Reviews

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I had offered to review the Amazon original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel even before the show took home two Golden Globes earlier this week. I just wanted to spread the word about how fantastic this show is. I’m guessing those two awards—for Best Show and Best Actress in the “Television Series, Musical or Comedy” category—will do that far better than I can, but, hey, I’m going to make my case anyhow.

 

Set in 1950s Manhattan, the show tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a devoted wife and mother who tends to the every need of her husband Joel, a salesman who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. When she’s not measuring her thighs (can’t gain too much weight, after all) or getting up before dawn to apply her makeup (can’t let the man see your real face, after all), she’s using her quick wit, effortless charm, and great cooking skills to get Joel a better time slot at the Gaslight comedy club or to convince the rabbi to join the family for Yom Kippur dinner.

 

Midge’s world suddenly turns upside down when, after a particularly bad set at the Gaslight, Joel announces that he’s leaving her. After a bit too much wine and a late-night subway ride, Midge finds herself at the club, on the stage, doing her own set. Surprise, surprise—she’s actually the funny one, and aspiring manager Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) is determined to make her a star.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

As one would hope, this show about stand-up comedy has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a similar penchant for snappy, fast-paced dialogue and delightfully quirky characters. But this show also has a sharper edge to it, both in its humor and tone, as it explores what it means to be a woman in the ’50s. Midge is finally free to figure out who she is, but are the people in her life ready to accept the real her? Is society?

 

Brosnahan shines as Midge from the get-go, but what I enjoyed the most was watching the supporting players—who are drawn with broad, almost stereotypical strokes in the pilot—gain form and substance in their own right. Tony Shalhoub is especially good (when isn’t he?) as Midge’s father, Abe. At the end of Season One, the one-woman show has evolved into a strong ensemble piece with only one real flaweight episodes just ain’t enough.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Darryl Wilkinson’s Best of ’17

Best of 2017--Amazon Alexa

Voice control is no longer a spectacular, high-dollar, glitch-prone technology only geeky early-adopters would spend the money on and then tolerate the hiccups. It’s still not glitch-proof, but voice control has become mainstream thanks to a number of big-name companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.

 

It’s Amazon, though—in large part thanks to its enormous financial and marketing resources—and its Alexa Voice Service that’s brought voice control out of the maker spaces and into people’s homes. So, I have to say that Alexa integration into so many extremely affordable devices is at the top of my Best of ’17 list.

 

That’s not to say that having Alexa as part of wireless speakers, streaming TV boxes, puck-shaped squawk boxes, clock radios, and whatever else it’s being thrown into is a world-changing development. In my house, getting the latest weather forecast is the No. 1 thing I use Alexa for.

 

While I’ll admit to playing a lot of Jeopardy with my daughter (but only enough to rank it in the Top 20% of uses), the No. 2 activity I use Alexa for is a two-parter—and both parts involve my theater room. Part A is to turn on/off or dim the lights in the theater. Part B is to fire up the system for the particular TV-watching activity we’re going to enjoy. This might be, for example, watching a recording on the Dish Hopper 3 DVR or watching a 4K movie streamed from Netflix using the Roku Streaming Stick+ I just installed.

Best of 2017--Echo Dot

Early in 2017, Control4 made it possible to integrate an Alexa-enabled device (I use an Echo Dot in the theater room) into its automation systems. So instead of pushing a single button on a remote control to initiate a sequence of commands, now I say a single phrase: “Alexa, turn on Watch Dish!” or “Alexa, turn on Watch Netflix!”

 

Before you begin to think that’s a trivial, lazy-ass use-case for Alexa, I should explain the scenario. Most evenings, our family eats dinner in the theater room. It’s not easy fumbling for a light switch or a remote control when your hands are otherwise occupied carrying a plate, silverware, a drink, and (if we remember) a napkin. It’s a convenient timesaver that also makes the theater spill-resistant. (Though not, as we’ve experienced several times, spill-proof.)

 

Voice integration isn’t a control panacea. There are more activities that don’t lend themselves to voice control than ones that do. Alexa integration, as far as I know, doesn’t have any earth-shattering consequences, either. No one, for instance, is doing brain surgery using an Echo Dot. Although nothing in the home-entertainment world is all that earthshaking when you get right down to it, Alexa and the overall integration of voice control is about as close to a rumble as it gets in AV—which is why Alexa integration is my pick for the Best of 2017.

—Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

The Toys That Made Us

In the ongoing conversation about how streaming video is changing our media consumption habits, I think one thing is getting overlooked—the ways in which streaming video is changing the very nature of our media.

 

I bring that up because one of my favorite recent showsa documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us—strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. Sure, we’ve seen documentaries about toys before, almost all of which focused on one particular slice of nostalgia. But a multi-episode series that isn’t aimed at any particular fandom? One with a decidedly adult bent and a propensity for F-bombs? One that takes off the gloves and uncovers the oftentimes dirty politics that went into creating some of our favorite little pieces of plastic?

 

If I were an executive for any cable network, I would look at the pitch for The Toys That Made Us and insist its creators either narrow their focus or broaden their appeal, or at the very least avoid some of the controversy. Thank goodness I’m not a network executive, then, because having seen the first four episodes of this incredible series, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

The series kicks off with the granddaddy of all toy lines: Star Wars. Aside from a bit of predictable and unnecessary Episode I bashing that comes off as seriously hipstery, it’s an amazing exploration of the legal deals, design decisions, bickering, and fun that went into creating the toy line that changed everything.

The Toys That Made Us

Here’s the problem, though: Make a show about Star Wars toys and you’re automatically pushing all my buttons. Does that necessarily mean it’s objectively good? Ehhh, I had my doubtsespecially given that the next episode is about Barbie, a franchise I couldn’t have less interest in if I tried. The missus was vaguely interested, though (given that one of her favorite childhood pastimes was staging elaborate Barbie-vs-He-Man battles). So, we gave it a try. What followed was one of the most engrossing 44 minutes’ worth of television I’ve seen in ages. It’s bawdy. It’s tantalizing. There’s forgery and perjury and mail fraud, oh my!

 

Lest you think the entire series comes off as an E! True Hollywood Story, it doesn’t. The tales told here reflect the real history of each toy line explored, with no real agenda beyond getting to the truth. The entire Masters of the Universe toy line, for example, is portrayed as a tail-wagging-the-dog example of pure desperation and marketing hubris. G.I. Joe? While there is some history of the original 12-inch toy line (and the very origins of the phrase “action figure”), the real meat here is on the toys of the ‘80s, which were introduced mostly to capitalize on the new wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

 

Hopefully the next four episodes, which are due to drop sometime in the early part of 2018, can maintain this level of intrigue and brutal (often profane) honesty. There is the question, of course, about how much more material there is to mine going forward. We know an episode about Transformers is coming in the next batch. There are, no doubt, stories to be told at some point about Cabbage Patch dolls and LEGO.

 

I think what these first four episodes have proven, though, is that nostalgia for certain brands is just the hook. The real appeal of The Toys That Made Us is the very human stories about the people behind the scenes who made the toys that made us.

—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.

Theo’s 10 Best Movie Releases of ’17

Best Movies of 2017--I, Daniel Blake

My list of the best foreign, independent, and classic releases on disc in 2017 include some titles that aren’t available in NTSC. Maybe it’s time for fans of rare movies to invest in an all-regions Blu-ray player.

 

1. Tony Erdmann (Sony Pictures Classics)

This Oscar-nominated study of a father-daughter relationship introduced to US audiences Maren Ade, a major female voice from Germany. Humor, compassion, and total lack of facile sentimentality are Ade’s trademarks. Can’t wait for her next movie.

 

2. I, Daniel Blake (Criterion Collection)

This devastating drama—an indictment of the bureaucracy and inhumanity of the British social system—won director Ken Loach last year’s Palme D’Or. I have seen it three times already.

 

3. The Aki Kaurismaki Collection (Curzon Artificial Eye)

This collection, which includes sixteen of Kaurismaki’s movies, is available only in Europe through Amazon.co.uk. Few can match the deadpan humor of this Finnish satirist of human nature and modern nihilistic society. Kaurismaki’s most recent film, The Other Side of Hope (included in this collection), just opened theatrically in NY and LA.

Best Movies of 2017--The Big Sick

4. The Big Sick (Amazon Studios)

A good-hearted comedy, written by and starring Kumail Nanjiani, based on his real-life relationship with his Pakistani family in the US. The movie doesn’t strike a single false note in its depiction of the differences between the two cultures.

 

5. The Sissi Collection (Film Movement Classics)

Hugely popular in Europe but practically unknown in the US, this emotionally satisfying trilogy about Empress Elizabeth of Austria, starring Romy Schneider, is finally making its debut on Blu-ray the US. Maybe not the best transfer in the world, but worth owning.

 

6. Ludwig (Arrow Academy)

Luchino Visconti’s 257-minute epic comes in a luminous restored version that includes both the original and the abbreviated TV versions. Great performances by Helmut Berger as King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Romy Schneider as Empress Elizabeth of Austria (reprising her role from the Sissi movies) are combined with Visconti’s sweeping vision to make this release a must for fans of classic European films.

 

7. Padre Padrone, Kaos, and The Night of the Shooting Stars (Cohen Media Group)

Three of the best films by the celebrated Italian directors the Taviani Brothers made it to Blu-ray in good transfers, but the discs aren’t particularly rich in extras.

 

8. Suspicion and I Confess (Warner Archive) and The Paradine Case (Kino Lorber)

Three more Alfred Hitchcock films made it to Blu-ray this year. This completes the master’s entire opus in HD.

Best Movies of 2017--The Boy Friend

9. The Boy Friend (Warner Archive)

“Excessive,” “exuberant,” “bombastic,” and “inventive” are adjectives we associate with the work of British director Ken Russell. This Blu-ray transfer of his ’60s musical, with Twiggy in the main role, epitomizes all the director’s qualities and combines them with a visual panache that makes the movie irresistible.

 

10. Doctor Doolittle (Twilight Time)

Granted, this late-‘60s musical with a delightful Rex Harrison in the title role, is not, by any long stretch of the imagination,, a masterpiece. I saw it as a kid in glowing Todd-AO, and I remember it for its spectacular cinematography. The film’s previous transfer on Blu-ray (a German import) left a lot to be desired, but this new transfer does absolute justice to the Robert L. Surtees’ spectacular 70mm cinematography.

—Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.

Dennis Burger’s Best of ’17

Best of 2017--Baby Driver

Best Home-Video Release: Baby Driver (UHD Blu-ray)

A controversial pick, I know, given that it stars one of the many Hollywood legends to fall from grace this year. But don’t let the fact that Kevin Spacey is a scumbag who couldn’t apologize his way out of a slightly overdone bagel without burning his entire neighborhood to the ground keep you from enjoying one of director Edgar Wright’s most perfect films to date. Baby Driver is a pure expression of cinematic art, the likes of which we rarely see these days. It’s the perfect synchronization of imagery and sound—a beautiful ballet of music and audio mayhem and visuals that you might be inclined to write off as style over substance. Don’t. The film’s style is its substance, and it has the courage to tell a very simple, straightforward story in a sensational yet sincere way.

 

And the UHD Blu-ray is every ounce the home-video release the film deserves. Its HDR imagery is stunning, and the Atmos audio track is a huge step up from the standard Blu-ray’s weak-sauce 5.1 audio mix. As with all Edgar Wright films, the bonus features are simply a treasure, including not one but two amazing audio commentaries you should definitely check out even if commentary tracks normally aren’t your bag.

Best of 2017--Horizon Zero Dawn

Best Video Games: Horizon Zero Dawn and Divinity: Original Sin 2

Ugh, I hate ties in Year-end Best-of lists, but the simple fact is that either of these gems would easily be Game of the Year had they been released in a year without the other. And what makes choosing between them so difficult is that they’re so radically different.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn, a PlayStation 4 exclusive, goes toe-to-toe with the best Hollywood has to offer and comes out ahead in terms of character development, environments, and meaningful storytelling. It’s an open world that begs to be explored. Imagine watching Avatar and being able to step outside the frame to travel into the untamed wilderness however you want, without the limitations imposed by the script or cinematographer or director. That’s HZD to a T. It’s an interactive cinematic experience that simply couldn’t have been accomplished on older technology.

Best of 2017--Divinity: Original Sin 2

Divinity: Original Sin 2, on the other hand? It’s about as old-school a gaming experience as you’re likely to find these days outside of classic console simulators. This top-down, ¾-view roleplaying game hearkens back to an age when computer RPGs like Buldur’s Gate and Ultima ruled the gaming world. It’s gaming in its purest formnot cinematic in the slightest. Not even attempting to be cinematic. Its combat is a brilliant turn-based system whereby the action pauses every time you make a move (the digital equivalent of rolling the dice). There are modern flourishes, of course. The graphics are pretty stunning, and the special effects are brilliant. But at its heart, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a game that could have just as easily been made twenty years ago, just with fewer pixels and a lot less color. It’s nostalgia incarnate, polished to perfection.

—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.

Heather Sidorowicz’s Best of ’17

Sure, I could dazzle you with talk of new and exciting tech for the home, but just because something is fresh and fun for the first week or two doesn’t mean it will continue to make a difference in your world. So here instead are five technologies I could no longer live without. OK, I could live without them, but I don’t want to.

 

Keyless Entry

There are countless options out there for keyless entry to your home. Mine is pretty simple—punch in a code to enter your house. Never again do I have to search my purse for the keys—and when you live in Buffalo, NY, where the temps dip into the teens, getting into your house that much quicker does make a difference!

Alexa

Smart Assistant (or as I like to call it, my Personal Robot)

We have Amazon’s Alexa, but you could choose Google Home, and next year Apple will release the HomePod. Whichever flavor you wish, there are some basic, yet amazing, advantages to having an assistant. My favorites are adding items to my shopping list while my head is in the fridge, setting a timer for more than one time while I’m cooking, creating reminders for my kids to remember their instruments—and then, of course, there is music. Which brings me to my next item . . .

Best of 2017--Sonos One speaker

Music in the House

Never before has it been so easy to add music to your life. An avid listener, I use Alexa to control the Sonos Connect:Amps wired to my in-ceiling speakers. I implore you to at least try a powered speaker (like the Sonos One or Amazon’s Echo) and enjoy your tunes throughout the holidays and beyond. Definitely something I could no longer live without, for music sets the mood, the flavor, of life.

Best of 2017--Apple TV 4K

Streaming Player

We own the new Apple TV 4K streaming player because Apple’s interface is the most user-friendly. We began streaming TV three years ago come January when our DVR crashed, and we’ve never looked back. Honestly, the only time this year I desired live TV was for the kids during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. For that reason, I would suggest an off-the-air antenna as a complement to a streaming player.

 

Enhanced TV Audio

It hurts my soul when I hear of a poor human listening to TV only through their TV’s speakers. Of course, there is nothing like the all-encompassing sound of an actual surround sound system. (Full disclosure: I truly could not live without my surround system). However, for those who don’t crave the effect, there is a plethora of soundbar options available. These units range in price, but as long as you stick to a decent audio brand, chances are it will be leaps ahead of the rest.

There you have itfive technologies I choose to not live without!

—Heather Sidorowicz

Heather Sidorowicz is a frenzied mother of two who happens to also own an audio/video
technology company (Southtown Audio Video) in Buffalo, NY. When not designing or
selling or project managing or pretending to do financials, you can find her attempting to
stand on her hands at the yoga studio or writing in the third person.

Frank Doris’s Best of ’17

Kraftwerk The Catalogue 3-D

Kraftwerk: The Catalogue 3-D (Blu-ray)

I admit it—I love Kraftwerk. They’re astoundingly brilliant and innovative, creators of a prescient synthesizer-based musical world that is still galaxies apart from all others. The Catalogue 3-D Blu-ray set contains all eight of Kraftwerk’s officially-sanctioned albums performed live in concert, reworked and remodeled in arrangements that advance their electro-futuristic music even further.

 

In these shows, the band blends classic Kraftwerk sounds like their hallmark vocoder robot voices, the massive synth bass line of “Autobahn,” and the bloops and ticks of “Numbers,” with a dazzling array of newly created synthetic and electronic sounds, beats, and textures. As a result, the music sounds not only up-to-the-second but still years ahead of its time.

 

The Dolby Atmos (5.1- and stereo-compatible) surround audio is remarkably immersive, each track a painstakingly crafted sonic virtual reality where ever-morphing sounds come from anywhere and everywhere. The retro-minimalist visuals (viewable in 3D on a compatible video system) perfectly complement the pristine, deep, extended, intensely dynamic sound.

Best of 2017--The Deuce

The Deuce (HBO)

I have to confess I haven’t watched the last three episodes yet, but it doesn’t take very long to see that this series about the rise (ahem) of the porn industry in Manhattan’s Times Square in the 1970s plays more like a voyeuristic glimpse into real life than a TV series. It’s frank, rough, and unflinching. James Franco is both gritty and funny as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino as they get pulled into a far bigger and badder world than the street life they were used to. Maggie Gyllenhaal deserves an Emmy (as others have pointed out) for her sensational portrayal of Candy, a streetwalker who’s smarter and more ambitious than any ten of her peers.

 

The supporting roles are unerringly cast, bringing a multifaceted humanity to the characters and their lives and motivations. (Why would anyone want to live as a prostitute?) The Deuce (the nickname for Manhattan’s 42nd Street) is disturbing, funny, nuanced, enlightening.

 

Oh yeah—as a lifelong New Yorker I can tell you that this series is no exaggerated Hollywood-ized fantasy portrayal. Times Square really was that dirty, garbage-strewn, and sleazy back in the day.

Best of 2017--The Punisher

The Punisher (Netflix)

Yeah, it’s violent. Extremely so. Yeah, it raises some tough and not-too-pleasant questions about morality, society, and human nature. But it’s exceptionally well written, produced, and acted, with plausible storylines and well-drawn characters with motivations you can understand even if you don’t agree with them. Jon Bernthal absolutely inhabits the role of Frank Castle, The Punisher, with complexity, conflict, and, yes, nuance—he’s no one-dimensional, unfeeling one-man revenge machine. There are dozens of edge-of-your-seat moments.

 

The cinematography is superb. Countless movies and TV shows have used Manhattan as a cinematic backdrop, but here, as in the companion Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil, the location shooting and interiors make it feel like the show simply couldn’t have been filmed anywhere else.

 

Did I mention it’s violent? Watching the fight scenes may feel cathartic after a bad day at the office, but I’d think twice about letting your children watch.

Best of 2017--streaming audio

Streaming Audio

OK, I know this isn’t a new thing, but 2017 was the first year I got into streaming audio in a big way, trying Apple Music, Tidal, Pandora, and Spotify on various devices. While I have a major problem with artists getting paid disgracefully small royalties from these services (I fervently hope there will be a course-correction soon), I just love the ability to immediately access tons and tons of songs, and deeper catalogs than even a short while ago. (Note that I’m talking about streaming, not downloading, which can be . . . more complicated.) The sound quality varies, but it’s serviceable at the least and hi-rez satisfying at best. But none of the providers have “Farmer John” by the Tidal Waves or “Fool” by China Crisis yet, so they ain’t perfect.

—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.

John Sciacca’s Best of ’17

Best of 2017--Strato Movie Player

Best Trend: 4K HDR/Immersive Audio Content

4K Ultra HD content really took off in 2017. Ultra HD TVs have reached mass-market pricing, and we even have an incredibly affordable true 4K projector from Sony. Plus, the content side has finally caught up—I’m guessing we’ve now crested the 300-disc mark, and there are more than 220 titles available for download at the Kaleidescape store. The benefits of 4K HDR go far beyond the extra pixels, with a wider color gamut that produces over a billion colors, 10-bit video that eliminates banding and delivers an incredibly clean, pristine image, and high dynamic range producing brilliant whites and clean, deep blacks. Further, most of these titles also include next-generation immersive audio in the form of Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, giving you an experience at home that can rival or exceed that of any commercial cinema. As someone who loves movies but finds it difficult to make it to the theater (thanks to a 20-month-old daughter), being able to enjoy them in fantastic quality on my home system is a real “Best of”!

Best of 2017--SEAL Team

Best New TV Show: SEAL Team

My cousin Chris was a “Teams guy,” having served with SEAL Team VII for several years. I’ve always been impressed and fascinated with his stories from abroad (one of which inspired this feature story for Sound & Vision that is one of my favorites I’ve written), and I definitely enjoy TV shows and films that cover the SEALs. (The best film—by which I mean the one that gets it the most right—is Lone Survivor. Highly recommended, and with a dynamic DTS:X soundtrack on the 4K disc!) Usually, I’m pulled out of the story by inaccuracies, poor weapons handling, bad dialogue, or whatever, but CBS’s new drama SEAL Team gets so many things right that it’s easy to overlook the stuff they get wrong. There’s also enough “storyline” in between the action that it’s engaged my wife as well. Definitely worth a viewing if you’re looking for a new show!

Best of 2017--SVS SB16-Ultra Subwoofer

Best Addition to My Home System: SVS SB16-ULTRA Subwoofer

I regularly make changes, additions, and improvements to my personal home theater system. This year, I added a second subwoofer in the form of the new SVS SB16-Ultra. This is a 16-inch, 5,000-watt bass monster. My system now delivers bass that is seismic, with impact and pressure waves you literally feel hammering you in the chest. At times, it almost feels like the couch is moving, and the bass is far more dynamic even at lower volumes. For the money ($2,000 list), I’m not sure there’s a better, more theatrical sub you can add to your system.

Best of 2017--The Last Jedi

Best Personal Experience: Star Wars Episode VIII

As I write this, it has been about two hours since I dropped my best friend Dan off at the airport to return home. I’ve known Dan for about 35 years now, and he is far more family than friend. Since the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy back in 1997, I have seen every Star Wars film with him on opening day. I flew out to California to see Episodes I, II, and III with him, and he has flown back to Myrtle Beach to see The Force Awakens and (just this past Thursday) The Last Jedi with me. Beyond the quality of the films—and Jedi was really enjoyable, though not quite as good as TFA, in our opinion—the company, camaraderie, and conversations pre and post movie are every bit as important as the movie itself. Also, this is the first Star Wars film my oldest daughter, Lauryn, has been able to join us for on opening day. To be able to see and share this premiere with an old friend and my daughter was a wonderful, truly “Best of” experience!

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Judd Apatow: The Return

Judd Apatow

Reviewing this is almost too easy. It’s like being lobbed the biggest, slowest softball ever. Apatow’s a genius. With so much comedy devoted to dragging you nose first through freshly plowed fields of shit, he always tries to bring at least a dollop of humanity to his work. He doesn’t always succeed, but that effort alone still makes him leagues better than all the schmucks who don’t even try.

 

But you have to allow for a lot before you can even start to be objective about his Netflix comedy special. Both the audience at the venue and the one at home are giving him a pretty generous free pass because they love his movies. And let’s be honest—while he’s pretty good here, he’s not polished. No other comedian could be given this big a platform and get away with so many missed beats, or lean on so much cutting to cover up that this was cobbled together from more than one show.

 

That said, it’s more than worth a viewing because, even though he fumbles his way toward most of what he wants to say, almost all of it is worth saying. It’s hard enough just being funny. Trying to add depth to it is almost impossible. Just witness all the comics—from Chaplin to Allen—who’ve been dashed against the rocks of meaning.

Apatow’s career almost foundered after Funny People, and This is 40 was a hard-won victory. This special steers well clear of the former while hugging the shores of the latter—which is both its virtue and its vice.

 

Apatow is, at the end of the day, a crowd-pleaser. But he’s not entirely comfortable in that role, so he sometimes veers toward edgy. But he’s too skittish to actually peer over the edge, so the best you’ll get is a convincing simulation. And, at a time when there are way too many people willing to tell us what we already know, and when “edgy” almost always boils down to the equivalent of somebody hitting themselves in the face with a hammer, it would be good to hear from somebody who’s got a pretty good bead on what we don’t know.

 

So, this is a pretty nice diversion, and probably a better use of your time than almost anything else recent that you could stream. But it would have been nice if it had a little more meat on its bones.

 

Big kudos, by the way, for closing with Randy Newman’s “I’m Different.” Falling on the heels of M. Ward’s close to Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, it at least shows that comedians—or anonymous others at the production company or back at Netflix headquarters—have pretty good taste in music.

—Michael Gaughn

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

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is either the 9th or the 11th game in the popular anti-Nazi video game series, depending on how much of a purist you are in your counting. And if that statement strikes you as somewhat confusing, well—welcome to the world of video game series reboots. The New Colossus is a direct sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a soft relaunch of the franchise that was followed up by the 2015 release of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which was equal parts expansion pack and standalone prequel.

 

If that seems like too convoluted a history for you to even bother with at this point, rest easy. All you really need to know about the Wolfenstein series is that the Nazis won World War II, they’re taking over the world, and it’s your job to shoot them. Imagine The Man in the High Castle if it had been written by Paul Verhoeven instead of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. This new game draws on characters and themes from much earlier entries and manages to tell a quite personal tale about identity, parental relationships, and indeed the very nature of freedom.

 

But at its heart, the real draw of Wolfenstein II is in shooting Nazis. Tons and tons and more tons of Nazis. Sometimes you shoot them with big guns. Sometime with pistols. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them and whack ‘em with an ax. But in the end, dead Nazis is the first, second, and only meaningful objective in the game.

 

The biggest thing setting The New Colossus apart from its forebears is that this time around the action takes place in the United States—one overrun by the Reich, whose citizens have, for the most part, acquiesced to or outright embraced their goose-stepping overlords.

Wolfenstein II

That has led to criticism from those who see the game as a critique of our current political environment. It’s not intended as such, mind you. Games like this take years to develop and its developers aren’t prognosticators. But the fact that a game about killing Nazis is seen as a commentary on American politics at all, accidentally or not, is certainly worth mentioning. As much as this is a silly, brutal, over-the-top violence-fest, the central message here is that racism is bad. Fascism is bad. But also key to the narrative is the fact that most people aren’t badthey simply play along with their own tribe.

 

One thing I can say about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that isn’t even remotely controversial is that it’s an audiovisual tour de force. It’s a game that positively begs to be experienced on as large a screen as possible, with as many channels of sound as you can throw at it. Developer MachineGames has managed to shake up the series with entirely new environments while also hanging onto the same art design and overall aesthetic flair that made the last two games such stunners. And the Hollywood-caliber sound mix is, without question, the most dynamic and raucous I’ve heard in quite some time. Attempt to play this game on your tinny TV speakers and you’re just betting to blow a driver or two.

 

Truth be told, there are times when I wish I could just pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch someone else play the game. It truly can be that compelling. Whether you experience it from the firsthand perspective or as a passive bystander, though, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

—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.