home cinema outside the confines of a dedicated home theater space. One of the biggest impediments to that, though, is sunlight, which can wash out even the best and brightest 4K/HDR screens. The solution is simple: Motorized shades. But that creates another conundrum: Do you want the elegance and refinement of something like a wired Lutron Palladiom shade system or the convenience and installation flexibility of a wireless system? 

 

Until now, the choice was easy for newly constructed residences where design was of the utmost importance: Go for a wired Palladiom system and let someone else sort out the wiring. But for installations in existing apartments or homes, where you would have to cut into the walls, it could be a bit of a dilemma. Now, the choice is simple. Lutron has just released a wire-free version of Palladiom, which offers the best of both worlds, combining the refined aesthetic of the company’s flagship shades with the freedom provided by a newly engineered wireless control system. 

 

The lack of wiring makes the lineup perfect for any entertainment space, at any stage of construction, remodel, or redesign. What’s more, the refined design of the end brackets and hembars—available in seven different hand-finished materials

ranging from opal white to satin nickel to anodized black and beyond—means you won’t need to hide the mechanics of the system itself. Just the opposite, in fact. These shades are more a design element than a design hinderance, whether mounted to the ceiling, the wall, or within a window jamb.

 

What’s more, the wire-free Palladiom shades sport what Lutron refers to as Active Energy Optimization battery management, which results in three to five years of operation off six D-cell batteries. The shades also provide app alerts when batteries are running low, and promise no compromises in terms of operation, with whisper-quiet movement and precise alignment to within a fraction of an inch.

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 Addams Family (1991)

The Addams Family (1991)

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 riff on The Addams Family is far from a perfect film. But allow me a few minutes to convince you that it’s still worth your time, especially now that it’s been restored in 4K. 

 

Yes, yes, I know it’s uneven and choppy. I know that you can feel the absence of essential connective tissue and the presence of scenes tacked on at the last minute. There’s also the tonal inconsistency, given that the film never quite knows 

how far it wants to distance itself from the ’60s TV adaptation of the same comic. Sometimes it strays so close that comparisons between the two versions are inevitable (especially in its use of music from the David Levy/Donald Saltzman production), while at other times it asks for the freedom to introduce more of the macabre elements Chas Addams saw as essential to his original comics. In the latter respect, the film often goes too far.

 

There’s also the fact that Anjelica Huston—who certainly looks the part of Addams Family matriarch Morticia—plays her rolwith inconsistent levels of sincerity, but never quite enough. And seriously, what’s up with all the MC Hammer songs? Those have aged even worse than I could have imagined.

 

Those things, I think, most of us can agree on. But it’s been 30 years now since The Addams Family debuted on big screens (to put things in perspective here, only 27 years had passed between the debut of the sitcom on ABC and 

ADDAMS FAMILY AT A GLANCE

Barry Sonnenfeld’s first Addams Family entry remains something of a mess but a highly enjoyable one, especially in a new 4K restoration. 

 

PICTURE

For the first time on home video, it genuinely looks like photochemical film, and all that implies, with an organic chaos to the imagery that’s been missing until now.

 

SOUND 

A surprisingly robust surround mix that delivers exactly the right level of immersion, with great panning and soundstaging and just the right amount of oomph.

the premiere of the film), and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that many other aspects of this adaptation have aged much better than I remembered.

 

The production design, for one thing, is phenomenal. The cinematography is often fantastic (even if it’s a bit inconsistent, since the film burned through two DPs before Sonnenfeld stepped behind the camera himself to finish the film). Young Christina Ricci was so fantastic as Wednesday that her portrayal has become iconic. And Raul Julia will always be the platonic ideal of everything Gomez Addams should be for me, despite my overwhelming preference for the ’60s sitcom otherwise, defanged as it may have been. 

 

The Addams Family is also a lot more fun than I remember, and although one could accuse me of damning the film with faint praise here, it’s infinitely better than the 2019 animated film and its 2021 sequel. What’s more, it sets up what I consider to be a vastly superior sequel: 1993’s Addams Family Values. 

 

At any rate, the film has recently been restored and remastered in 4K under the supervision of Sonnenfeld, and if you—like I—appreciate The Addams Family despite the flaws resulting from its troubled production, you’re in for a treat. For the first time on home video, it genuinely looks like photochemical film, and all that implies. There’s an organic chaos to the imagery that’s been missing until now, and although detail and sharpness are variable from shot to shot, the image is rife with interesting and inviting textures I’ve never before seen at home. True, the enhanced resolution does no favors to the compositing work involved with most shots involving Thing, but practically every other aspect of the picture benefits from the

restoration. Even the opening credits—which can often look quite dodgy on films of this vintage and budget level—positively pop off the screen. To call Kaleidescape’s presentation of this transfer an upgrade over the old Blu-ray release would be an understatement.

 

The audio, meanwhile, comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that I believe is the same as the Blu-ray release. No matter—it’s a surprisingly robust surround mix that delivers exactly the right level of immersion, with great panning and soundstaging, and just the right amount of oomph.

 

Unfortunately, though, Paramount has seen fit to release this 4K restoration in such a scattershot way that you have some decisions to make about how and where to purchase it. The new UHD Blu-ray, which won’t be released until November 9, comes with two cuts of the film—the original theatrical edit, and a new restoration that extends the “Mamushka” dance between Gomez and Fester, which was trimmed as a result of test screenings. Despite supplying Kaleidescape with artwork pointing toward the extended “Mamushka” scene, the studio only gave the provider the theatrical cut.

 

They’ve also withheld the bonus features scheduled to be included on the disc 

The Addams Family (1991)

(and, incidentally, included with most other digital releases of the film), which comprise a new introduction to the “More Mamushka!” version by Sonnenfeld, a retrospective documentary on the making of the film, and an archival featurette.

 

A far bigger problem, though, is that Paramount has only given Kaleidescape an SDR transfer of the new 4K remaster to work with, whereas the disc will feature an HDR10 grade and most other digital services present the film in Dolby Vision. I can’t speak to how much of a difference HDR makes in this case, as I’ve only seen the UHD/SDR transfer. But it’s still disappointing. 

 

None of this is surprising, of course. Paramount has a history of treating this film (and especially its sequel) quite poorly. Still, at a price of $14.99 for the new restoration, it’s hard to complain too much—especially if you’re an old fan like me. And I do emphasize the “old” part there. The Addams Family isn’t the most kid-friendly adaptation of its source material. And much like its characters, it’s erratic, occasionally incomprehensible, and a touch too mean-spirited . . . but nonetheless lovable, all things considered. 

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: Dune (2021)

Dune (2021)

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Denis Villeneuve’s Dune works as a partial adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel. With something in the neighborhood of 20 million copies sold, the book is inarguably one of the best selling of its genre. But divide those sales figures by the world population and chances are good most people who view the film will have never cracked the cover of this gargantuan doorstop of a tome. (But if you’re one of those devotees who’s curious about whether this adaptation does justice to the novel, meet me over in the “True to the Source?” sidebar and we’ll geek out for a bit.) A much more relevant question is whether Dune works as cinema on its own terms. 

 

And thankfully, that ends up being the much easier question to answer. Yes. A thousand times, yes. As if he hadn’t proven it already with films like Arrival, Prisoners, and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve demonstrates with Dune that he understands 

cinema as an art form in a way few modern directors do.

 

As with most of his work, Villeneuve straddles two worlds with Dune, keeping one foot firmly planted in the traditions of the past and one foot precariously placed in an uncharted future. By that I mean that despite looking very much like a 21st-century film, it doesn’t feel like one. There’s something quite old-fashioned about it, or perhaps “timeless” is the word I’m looking for. The allusions to Lawrence of Arabia are blatant—and fitting, given how much that film influenced Frank Herbert in the writing of Dune. But Villeneuve manages to draw inspiration without aping. He evokes the spirit, scope, and energy of David Lean’s classic without being beholden to its style. The style is entirely Villeneuve’s.

 

Well, cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, The Mandalorian) also deserves a lot of credit for the style. While I said that Dune looks like a 21st-century film, that’s not quite accurate. It simply looks like a film that couldn’t have been captured before the modern era of filmmaking.

DUNE AT A GLANCE

This adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic succeeds spectacularly where earlier attempts have failed.

 

PICTURE

The HBO Max presentation is the very definition of reference-quality, with images free of anything that could be construed as artifacts of the high-efficiency encoding.

 

SOUND 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is so dynamic you can only pity the unfortunate souls who attempt to experience it through a soundbar or basic home theater speaker setup.

Ultimately, it looks unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and that may have something to do with the unusual postproduction process. The movie was shot on a mix of IMAX film and ArriRaw digital (the latter at 4.5K resolution), but before the footage was finished in a 4K DI, all of the digital imagery was printed to film stock then scanned back into the computer.

 

That gives the imagery a unique character, to say the least. It doesn’t look entirely analog, but neither does it look wholly digital. It’s the best of both methods—which, again, reinforces the notion of Dune as the perfect marriage of tried-and-true 

TRUTO THSOURCE?

 

As a work of cinema, Dune is narratively engaging, nearly perfectly structured, and wholly satisfying. But what about its effectiveness as an adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable novel? Well, it’s not perfect in that respect but it’s infinitely better than I could ever hoped for. Denis Villeneuve—unlike David Lynch and John Harrison (who directed the 2000 mini-series)—has boiled the narrative down to its essence rather than haphazardly and erratically chopping the story into bit-sized pieces. He was able to distill that essence because he understands that essence. 

 

Dune works as a novel because of its complexity. In writing it, Herbert explored the many ways in which ecology influences and drives every aspect of the human experience, from the personal to the familial to the societal, political, and religions institutions that shape our lives. It’s also a novel that takes place largely between the ears of its characters, something no film could successfully replicate (although, bless his heart, David Lynch tried and failed spectacularly to do so). 

 

With his film adaptation of the first two-thirds or thereabouts of the novel, Villeneuve had no choice but to tidy up some of the book’s tangled narrative threads, and he made the wise choice to focus on the personal and familial above all else. The Dune geek in me laments the de-emphasis on the ecological and environmental. But the cinephile in me can’t imagine how he could have possibly explored that aspect of the novel entirely without turning his film into a never-ending barrage of exposition dumps. 

 

Then again, there’s a lot about this adaptation I never could have imagined before seeing it. There are aspects of the novel I never expected to see translated to the screen, much less this effectively or artfully. 

 

And the fact that Villeneuve managed to capture so much of the book’s essential fiber without creating a big pile of confusion for the uninitiated is a bit of a miracle. After the credits rolled, my wife—who has never read the novel, and before now had no interest in doing so—turned to me and said, “I expected to be lost, but I never was. There’s so much more I want to know, so many questions I want answered. But in the moment, watching the film, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Well, except for the fact that I feel like there’s a reason why Duke Leto never married Lady Jessica and I wish the film had explored that.”

 

And in that respect, she’s absolutely correct. Armed with my deep knowledge of the book, I also feel like there are a couple other things the film could have conveyed better, such as the ritualistic obsession with moisture inherent to the culture of the Fremen—the nomadic natives of the planet Arrakis, aka “Dune.” But when I quizzed my wife about it, her response was, “No, I definitely picked up on that.” So, perhaps I’m wrong. 

 

At any rate, now that I’ve experienced the first part of Villeneuve’s intended two-part adaptation, I still have no clue how he’s going to successfully translate the rest of the book to the screen. The rest of the story takes a turn for the weird, to put it lightly. But even if Dune: Part Two ends up being a major flop (assuming it even gets made, although that seems quite likely), that won’t diminish my appreciation of this first part.

D.B.

past and untested, experimental future.

 

That captivating aesthetic, combined with the sheer scale of the film and its reliance on capturing as much as possible in camera (to the point that, in promotional interviews, actor Timothée Chalamet claims to recall only seeing a green screen twice during production) adds up to a film that demands to be seen at scale, on the best screen you can reasonably access. In my case, that meant watching HBO Max’s stream in my own home cinema system since the nearest commercial cinema that can legitimately claim to deliver a better audiovisual experience is a three-hour drive away in Alpharetta, GA.

 

Thankfully, shockingly, the HBO Max presentation is the very definition of reference quality. I started my stream the minute the film was available, which struck me as a foolhardy choice the instant I hit Play, given how many millions of other people must have been sitting with their fingers on their remotes, waiting for it to be unlocked. But I never experienced any glitches due to server overload, and I never spotted anything in the image that could be construed as an artifact of the high-efficiency encoding of the film.

 

Far from it. I would go so far as to say that I’ve never experienced imagery this captivating, engaging, or dynamic in my media room. Part of that is due to the sumptuous detail, the gorgeous textures, the unparalleled set design, costumes, etc. But a lot of it has to be chalked up to the fact that Dune represents the most effective application of high dynamic range grading I’ve seen to date.

 

HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation pushed my display to extremes I didn’t know it was capable of, extremes I can’t imagine being bested by anything other than perhaps a perfectly calibrated IMAX Laser setup. And I have my doubts about even that. Simply put, if displays had rights, Dune would be a violation of the Geneva Convention.

 

But none of its visual extremes—scenes bathed in near-infinite shadows followed quickly by such dazzling brightness that your pupils will constrict to pinpoints—feels gratuitous. All are absolutely in service of the story and the environments in which it unfolds.

 

Equally compelling is the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is likewise so dynamic that I pity the unfortunate souls who attempt to experience it through a soundbar or basic home theater speaker setup. If you’re an Atmos junkie who keeps a mental running tally of how frequently your surround and overhead speakers—and subwoofers—are pushed to their limits, you’re going to be in absolute aural heaven here.

 

As I’ve stated many times within the pages of Cineluxe, I’m not one of those people. I find most Atmos sound mixes masochistic and overbearing, not to mention distracting. But for Dune, this approach simply works. That may be because the imagery is so captivating that no amount of offscreen audio could pull my attention away from the screen, but I also think it’s due to thoughtful mixing and a deep understanding of the relationship between picture and sound. Whatever the reason, it all simply works, and there’s not much else to say about the sound.

 

Well, there is one more thing, although I do run the risk of angering some readers here, especially fans of composer Hans Zimmer. I’ve rarely if ever understood the appeal of most of Zimmer’s work. I often find his compositions fatiguing, uninteresting, and so utterly and needlessly aggressive that I need to wipe the testosterone residue from my speakers after watching a film he’s scored. And make no mistake here: His score for Dune is bombastic at times, what with its heavy reliance on percussion and synths.

 

But this is unquestionably his best score since 1994’s The Lion King, and it succeeds for most of the same reasons. Zimmer understood the assignment here, and his music works in conjunction with the visuals and the narrative in such a way that they’re inseparable. I’ve had the score on repeat throughout the writing of this review, simply because I cannot shake it. It haunts me. Its leitmotifs—both melodic and percussive —resonate with me in a way that few 

Zimmer scores ever have. And most tellingly, as I’m listening to it, I can close my eyes and see the accompanying moments from the film—and this is a film I’ve only seen once, mind you. That’s the mark of a great score.

 

Put it all together, and I have next to nothing critical to say about Dune as a work of cinema in and of itself. There are a few edits in the first act that feel a bit choppy. By that I mean that, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the story, you’ll sense that much of what was excised from the assembly cut to get the film down to a tight 2 hours and 38 minutes was removed from the first third.

 

There’s also the fact that, while the bulk of the performances are truly world-class, Dave Bautista feels out of place here. I’m a fan of Bautista’s, but his portrayal of Rabban Harkonnen—the nephew of the baron who previously ruled the desert planet that gives Dune its name—feels one-note and over-the-top, at least when compared with the nuanced performances turned in by literally everyone else. Other than those quibbles, Dune is a monumental work of art in its own right.

 

It should be obvious to anyone watching the film that it isn’t a self-contained statement. As Chani (Zendaya) cheekily teases just before the credits roll, “This is only the beginning.” But Dune nonetheless manages to feel like a complete story, with an ending that is both emotionally and thematically satisfying while also pointing toward a much bigger and tantalizing future. 

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 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: The Card Counter

The Card Counter (2021)

Somewhere within the labyrinthine twists and turns of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, you can find the makings of a good film—perhaps even a great film, I don’t know. The only real question is whether or not it’s worth the effort to go digging for them. Mind you, not all the seeds of greatness here require that much tilling to unearth. The first and most obvious thing that makes the film worth watching is Oscar Isaac’s world-class performance as William Tell, a low-stakes gambler who plays cards to occupy his time and mind after his release from Leavenworth, where he served an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for his involvement in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

Once again, Isaac demonstrates why he’s one of today’s most sought-after actors, delivering a performance that makes you forget every other character he’s ever played in his career. There’s so much going on beneath the surface of his performance, so many little tics and expressions and changes in posture that combine to create a character with the sort of complexity and nuance we rarely see on the big screen these days.

 

The film is beautifully composed and presented. Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, The Card Counter has not gone through the sort of film-look processing most digital films receive, and the result is a level of purity and clarity that’s very welcomed. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan also has a good eye, framing each shot to accentuate the storytelling without ever resorting to any manner of flashy tricks.

CARD COUNTER AT A GLANCE

Oscar Issac shines but everything else feels off in this inept Paul Schrader effort about an ex-con card shark.

 

PICTURE

The UHD presentation looks fantastic, rich in detail, crispness, and true-to-life colors that sell the illusion of reality woven by the film.

 

SOUND 

The sound mix is dialogue-heavy, although there’s a good amount of subtle but effective employment of the surround channels to build and reinforce the onscreen environments.

So, it’s unsurprising that Kaleidescape’s Premium VOD presentation looks utterly fantastic. Presented in UHD resolution with HDR10 high dynamic range grading, the download is rich in detail, crispness, and true-to-life colors that sell the illusion of reality woven by the film. It’s the sort of audiovisual experience you can simply get lost in, and although there’s very little by way of action, the high dynamic range allows the image to pop when called for—especially in showing the obnoxious slot machines that litter the floors of the casinos where the story takes place. I might have liked a bit more shadow depth in darker scenes, and there is a bit of banding in the climactic moments, but other than those minor nits, it’s simply a fantastic home cinema experience from beginning to end. 

 

The visual experience is supported by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix that works perfectly for the tone and thrust of the film. Fittingly, given the talky nature of The Card Counter, the sound mix is dialogue-heavy, although there’s a good amount of subtle but effective employment of the surround channels to build and reinforce the onscreen environments.

Much like the cinematography, the sound mix rarely draws attention to itself, but if you disengage from the narrative and keep your ears open, you’ll notice the care and creativity that went into crafting the audio experience.

 

And that’s pretty much the end of everything good I have to say about The Card Counter. As engaging as it is to the senses, and as good as Oscar Isaac is, everything else about it is an unfocused and undisciplined trash heap of unrealized potential. It’s a house of cards built on the foundation of some really compelling and thought-provoking ideas, many of which will linger in my mind long after I’ve forgotten the film itself. And I don’t expect that to take too long.

 

The biggest problem is that Schrader loads the mantle of the film’s first act so full of Chekhov’s guns that the whole thing nearly collapses under the weight, but almost none of them go off, and the two that do end up misfiring. A better director could probably get away with flagrantly violating so many of the fundamental rules of storytelling, but Schrader—despite his talents as a screenwriter—is not a good enough director to pull it off.

 

Furthermore, as good as Isaac’s performance may be—and it’s truly one of the best I’ve seen this year—everyone else around him delivers their dialogue with 

The Card Counter (2021)

all the verisimilitude of a theater kid auditioning for a reboot of Saved by the Bell. Somewhere around the end of the first act, I decided to grab a piece of scrap paper sitting beside my home theater recliner and make a little hashmark every time an actor delivered a line with the emphasis on the wrong word or syllable—an obvious indication of no real thought given to the meaning of the words coming out of their mouths. I filled that little scrap of paper somewhere around the end of the second act and gave up.

 

So, yeah, The Card Counter is, to say the least, more than a bit of a mess. And that’s a shame, because it has some interesting things to say about the cost of war, the persistent relevance of the Milgram experiment, and the inequities baked into our criminal justice system. The problem is, it doesn’t say any of those things very well. 

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: 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 

HAUNTED MANSION AT A GLANCE

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.

 

PICTURE

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

 

SOUND 

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.

Now’s the Time to Try “Critical Role”

Now's the Time to Try "Critical Role"

I’ve written many times about my favorite TV show, Critical Role, in which “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons.” I wrote about this internet phenomenon when the company staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a video project, smashing the previous record set by MST3K. I’ve written about how this group of eight best friends represents a serious challenge to the media status quo and a legitimate threat to more traditional forms of home entertainment.

 

But I’ve always written about the show with a bit of hesitation—not for fear of being branded a geek, mind you, and not out of concern for venturing too far from the mainstream. That’s hardly applicable, since more people watched the Campaign 2 finale of Critical Role earlier this year than watched the Season 10 finale of The Walking Dead. (Comparing the numbers directly is tough, but Critical Role got some 3.3 million views across Twitch and YouTube vs. Walking Dead‘s ~2.9 million viewers on AMC. How many of CR‘s online “views” account for multiple viewers isn’t clear.) 

 

No, the reason it’s tough to evangelize this amazing show is that there’s just so darned much of it. If we ignore all the ancillary series and spinoffs, all the one-off specials and after shows, Critical Role has, to this point, created over 1,000 hours of content, which is about 12 times the runtime of the entire 10-season run of Friends and about 15 times the total runtime of Seinfeld. 

 

I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve turned onto this show, only to have them utterly hooked then completely crestfallen when they realize exactly how long it would to take to catch up. And I sympathize with that. By the time Critical Role came crashing into the mainstream in 2019, the gang was already more than 200 hours into their second campaign. 

 

And it occurs to me that I should probably stop and define what I mean by “campaign.” In D&D lingo, a campaign is an ongoing, self-contained story with a unique set of characters. When Critical Role launched in 2015, they were already halfway through a campaign they had started around their own kitchen tables some years before. They didn’t start over from scratch

and create new characters and situations, because they couldn’t conceive of anyone actually wanting to watch them play their game and only agreed to play on camera as a favor to Felicia Day. So Campaign 2, in which they did create entirely new characters and launched a whole new story guided by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, was really the audience’s first opportunity to see this group tell a tale together from the very beginning.

 

So why should you care about any of this? Well, as I said, Campaign 2 came to a conclusion earlier this year but a

new campaign is starting this month. New characters, new settings—a whole new beginning. Which means that if you’ve missed out on this phenomenon until now, or sat on the fear that it was all just too much, now’s your perfect opportunity

to hop on the Critical Role train.

 

Of course, it has to be said that there are some people who simply scoff at the notion of watching a bunch of friends sit around and play a game for three to five hours every week. For some, that crosses a line into dweeb territory. Or maybe you’re just not interested in D&D.

 

Whatever reservations you might have, I implore you to set them aside and give the new campaign a shot when it airs

this month because, when you get right down to it, the real draw of this show isn’t the Dungeons or the Dragons. There are plenty of live-play D&D games out there, and none of them have achieved the success of this show.

 

The biggest reason for that is the fact that those shows were created to sell tabletop roleplaying as a product. They had casting calls and auditions. Some cat-petting executive somewhere said, “Hey, people are watching other people play D&D on the internet—let’s get a slice of that action.” 

 

What makes Critical Role unique is that the game they’re playing is secondary. The real draw is that we, the audience, get to watch eight best friends—who now own a corporation and small media empire together—take a break once a week, sit around a table, and give one another their full attention. They put down their phones, ignore their email inboxes, look each 

other in the eye, and do their level best to entertain the heck out of each other for a few straight hours.

 

There is, of course, a parasocial aspect to all of this in that it’s nearly impossible to become invested in a friend group without feeling like you’re a part of said group. Watching Critical Role doesn’t feel like tuning into an episode of Loki or Squid Game. It feels like hanging out with your buds.

 

And that’s ultimately a crucial element of the success of this show, because Critical Role isn’t intended to be passively 

consumed; it is, in many ways, a call to action. They aren’t merely saying, “Hey, come watch us have fun and love one another.” They’re saying, “Hey, you can do this, too. Go grab your own best friends or your family, sit around a table, and make each other laugh, cry, celebrate, and commiserate.” And audiences have listened. Fully half the people I know who watch Critical Role have gone on to start their own D&D campaigns and are rediscovering the joys of actual human interaction.

 

Call me a weirdo but I think the world needs more of that, now more than ever. It needs this weekly example of wholesome face-to-face collaboration and—more importantly—the vulnerability required to sit with the people you love most in the world and make a complete goober of yourself for their amusement. 

 

If all of that sounds like something you could get into but you’ve held off for all the reasons listed above, here’s your chance to give this magical show a try. Campaign 3 begins on October 21, live on Twitch and YouTube, or you can wait for the VOD to hit YouTube on October 25. 

 

Or, if you want to experience the insanity of watching Critical Role with a crowd, the first episode of the new campaign will also debut in select Cinemark cinemas around the country. As for me and my wife, we’ll opt for the comforts of our own home cinema, thank you very much. But if we had a Cinemark a little closer to home, I think we’d both be tempted to buy a ticket and skulk at the end of the theater for the first few minutes, if only to hear an auditorium full of Critters sing the show’s theme song, “Your Turn to Roll,” once again after months of anticipation. 

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.