FilmStruck offers great films and poor tech

As soon as I heard about FilmStruck–the new movie-streaming collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection–I eagerly waited for it to open its virtual doors. When it went online November 1, I signed up right away. But as my two-week free trial came to an end, technical and web design issues forced me to cancel my subscription. And even that cancellation was needlessly difficult due to bad website design.

And that’s a real shame, because FilmStruck offers the best selection of movies that a cinephile could hope for. An account gives you access to 25 of Akira Kurosawa’s 30 films, plus large selections of Chaplin, Almodóvar, Godard, and others. Available movies include A Room with a View, Tom Jones, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Kid Brother, The Magic Flute, and The Exterminating Angel–and that’s just in the comedy section. Every genre you pick will be filled with beloved classics and little-known gems.

Kid Brother

And since Criterion is involved, you get extras, as well. Check out this regularly-updated list of available commentary tracks.

The Viewing Experience

But these great movies and informative extras lose a lot if you can’t send them to your television. Yes, I know that some people like watching films on a laptop or even (gag!) a smartphone, but I’m not one of them. If I can’t conveniently stream a movie to my HDTV, I don’t want to pay for the streaming service.

If you have an Amazon FireTV or an Apple TV (I don’t), you should have no trouble watching FilmStruck movies on your television. But if you stream through Roku or Chromecast (I have both), you’re out of luck. FilmStruck promises to add support for these platforms early next year. You can download iOS and Android FilmStruck apps now, but they currently lack the Chromecast support that’s built into most video-playing apps on these platforms.

Chromecast icon on Fandor Android app

You can probably connect your laptop to your TV, and I’ve been doing it a lot these past couple of weeks. But it’s a hassle to set up, and if your laptop lacks an HDMI port, you’ll have to buy some sort of adapter. You can use a wireless mouse as a remote control, but even pausing a movie that way can be awkward.

What’s more, every FilmStruck feature I watched on my laptop (with or without the TV) had buffering problems. Every so often, the image would freeze and a spinning graphic told me to wait. Once I waited several minutes and had to refresh the webpage. I rarely experience buffering issues with other streaming services.

The Website Experience

The FilmStruck website places curated selections front and center. As I write these, the FilmStruck tab offers World Discoveries, Native People, Native Lands, Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and others. On The Criterion Channel tab, there’s The Mustache Club, Adventures in Moving Going, and a double feature of The Lady Vanishes and The Vanishing. You can also browse by Genre, Recently Added, Popular Titles, and so on. And, of course, you can search for a title or a filmmaker.

FilmStruck website

But the search tool had problems. I searched for Akira Kurosawa, and found 25 of his films plus the documentary A.K. But I also found several Japanese films that had nothing to do with the master filmmaker. What these films did have was a director or cast member named Akira something or something Kurosawa. It’s a good thing I didn’t search for John Ford. Putting “Akira Kurosawa” in quotes resulted in no finds at all.

The site doesn’t always handle shorts well. Rather than offering Chaplin’s 12 Mutual comedies separately, they’re collected into three “features” called Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies, Part 1, 2, and 3.

Another organizing problem: Whoever wrote the alphabetizing algorithm didn’t understand how to treat the word The at the beginning of a title. The 400 Blows, The Bad Sleep Well, and The Last Laugh all come up in the Ts.

I could excuse bad organization if I could easily get the stream to my TV. Since I can’t, I chose to cancel my membership before the two-week free trial ended. And that’s when I discovered just how truly bad the FilmStruck website can be.

I could find no workable way to cancel my subscription. I found links that promised to help me do just that, but when I clicked on such a link, it brought me to a page with another promising link. And then another, and another, until I was back where I started. I used their tech support chat feature, and the support person gave me instructions with included clicking a link that wasn’t there. She gave up and promised that “I will put in a ticket for you to cancel your account. We will be in touch with you via email when it is resolved.”

I never received the email, but my account has been cancelled.

Which means I can’t stream anything of Criterion’s. The company stopped licensing their films to Hulu and Fandor when FilmStruck opened.

The people running FilmStruck clearly love cinema and want to bring us great films. But when it comes to sending those films down to the user, or creating a proper website, they have a lot to learn.

The Best of the Marx Brothers in one Blu-ray Box

The Marx Brothers used comedy to deflate the pompous and tear down the establishment. They turned respectable, upper-class society into anarchy and surrealism. They also made us laugh.

The brothers honed their comedy in vaudeville, jumped to Broadway, and made the leap to Hollywood at the height of the talkie revolution. They made their first five films at Paramount–the earliest surviving records of Marxist comedy that show them in their purist form.

Universal, which owns most Paramount films from that era, has restored these films and released them in a Blu-ray boxed set: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.

Finally, these films get the home treatment they deserve.

All five movies provide a wonderful female foil for Groucho. Margaret Dumont, the greatest straight man (actually a woman) of all time takes that role In The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. In Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, the beautiful and talented comedienne Thelma Todd spars with Groucho.

The Cocoanuts

Their first film–an amateurish effort with occasional scenes of brilliance–only hints at the laughs to come. But It’s fascinating to watch, if only for historical perspective.

The Marx Brothers first tried a long-form, story-based show in 1925 with the Broadway musical The Cocoanuts. In 1929, the Brothers filmed the play in a Queens studio during the day, while performing their second play, Animal Crackers, on Broadway at night. This is a very early talkie; the opening credits brag that you’re about to see “A Paramount Sound Picture.”

Cocoanuts suffers from the bad audio, static staging, and utilitarian photography of the transitional period–despite a few attempts at visual flair. The movie spends too much time on the stupid jewel-thieve plot and on the songs–none of which are song by the Marx Brothers (Harpo and Chico do get to play their harp and piano solos). Groucho’s usually brilliant timing fails him often in this movie; perhaps he wasn’t yet comfortable performing for a group of technicians trying desperately not to laugh.

But the non-speaking Harpo–the only member of the cast who didn’t have to worry about standing near a hidden microphone–gives his best screen performance. Whether he’s drinking ink, stealing handkerchiefs, or “swimming” across a perfectly dry room, he’s both hilarious and transcendent.

Animal Crackers

Like The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brother’s second movie is a crude adaption of a Broadway play. And yet it’s a vastly superior film, and one of their best.

For one thing, it’s a better play. Set in a big high-society party, Animal Crackers understands what Marxist humor is all about: taking all that is respectable and turning it upside down.

Technically, it’s nowhere near as crude as The Cocoanuts, with considerably better sound. And all four Marx Brothers now seem comfortable on a soundstage. Their timing is impeccable.

The new restoration brings back almost two minutes of previously missing footage–mostly risqué dialog removed by the Hayes Office years after the movie’s original release. It’s great to have it back.

Monkey Business

The first Marx Brother film not based on a stage play starts off as one of their best. But it fails to maintain momentum.

Here the Brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner. While the crew chase the stowaways, Groucho and Chico break into the captain’s cabin and insult him while they eat his lunch.

There’s a plot involving rival, good and bad gangsters. The bad gangster is married to Thelma Todd, which doesn’t stop Groucho’s flirtations. “Young lady, you’re making history. In fact, you’re making me, and I wish you’d keep my hands to yourself.”

But the movie slows down when everyone makes it to dry land and high society. Too many characters onscreen seem to enjoy the Brothers’ antics, which makes them less funny for the audience. On the upside, Groucho and Todd have another wonderful scene together. But the ending is a complete loss.

Horse Feathers

At Huxley College, the professors are pompous windbags with beards and mortarboards, while the students care only about football. But with Groucho running the college, nothing can be taken seriously. This is one of their funniest.

For the first time in a Marx Brothers movie, the plot doesn’t interfere with the fun. Necessary exposition runs by quickly and efficiently.

Horse Feathers does something unique musically for a Marx Brothers film. Each brother gets to perform their own rendition of the film’s romantic song, Everyone Says I Love You.

Unfortunately, some footage was lost over the decades. Jump cuts and lost words interfere with one of the movie’s best sequences, ruining the precision timing. Perhaps one day a complete version of this scene will turn up. Let’s hope so.

Duck Soup

The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece takes place high in the government of the mythical country of Freedonia. Could there be a better setting for attacking the self-important and pompous?

The film has no romance, little exposition, and even lacks the piano and harp solos in every other Marx Brothers movie. I won’t go into details on this one. I’ve already written about it.

How They Look

These films are over 80 years old, and for the most part they have not been well preserved. Universal presents all five movies in 1080p, pillarboxed to about 1.33×1.

Animal Crackers, restored from a duplicate negative found in England,
looks breathtakingly beautiful from start to finish. The other four movies vary in quality. Some scenes look great; others look horrible. Most of the time, they’re acceptable but not extraordinary.

How They Sound

Universal presents these movies in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.

The Cocoanuts suffers from a lot of noise and an extremely small dynamic range. But what can you expect from a 1929 talkie.

The other movies sound as good as one could reasonably expect, considering their vintage.

And the Extras

  • Resume feature: When you insert one of the three discs a second time, you have an option to return to where you left off.
  • Booklet: The Marx Brothers from Vaudeville to Hollywood: Adapted from Robert S. Bader’s book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. The article sticks mostly to money matters.
  • The Cocoanuts commentary: Anthony Slide talks quite a bit about director Robert Florey, whom he obviously reveres. But he also discusses the play, the movie, and the Brothers.
  • Animal Crackers commentary: Jeffrey Vance offers some interesting facts, but sometimes goes off topic.
  • Monkey Business commentary: Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (Harpo’s son) talk about the Brothers’ stage work and how that effected the Paramount movies. Other topics include the Brothers’ personal lives, and Zeppo’s unusually large part in Monkey Business.
  • Horse Feathers commentary: F. X. Feeney offers some interesting bits of knowledge. But he also sits quietly for much of the time. I also noted some errors (the name Chico is pronounced chick-oh, not cheek-oh).
  • Duck Soup commentary: Leonard Maltin and Robert S. Bader provide excellent commentary about every aspect of the movie.
  • The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos: 1080p; 80 minutes. This entertaining and informative documentary feature was made for this box set.
  • Inside the NBC Vault-The Today Show Interviews: 480i; 17 minutes. Not all that illuminating, but you get to see older versions of Groucho and Harpo, and quiver at the sexism in 1960s TV talk shows.

Along time in the making: Boyhood on Blu-ray

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is such a unique and important experience that I had to make an exception. I usually limit my Blu-ray reviews to classic films. But when I discovered that Criterion was releasing a two-disc, supplement-filled Blu-ray release of Richard Linklater’s epic story of everyday life, I had to give it a good, long look.

We’ve watched movie series where the characters–and the actors playing them–aged from film to film, as in the Harry Potter series and Linklater’s own Before trilogy. And we’ve seen films, set over many years, with different actors playing the same person at different points of their life, such as Little Big Man and A Man Called Ove.

But Boyhood is different. Linklater shot the film, with an unchanging cast, in short increments, over a 12-year period. The central character, Mason, and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane, were both six when they started shooting; character and actor were both 18 when they finished. This gives the story a reality that’s rare in a film set in a span of years.

It also required a considerable gamble for the investors. You can’t contractually lock a six-year-old child into a twelve-year-old commitment. Luckily, everyone stuck to it and the movie got made.

Something else unique: The film has no conventional conflict-based plot. The things that happen to Mason and his family are, for the most part, things that happen all the time. With one exception, there’s no real drama of the sort we have come to expect as moviegoers. For the most part, the film avoids life’s big moments (first kiss, graduation, and so on), concentrating on everyday experiences.

But everyday experiences can be difficult. Mason’s parents, who became parents much too early, have already broken up when the story begins. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) struggles to make ends meet as she raises Mason and his older sister, Samatha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater). Mom tends to make poor choices in men. Their father (Ethan Hawke) has some growing up to do himself.

As I watched Boyhood for the third time, I became more impressed with the risks Linklater made in creating this work. Would a 2014 audience remember Sarah Palin’s daughter–discussed in a scene shot in 2008? How could he know that the six-year-old Coltrane would grow into such a good-looking teenager? I don’t know if Apple helped finance the film, but if you watch the props, you’ll see an evolution in the company’s consumer products.

As much as Boyhood captures Texas in the early 21st century, its story is universal. I saw a lot of my own youth (in LA in the 1960s and early 70s) in this story.

I reviewed Boyhood when it came out in 2014. You’ll find more about this exceptional film in that review.

How It Looks

Boyhood will probably be Linklater’s last film shot in 35mm. When he started shooting Boyhood in 2002, digital cameras couldn’t compete with physical film. He went digital with Bernie and Before Midnight, in between Boyhood shoots,
but for the sake of visual consistency, he stuck with film on the 12-year project.

Criterion’s Blu-ray, presents these film-based images in 1080p, with a very small letterbox to achieve the theatrical 1.85×1 aspect ratio. It was scanned at 2K from the original negative; I assume it’s the same scan used for the DCP-based theatrical release.

The results look great for the most part. Just one party scene, shot as a night exterior, showed too much contrast; I don’t remember noticing that when I saw it theatrically.

How It Sounds

The original 5.1 soundtrack is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio. No complaints.

And the Extras

  • The package comes with a printed booklet, most of which is taken up by Jonathan Lathem’s essay, The Moment Seizes You. The booklet also includes credits for the film and the disc. (One interesting tidbit: The original title was 12 Years. The release of 12 Years a Slave forced them to pick a new title.)
  • Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the movie has a timeline where you can store bookmarks. It also remembers where you were when you last removed the disc, and offers to bring you back there when you reinsert it.
  • Commentary: Linklater and members of the cast and crew discuss the film. I was surprised to discover how much the film reflects Linklater’s own childhood. Occasionally dull be usually interesting.

The rest of the extras are on the second disc.

  • Twelve years: 1080i; 49 minutes. Like Boyhood itself, this making-of documentary was 12 years in the making. Linklater and major cast members talk during the long filming.
  • Memories of the Present: 1080p; 58 minutes. Conversation with Linklater, Arquette, and Contrane. Moderated by Variety’s John Pierson. They cover a lot of topics. Sometimes interesting, sometimes boring.
  • Always Now: 1080p; 30 minutes. Conversation with Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane. They talk about the experience of making and promoting the film. It gives you a sense of who these people are.
  • Time of Your Life: 1080p; 12 minutes. Video essay by Michael Koresky, narrated by Ellar Coltrane. Concentrates on Linklater’s use of time in his films.s Just okay.
  • Though the Years: 1080p. 24 minutes. Members of the cast and crew narrate their own experiences, accompanied by production photos by Matt Lankes. Partially promotion for Lankes’ book, this short shows the emotional experience of an off-and-on, 12-year movie shoot.

What’s missing? The trailer.

High Noon Blu-ray Review

Small, compact, and brimming with suspense, High Noon feels nothing like the other A westerns of the post-war period–epic movies like Red River, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers. With its 85-minute runtime and looks-like-every-other-western sets, it feels more like the forgettable B oaters Hollywood was cranking out weekly in those days.

But unlike those cheapies, it had an expensive cast (headed by Gary Cooper), a talented director in Fred Zinnemann, and a crackerjack screenplay by Carl Foreman. With all that talent, it stands out as one of the best westerns of the 1950s–and one of the most controversial.

The plot is simple enough. On his last day on the job, which is also his wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) discovers that murderer Frank Miller will arrive on the noon train to murder Kane. Miller’s three buddies are waiting at the train station already.

Against the wishes of his new wife, a Quaker and pacifistic (a not-yet famous Grace Kelly), he sets out to line up a posse to take care of the bad guys. But one by one, his so-called friends turn away from him, leaving him to face four killers on his own.

Westerns always celebrate courage, but Cooper’s Kane feels more courageous than most. He’s facing almost certain death. Everyone tells him to run away. He’s terrified and comes close to crying (Cooper won an Oscar for the performance). But he still does what he has to do.

This is a very self-contained film in something very close to real time. The story appears to take place in something very close to the film’s 85-minute runtime.

At the time Foreman was writing High Noon, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for his left-wing activities. He assumed, correctly it turned out, that High Noon would be the last film he’d be able to put his name on for some time. The story of a man insisting on doing the right thing, and having his friends turn on him for it, would have meant a lot to an ex-Communist working in Hollywood in the early 1950s.

Not everyone approved of High Noon, and many still object to it. Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo (an even better western, where the marshal refuses help from the citizens) as an answer to High Noon. And Samuel Fuller’s 40 Guns ends in a scene that is similar to–yet shockingly different from–High Noon’s climax.

How It Looks

Shot in 35mm black and white, High Noon recently received a 4K digital restoration. Olive Films presents this new restoration in a glorious 1080p Blu-ray, pillarboxed to the appropriate 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

I’ve never seen it look this good–and I’ve seen it in 35mm. The detail is absolutely amazing. You can see wood grain even in the long shots. And when you can’t see the wood grain, it’s because you can see the film grain.

The grayscale isn’t all that great. But High Noon never really had much of a grayscale, even on film. That was apparently intentional.

How It Sounds

Olive presents High Noon’s original mono soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is as good as it should be for a low-budget film from 1952.

And the Extras

Olive Films built a reputation on licensing classic films and releasing them with good transfers but no extras. This release of High Noon marks the new Olive Signature series, with extras.

  • A Ticking Clock: 6 minutes; 1080p. Academy Award Nominee Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) discusses the movie’s real-time structure and the use of clocks. Fascinating and too short.
  • A Stanley Kramer Production: 14 minutes; 1080p. Michael Schlesinger talks about High Noon’s producer, who would soon be a major director. It’s a quick overview of his career, from someone who loves It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World far more than I do.
  • Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon: 9 minutes; 1080p. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood,
    talks about the blacklist and Foreman in particular. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein adds additional insight.
  • Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon: 12 minutes; 1080p. This visual essay covers the making of the film, the blacklist issue, and Gary Cooper’s involvement. Until I saw this, I had no idea that Poland’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement used an image from High Noon in a poster.
  • Uncitizened Kane: Essay by Sight & Sound editor Nick James. You can read this article on your TV screen via the disc, or on the printed booklet that comes in the package. I read it from the booklet. It’s worth reading.
  • Theatrical trailer

This disc is available now.

Chimes at Midnight Blu-ray Review

Orson Welles boiled down five related Shakespeare plays, found the comic tragedy at their core, and created a masterpiece. Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, has been unavailable in anything like a complete version for decades. With the recent theatrical restoration, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray based on that restoration, it’s finally available in all of its troubled glory.

Chimes takes its story, inspirations, and most of its dialog from Henry IV Parts I and II, concentrating on Shakespeare’s ultimate loveable scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff (played, of course, by Welles, himself). Fat, drunken, and duplicitous, Falstaff embraces life and all the joys it provides. His self-serving yet occasionally wise philosophy provide much of the comedy. But age and rejection will turn him into a tragic figure. (A smattering of dialog comes from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor–a comedy Shakespeare wrote to exploit the popular Falstaff character.)

The plot: King Henry IV (John Gielgud) faces insurrections in his kingdom and his family. The family problem involves his son and heir, Hal (Keith Baxter). Prince Hal ignores his royal chores, preferring to spend his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with Falstaff and his friends. Hal is caught between two worlds and two father figures, and his inevitable decision to take on his responsibilities will break Falstaff’s heart.

Welles created a believable and effective medieval world on an extremely limited budget. Mistress Quickly’s inn (no one seems to believe her claim that it’s not a bawdy house) is large, specious, and filled with raunchy joy. And yet the king’s austere and forbidding castle looms over it.

A seemingly large battle, brilliantly edited to disguise the thin budget, makes up the film’s centerpiece. Close-ups of mud and dying soldiers, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes fast, plays against a haunting music score that avoids heroics.

And through that battle, Welles provides comic relief as a Falstaff in absurdly fat armor, trying to find the safest spot on the battlefield. And his words condemn the romantic view of war: ” What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.”

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey–although Rey’s voice was dubbed in by someone else. Keith Baxter, who never gained true movie star status despite his looks and talent, plays the second lead, Prince Hall.

Chimes at Midnight has been a difficult film to see, at least in a decent form, for decades. It’s good to have it back.

How It Looks

Edmond Richard beautifully shot Chimes at Midnight in black and white (Welles called black and white “the actor’s friend”). The short lenses, deep focus, and strong contrasts makes this very much an Orson Welles film.

Criterion’s 1080p transfer does it justice. This is a beautiful disc. The image is pillarboxed to 1.66×1–the standard European widescreen of the time.

How It Sounds

The film’s audio has always been its one big weakness. Like most of Welles’ European films, the dialog was recorded after the film was shot. The words and the actors’ lips don’t always match–especially near the beginning. Sometimes, a minor character talks in what is clearly Welles’ own voice. It’s distracting.

The restoration fixed the soundtrack about as well as it could be fixed. But for some strange reason, the uncompressed, 24-bit, mono LPCM soundtrack was transferred at a very low volume. You have to turn up the audio to hear it properly.

And the Extras

Criterion shot four new interviews for this release. All of them are shown in 1080p, with clips from the films and stills from Welles’ life.

  • Poster and article: Inside the package, you’ll find a folded sheet of paper. One side has an expressionistic illustration of the characters from the film. The other contains an article by Michael Anderegg that places the film in the context of Welles as an interpreter of Shakespeare on the stage and on film.
  • Timeline: Like all Critierion discs, this one has a timeline where you can add shortcuts. It also has a bookmark feature, that lets you insert the disc and get back to where you left off.
  • Commentary track: By James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. Interesting. He talks about the characters, the stage version made before the movie, the camera work, and just about everything. But Naremore made one serious mistake, assigning a scene from one play to another.
  • Keith Baxter interview: 30 minutes. He discusses the making of the stage and film versions, and working with Welles and Gielgud.
  • Beatrice Welles interview: 15 minutes. Orson’s daughter was only nine when she played a role in the film. Here she discusses what it was like having Orson Welles as a father. Interesting at first, but it gets dull.
  • Simon Callow interview: 32 minutes. An actor and a Welles biographer, Callow played Falstaff in a 1998 production of the Chimes at Midnight stage play. Here he discusses Welles and his identification with Falstaff, as well as how the film was made and barely distributed. This is the best of the four new interviews.
  • Joseph McBride interview: 27 minutes. Yet another biographer. This interview covers a lot of what’s already in the Callow interview, but it has some original content, as well.
  • The Merv Griffin Show: 1080i (although it looks like standard definition), 11 minutes. This excerpt from a 1965 episode has Griffin interviewing Welles in his editing room while he adds finishing touches to the movie. It shows the editing tools of the day, and some footage of the battle scene. Welles discusses both this film and some career highlights.
  • Trailer: 1080p; 2 minutes. Clearly a new trailer for this restoration. Fun.

The disc goes on sale August 30.

A+ List: The world ends with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of laughs in Criterion’s Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, manages to terrify the audience, hold them in suspense, and trick them into rooting for people about to cause Armageddon, all the while generating side-splitting laughter.

As the darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove earns its place on my A+ list, To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, that I personally loved for decades. In the case of Strangelove, I decided to promote it from A to A+ while preparing this review.

Considering the film’s Cold War roots, it’s amazing how well Dr. Strangelove stands up. When it was made in 1963 (it opened early in ’64), the USA and the USSR were in a nuclear game of chicken that could have wiped out humanity in hours. Not only were they competing to make more and bigger bombs; they were creating faster hair triggers for instant retaliation.

Dr. Strangelove rides on this fear. The psychotic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) decides on his own to start World War III, and thus orders his pilots to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. No one else knows the code that will recall the planes. The military and political leaders–who set up the system that allowed Ripper to destroy the world–are too busy fighting amongst themselves to help much.

And that’s what makes Dr. Strangelove relevant in 2016. We still live in a world run by egotistical incompetents who will quite likely destroy civilization.

It helps that Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker, and this story in particular played to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Since it’s a broad farce with no room for empathy, Kubrick’s coldness doesn’t hurt the story. And yet Kubrick and his writing collaborators Terry Southern and Peter George (who also wrote the serious novel on which the film was based) manage to create suspense.

Without a likeable protagonist to root for, there’s nothing Hitchcockian about Dr. Strangelove ‘s suspense. You can’t really care what happens to the characters on the screen. But you’re worried for yourself, your friends, and your family. These will be the victims should the dolts onscreen fail to stop a nuclear war.

And yet, at the climax, Kubrick briefly tricks us into rooting for the very people whose success will wipe us out.

None of this would have worked without the humor. (Kubrick started the script as a drama, then decided to make it a farce.) Much of the comedy is so subtle you might miss it, such as the binder labelled World Targets in Megadeaths. Others are broad, such as George C. Scott’s mid-sentence pratfall. (Kubrick filmed a pie fight but left it on the cutting room floor.) As President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellers gives one of cinema’s great comic monologues. It’s a phone call, and we don’t hear the voice on the other end of the line. But how do you explain an accidental nuclear attack to a drunk Russian Premiere named Kissov?

Dr. Strangelove brims with silly yet appropriate names. There’s General Buck Turgidson (Scott), Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers), and Major King Kong (originally to be played by Peter Sellers, but replaced at the last minute with a very funny Slim Pickens).

Kubrick appropriately described Dr. Strangelove as a “nightmare comedy.” I wish he’d made more of them.

How It Looks

Gilbert Taylor shot Dr. Strangelove in black and white–in the last years before color became completely ubiquitous. He used the medium boldly, with very deep blacks and shining whites. The images look like a cross between film noir and a really bad acid trip.

Columbia’s 4K restoration, the same one used for theatrical DCP projection, catches that grey scale, and shows plenty of grain. Criterion’s 1080p transfer to Blu-ray looks great.

How It Sounds

Criterion’s disc offers two versions of the soundtrack. The default, and the one I recommend, is the original mono, presented here as a 24-bit, uncompressed LPCM single track. It sounds excellent.

And then there’s the new 5.1 surround mix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As near as I could tell, it still sounded like mono.

And the Extras

Pretty much all Criterion discs come packaged with some sort of pamphlet, poster, or booklet. But for Dr. Strangelove, they really went to town. If you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t get the jokes in the paper-based extras:

  • The Top Secret Code R envelope contains:
  • A “TOP SECRET” memo, printed to look like a 60’s-style typewriter. The contents of this memo is an essay by David Bromwich about Kubrick, the cold war, and Dr. Strangelove.
  • A teeny, tiny little book titled Holy Bible & Russian Phrases. And yes, it contains some English-to-Russian phrases, but no holy scripture. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, along with About the Restoration. All in absurdly tiny print.
  • A 20-page booklet filled with a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern about the making of the movie. Amongst other things, it gives a thorough and possibly accurate description of the lost pie fight. Also included: cheesecake photos of Tracy Reed (the only woman in the cast) as Miss Foreign Affairs.

“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

The disc has 14 supplemental videos, which come to about 3½ hours of additional viewing. Many of them are interesting, but they soon become repetitive.

  • Stanley Kubrick: 1080p, 3 minutes. Excerpts from physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein’s 1966 audio interview with the filmmaker. Illustrated with slides.
  • Mick Broderick: 1080p, 19 minutes. Film scholar Broderick discusses Kubrick’s move from director to producer/director with Dr. Strangelove. New.
  • The Art of Stanley Kubrick: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 14 minutes. Made in 2000. A documentary on Kubrick’s career up through Strangelove.
  • Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike: 1080p; 12 minutes. In this new doc, the film’s camera operators talk about working with Kubrick.
  • Inside “Dr. Strangelove”: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 46 minutes. This 2000 documentary on the making of the film is by far the best of the extras.
  • Richard Daniels: 1080p, 14 minutes. Richard Daniels of the Stanley Kubrick Archive tells us about the letters, memos, drawings, etc. around Dr. Strangelove, and what they tell us about the making of the film. New.
  • David George: 1080p; 11 minutes. David George, son of author Peter George, talks about his father and the writing of Dr. Strangelove. Among other things, he says that the final film follows the plot of his father’s book very closely. New.
  • No Fighting in the War Room: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 30 minutes. This 2004 documentary examines the Cold War and the dangers, then and now, of nuclear war. Interview subjects include Robert McNamera, Roger Ebert, and Spike Lee. Very good.
  • Best Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 18 minutes. From 2004. Roger Ebert, Michael Palin and others talk about Peter Sellers’ genius, with an emphasis on Dr. Strangelove.
  • Rodney Hill: 1080p; 17 minutes. Film scholar Hill tries unsuccessfully to put Dr. Strangelove into a Joseph Campbell/heroes-and-myth context. New.
  • George C: Scott and Peter Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 7 minutes. From 1963. As part of the film’s marketing, Scott and Sellers were filmed answering unasked questions. Later, TV newscasters would read the questions to give the illusion of a real interview. Since we have to wait as they pretend to listen to questions, it’s kind of boring.
  • Today: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 4 minutes. From a 1980 TV interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Short and unenlightening.
  • Exhibitor’s Trailer: 1080p; 17 minutes. Simultaneously fascinating and boring. Apparently, the movie was marketed to theaters with unedited takes–and not the takes used in the final cut–while a dull-voiced narrator explains the plot in detail. It’s those alternate takes that make it fascinating.
  • Theatrical Trailer: 1080p; 3 minutes. An utterly bizarre and entertaining trailer.

The Criterion Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, June 28.

The New Buster Keaton Shorts Collection on Blu-ray

How can anyone describe the beauty, grace, and breathtaking hilarity of Buster Keaton in his silent film prime? An actor, an acrobat, and a brilliant filmmaker, he spent the 1920s making some of the funniest and technically sophisticated comedies ever preserved on film.

Since I can’t describe him, here’s a highlight reel of some of his best gags. But remember, they’re funnier in context—and with better music and clearer image quality.

On Tuesday, Kino released the new Buster Keaton Shorts Collection Blu-ray set, put together by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg–one of the world’s heroes in silent film restoration and preservation. It contains new restorations and 13 shorts that have never before been available on Blu-ray.

I reviewed a previous Buster Keaton Shorts collection back in 2011.

The 13 newly-added shorts are not, strictly speaking, Buster Keaton movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and starred in these two-reel comedies. Keaton was just part of the team. While not in Keaton’s league, Arbuckle was an astonishingly agile performer for a man of his girth. He took graceful pratfalls, jumped over fences with ease, and could juggle like a demon. Put him behind a kitchen counter with cups and knives, and he’s brilliant.

But he’s not reliably brilliant. His early shorts, such as His Wedding Night, get dull. And Keaton rarely takes the center of the screen. But he got better as he made these shorts–or perhaps he just learned to depend on Keaton. As the shorts progress, they get funnier, and Keaton becomes more prevalent.

One strange thing about the Arbuckle-Keaton films: Keaton smiles in them. That always strikes me as wrong.

The 19 shorts that Keaton made as auteur and star don’t show that sort of slow growth. By his second short, One Week (actually the first released), he’s brilliant—way above Arbuckle at his best. Even the lesser works, such as The High Sign, The Scarecrow, and The Paleface, provide amazing stunts, imaginative filmmaking, and plenty of laughs. The greats, which include Cops, The Boat, and my personal favorite, The Goat, can reasonably be called masterpieces.

One warning: Like a lot of silent comedies, these movies occasionally use racist gags that are shocking by today’s standards. Consider them troubling artifacts of their time.

This set contains five discs—two of Arbuckle films and three of Keaton’s. The five discs fit into one slim package.

Reconstructions & Rediscoveries

Lobster Films spent considerable time and money reconstructing these films. Many a problematic jump cut has been filled in with found footage.

Disc Five contains French and American versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith. The American version starts with a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith—gags that would be lost on non-English speakers. The French version has a risqué silhouette scene.

My Wife’s Relations, also a Keaton short, has an alternative ending, shown on a split screen side-by-side with the one shown for decades. I prefer the newly-discovered one.

And then there’s the original ending of Coney Island, separated from the rest of the movie because of an extremely racist gag. A new title card tells us that “The original ending of Coney Island was removed from the film by the 1920s, probably because it was considered racially offensive,” and goes on to say that “it should not be included in contemporary presentations of the film.”

That’s an odd statement. Very few people with influence objected to racist humor in those days. And there are many equally racist gags throughout the collection and elsewhere. In fact, the same gag turns up in Keaton’s Seven Chances.

How It Looks

Before opening the box, I imagined digitally-repaired, pristine images. I was disappointed. Most of these films are damaged beyond help…or beyond Lobster’s budget.

I compared a few scenes in this new release to their counterparts in the previous Keaton Shorts collection. I saw only a few significant improvements. My Wife’s Relations looks particularly good, with at least one big scratch in the old version that wasn’t in the new one.

How It Sounds

For this collection, Kino and Lobster used the talents of some of today’s major silent film accompaniment stars. These include Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, and the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The music is presented in two-track stereo uncompressed PCM. So far (I haven’t watched all of the Keaton’s yet), I haven’t heard anything I didn’t like.

The musical credits come at the end of each film. Some movies have an alternative piano score. This pianist isn’t credited.

And the Extras

In addition to the five discs, the package contains a 28-page booklet. Here you’ll find essays on the Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration and on Keaton’s solo work. Also included: a description and credits of each movie, and an article by Serge Bromberg’s article on the various versions of The Blacksmith.

About the Restoration: 7 minutes. Serge Bromberg talks very fast in French, making it difficult to follow the subtitles while looking at what he’s describing. By the second or third time you watch it, you’ll be able to learn something.

Life with Buster Keaton: 3 minutes. This short film of Keaton’s Cleopatra dance routine (also performed in the Arbuckle film, The Cook) was made in 1951 for international markets. Yes, it’s very funny.

What’s missing? The previous release contained 15 video essays—almost one for every short in the package. Most of them were entertaining and informative. But they’re not included in this version–a real shame.