Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: Criterion's 'Dr. Strangelove' Blu-ray

Stanley Kubrick had been an audacious filmmaker since he’d made his flawed debut Fear and Desire and a great one since he’d made The Killing, but with Lolita, he truly hit upon the qualities that made him a giant by combining the scandalous with the satirical and presenting it with grand scope. Lolita was a great film, but even its most loyal fans had to admit that he mostly skirted the scandalous nature of Nabokov’s novel (by necessity of course… that book would still be pretty impossible to film faithfully today). With his next project, he let its scandalous nature drop on audiences like a bomb, and his decision to film Peter George’s Cold War doomsday thriller Red Alert as the most absurd satire he’d ever make did not blunt its scandalousness one iota. In fact, by making asses of the U.S. military and Soviet leadership and highlighting the U.S. President’s complete inability to juggle them, he made an already controversial story even more daring.

Decades beyond the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, remains a towering piece of cinema because of its heroic ability to laugh in the face of disaster—and not just the threat of disaster, but a disaster that actually comes to pass in the film (errr, spoiler alert)—and its power to still make us laugh. Nuclear annihilation is probably the most serious, horrifying event imaginable, but Kubrick treats the topic with helium-huffing silliness. There are a few relatively serious characters to ground the story in reality—President Merkin Muffley and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (pay no attention to their names. They’re serious.), both played by master clown Peter Sellers, ironically enough—but the rest of the cast is totally gonzo with Slim Pickens as a shit-kickin’ air force captain, Keenan Wynn as a dense Colonel who frets about the consequences of shooting a Coke machine, Sterling Hayden as the monstrous embodiment of McCarthy paranoia, and Sellers, again, as a Nazi mad-scientist with some pretty grotesque ideas about saving the remaining human race.

While most of Stanley Kubrick’s films have been readily available in hi-def in the United States since the dawn of blu-ray, Dr. Strangelove has been an odd duck, going in and out of print as a stand-alone release. After all this high jinks, the Criterion Collection that is now releasing a gorgeously high-contrast, beautifully detailed, naturally grained blu-ray of one Kubrick’s and cinema’s finest, and there will now be no question that this is the definitive home-video version of Dr. Strangelove.

Three and a half hours of bonus materials cover nearly every aspect of the film that begs for further exploration. The film’s essential history (a 46-minute documentary called “Inside Dr. Strangelove”); portraits of Kubrick (“The Art of Stanley Kubrick”), Sellers (“Best Sellers”), and Peter George; a documentary that puts the film in the context of its troubled times (“No Fighting in the War Room”); period interviews with Kubrick, Sellers, and George C. Scott; and assorted retrospectives by film historians lead the pack.  Much of this stuff has slipped out on previous editions of the film, but it gets the job done well enough to warrant rerelease here.

The big surprise among the bonus material is a 14-minute featurette starring Richard Daniels, the senior man at the Stanley Kubrick Archives. This is a Kubrick geek’s dream as Daniels leads us through oodles of memorabilia, props, script drafts, press packs, projectionist directives, and letters. He shows off the original memo from the U.S. Air Force demanding a disclaimer be plopped on the beginning of the film and reveals Kubrick’s casting wish list from the days before Red Alert went silly (Burt Lanchaster as the president, Orson Welles as the Russian ambassador…).

The final cherry on this cherry bomb is the coolest packaging I’ve ever seen on a Criterion release. An essay by David Bromwich is typed up as a reproduction of the Top Secret Attack Plan R from the film. Another by Strangelove-screenwriter Terry Southern is printed in a phony girly magazine complete with hilarious ads and centerfold of Ms. Foreign Affairs. The technical specs are printed in a miniature Bible/Rooshan phrase book, and all of these goodies are packaged in a recreation of the envelope that houses the attack plan in the film. The only things that are missing are chewing gum, lipsticks, and prophylactics. Shoot, a fella’ could still have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this blu-ray.
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