Movies

Reviews: Oscar-Winning Films 2021

If we learned anything from this year’s Oscars, it’s that during a time of plague, everybody is Miss Congeniality—everyone, that is, except Aaron Sorkin. The awards were a pretty accurate reflection of the past year, with a bunch of films of middling interest rising to the top because there was nothing better out there to keep them down. That’s not to say there weren’t some intriguing films, but extraordinary ones . . ? Here’s hoping the movies follow the rest of society and rebound in a big way this year.

CLICK ON THE MOVIE TITLE OR IMAGE TO GO TO THE REVIEW

Nomadland (2020)

Picture, Director, Actress

Judas and the Black Messiah

Supporting Actor, Original Song

Minari (2020)

Supporting Actress

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Visual Effects

The Father (2020)

Actor, Adapted Screenplay

Mank (2020)

Cinematography, Production Design

Soul (2020)

Animated Feature Film, Original Score

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Feature Documentary

Reviews: Oscar-Nominated Films 2021

Since the studios are sitting on their best films as they wait out the pandemic, the Oscar pickings are awful slim this year. And many of the nominations feel like consolation prizes doled out to anyone who actually had the cojones to release a movie during a time of plague. But there are a few gems (if in the rough) in the otherwise lackluster heap, and hopefully we’ll be able to pluck out a few more nuggets as we pursue our reviews.

CLICK ON THE MOVIE TITLE OR IMAGE TO GO TO THE REVIEW

Mank (2020)

Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound, Original Score

The Father (2020)

Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress,
Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Production Design

Minari (2020)

Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay,
Original Score

News of the World (2020)

Cinematography, Original Score
Production Design, Sound

Onward

Animated Feature Film

Over the Moon (2020)

Animated Feature Film

Emma (2020)

Costume Design, Makeup & Hair Styling

Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our) Own Good?

Production Design, Visual Effects

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Visual Effects

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Feature Documentary

Nomadland (2020)

Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay
Cinematography, Film Editing

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Picture, Supporting Actor, Cinematography,
Editing, Original Song, Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah

Picture, Supporting Actor
Original Screenplay, Cinematography

Soul (2020)

Animated Feature Film, Original Score, Sound

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Animated Feature Film

Better Days

International Feature Film

Mulan (2020)

Costume Design, Visual Effects

Love and Monsters (2020)

Visual Effects

Greyhound

Sound

John Sciacca’s 4K HDR Wish List

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List

I knew going into this exercise that my list wasn’t going to contain the big, weighty titles Dennis and Mike came up with (though Amélie was on my list in my original draft—one of my very favorite foreign films that I agree with Dennis would definitely look terrific in 4K HDR!) While those two gentlemen have an almost scholarly knowledge of film history, director and cinematographer styles, and influences, I am just happy most times to sit back and be entertained. Having said that, my list definitely mirrors my taste in movies, featuring tons of mainstream titles that have received multiple Academy Award nominations and wins, and includes the No. 2 and 3 top-grossing films of all time! With few exceptions, these are probably films you already own—or have definitely watched—and a new 4K transfer would be a great reason to revisit them.

J.S.

THE ABYSS

Of course, I’m speaking about the longer, fleshed-out Special Edition version that restores a much needed 31 minutes to the theatrical release, but after 18 years, it’s time. And not only would a 4K HDR version be most welcome, so would an HD Blu-ray release! Somehow, this James Cameron film never got past DVD, and it would definitely benefit from the full 4K treatment. With lots of dark underwater shots and bright lighting, The Abyss is another great candidate for a 4K HDR transfer, and all of the water drips and acoustics aboard Deep Core would certainly benefit from an expanded Atmos sound mix.

 

AVATAR

James Cameron’s world of Pandora was so real, some people actually felt depressed when the movie was over. Just think how gorgeous Pandora would look at night in 4K HDR, with all of that bioluminescent plant and animal life glowing on the screen. Still one of the best 3D experiences I’ve ever had, Avatar in 4K would have incredible richness and depth, and would also be a great lead-in to the sequels that are supposedly coming . . . one day. 

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

This happens to be the 60th anniversary of the film so it’s the perfect opportunity to relive this Blake Edwards classic! And after seeing how fantastic My Fair Lady looked in its recent full restoration with a new 4K HDR scan, I can’t wait to see how Tiffany’s would look. And, of course, any opportunity to revisit Audrey Hepburn is one worth taking.

 

DAS BOOT

One of the greatest submarine films ever made—arguably the greatest—Wolfgang Petersen’s 209-minute epic director’s cut is a claustrophobic, cramped, sweaty adventure as you spend hours trapped in the tight, pressurized confines of a German U-

boat on the run, getting to know the crew and see how they tick and work under pressure. The dark interiors of the sub will definitely benefit from HDR, and a new Atmos soundtrack will expand the already immersive Dolby Digital version.

 

THE INDIANA JONES TRILOGY

The rumor mill says this one will likely be coming later this year to correspond with a new, fifth Indy film, but until the Trilogy actually arrives, these movies will be on the top of many people’s 4K wish list. Perhaps the greatest serial film ever made, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action classic, and seeing how great the Star Wars films (specifically Empire Strikes Back) looked and sounded, I’ve no doubt these films will become home theater reference titles when they get here! From the sparkle of gold, to the intensity of flames, to the bright reds and deep shadows inside the Temple of Doom, the Indy franchise should look and sound fantastic in 4K!

 

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

With a lot of hazy, smoky, foggy images shot over the water, this Russell Crowe-led film will really benefit from the higher bitrates and resolution of a 4K HDR transfer. It also features a fantastic soundtrack and audio mix with lots of creaks and groans from the ship that will truly be elevated (literally!) by a new Atmos immersive mix.(I’ve long used the opening 

scene to demo surround systems in my custom showroom, and even in 5.1 it delivers an immersive experience!) Unfortunately for now, we can only imagine how those cannon blasts, explosions, and splintering wood and shredding sails will sound in a lossless sound mix.

 

THE STING

One of my favorite films, you don’t come to The Sting for terrific audio and video but rather for the story, the chemistry between the characters, and the snappy dialogue. Even still, it would be great to see this movie shined up like a new penny, letting you appreciate the wardrobe and set design like never before, ya folla? And a new audio mix would give Marvin Hamlisch’s ragtime arrangements more room to shine.

John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
TITANIC

At the risk of making this list overly Cameron-heavy, I had to throw in Titanic as well. One of the most successful films of all time, it definitely deserves to sail again in 4K. The lengths Cameron went to to recreate that ship’s first (and last) voyage are legendary (down to redoing the visual effects to make sure the stars were correct for how they would have been that night!), and I’d love to revisit Jack and Rose in full 4K HDR splendor to fully appreciate all of the details and designs. 

 

TRON: LEGACY

From a visual standpoint, this 2010 Tron reboot should look fantastic, with tons of glowing neon lighting inside the computer world overlaid against deep blacks, giving this the potential to be a true HDR tour de force. All of those bright transitions and shades against black can also be a real cause for banding and noise, making another reason why Legacy could look truly reference in HDR. Plus, the Daft Punk mix will (hopefully) get some expanded room to breathe and fill the room with an Atmos mix.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Michael Gaughn’s 4K HDR Wish List

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List

Trying to come up with a reasonably brief list of titles worth upgrading to 4K HDR is as maddening as lopping off hydra heads. Once you have one nailed down, up pops another equally worthy contender until you feel like you’re going to be devoured by the damn things. So what follows is far from exhaustive and is being put forth knowing full well there are scores of other titles that should have made the cut as well. To help keep things manageable, I’ve limited the list to:

 

♦  Movies from before digital filmmaking went mainstream. These are the efforts most likely to benefit from 4K HDR, if done right.

 

♦  Ones where the elements are likely to be in decent shape. As we’ve said often, UHD can work wonders but it can also be merciless at revealing flaws, so there’s little point in prioritizing titles that will just leave you asking “Why?”

 

♦  Movies as vital and relevant as anything of more recent vintage, as opposed the kind of musty old museum pieces that are easily filed away under “Classics”.

 

And there’s one other criterion: There seemed little point in pushing titles based on their popularity. Blockbusters and fan favorites will inevitably get leapfrogged to the front of any upgrade queue because, while they rarely reflect well on the filmmaking art, they’ve got the built-in advantage of fan rabidity to help ensure ROI.

 

I’ve instead focused on movies based not on their box office but their influence—especially their influence on other filmmakers. These tend to be the films that innovate instead of replicate, that are more likely to be the (sometimes awkward) expression of an individual viewpoint than of a corporate collective. “Big” movies tend to be able to fend for themselves, while more human, inherently, not accidentally, creative efforts need all the advocates they can get.

M.G.

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

All of Douglas Sirk’s subversive soap operas from the mid ‘50s should be upgraded immediately. Their influence on filmmaking has been undeniable and huge; by being so true to their era, they’ve aged well; and they’re still reliable roadmaps to how to effectively screw with the system. All That Heaven Allows goes to the head of that list, though, thanks mainly to the genius cinematography of Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), who might have done his best work here, somehow both respecting the subject matter while puckishly revealing its cheesiness.

 

THE BAND WAGON

Technicolor from the ‘50s can look garish if not handled right—partly because the original films already looked pretty gaudy and even the slightest misstep can push that completely over the line. Of course, Technicolor got goosed hardest of all in musicals, many of which have such amped-up palettes that they can be painful to watch now. (I pity the poor tech fool who gets assigned The Pirate.) But The Band Wagon is often considered the best musical ever not only because Comden and Green’s script opts for wit over jokes—an intelligence that tends to spill over into the production numbers as well—but because Vincente Minnelli deployed his Technicolor resources with taste if not always with restraint. Upgrading The Band Wagon could give it an unfiltered immediacy it hasn’t had since the day of its release.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
BARRY LYNDON

Given the phenomenal job Warner Bros. did with The Shining, it’s impossible not to be antsy to see what they’ll do with what might be the most masterfully photographed movie ever. Clockwork Orange is due out over the next few months, but that won’t give us many clues about how Lyndon will fare, since Kubrick went deliberately low-fi for Orange. But if they can pull this off, it could easily become the reference disc for judging films from before the digital era.

 

BRAZIL

How can you not? Terry Gilliam, with this film, created a style that influenced practically every film and cinematic TV series since. The trick would be upgrading it while staying true to its very deliberate messiness. This is not a film you want looking like it was shot yesterday.

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
CONTEMPT

Not only is Raoul Coutard’s cinematography brilliant, but this film—and specifically, the look of this film—has been so influential that it deserves to be pushed to the top of the Godard list. If you want to cut straight to what was coolest about the look and feel of the ‘60s, watch Contempt. Godard was mocking epics shot in widescreen (in the film, Fritz Lang famously says widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals), but makes an indelible case for it here.

(A quick digression: Foreign films tend to be treated like the Miss Congeniality of lists like this—and I’m pretty guilty of that here as well. Their influence on filmmakers, though, is on par with—and often exceeds—the influence of the stuff from their squeaky-wheel American cousins. But because they’re not big, loud, and stupid, eager to slap you on the back or punch you in the face, we don’t offer them up for consideration as often as we should.)

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

How do you pass over the film that single-handedly defined noir? People are still reinterpreting, and outright stealing from, John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography to this day. As films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove have shown, it can be a gamble whether older black & white films will hold up under the upgrade process. But Indemnity was a prestige project for Paramount, so hopefully there would be a decent source to work from.

 

THE GENERAL

Silent films tend to be as easily overlooked as foreign films but many of them are as visually compelling as anything shot today. Singling ones out for upgrades can be a tough call, though, because who knows what kind of shape the elements are in? I’m throwing The General out there because it’s as much an exercise in style as it is in genius comedy—like Matthew Brady photos come to life.

 

THE LONG GOODBYE

Robert Altman’s both affectionate and cynical reimagining of Raymond Chandler continues, like Once Upon a Time in the West (see below), to be hugely influential, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s deliberately funky cinematography could look gorgeous in 4K HDR (despite the flashing). A lot of films aim for grit—this one has it on display in every frame.

 

MANHATTAN

There are at least 15 Woody Allen films from Annie Hall on that deserve to be done in 4K HDR, but given the opprobrium that’s been heaped upon him it’s likely to be a struggle just to get couple of them upgraded. It might seem to be perverse to be pushing for what has become, decades after the fact, his most controversial film, but this is his most ambitious and satisfying work and Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography, which isn’t particularly well served by the current HD incarnation, could look spectacular in UHD.

 

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
OR
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN

John Ford was such a consummate filmmaker that at least one of his films needs to be bumped up soon—but which one? The obvious choice would be The Searchers, but that

seems too obvious. I’d opt instead for either one of these—partly because they don’t carry as much extraneous baggage as Searchers so you can appreciate Ford as an artist without getting dragged into faux notions of myth. (If we were just talking about visuals, a case could be made for the Greg Toland-lensed Long Voyage Home, but that’s not really Ford at his best.)

Michael Gaughn's 4K HDR Wish List
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

The influence of Sergio Leone’s epic, cheeky western is pervasive (Tarantino wouldn’t have a career if he couldn’t constantly pillage this film) and its reputation grows with every year. It’s not the most subtly photographed movie, but 4K could make it sublime just by staying true to its sheer widescreen filminess. And then there’s that Morricone score . . .

 

VICTOR/VICTORIA

Blake Edwards was a solid but only occasionally brilliant filmmaker, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and even The Party would all seem like good candidates for upgrades. Many film enthusiasts would vote for The Great Race, and parts of that would look spectacular, but it’s just too ungainly a film, and not that funny. Victor/Victoria is solid, beautiful, and the laughs still work—4K HDR, in competent hands, couldn’t help but enhance the experience.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Dennis Burger’s 4K HDR Wish List

Over the next three days, we’re going to be publishing our wish lists of movies we’d put at the front of the queue for 4K HDR upgrades. As is obvious from our “4K HDR Essentials,” some older titles have fared really well when brought out digitally in a form that can match their original film releases. Others, for a variety of reasons, haven’t done so well. Our lists represent the ones we think will most benefit from the upgrade.

 

You’ll find that our choices are pretty eclectic and run the gamut from mega-blockbusters to the unjustly obscure. We encourage you to check out all our wish lists to get a good sense of what the UHD re-release market could have to offer over the next couple of years.

—ed.

Dennis Burger's 4K HDR Wish List

One of my favorite college courses was Econ 101, not because of the subject matter but because of the professor. He was notoriously tough and gave all-essay exams, but he had a peculiar practice with those exams. If students took issue with a question, he encouraged us to scratch it out and write a new question in its place, then answer it. If you managed to convince him that your question was better than his question, and assuming he was satisfied with your answer, he’d give you extra credit.

 

Mind you, we don’t get extra credit here at Cineluxe, but when Mike asked me for a list of movies I wanted to see in 4K HDR, I immediately flashed back to that Econ prof. If I sat down and thought about it, I could crank out a list of 100 movies that legitimately deserve the upgrade from HD. The question I want to answer instead is not “What?” but “Why?”

 

Why do I want all of these films released in 4K HDR? That’s the real question I’m attempting to answer here. As such, you could probably substitute any of the titles below for any number of others representative of their era, their style, or the format in which they were finished.

D.B.

AMÉLIE

Apparently admitting this makes me something of a Brooklyn hipster chick, but so be it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s best film makes my heart happy. I’ve never been overly happy with its presentation on DVD or Blu-ray, though (and little birdies in Hollywood have told me that Jeunet isn’t a fan of the home video master, either). Amélie was finished in a 2K digital intermediate, so I wouldn’t expect much in the way of enhanced detail in a 4K HDR re-release (short of a complete restoration, which the film honestly doesn’t need). But watching Amélie in HD is like watching a bag of sentient Skittles trying to break out of prison and

pounding on the bars in frustration at their inability to truly live free. You can literally see where the colors are raging and straining against the limitations of older home video technology.

 

 

KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2

When you get right down to it, the real benefit of 4K HDR isn’t the extra pixels or the extra colors. For me, it’s about removing distractions. And although the Blu-ray releases of this over-the-top Quentin Tarantino mashup/homage to schlocky grindhouse cinema and martial-arts flicks are pretty great overall, I still find their limitations glaring. Some of the darker scenes are graded a little too brightly to avoid the loss of all shadow detail, and although primary colors should dominate the palette, there are scenes in both films where there’s a bit too much of a push toward the primaries. I also wouldn’t mind the option to watch The Whole Bloody Affair, the 215-minute original edit of the film that existed before Harvey Weinstein forced Tarantino to either make cuts or split it into two pictures.

 

 

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

I won’t pretend that this mid-1970s Robert Redford/Faye Dunaway/Max von Sydow vehicle is the best espionage thriller of all time. It’s a little preachy and neither as engaging as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) nor as thematically coherent as its own spiritual successor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). But dammit, I still love 

the film despite its flaws and have never been satisfied with any of its home video releases.

 

Every new Blu-ray that comes out sports a drastic shift in overall color balance. That says to me that 8-bit color simply isn’t sufficient to capture the palette of the original camera negative, and the digital wizards working on new masters are having to pick and choose how and where to limit the imagery. I want to see the colors as director Sydney Pollack and cinematographer Owen Roizman saw them, and I’m not saying HDR would guarantee that, but it would certainly make it possible. What’s more,

even the best HD transfers of the film are riddled with moiré artifacts that shine a bright light on just how much extra detail there is to be extracted from the existing elements.

 

I know the film has been restored in 4K. So it shouldn’t be that much effort to actually release it in 4K.

 

 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Recent 4K HDR releases of black & white films like It’s a Wonderful Life

and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington have demonstrated how monochromatic cinematography can benefit as much from HDR as do the most colorful of films. I’m itching to see if that holds true for my favorite Gregory Peck film and one of my favorite book adaptations in the history of cinema. The Blu-ray release from a few years back was (and still is) fantastic looking, but I have to think there’s ample additional shadow detail to be eked out of the negative, especially in the nighttime scenes, like the one in which Scout, Jem, and Dill save Atticus from an angry mob.

 

 

RAN

Several years back, StudioCanal finished an extensive frame-by-frame remaster of Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear, with color grading overseen by cinematographer Shôji Ueda. And while this elusive release was a huge improvement over previous home video efforts, it was only made available in HD, despite the restoration being done in 4K.

 

There have been rumors and rumblings of a proper 4K release, perhaps in Australia, maybe in the US. Who knows? Apparently COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench in StudioCanal’s release plans. At any rate, I’m starving for this one. While I would love to see Kurosawa’s black & white classics properly remastered in 4K (if Criterion ever gets around to supporting modern video formats), this vibrant work is the film of his I think would benefit most from the enhanced resolution and especially the expanded color gamut of 4K HDR. Watching the Blu-ray release, you can tell there’s ten pounds of color here crammed into an eight-pound bag.

Dennis Burger's 4K HDR Wish List
THE RED SHOES

I’ve had the wrong impression of Technicolor for my entire life, since I’ve never seen it projected and assumed that home video releases were at least reasonably representative of how the format was supposed to look. Due mostly to the popularity of The Wizard of Oz, we’ve all come to associate the three-strip color process with hyper-saturated colors that appear more painted than filmed. But as the 4K HDR restoration of Oz revealed (at least to me), there’s a ton of chromatic subtlety to be extracted from those old Technicolor films, and I’m itching to see classics like this given more room to breathe, without every color being cranked to 11. Unfortunately, as I hinted at above, Criterion has still yet to hop aboard the 4K train, and the film’s distribution rights are firmly in their hands. If they decide to get with the times anytime soon, I hope this is their first 4K release.

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.

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

For some probably very Freudian reason, I forgot to mention in my Annie Hall review that the HD version that recently became available on Kaleidescape makes a mess of the famous subtitle gag during Alvy and Annie’s first extended conversation together. That mistake can’t be attributed to Kaleidescape nor to whoever it is that turns out the lights over at MGM/UA these days. It’s been in every home release of the film I’ve seen. I’m pointing it out here in the hope that somebody will finally get it right when Hall (hopefully—and hopefully soon) makes its way to UHD. I’m also pointing it out as an example

of the kind of tone-deaf changes tech people with (presumably) good intentions but stunted creative instincts can introduce into a film.

 

Here’s the problem. Woody Allen carefully sets up the gag at nine minutes into Hall when Alvy refuses to go in to see Bergman’s Face to Face because Annie showed up at the theater after the movie started. (“Jesus, what did you do, come by way of the Panama Canal?”) He then suggests they go see Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity instead. When Annie says, “I’m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” Allen cuts to the beginning of the Ophuls film.

 

Anybody who knows Bergman’s movies knows they’re in for an almost continuous stream of subtitles while the actors chat and brood in Swedish. And in the days when people had to go to revival houses to see foreign films, Bergman became synonymous with subtitles, since no real cinéaste would even consider seeing a dubbed version of one of his films. Allen then reinforces that reference by showing 

the titling in the Ophuls’ movie, which looks typically rough and washed out, then hits the same note again later on with some subtitled footage when Alvy again drags Annie to The Sorrow and the Pity to avoid spending the evening with Paul Simon.

 

But when we get to the gag with Alvy and Annie talking on the terrace of her apartment, the subtitles are sharp and bright and, strangely, colorful (in yellow, no less). Far more video- than filmlike, they’re eons from anything you’d have seen in any art house of the time. By beefing them up for readability and the proclivities of the masses at home, some drone-like schmuck killed Allen’s gag—a transgression that’s persisted for decades.

The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke
The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke

Hairsplitting? A teapot tempest? Much ado . . ? The hell it is.

 

If this was a single transgression, that would be one thing, but the examples of tech guys deciding to “improve” films in post are legion, with their efforts ranging from “enhancing” titles to mucking around with the original color timing (now referred to as grading) to scrubbing away grain to that most heinous of crimes, colorization. And the potential to inflict grievous harm becomes more and more acute as the technology becomes more and more sophisticted. The problem—and it is a problem—comes down, I think, to the deeply mistaken notion that this is a tech problem when it’s actually a matter of taste. And, let’s be honest, most tech people—like people in most professions and, well, most people—lack meaningful taste, at least taste on par with the most accomplished filmmakers. It’s not unlike that well-meaning dope who’s running around Europe screwing up all those frescoes.

 

But that’s only part of the problem, because the current culture displays an unparalleled arrogance that shows a consistent contempt for the past arising from the mistaken belief that today represents some kind of signifiant leap forward, beyond being just a haphazard collection of often dubious technological improvements. This has led to the frequently cavalier treatment of older titles under the ignorant assumption that “we” somehow know better than “they” did. (It doesn’t help, of course, when contemporary filmmakers keep fiddling with their movies after release, resulting in things that are rarely a net improvement—but a great way to generate yet another revenue stream.)

 

Somebody needs to come up with the filmmaking equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and then get the vast and continually swelling hordes of techies to swear to it, on pain of death, before they’re allowed anywhere near any older films, classic or otherwise. I can tell you from experience that hardly any of these guys know how to tell a good joke—but they sure know how to ruin one.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

“Dr. Strangelove” and the Power of Blackness

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

I wasn’t going to review the latest release of Dr. Strangelove. After having basked in the 4K HDR editions of 2001 and The Shining, it didn’t feel right to underline that this newest upgrade isn’t all it could or should be. Reviews of older films should focus on the ones worth watching, not the ones to avoid. But, on a whim, I watched Strangelove again a few nights ago and experienced it in ways I never have before, and ultimately decided that, transfer quality be damned, it’s well worth encouraging others to go check it out.

 

Keep in mind, before we dive into this, that I’ve seen this movie countless times. I’ve studied various drafts of the screenplay and pored over every relevant comment from the cast and crew. I’ve even watched on archive print on a Moviola at the Library of Congress. But this last time around, the film, for whatever reason, revealed things that had always been hidden to me before.

 

The biggest revelation—and what will be the crux of my comments here—is that Strangelove is only superficially a comedy. At its heart, it’s a film noir—and, at the end of the day, might even represent the pinnacle of that genre.

 

For that conclusion to make sense, you have to be willing to roll with my definition of noir in “Who Killed Film Noir?”—that the crime element is just a pretext and that these movies are instead always about chumps—more specifically, male chumps—

guys who think they know the score only to find they really don’t have a clue, only to then have everyone and everything conspire against them, usually with fatal results. If you accept that definition, then noir fits Strangelove as snugly as the mad doctor’s Rotwang glove.

 

Yes, the film is heavy on noir atmospherics—dark recesses, menacing shadows, closeups that make it look like the subject is being interrogated under hot lights, etc.—but dwelling on that kind of misses the point, because Strangelove pulls just as many stylistic elements from crime dramas, war films, horror films, psychological thrillers, documentaries, and newsreels. The one genre it doesn’t look anything like is comedy, and that is central to what I’m positing here.

 

Strangelove is really comedy by other means. Its laughs—which are many and legitimate—spring almost solely from the extreme gruesomeness of the situation, from a kind of squeamishness and disbelief that ultimately reinforces the dominance of the Death Drive over the Pleasure Principle, and that people will blindly follow through on the inherent logic of their institutions and devices—all the while believing they’re exercising intelligence and will—even if it will result in their own annihilation.

 

This movie is satire first and comedy second. And it’s stunning, on reflection, what a serious film it is, that it trumps all of the more sophomoric movies that consider 

themselves satires by diving down deep into the same disturbing roots and unblinking take on humanity that motivated Swift. This is satire with some real meat, with more than a little gristle, on its bones—definitely not for the SNL crowd.

 

It’s also stunning to realize what a leap it is beyond the mess of Lolita. You can sense Kubrick trying to recover his creative integrity after the rout of his previous film, where the material, the censors, and, most importantly, the narrative tradition all got the better of him. Knowing most filmmakers far overrate the importance of story, which causes them to lean on it as a crutch, he had tried to subvert the conventions by notoriously moving Humbert’s murder of Quilty to the beginning of the film—a huge

miscalculation that only served to deflate the whole enterprise. He was way bolder with Strangelove, exposing the sheer contrivance of narrative by taking a clockwork-type suspense plot and twisting it around to serve ends no one would have thought it could ever possibly serve, and along the way exposing storytelling for what it mainly is: A manipulative mechanical device for efficiently getting you from Point A to Point Z, which in this case is the end of the world.

 

With Strangelove, Kubrick hit on the formula that would serve him well for the rest of his career of mimicking just enough genre conventions to entice and enthrall the groundlings and ensure the studio’s ROI, while having the movies actually function at levels that ultimately made hash of their seeming reasons to be. So Strangelove has just enough silly comedy and thriller elements to keep the masses in their seats but continuously moves up a creative chain, subsuming the more rudimentary elements along the way, until it ultimately arrives at noir—but noir in a way no one had ever seen it before.

 

To put it another way: Having been too conservative with Lolita, Kubrick 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHERE IN HELL IS MAJOR KONG?

Another thing that jumped out at me watching Strangelove this time around was the missile attack on the B-52, which is primarily an extremely believable documentary-style moment (especially for 1964) with nothing remotely funny about it. Of course, I’ve noticed this scene before—it’s kind of hard to ignore—but I realized this time how unique it is, since the list of comedies that can afford to go full-bore dramatic for a good chunk of the film without losing their momentum or completely throwing the audience is so short it probably doesn’t exist. One of Kubrick’s most brilliant set pieces, it convincingly places you inside the plane with the crew as they fight for their lives, so you identify with their efforts and then root for them to complete their mission—which has to create extremely conflicted emotions in all but the most cold-hearted since the crew’s ability to overcome is the thing that seals the fate of the world. The scene is also worth savoring for the way its chaotic handheld camerawork goes from documentary to abstract, turning it into a mini art film. Most movie scenes are too stage-bound or veer too close to radio—even today. This one is pure cinema.

M.G.

decided to completely trust his gut with Strangelove, and his gut told him to make a suspense thriller that was, incongruously, a comedy, but was actually, ultimately, a film noir. But that’s not the genius part. The genius part is that he made all three dovetail so seamlessly that the transitions from the cheap seats on up don’t feel so much perverse as inevitable.

 

Watch Strangelove through the lens of noir—noir stripped of most of its genre cliches in order to expose its white-hot core—and it becomes a different, much more nuanced and brilliant film. Noir wasn’t new to Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both overt takes on the genre, the latter unapologetically feeding from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. (Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another Kubrick favorite.)

 

But there’s another dimension to this that also deepens the experience of the film and that hadn’t been obvious to me until this most recent viewing, when I realized how heavily Kubrick tapped into his photo-journalistic beginnings. Fresh out of high school, he had been the youngest staff photographer ever at Look magazine, and it was his experiences there that supplied 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHY THIS ISN’T A REVIEW

I ultimately decided to not review this release of Strangelove because 4K HDR takes away as much as it brings to the experience, so while there’s no great harm in watching it that way, there’s no real benefit either.

 

One of the biggest problems is one common to many 4K upgrades of older films. Nobody has figured out how to accurately translate backdrops and matte paintings that looked convincing when run through a projector and shown on a big screen. Here, the opening painting of Burpleson Air Force Base and the later one of the Pentagon are so obvious that they pull you out of the film. Similarly, the model shots of the B-52, which were only borderline successful on film, look too clean and sterile and model-y now.

 

While someone could argue that the HDR increases the impact of the nuclear bomb blasts, I would have to counter that this isn’t an action or war film and that, since Kubrick relied on archival footage rather than effects shots, that’s not what he was after. Pumping the shots up that way is akin to adding cannon blasts to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—which I’m sure has been done, but not by anybody who deserved to live afterward. A more accurate example might be someone deciding to improve the impact of the Scherzo in the Ninth by doubling all the orchestral lines with synthesizers. I suspect that would make the work more compelling for those listeners with duller nerve endings but it would be an egregious violation of Beethoven’s original intent and a travesty of his work. Sure, anyone’s free to reinterpret Beethoven—or Bach or Stravinsky or Mahler—but don’t pretend you’re presenting the original piece. Leaning too heavily on HDR is like deciding this already virile composition needed an injection of testosterone.

 

And then there’s the kerfuffle over the aspect ratios. The best I can determine, Kubrick shot the film 1.33:1 and then matted it for 1.66:1. The original theatrical release was 1.85:1. But for the Criterion edition, he asked from some scenes to be shown full frame and some to be matted to 1.66, apparently in an effort to create a better viewing experience on pre-HD TVs. Yes, the ratios for home displays have since changed, and his similar tack with the release of The Shining was a disaster, but the point is that with Strangelove it worked, and I don’t get why this current release goes with a consistent 1.66.

 

But, again, this isn’t a review. It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t want to do one.

M.G.

the subject matter for his early documentary shorts and for Killer’s Kiss, which look like photo essays come to life.

 

He returns to those formative experiences and that style in Strangelove, with much of the film resembling his magazine work, most obviously in the faux documentary attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, but far more subtly and strikingly in the War Room. He went there mainly to underline that no matter how surreal, irrational, and immature a lot of the behavior and actions are in the film, they have very real consequences.

 

(But there are more layers to it than that, because Kubrick hired the controversial tabloid photographer Weegee—whose body of work essentially transformed sordid reality into noir—as his on-set photographer. That led to Peter Sellers, fascinated by Weegee’s edgy hardboiled patois, using his voice as the inspiration for Strangelove.

 

(And to complete my digression, It should be mentioned that Kubrick got to know fashion-turned-art photographer Diane Arbus well during his Look years, and later referenced her work explicitly in The Shining—which raises the point that his films are far more autobiographical and personal than the cliché take on him as cold, detached, clinical would allow.)

 

Rather than give a complete recitation of all the ways noir permeates and defines the film, I’ll just highlight a couple of key moments and you can work backward from there. Right before Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper sleepwalks off to the bathroom to commit suicide, Kubrick just holds on an uncomfortably close shot of his face, rimmed so tightly with shadows that it already resembles a death mask. As Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake sits next to Ripper, prattling on about the recall code, Kubrick just stays on the general. And although there are no obvious changes in Ripper’s expression, you 

can tell he’s realizing the full enormity of what he’s done right before disappearing completely into madness. But this is done with amazing restraint, with Kubrick resisting the temptation to go to the kind of crazy stare he would later cultivate with Jack in The Shining and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. You just sense the descent happening—almost imperceptibly, but undeniably. It might be the ultimate film noir moment.

 

That shot could have been Hayden as Johnny Clay in The Killing or as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle—it wouldn’t have looked out of place cut into either of those films. And Kubrick uses that commonality to create a through-line that traverses all 

of noir, pointing inevitably to Strangelove as its culmination.

 

Comedies usually rely on master shots instead of closeups, but Kubrick comes in similarly close on Strangelove to emphasize how much he’s caught up in, and boxed in by, his own calculations and obsessions, his own form of culturally sanctioned insanity. You’re placed just inches from a madman, and it’s as frightening as it is funny.

 

The most outrageous noir before Strangelove was Robert Aldrich’s beyond cheeky Kiss Me Deadly, which took the hugely popular Mike 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

Dix Handley

Hammer character and exposed him for the clueless goon he was. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Strangelove seems to riff on Deadly, seems to devour and digest and regurgitate it, taking the cocksure bumbling of an L.A. detective and projecting it onto the whole world, making chumps of us all.

 

Watching Strangelove today is hardly just an exercise in either nostalgia or film appreciation, something only tangentially relevant to our present. The basics of human nature haven’t changed since 1964—if anything, the blind, primal aspects have only become emboldened as the machines have taken over and we’ve become free to play. It’s not like the methods of the West have changed all that much either—except that they’ve been so successfully exported that a YouTube video from Adelaide looks identical to a YouTube video from Bhopal looks identical to one from Des Moines. And it’s not like the world doesn’t continue to bristle with nuclear arms. And it’s not like it’s become impossible for a madman to ascend to the highest levels of power.

 

Noir is who we are when we have the guts to face ourselves squarely in the mirror. And it says a lot that it’s been more than five decades since the last time any one’s bothered to take a good look.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Ep. 12: What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies? (Christmas Edition)

The Cineluxe Hour logo

After a prolonged drought of episodes, we were able to knock out a couple back-to-back. So here, on the heels of our conversation with Paradise Theater’s Sam Cavitt and his client William Erb, comes our look at the strangest holiday movie season in memory.

 

So many momentous, and in some cases bizarre, events have played out with film releases since we recorded Episode 10: “What the Hell’s Going On with the Movies?” that some kind of followup seemed in order. What will happen on and around Christmas Day will likely have a huge impact on what happens with theatrical and home movie releases throughout 2021.

 

The episode opens with Dennis and Mike outlining the events, like the disastrous theatrical release of Tenet, that have led to the movie studios pinning their hopes on streaming—at least for the near future.

 

At 2:25, Dennis talks about Warner Bros.’ decision to finally release Wonder Woman 1984, and the implications of it appearing both in theaters and on the subscriber-challenged HBO Max at the same time.

 

At 9:35, we discuss Warner’s sudden and unexpected decision to use the WW84 release as the model for all of its big releases for the foreseeable future—and the resulting pushback from filmmakers.

 

14:30 brings a comparison of Warner Bros.’ fumbling efforts and Disney’s far more nimble and successful responses to the same challenges—which leads at 17:55 to considering the likely outcome of WW84 going up against Pixar’s Soul on Disney+ on Christmas Day.

 

19:55 brings a recounting of the horrors of trying to access HBO Max, and we wrap everything up beginning at 23:17 by handicapping WW84‘s likely box-office returns compared to what it probably would have made with a traditional release.

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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.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

“The Lord of the Rings” in 4K: An Epic Transformation

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life than I was when I predicted early this year that the rumored 4K release of The Lord of the Rings might not look substantially better than its HD forebear. To be fair, that prognostication was based on the fact that the upgrade from standard definition to high definition did the trilogy no favors. And as we’ve seen with recent Ultra HD releases like The Blues Brothers and The Birds, 4K can be so revealing as to make less-than-perfect film elements

nigh unwatchable. As much as I love them, the LotR films never looked perfect to begin with.

 

Having now seen the new 4K HDR release of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King in their Extended Edition forms, though, I’m forced to eat pretty much every word I wrote in that editorial. And I do so gleefully, because I’ve frankly never seen a more effective and transformative film restoration in all my life.

 

What I didn’t know when I wrote that myopic diatribe is that in remastering The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson and his team at Weta returned to the original 35mm camera negative for all three films, as well as the VFX film-out elements (digital effects printed to film for compositing with the live-action shots). All effects completed entirely in the digital domain were also upscaled from 2K to 4K and touched up in places, though none were re-rendered or replaced.

 

The result of all that labor is that the films look substantially better now than they did in their original theatrical run. By a long shot. And I’ll give you one specific example of what I mean here, because it’s not merely detail for detail’s sake. In the extraordinary Appendices included with the SD and HD releases of the Extended Editions (although sadly not with the UHD Blu-ray discs, a point I’ll return to in a bit), costume designer Ngila Dickson goes into quite a bit of depth about the little nuances of haberdashery and millinery that were too fine to appear on the screen: The carefully 

considered mix of linens, silks, and embroidery included in Saruman’s robes, for example, just to give the all-white costume some contrast and to help Christopher Lee fully inhabit his character. (Shown in the photo at the top of the page.)

 

These details were lost on the big screen, and needless to say they were lost on DVD and Blu-ray as well. But in this gorgeous 4K restoration, we can finally see and appreciate those little costuming details. Far from being mere eye candy, 

discoveries like that simply make the world of Middle-earth feel more real, more tactile, more lived-in.

 

Further enhancing the verisimilitude is the fact that the trilogy’s visual effects are better integrated with the live-action photography. This really stood out in the “Last March of the Ents” from The Two Towers, a scene I referenced in my earlier 

article as one I didn’t think I wanted to see in more detail, due to the mismatch between the foreground and background elements. But in recompositing the effects shots and—perhaps more importantly—doing a new digital color grading for the entire trilogy (which, yes, removes that persistently funky green tint from Fellowship), Jackson and his team have made this sequence look like it always has in my imagination. Is it perfect? No. But it’s every bit as good as one could hope for from a relatively low-budget special-effects extravaganza from two decades ago.

 

Really, the only effects shots in the entire trilogy that still look distractingly dodgy in any significant way are the “Bridge of Khazad-dûm” sequences in the first film. The digital actors and other effects shots in these scenes require a bit of an apology, no doubt, but only in comparison to the other 12 hours’ worth of 4K imagery. Compared to what they’ve looked like in previous releases, I’m only seeing improvements.

"The Lord of the Rings" in 4K: An Epic Transformation

Virtually every other VFX shot in the trilogy is an order of magnitude better than before—again, not because the computer elements have been re-rendered, but simply because more care has been put into ensuring that the foreground and background elements more closely match in terms of color temperature, lighting, and shadow depth. Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea (shown above), now looks less like a collection of models and matte paintings and more like a true refuge in the moorlands and foothills of the Misty Mountains—one that you could step into the image and visit for yourself, if only you could locate the Ford of Bruinen.

 

Needless to say, though, the best-looking shots in the trilogy are those that come straight from the camera with no effects other than perspective tricks orchestrated on set. The landscape cinematography is simply jaw-dropping and benefits from the new HDR grade as much as any of the wizardry or action. Not to sound like a broken record here, but what I love most about the application of HDR is that it’s not merely about enhanced visual spectacle. The superior shadow detail and vibrant 

specular highlights truly enhance the story being told.

 

One prime example comes in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas first meet the white wizard in the dankest depths of Fangorn Forest. The glow he emits is so startling as to catch our heroes off-guard, forcing them to shield their eyes and avoid looking at him directly. Much as I’ve loved that scene in every incarnation—theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.—this new HDR presentation is the first time I’ve truly felt what the characters are feeling, experienced what they’re experiencing, wincing as they wince and averting my eyes as they avert theirs.

 

I could go on and on about the visual splendor of these new transfers and how they defied my every expectation, but before I overstay my welcome, I should also point out what was perhaps the worst prediction I made in my previous post. Of the sound for these films, I said that “the thought of

WHERE TO SEE THE
EXTENDED EDITIONS IN 4K HDR

Because of the unexpected number of orders, snagging a copy of the UHD Blu-ray Disc boxed set is iffy at the moment, so your best alternative is definitely the Kaleidescape downloads, which include the must-see set of Appendices. Failing that, you could turn to either Apple TV or Vudu, which are the only two services streaming the extended editions in 4K HDR. Apple provides access to the Appendices as well. (I haven’t had a chance to compare any of the online versions to the UHD Blu-ray release, so I can’t really vouch for their quality.) 

—D.B.

this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel.”

 

Well, Jackson and his team did indeed pull many threads. All of them, in fact. And the resulting Atmos remix is simply better than anything my imagination could have conjured. If every Atmos mix sounded like this, I would be an unapologetic fan of the format. First things first, it seems pretty clear to me that in remixing the films, the team at Weta balanced the sound more for the needs of a 400 sq. ft. room than a 4,000 sq. ft. cinema auditorium. The soundscape here is still every bit as dynamic and impactful, but dialogue and sound effects are balanced better for the acoustical realities of a home cinema. No longer are the films a torture test for dialogue clarity. Every line muttered, uttered, or screamed is perfectly intelligible.

 

On the old 6.1-channel DTS-ES mix included with the SD and HD releases, for example, Gandalf’s admonishment of the Balrog while standing on the crumbling Bridge of Khazad-dûm was such a garbled mess by the time you added surround 

channels and subwoofers that even the most devoted Tolkien enthusiasts struggled to understand the words, though we know them by heart: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow!”

 

Mind you, those words might not mean anything to you unless you’re as big a 

geek as I. The point is, you can now hear every one of them without a hint of strain or struggle, despite the onslaught of rock and flame roaring out of every speaker around you (and overhead!).

 

As hinted at above, if I have one grumble with Warner’s new UHD Blu-ray release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s that they’ve left the amazing Appendices out of the package, assuming that if you’re interested in watching nearly an entire day’s worth of bonus features, you’ve had nearly 20 years to buy them in some form or another. That, in my opinion, is a massive oversight, especially given the renewed interest in the films over the past year and the fact that this 4K release will be the first time many younger fans buy them.

 

I discovered last night, though, that there is a way to access the bonus features without buying the older releases: The digital code that comes in the packaging supports Movies Anywhere, which means that if you redeem your digital copy on Vudu, you also own it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, and any other supported digital retailers you have connected to your Movies Anywhere account. And iTunes has, as of the UHD release, updated its streaming version to include all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices, all of the audio commentaries, and the rare documentaries made by Costa Botes during the original production. True, you need an Apple TV to enjoy them in your home cinema, but at least they’re available in some form.

 

As I understand it, those of you who buy the 4K Extended Editions via Kaleidescape—once they’re available on December 15—will also have access to all of these bonus features. If for whatever reason you’ve never watched the Appendices, now is the time to dive in. Simply put, they’re more relevant than ever, given that you can now see the fruits of the labor poured into these movies in a way that’s never been possible before, neither at home nor in cinemas.

 

I won’t sit here and tell you The Lord of the Rings is the most visually perfect 4K release on the market. But I will say this: It benefits from 4K and HDR (and Dolby Atmos) more than any film re-release I know of. And I’ve never been happier to be so wrong in all my life.

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.

“White Christmas”: Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

White Christmas (1954)

Although it may seem almost too obvious to include the 1954 film version of White Christmas on a list of movies to view during the Christmas season, it is nonetheless recommended here, but not for the reason you might think. White Christmas isn’t just a holiday movie but one of the most expertly done films of the 1950s, directed by one of the great studio men of Hollywood’s Golden Age—none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce). Curtiz’ accomplishments are so associated with 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. classics, that it is often overlooked that he continued to turn out colorful and superb films in the 1950s. He was adept in any genre—adventures, melodramas, film noir,

spectacular epics, and even musicals. Just think of the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

By 1954, Curtiz was freelancing, and his expertise was appreciated by all the major film studios. His genius was subtle but nonetheless ever-present, as he gave each film he worked on the royal Curtiz storytelling treatment. It’s no doubt Paramount assigned White Christmas to him because of the importance of the project.

 

The song “White Christmas” was by then the best-selling record of all time. Some reports say the Bing Crosby version had sold 100 million copies by 1954, while covers by other artists hovered around 400 million. With such a recognizable title, a film version was almost certain to be a major hit; therefore all the stops were pulled out and an “A”-class movie resulted.

 

The perennial Christmas favorite was not written for this film but rather was part of an original Irving Berlin song score for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, a black & white wartime musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song for 1942, 

struck a universal chord among thousands of soldiers who profoundly related to its beautiful but slightly melancholy tune and its concise lyric of loneliness and an idyllic dream of home. Its popularity only grew in the post-World War II era. It even took on a nostalgic flavor for the sacrifices of “the greatest generation.” This feeling would be passed on to their children of the Baby Boomer age.

 

Paramount, which had produced Holiday Inn, re-teamed Crosby and Astaire after the war in another Irving Berlin tuner, Blue Skies. This time the great stars were crooning and toe tapping in glorious Technicolor. It was another enormous musical success and Paramount began planning a Technicolor version of Holiday Inn for Bing and Fred but this time with the title White Christmas.

 

It’s unclear if Paramount meant White Christmas to be a re-make or a sequel. But it definitely was to feature Crosby and Astaire with a new Irving Berlin score. Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were top writers at Paramount and very adept at identifying the zeitgeist of the 1950s. By the early ’50s, they consciously or subliminally knew that the song “White Christmas” had nostalgic wartime edge to it, so they refashioned the Holiday Inn story completely to be about the post-

war era. And unlike, Holiday Inn, it was to take place entirely during the Christmas season. The subtle artistry and genius of Irving Berlin complied beautifully by writing 10 new songs, several of which dealt head-on with post-war soldiers. There is even a subtle but clear political slant to the story.

 

The film’s main point of conflict is that a one-time 

great general has been “put out to pasture” and forgotten by his country. Many today may think of this is a reference to the Eisenhower era (Eisenhower was the U.S. President in 1954) but it’s actually a reference to General Douglas MacArthur, who had been “forced to retire” by President Truman as commanding general of the Korean War. By 1954, MacArthur was, in his own words, “fading away.” It seems clear that even though Irving Berlin loved Eisenhower (he wrote his theme song, “I Like Ike”), he supported MacArthur even more. This might have also been true of the writers Krasna, Panama, and Frank, and even Bing Crosby. They must have been good Republicans all. So, the film White Christmas is not only a perfect time capsule of the political and moral mainstream of the mid 1950s but unabashed American political propaganda.

 

What role Fred Astaire was to play in all this seems unclear, but by 1954 Astaire was having his own career zenith, having a field day playing singing and dancing romantic leads over at MGM, where it was the glory days of the MGM musical. Back in the ‘40s when Astaire had costarred with Crosby, he was cast as “the guy who didn’t get the girl,” a kind of “second banana.” By 1954, Fred always got the girl even if it was a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn or an 18-year-old Leslie Caron. Likewise, by 1954 Bing Crosby was at his super-stardom peak over at Paramount. Therefore, Astaire, probably sensing that this was a Bing Crosby vehicle, opted out of the project.

 

Paramount then looked to Hollywood’s best and brightest “second banana” at the time—none other than the incredibly talented Donald O’Connor, who had supported Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s 

Call Me Madam (1953) to spectacular effect. In Call Me Madam, O’Connor was also teamed with Vera-Ellen. The choreography was by Robert Alton. Vera-Ellen was Alton’s protégé, and was generally accepted as the best female dancer in Hollywood—which is quite a compliment considering the talent roster there. If you don’t believe me, just ask Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, if you happen to run into them.

 

Vera-Ellen and Donald 

O’Connor’s dance routines in Call Me Madam are considered by many, such as the musical film historian Miles Krueger, as the best partner dance numbers on film—even surpassing Fred and Ginger! If you pay close attention to their movements in that film you might easily agree. Alton was set to stage White Christmas and the reassembly of the fabulous threesome was all set.

 

Ultimately, however, that was not to be. O’Connor was simultaneously starring in a string of black & white programmer comedies, the Francis the Talking Mule series—a pre-cursor to the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. Unfortunately, according to a video interview with O’Connor, he caught a rare and serious infection from the mule, and it put him out of commission for the period during which White Christmas was being filmed. All the choreography had already been staged by Alton with Vera-Ellen and O’Connor in mind. The production had to scramble to find a substitute. The solution was a big surprise. It was Danny Kaye.

 

At this time, Kaye was a huge solo film star on his own. He was at least as big as Astaire and Crosby. It would be unheard of for him to play “second banana.” But Kaye was savvy as well as fun-loving. He knew the greatness of Irving Berlin’s songs 

and he loved Bing Crosby. In addition, he was an accomplished dancer but had rarely used that talent in his movie musicals (although it might be noted he danced spectacularly well with a chorus girl named Gwen Verdon a couple of years before in On the Riviera).

 

White Christmas offered Kaye a chance to hoof with his old friend Vera-Ellen, 

sing some new Irving Berlin songs, and see if he could tease and amuse the otherwise low-key Bing Crosby. On all three accounts, the results were historically fabulous, and a good case might be made that Kaye never looked so relaxed performing, clowning, and supporting Crosby. Since the pressure was off of him to carry the picture by himself, Kaye seems to have incredible fun and is at ease throughout, allowing his brand of comic genius to shine through. It adds a lightness and joy to his teaming with Crosby that is unique in film.

 

It might be noted here that a recovered and healthy Donald O’Connor appeared later on opposite Crosby in the 1956 re-make of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Their chemistry is rather terrible and the comedic results are insufferable. So thank God Danny Kaye ended up in White Christmas.

 

Rosemary Clooney, the fine and fiery leading lady of the picture, said Danny Kaye would try every day to make Crosby burst into laughter on the set. And by her accounts, he well succeeded. In fact, in one truly wonderful moment of the film, we can actually see Crosby uncontrollably crack up. It’s in their parody of the “Sisters” number. At first he looks very uncomfortable performing in girlie accoutrement. But not Kaye, who pulls out all the stops. By the end of the number, Kaye repeatedly slaps Crosby’s stomach with a blue feather peacock fan. Crosby seems stunned but then is riddled with laughter. It’s a wonderful

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

and rare moment. Film musicals are so carefully planned and meticulously staged that you almost never see any improvisational moments. It’s so fresh and delightful here, you’ll be giggling, too. Michael Curtiz knew what a gem of a take he had and bravo to him for yelling “Print it!”

 

Later in the film, there is another comic gem of a 

scene when Danny Kaye resists Vera-Ellen’s romantic advances. Not only is he brilliantly funny, but the scene takes on a very modern context. It’s now quite clear to most people that Kaye had a mile-wide gay streak. It’s hysterical to see him avoid Vera-Ellen and cower like a cornered gay rat while being attacked by a beautiful blonde who, by the way, was the uncredited prototype of the original Barbie Doll. But the quasi-gay content makes you wonder if in 1954 everyone subliminally knew what was going on and it was just as funny then as it is now. The truly remarkable question is “How did they get away with it?” All this and in glorious and hyper-clear Technicolor, too!

 

Speaking of clear, it’s important to remember that White Christmas was the first film to be photographed in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s answer to the widescreen process CinemaScope developed at 20th Century-Fox. VistaVision was the

the smartest and most economically effective widescreen process of that era. Instead of using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the picture like CinemaScope or using an expensive 70mm film negative like Todd-AO, VistaVision ran 35mm film horizontally through the camera, similar to a still camera. Therefore, the image was photographed on a negative area twice the size of a normal motion picture. The clarity and depth of vision were also doubled. The cinematographer could move and focus the picture in many more ways than were previously possible. Additionally, the print could be projected in a variety of formats. It could be cropped for widescreen or projected as a square “Academy ratio” image. Because of this, theaters didn’t have to have any kind of special equipment to exhibit a VistaVision film. In rare cases, VistaVision could even be blown up to 70mm and retain utmost clarity. White Christmas was a perfect introduction to the new process and Paramount used it for over 60 films during the next decade.

 

Strangely enough, however, early VistaVision didn’t employ stereophonic sound. It had “enhanced” monophonic “high-fidelity” sound but not true left or right separate channels. Presumably this was because the image was not as wide as Cinemascope or Todd-AO and there was no need for an 

"White Christmas": Much More Than Just a Christmas Movie

actor’s voice to follow the image on screen. Therefore, you won’t find any prints, videos, or audio of White Christmas in true stereo. And that’s a shame since musically the film is so well scored and sung.

 

In fact, it’s the excellence of White Christmas as a musical the truly elevates it above other Yuletide cheer. The mostly original (10 of the 13 songs) score makes it a true original film musical—written directly for the screen. This is a rarity in Hollywood musicals and Irving Berlin’s last original film score. Add to that the superb choreography, a tight and witty screenplay, and of course the sublime vocal talents of Bing and Rosemary Clooney (just watch “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me”), and it’s up there with The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Funny Face, and the other top film musicals of the 1950s. And that makes it one of the best film musicals of all time—so much more than a pretty Christmas card.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.