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Blu-ray Review: Battleship Potemkin

3.5

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Battleship Potemkin

What more can be said about Battleship Potemkin? Other than Citizen Kane, Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece of dialectical montage is surely the most analyzed, discussed, debated, and yes, praised film in history, if mostly in relation to its infamous Odessa Steps sequence. Such diverse filmmakers as Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick, Roger Corman, and Joel Schumacher have called it the greatest film ever made. Douglas Fairbanks famously declared, “ Battleship Potemkin was the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Luis Buñuel claimed that, after he saw it, he and his comrades immediately pulled up paving stones from the street to build barricades. Potemkin even earned the admiration of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, who praised it as “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema…anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.”

Potemkin’s towering stature in world cinema, however, has made it difficult to approach from a fresh perspective and turned it into a museum piece. In the last 50 years, tastemakers have often turned against Potemkin, decrying its politics, labeling it technically accomplished but simple-minded propaganda, or as Pauline Kael would say, “a cartoon.” Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from Andrew Sarris: “The totalitarians of the Left embraced Eisenstein and montage as the first step toward brainwashing humanity, but the cinema quickly lent its manipulative social powers to television. The cinema returned to formal excellence, abandoning the salvation of mankind as the criterion of cinema.” Potemkin wasn’t even being praised for its “formal excellence” anymore. It became a relic, an artifact quoted in The Untouchables, parodied in The Naked Gun 33 1/3, shanghaied by the Pet Shop Boys, who wrote a new score for it. It’s become cinema’s equivalent to the Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor, the Mona Lisa, Romeo and Juliet, works the public knows are famous without quite understanding why.

Maybe it’s because Eisenstein’s style is so hard for today’s narrative-obsessed audience to grasp that it’s become little more than a staple of undergraduate film courses. Sure, there is a story: The sailors of the titular battleship, upset with the rotten meat their unfeeling aristocratic officers place before them, successfully mutiny, earn support from the working-classes of Odessa, rally to support them when the Czar’s troops massacre a crowd of Odessa’s civilians, and finally face a Czarist fleet meant to stop them. However, our typical conception of narrative is that characters are necessary components of any story. Here, there are none, save for Vakulinchuk, a revolutionary-agitator and sailor on the battleship who first incites his comrades to mutiny. He speaks mostly in broad declarations like “We, the sailors of Potemkin must stand with our comrades the workers.” He’s mostly a symbol, however, and Eisenstein casts him with an actor (Aleksandr Antonov) who clearly looks like the proletarian ideal: strong, muscular (yes, we see him without his shirt), and sporting a Stalin-esque mustache.

Though he experimented with it in his debut film, Strike, here Eisenstein fully embraces the notion of typage, of casting actors based on symbolic connotations their physical appearances conjure up. For instance, the actor who plays Potemkin’s first officer has thin, angular, aristocratic cheekbones and jawline, instantly appealing to the audience’s preconceptions of aristocratic appearance, but also of that class’s perceived coldness and indifference, framed as he is from a low, imposing angle and always possessing a sneer on his lips. Another officer who we know is a sadist because he wants to shoot the men who don’t like their soup, twirls his moustache, which anyone acquainted with Saturday-morning cartoons knows is the hallmark of villainy.

Potemkin is best viewed as an experiment in tone that appeals to people’s preexisting notions of revolution and justice, using easily identifiable symbols and types to trigger an emotional response—hardly an antiquated notion, since Avatar relies on the same principle. Eisenstein understood Hitchcock’s notion of using film to manipulate the audience’s emotions as if they were attached to electrodes decades before the Master of Suspense deployed similar techniques (and offered up a compatible but subtler class critique).

But if we step back from Eisenstein’s defects as a conventional storyteller (or his merits as a propagandist) and approach him as an abstract artist, it’s much easier to appreciate his gift for slashing, dynamic images. He doesn’t just hammer home a pro-Bolshevik message with every frame, but rather, structuring his film like a symphony with distinct movements of varying tempos, allows for haunting lulls, like the dreamlike sequence of Vakulinchuk’s body, martyred as he was in the mutiny, laid out on Odessa’s docks. An ethereal intertitle, “Mist rolled in from the sea…,” prepares us for a slow succession of images of tall ships casting large shadows across the frame as the fog hovers over the charged crowd below. Eisenstein revisits one shot of sunlight reflected on the water twice. Much has been made of his dialectical approach to montage, that the meaning created from two shots spliced together is greater than or different from the meaning of the two shots individually—an almost perfect cinematic metaphor for Hegel’s (and later Marx and Engel’s) view of history as synthesis. But every bit as important is Eisenstein’s ordering of his shots for poetic effect. Potemkin opens with seven shots of ocean waves thunderously crashing over two separate quays—utilizing only two different camera placements. The shot of the first quay is repeated four times; the second quay, three. Like beats in a poem, he places his shots in a metrical order, intuitively understanding that audience anticipation for a particular repeated image will enhance its effect when it finally appears again on screen. He does this to great effect when, as a metaphor for the simmering-bordering-on-mutinous resentment the sailors feel for their officers, he cuts intermittently to a shot of boiling soup.

This metrical presentation of the images marks Eisenstein’s greatest contribution to film’s developing formal language in the 1920s, not the rhythmic montage of the Odessa Steps sequence. That scene, famous above all in cinema except for perhaps that of Marion Crane taking a shower in Psycho, actually has its roots in Griffith, who also experimented with gradually decreasing and increasing shot lengths to compress and intensify the audience’s emotional reaction during battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Orphans of the Storm.

What makes the Odessa Steps still so startling is not its rhythmic editing, but its profound subjectivity. In a Hollywood battle scene, even in Griffith, the filmmaker encourages you to identify with an individual (or two, or three) in the conflict. Eisenstein doesn’t ever give us any one individual, though he returns to a few intermittently like the mother carrying her dead son in anguish up to the Czar’s soldiers. He’s mostly concerned with the crowd as a whole. Far from being distancing, as if an objective historical account, it’s immediate, in your face, because Eisenstein places the camera in and along the staircase itself, tracking along with fleeing crowds. It’s as if every time Eisenstein cuts from one shot to another, the camera is adopting the point of view of one of those fleeing for their lives, or, like Lot’s wife, turning around to face doom head-on. It’s the ultimate in you-are-there filmmaking, and watching it even today it produces a kinesthetic reaction—not the kind you might feel in a typical action film when you instinctively move your body, in the confines of your seat, when the hero lands a punishing blow on his enemy, but instead that you yourself are receiving the blow. The fact that Eisenstein carefully preserves the spatial integrity of this scene at all times heightens its reality, even though historians agree there never really was any sort of massacre of the kind he depicts.

This is what Eisenstein (and Griffith before him) discovered: Unreality can be easily accepted as reality if presented comprehensibly enough that spatial relationships are recognized and preserved. That’s why so many today think that a massacre on the Odessa Steps actually happened. Many of our contemporary filmmakers—I’m looking at you Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan, and Tony Scott—still haven’t grasped this simple principle, which is perhaps why suspending disbelief is more difficult today. This means there is no better time than the present to release Potemkin from its prison in the university classroom, in MoMA’s repertory film series, in the 85 years of hype and condescension that have impeded what should be our visceral reaction to it, and regard it anew as the vital, alive piece of cinema—of modern art—that it is.

Image/Sound

This is the most complete version of Battleship Potemkin you are likely ever to see. Most public domain copies of the film have been based on the endlessly reedited 1926 German release print, itself initially reedited to meet Weimar film censors’ restrictions. Enno Patalas’s restoration adds back 100 feet of film missing for 80 years from that German print and restores all of Eisenstein’s 146 shots of text, which are also crucial to creating and maintaining the director’s sense of rhythm. The print itself appears scrubbed clean, and it’s hard to imagine any theatrical presentation of it that looks better than it does on Blu-ray. This restoration also includes Edmund Meisel’s original score that Eisenstein contracted for the German premiere, but expanded with new material since Meisel repeated several motifs over and over because he had only 12 days to compose it. Eisenstein said, “I told Meisel I wanted the score to be rhythm, rhythm, and, above all, pure rhythm,” and he seems to have succeeded. The score dovetails nicely with the images, adding a percussive underlining to key moments, foreshadowing the complete integration of music and image Eisenstein would achieve even more successfully with Sergei Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky. The film can be viewed with either the original Russian intertitles with optional English subtitles or with newly translated English intertitles.

Extras

Kino has not added any new special features to its Blu-ray version of Potemkin than already appeared on its DVD version in 2007. The most notable extra here is “Tracing the Battleship Potemkin,” a 42-minute documentary on the making of the film, its reception, and subsequently convoluted distribution (and censorship) history. It goes into a great level of detail about the restoration undertaken by Enno Patalas starting in the 1980s that resulted in this, the most complete version of the film and most faithful to Eisenstein’s original vision.

Overall

Too long stifled by its own masterpiece status, it’s time to take Potemkin out of the lecture hall, out of the museum, and recognize it for the vital, alive piece of cinema it is.

Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov Director: Sergei Eisenstein Screenwriter: N.F. Agadzhanova-Shutko Distributor: Kinto International Running Time: 71 min Rating: NR Year: 1925 Release Date: April 20, 2010 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Blu-ray Review: Takashi Miike’s Audition on Arrow Video

Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer.

4.5

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Audition

Twenty years after its release, Takashi Miike’s Audition still feels like the most visceral and evocative horror film since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are commonalities between the movies as well, as both are still discussed with a degree of skittish awe—almost as if they’re radioactive—and both bend narrative expectations to reveal social fault lines. Yet to view Audition only as a horror film, to continually emphasize the graphic power of its final act at the expense of what precedes it, is to ignore the film’s robust vision. Audition is a psychological drama, a detonation of romantic-comedy clichés, as well as a brutal examination of social isolation and malaise, and the gulf that often exists between men and women. Miike’s greatest film to date isn’t a gonzo shock artifact, but a furious and mysterious howl of despair.

Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, Audition has a conceit that could easily drive a mediocre rom-com, though Miike emphasizes social texture, underscoring the insidiously trivializing elements of such formulas. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower, a little soft around the middle, who’s raising his teenage son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki). Worried about his father, Shigehiko says that Aoyama should marry again, with a flippancy that suggests how someone might ask a family member to pick up dinner on their way home from work. Shigehiko is generally sensitive and thoughtful but sees women as accessories.

Indeed, the most unsettling element of these scenes, at least for contemporary American audiences, is the casualness of Shigehiko’s objectification, which Miike presents empathetically. This objectification is understood to be complicated by grief, as Shigehiko and Aoyama are processing a loved one’s death, in addition to a protective guilt that’s common for children to feel about their parents as they develop their own lives. Achingly lonely, Aoyama senses Shigehiko’s guilt and agrees to look for a new wife. At the urging of his filmmaking partner, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimara), Aoyama holds a fake audition for a melodrama as a way of fishing for young, attractive, and obedient women.

Audition’s linking of rom-com tropes with savagery has always been disturbing, though this equation is thornier in the wake of #MeToo. The first hour of the film can be read several ways, often simultaneously. Outwardly, the narrative resembles an innocuous romantic bauble. On another level, men hurt women throughout Audition, partially because the men see women as “others” to be enjoyed and procured when convenient—a sentiment that’s alternately celebrated and rued by pop culture, giving the populace a kind of ideological whiplash. (Rom-coms condition us to see lovers as objects aiding us on our paths toward fulfillment.)

Though poignant, Aoyama is nevertheless revealed to have bedded and discarded his assistant, whose pain he’s oblivious to as he pursues a dream woman. (In this and other threads, there are shades of another classic film of male manipulation and self-isolation: Vertigo.) Even innocent Shigehiko confesses to a fear of women, born in part from his dead mother, whose absence failed to prepare him for healthy relationships with the opposite sex. Shigehiko brings home a girl, and Aoyama cheers him on as one might an athlete making a score—a punchline that feels cute and characteristic of the jokes of many American or Japanese rom-coms but becomes retroactively sinister. We’re seeing men reinforce one another’s limited views of women as prizes to be won, which are to complement the men’s notions of themselves.

In the audition process, an exploitation that Miike ironically stages with the cheeriness of a broad comedy, Aoyama becomes quickly stuck on Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young woman who conforms so perfectly to a Japanese ideal of subservience as to seem deranged from the outset. This is one of the film’s great black jokes. Aoyama is so determined to see Asami in a particular way (as a reflection of his own pain) that he misses her personal agency, overlooking her in the way that men in this film habitually overlook women. What Aoyama fails to see in Asami is a chasm of alienation and madness, fostered by the abuse of men, which far exceeds his understanding and experience, and which is expressed by her intelligent yet somewhat affectless eyes and coiled, wiry frame. She’s more than willing to educate him in the ways of her true self, in an act of torture born of vengeance, love, and reckoning.

In many of Miike’s most outrageous films, violence is a matter of gleeful aesthetic that’s impressive but fairly easily shaken off. Though far from being Miike’s most explicit film, Audition is his most disturbing for the patience he displays. Miike mounts a character study that’s rich in psychological ironies, portraying men and women as irreconcilably separated by social boundaries and personal traumas that must eventually be exorcised by violence. Aoyama and Yoshikawa can share a drink and a smoke at a bar and enjoy one another in a way that they can’t enjoy women, which is reflective of the behavior of many men in real life. This sadness, as well as the ghastly asymmetry between Aoyama’s deception and the punishment it eventually incurs, keep the film from being a pat male-hating parable. (As Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns observes in an interview included with this disc, feminism doesn’t enjoy the stature in Japan than it does in the United States.) Like Hitchcock, Miike sympathizes with his male characters, yet he’s enough of an artist to see in his women what his men cannot. The women of this film perceive this mutual male enjoyment and yearn for it, and this is partially what Asami’s torture of Aoyama represents: a demand to be truly seen.

Miike also understands that men pay for their sexism, as this is a source of their feelings of hollowness. When Asami paralyzes Aoyama and sticks him with acupuncture pins and saws his foot off with fine wire, actions which Miike stages with a galvanizing calmness, she traumatizes him while providing him with a perverse catharsis. Aoyama’s fear of women has finally been realized and justified, as he’s seeing the heart of Asami’s sickness. But this interpretation is complicated by several slips in time and perspective. When Aoyama is paralyzed by drugged whisky, he flashes back to dates he’s had with Asami, which gain new significance, and which Miike rhymes with Aoyama’s encounters with other females, most perversely including his son’s date. In these sequences, Miike renders a free-associative vortex of male neuroses, in which women become interchangeable harbingers of longing and pain.

In these recollections/projections, Aoyama also sees images he shouldn’t be able to see, such as Asami’s apartment, to which he’s never been, and a burlap sack that contains a man whom she’s disfigured and taken prisoner, feeding as one might a dog. At a certain point in his drugged state, Aoyama flashes back to the night he slept with Asami in a hotel, only this time he checks his feet with relief to see that they’re still there. Aoyama’s torture and degradation might only be the fantasy of a guilt-ridden man, then, which is but another kind of horror, as this interpretation suggests no catharsis, no bridging of the gulf between Aoyama and Asami.

Asami’s torture of Aoyama suggests an explosion of the pent-up gender hostilities that fuel pop culture. As Audition progresses toward its no-exit finale, Miike gradually informs its atmosphere with the aura of a horror noir, and so the film grows sicker and more neurotic before our eyes. (The turning point is the first glimpse of Asami in her apartment, staring at her phone in anticipation of Aoyama’s call as the human bag sits in a corner. Later, when the phone finally rings, her lips curl into a blood-freezing smile.) Restaurants and alleyways go from being white and sterile to shadowy and inflamed with redness, as Aoyama begins to envision—or hallucinate—fleeting scenes of Grand Guignol atrocity. Yet, unlike many modern horror films, Audition understands such atrocity to be built on a seemingly banal bedrock of illusion, elusion, and accommodation that’s as scary, in its way, as a cooing wraith strapped in fetish gear, who, when confronting a lover, feels as if she’s facing her maker.

Image/Sound

This 2K restoration of Audition by Arrow Films is a significant improvement over prior home-video editions, which have often sported soft, splotchy colors. The colors of this image are quite vivid, particularly the blues of the ocean in an early scene and the reds of Asami’s infernal world, but there’s still quite a bit of grain and a sort of brownish tint that are probably inherent to the film’s source materials. Overall, however, this image is attractive, with quite a bit of startling and newly apparent details. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD soundtrack is subtle and disconcertingly immersive, especially in the film’s final act, with aural flourishes distributed astutely across the various speakers. This track is also much cleaner than those of prior editions, with considerably enhanced clarity.

Extras

A new audio commentary by Takashi Miike biographer Tom Mes offers a terrific deep dive into Japanese film culture, particularly the straight-to-tape cinema in which Miike began his career. Mes also tackles Audition’s head-spinning thicket of subtexts, elaborating on how Miike foreshadows various events with the repetition of motifs and camera angles. This criticism is complemented by a new interview with Miike and an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns that’s been ported over from a prior edition. Miike admits that he wonders if he disappointed audiences by never making another film with Audition’s impact, while Rayns wrestles with the film’s ambiguous gender themes and how they resound within larger Japanese culture. Interviews with most of the cast members and an audio commentary by Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan have also been carried over from prior editions. This very solid package, rich in observation and context, is rounded out with an assortment of trailers and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.

Overall

Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer, and with supplements that wrestle intelligently with its many mysteries.

Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Ren Osugi Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Daisuke Tengan Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: February 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral

This edition boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.

3

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Four Weddings and a Funeral

The moving romance contained in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t the central love story between likable layabout Charles (Hugh Grant) and carefree American Carrie (Andie MacDowell), who gradually fall in love over the course of the film’s four weddings and one funeral. Theirs is a pretty dull romance, a pairing of two attractive but innocuous socialites whose only impediment to getting hitched is bad timing. Grant brings his signature stuttering, fidgety charm to the role of Charles, but he has a hard time generating much chemistry with the affectless MacDowell, whose Carrie seems almost bored at the prospect of falling in love.

Charles and Carrie’s halting, labyrinthine path to the altar may form the film’s narrative spine, but its heart lies in the casual yet adoring relationship between quietly reserved Gareth (John Hannah) and ostentatiously chummy Matthew (Simon Callow), an older gay couple in Charles’s eclectic gang of friends. For the most part, Newell doesn’t call much attention to Gareth and Matthew’s love for one another; it’s simply a fact of Charles’s social circle, as stable and unchanging a reality as the miserable singleness of the rest of the group. But when Matthew suddenly drops dead—thus occasioning the funeral promised by the film’s title—Newell drops the otherwise unflagging tone of light-hearted farce for a nakedly emotional eulogy in which Gareth recites W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in his melodic Scottish brogue.

Four Weddings and a Funeral tells us that this is what true love looks like, and to a contemporary viewer, that acknowledgment looks remarkably ahead of its time. Two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, when such an idea was widely dismissed even by Democrats, here was a film presenting a gay couple as the very model of marital bliss. Without overt advocacy or even any apparent recognition that it was doing anything unusual—save perhaps for when an Anglican priest presiding over Matthew’s funeral pointedly introduces Gareth as the deceased’s “friend,” thus acknowledging social repression of homosexuality—Richard Curtis’s screenplay smuggles an incontrovertible argument for the equal rights of gay people into an otherwise completely mainstream romantic comedy: If Gareth and Matthew don’t deserve to get married, then who the hell does?

Well, whether or not they deserve to, plenty of bland, interchangeable white people certainly do get hitched in the posh social milieu in which Four Weddings and a Funeral takes place. The film’s greatest strength, and the source of its enduring appeal, is its ability to capture the buzzy conviviality of a friend’s nuptials. Curtis’s script, which was nominated for an Academy Award, has an intuitive sense of the expansive yet finite social atmosphere of the British upper crust, a milieu in which everyone seems to know each other solely on the basis of their shared social status. In one of the film’s more memorable lines, a character demurs that his family isn’t the richest in England—that would be the queen’s—but only about the seventh.

Newell navigates the film’s sprawling wedding scenes with a deftly observant eye, providing the audience with a rich sense of these grand social events while maintaining the focus on the film’s core group of characters. Unfortunately, we never really learn much about these people; they’re like pleasant acquaintances we keep bumping into, folks we might like to know more about but never get the opportunity to ask. For one, the anti-nuclear posters hanging in the apartment Charles shares with his punkish companion, Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), hint at deeper layers to these characters the film never comes close to exploring.

Nevertheless, Four Weddings and a Funeral suggests in its stronger moments a P.G. Wodehouse farce as directed by Robert Altman. As it surveys the goofy foibles and incestuous interconnections of the British elite with a quietly amused sense of detachment, the film is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, mostly courtesy of the ever-reliable Rowan Atkinson as a painfully awkward vicar. But the film manages to maintain an appealing air of light-hearted sophistication throughout. That’s thanks in large part to the ingenious structure of the screenplay, which fulfills the audience’s expectations while simultaneously playing with them. (Whose wedding will we see next? And whose funeral?) Curtis even manages to make it seem halfway plausible that Charles might go ahead and marry the wrong person.

He doesn’t, of course. And everything ends up just as you expect, with Charles and Carrie sharing a tearful denouement and rapturous kiss in the middle of a torrential downpour. “Is it raining?” Charlotte coyly asks in the film’s corniest line, “I hadn’t noticed.” Four Weddings and a Funeral might demonstrate a bit of subversiveness in its depiction of gay love, but when it comes to giving us the happy ending we crave, the film is as conventional as can be.

Image/Sound

Four Weddings and a Funeral is no one’s idea of a gorgeous film, but Shout! Factory’s new 4K scan of the original camera negative at least manages to do justice to the film’s images, correcting the telecine wobble of MGM’s previous Blu-ray and the poor color timing of older DVD releases. This release also helpfully provides both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD audio tracks. The new scan preserves the original 35mm film grain, lending a pleasing texture and depth to movie’s soft, bright surfaces. However, Shout! makes no attempt to cover up some of the errors in the original negative, and there’s a notable amount of digital noise in the transfer. The scan ends up magnifying some significant A/V issues, including large flecks of dust and poor sound quality in some of the film’s outdoor sequences. Ultimately, this 4K scan, while visually and aurally superior to previous releases, feels like a fairly slapdash effort on Shout!’s part.

Extras

Given the film’s rather plain images, it might seem odd that the only new feature on this Blu-ray is a lengthy interview with director of photography Michael Coulter. But while it’s over-long and seemingly practically unedited, this chat turns out to be remarkably enlightening, deepening one’s appreciation for the complicated, almost documentary-style camerawork that lends such a verisimilitude to the film’s many party sequences. The rest of the extras are held over from previous releases and provide a robust, if somewhat redundant, selection of documentary featurettes. The audio commentary by Mike Newell, Richard Curtis, and producer Duncan Kenworthy, recorded for the 10th anniversary DVD release of the film, provides a chummy collection of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Overall

This new home-video edition of the film boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.

Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Bower, Charlotte Coleman, Timothy Walker, Sara Crowe, Rowan Atkinson, David Haig, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Anna Chancellor, Rupert Vansittart Director: Mike Newell Screenwriter: Richard Curtis Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 1994 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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