Neorealism has always owed more to melodrama than some of its purveyors and admirers are willing to admit, but Satyajit Ray unreservedly acknowledged the influence of the latter in his Apu Trilogy. Starting with 1955’s Pather Panchali, his feature debut, the director crafted a stark vision of India’s transition into the modern age that nonetheless offset its most unvarnished observations with a sense of poetry that lent classical grandeur to intimate storytelling.
When, for example, the protagonist’s father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), catches fever and perishes near the start of Aparajito, Ray initially focuses on the banality of such a commonplace, senseless death in the priest’s ragged breathing and futile attempts to rally himself. When Harihar asks for some water from the Ganges, however, Apu’s sprint to and from the river lurches the film into opera, culminating in a dying breath matched to the sudden flight of scores of birds outside. By framing the verisimilitude of neorealism around the emotional beat of a scene, Ray leverages pseudo-objectivity to make his subjective tragedy all the more poignant, leading an audience while letting them think they’re simply seeing reality.
The director’s control of tone is so great that the films can often juggle two or more conflicting emotions and explore how antithetical moods can complement each other. The most famous of these would have to be the scene in the first film when Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his older sister, Durga (Runki Banerjee), spot a train in the distance while out in a field. They chase after the locomotive with pure joy, rushing through reeds taller than them, only to return after their merriment to discover their kind, aged relative, Indir (Chunibala Devi), has died. Pather Panchali is generally a story of the loss of innocence, but Ray doesn’t structure the scene as a mere sucker punch to the glee and wonder that precedes it. Instead, he places the tragic with the idyllic to grapple with the contradictory nature of life, never ceding fully to any one emotion to better study natural responses to multiple stimuli.
Ray’s approach extends to the relationship of each film in the trilogy to each other. Criterion doesn’t always release linked films in the same set, but the Apu films work best when viewed together to examine how aesthetic and tonal choices in one film deepen and contradict those of the other two. Watching the entire trilogy in quick succession makes it easier to see how the horizontal expanse of Pather Panchali’s open-space optimism gives way to the vertically crowded frames of Aparajito, whether in the overpopulated crush of the city or the claustrophobic miasma of the depleted family’s trip back to the countryside.
The mother (Karuna Banerjee) who seems so resentful of her poor husband and rambunctious children in Pather Panchali becomes hardened by loss into a furiously protective shell of her former self, ceasing to exist in the absence of her only remaining child. The varied casting of Apu (Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali, Pianki Sen Gupta and Smaran Ghosal in Aparajito, and Soumitra Chatterjee in The Wolf of Apu) is an obvious necessity to track the character’s growth over a short filmmaking span, but the different leads further mark the films as distinct from one another and allow each iteration of Apu to exist in his own space: the beaming naïf, the reserved student, and the hopelessly traumatized and listless adult.
The greatest benefit of including the films together, however, is to see the incredible leaps in technical skill between each installment. Ray’s debut is undeniably assured, but it favors uncluttered shots with few actors and fewer props. Though it confidently manages its symbolism, naturalism, and tone, the film does so by ensuring nothing is in the frame that can overly distract from what Ray intends in each shot. By comparison, the subsequent Aparajito employs crowded, deep-focus images that incorporate not only the family’s activities, but those of the people around them, compounding the sense of modern Indian life being a part of a teeming, overlapping whole. The World of Apu, including the masterful domestic drama The Music Room, finds Ray in total control of the frame, even using objects and people that exist independent of his direction to deepen the sense of Apu’s wanderlust and conflicting desires for isolation and belonging. The Apu Trilogy isn’t just a foundational text of international arthouse cinema, but also one of the best showcases of an artist’s swift maturation.
Criterion’s restoration work is always worthy of praise, but in the case of Satyajit Ray’s films, they have been showcases for the company’s preservation efforts. As with prior Ray releases, these three films come to us from horribly dilapidated negatives, yet the Blu-rays look pristine, with stable blacks and whites, consistent detail, and healthy grain. Audio has also been salvaged from scratchy, pop-ridden tinniness, and Ravi Shankar’s scores in particular can now be fully appreciated for the depths to which they comment and contrast with the images. Future restorations will be judged by this standard.
To match the quality of the restoration, Criterion overloads their set with extras. The bulk of the newly commissioned material consists of interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore, as well as writer Uijal Chakraborty and camera assistant Soumendu Roy. The subjects largely speak of their projects in broad terms, and always centered on anecdotes of watching Ray work, but they’re most engaging when stacking their experiences working on these foundational texts of Indian cinema against the subsequent explosion of that nation’s domestic film industry. For a deeper dive into the films themselves, a 43-minute analysis from filmmaker Mamoun Hassan is so minutely observed that even actors’ body language and orientation to the camera is fodder for discussion. The set also includes a video essay from Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, as well as a 1967 documentary on the director and a clip of him receiving his honorary Oscar in 1992. An excerpt of a documentary on Ravi Shankar details the musicians work scoring the three films, and though the segment is brief, it’s revelatory for Shankar insisting that even on his first film, Ray displayed a keen understanding of music and worked in close collaboration with the sitarist to achieve the sounds he imagined for his images. Finally, an accompanying booklet features essays from Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
In a fallow year for memorable Criterion releases, the company rallies to put out one of its all-time best packages in its masterful restoration of Satyajit Ray’s most famous films.
Cast: Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Subir Banerjee, Smaran Ghosal, Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi, Pinaki Sengupta, Ramani Sengupta, Alok Chakraborty, Swapan Mukherjee Director: Satyajit Ray Screenwriter: Satyajit Ray Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 441 min Rating: NR Year: 1955 - 1959 Release Date: November 17, 2015 Buy: Video
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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