Netflix

Review: Ray (2021)

Ray (2021)

I need to cop to some ignorance right from the giddy-up: I’m not familiar with the literary works of beloved director, documentarian, illustrator, and composer Satyajit Ray. As such, I’m not really in a position to judge the fidelity of Netflix’ Ray, a new four-part anthology adapting four of the auteur’s short stories: Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, Bahurupi, Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, and Spotlight. All I can really tell you is whether or not the series stands on its own.

 

And the answer to that is, unfortunately, a bit complicated. Judged as a mini-series—and Netflix certainly pushes that interpretation by referring to the collection of four shorts as “Season 1″—Ray is a tonally and stylistically inconsistent mess of 

a thing that is unified only by its name.

 

Mind you, there are flashes of brilliance throughout the entire run. With the exception of the fourth short, the performances are captivating across the board. The first three episodes also do a fantastic job of establishing mood and conveying feeling.

 

There’s more that works about those first three episodes than doesn’t. But that’s not really how we determine whether or not something is worth our time, is it? We—well, I should say I, since I can only speak for myself—don’t really sit down and make a list of pros and cons and tally up the results before judging a movie or TV series or whatever the heck Ray is. Instead, I sort of intuitively gauge whether a work gave me more than it took from me.

 

And in that respect, three of the four installments of Ray have to be written off as intriguing failures. The first, “Forget Me Not,” an adaptation of Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, does a lot right. It’s beautiful to behold (although perhaps not by videophile standards, since it’s intentionally 

RAY AT A GLANCE

This Netflix anthology of works inspired by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray is highly uneven, but features one standout that more than makes up for the series’ shortcomings. 

 

PICTURE
The third, worthwhile episode is richer, more colorful, warmer, and more vibrant than the other three, with deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all accentuated by the Dolby Vision presentation.

 

SOUND     

The music in the third episode is on a whole other level of artistry from the other three, and its mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting.

flat and muted) and the acting is sublime. But at 64 minutes, it overstays its welcome. By 45 minutes in, I was ready for it to be over. Soon after that mark, the story shifts to a twist ending that flubs the landing, rendering the entire journey—as worthwhile as it is in spots—unfulfilling. The Dolby Atmos sound mix for “Forget Me Not” is also aggressive to the point of abusiveness.

 

My biggest problem with the second installment, “Bahrupiya,” adapted from the story Bahurupi, is that it’s mean-spirited and depressing, but for no real reason. To drag this short into a wholly Western context that’s borderline unfair, “Bahrupiya” had the potential to be something like Todd Phillips’ Joker, but somewhat more grounded in reality. In fact, it ends up being less so, and it fails to really convey any meaning in the end, aside from some obvious moralizing. Kudos to the makeup and prosthetics departments for some truly world-class work on this one, but it’s simply too soul-sucking to recommend.

 

The third entry, however—”Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa,” based on Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment (aka Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram)—is simply an amazing way to spend 53 minutes. My only complaint is that while other shorts in the series could have benefited from the loss of 20 or 30 minutes of runtime, “Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” could have kept me glued to the screen for at least a couple hours. 

 

This installment was directed by Abhishek Chaubey (showrunner Sayantan Mukherjee helmed the first two and Vasan Bala directed the last), with cinematography by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan, and it’s the latter’s contribution in particular that I’m most smitten with. This simply doesn’t look like any of the other installments in that it’s richer, more colorful, warmer, more vibrant, and benefits from deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all of which the Dolby Vision presentation accentuates. 

 

The episode also sounds different from the rest, in that the music is on a whole other level of artistry altogether, and the mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting. 

 

By the way, I’m speaking of the original language track there, which is labeled as Hindi, but is in fact a mix of Hindi, English, and Urdu. Skip the English track, the default track when you load up the series for the first time. The dubbing is horrible throughout, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes, the English mix loses a lot of the atmospheric ambience of the original Hindi Atmos track. It’s flatter, more constrained, and less naturalistic. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, a simple tale. It’s the story of a kleptomaniac singer, something of a local celebrity, who finds himself sharing a train compartment with a fellow traveler from whom he stole a beloved (and ostensibly magical) pocket watch many years past. The bulk of the runtime is devoted to the tension that develops as he first recognizes his old mark, relives the original theft in his vivid imagination, then tries his best to right his old wrong. That’s it, really. That’s the whole story. But it’s told in such an imaginative way that one cannot help but be mesmerized by it all. 

 

The less said about the fourth episode, “Spotlight,” the better.

 

So, my recommendation would be to check out the third episode and skip the rest. Make sure to switch over to the Hindi Atmos track, though. It’s not all in Hindi, mind you—the characters bounce around from language to language, sometimes in the course of a single sentence. And even in the English dub, you’re going to have to turn on the subtitles for at least some of the Urdu exchanges that couldn’t be translated and overdubbed for contextual reasons. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, everything you could hope for from a good home theater experience. It looks and sounds fantastic, Netflix’ presentation is unimpeachable, and it’s a lovely little tale to boot. Again, I cannot speak to its fidelity as an adaptation, but as a work of motion-picture entertainment, it’s a lovely and surprising experience from beginning to end. I only wish the other three episodes had been anywhere near as good. But they’re self-contained, so you can safely ignore them.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth (2021)

Generally speaking, I’m not a stickler for accuracy in page-to-screen adaptations. Cinema and TV play by different rules than novels and graphic novels, and trying to translate from the latter to the former with perfect fidelity is a fool’s errand. All I ask when a beloved work of printed fiction is being adapted for audiovisual media is that the tone, spirit, characters, and thematic thrust of the original survive the process mostly intact. You’ll notice I said “generally,” though. Every so often, a TV series like Sweet Tooth comes along that violates every rule of adaptation, yet results in something that surpasses its inspiration in virtually every way.

 

I don’t mean to poo-poo Jeff Lemire’s excellent comic-book series of the same name, which I positively devoured in its initial run a decade ago. But the comic was a grim thing, as most post-apocalyptic horror stories are. It was dark and violent, and while it may have been thoughtful and thought-provoking, the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead proves that you can only 

sustain a grimdark live-action narrative for so long before it becomes fatiguing and nihilistic.

 

Perhaps that’s why showrunner Jim Mickle and executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey decided to take a cynical horror story and transform it into a decidedly anti-cynical fantasy tale, almost a fable, that nonetheless maintains so much of the emotional complexity of the original. The shift in genre brings with it sweeping changes in the plot, the characters, indeed the themes of the story, but the bones remain the same. Sweet Tooth, in both its forms, tells the story of a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (known as H5G9 onscreen and simply “The Sick” on the page) that wipes out much of the human population, at a time when all new babies born to human parents emerge as human/animal hybrids.

 

As society collapses, most of the remaining humans blame these hybrid children for causing the pandemic, which leads to the children being hunted to near extinction. 

SWEET TOOTH AT A GLANCE

The source material’s grisly horror becomes woodland whimsy in this Netflix tale of half-human/half-animal children trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. 

 

PICTURE
Splashes of rich primary & secondary hues make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded color gamut, resulting in reference-quality home-cinema eye candy.

 

SOUND     

The aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue & a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix.

Macabre stuff, right? It’s not hard to imagine why Lemire took this idea in pretty grisly directions.

 

Mickle doesn’t wholly ignore the dark implications of this story prompt but rather than dwell on them, he rebels against them. The result is a series that is bravely sentimental, boldly heartwarming, and defiantly sweet. 

 

This was a risky decision, because none of it would work if not for the talents of Christian Convery, who plays 10-year-old Gus, a half-deer child whose father sequestered him in a remote wilderness encampment shortly after the world went to hell. While the story does jump around a bit, injecting flashbacks to fill in the mysteries of what happened as the apocalypse was unfolding ten years prior, the brunt of the story revolves around Gus’s first foray into the outside world in a quest to find his mother. 

 

Convery has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, displaying a range of emotions beyond the capabilities of most child actors. But he absolutely nails Gus’s mixture of wide-eyed innocence and dogged determination. We not only see the story unfold mostly from his perspective but we also experience this strange and wonderful world through his eyes. 

 

I won’t spoil much of that here, but there’s one particularly moving moment in the second episode that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the show: While taking refuge with a family who has made a life for themselves in an old ski lodge, Gus hears music for the first time in his life. I can only imagine what sort of direction Mickle (who helmed four of the eight episodes) gave to Convery. How on earth do you prompt a ten-year-old actor to react to music as if he’s never heard it before? How many takes must they have done to get that scene right? I can only speculate. What I can say for sure, though, is that the scene is the embodiment of pure joy, the likes of which you rarely seen onscreen. 

 

If there’s a shortcoming in the show as a whole, it’s that Gus is such a compelling character that the story suffers to a degree when he’s not front and center, when the revelations unfold out of his eyeshot. But that’s a minor quibble, and it’s ameliorated by the gorgeous cinematography and Netflix’ nigh-perfect presentation, which work together to keep the eye engaged even in those rare moments when the heart isn’t. 

 

Rather than the drab post-apocalyptic environs we’re used to seeing in fiction of this sort, the world of Sweet Tooth is gorgeously verdant, with splashes of rich primary and secondary hues that make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut. The choice to film in New Zealand—despite the setting in the American Mountain West—gives the imagery a vibe that’s at once familiar and slightly askance. The flora doesn’t look quite right. The terrain feels a bit exaggerated. But all of this really works for the feel of the show, and every ounce of it is captured in stunning detail. 

 

There’s really one egregious visual blemish in the entire eight-episode run, and it occurs within the first few minutes of the first episode. In the prologue that establishes the premise—complete with narration by Josh Brolin—there’s about a half-second of posterization on one of the walls in a brightly-lit hospital. The thing is, this sequence is so heavily processed—with secondary hues pushed to their extremes and a dreamlike filter applied to the entire image—that it’s nearly impossible to tell if this is a consequence of bandwidth limitations or a byproduct of post-production. I lean toward the latter, since the rest of the show is downright reference-quality home-cinema eye candy. 

 

Some might be disappointed at the lack of an Atmos soundtrack but the series doesn’t really need it. True, some height-channel enhancements might have added to the immersiveness of the sequences set in the wilderness. But by and large, the series is a lot lighter on action than you might expect (much more so than the trailer would indicate), and the aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue and a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix. 

 

It’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ll like Sweet Tooth. You do, after all, have to have a stomach for outright weirdness and vulnerable sincerity in equal measures. If you dig Adventure Time, Where the Wild Things, and Pushing Daisies, it’s probably right up your alley. Granted, if I had a kid under the age of 10, I probably wouldn’t let them watch the series due to a few tense and scary moments here and there (most of which are in the aforementioned trailer). But for everyone else, it’s family entertainment of the best sort. 

 

My only concern is that if the show gets picked up for a second season—and it almost certainly will, given its popularity and cliffhanger ending—I hope it manages to hang onto its optimism, tenderness, and wide-eyed sense of wonder. We need more of that on TV, now more than ever.

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.