The Squid and the Whale, Finally From Criterion (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

I couldn't wait for this release to come out since Criterion first hinted at it in their newsletter.  And it was an especially long wait, because it was one of their New Years drawings, which can take a couple of years, as opposed to their usual hints, which usually come true in 2-3 months.  So I was really raring to go.  But when specs were finally announced and I read that they weren't carrying over the DVD extras, I lost some steam.  Then, when I read some early reviews suggesting that because this film was shot on 16mm it didn't really benefit from the HD upgrade, I climbed up on the fence and held off double-dipping.  But I'm glad I finally hopped off, because this is a first class release all around.
The Squid and the Whale is my favorite Noah Baumbach film.  His previous films were great (yes, I will defend Highball), but with this film he finds an added level of maturity, which he's maintained in his subsequent work, and a keen insight that may be stronger here than anywhere else.  In a way, it's well trod ground of two young brothers, including a young Jesse Eisenberg, coming of age.  But it's real strength comes from the brilliant, semi-biographical character of his father, played by Jeff Daniels.  Daniels has always been a terrific actor (Terms of Endearment, and great comedy roles like The Purple Rose of Cairo and There Goes the Neighborhood), but I don't think the world ever quite saw what he or Baumbach were truly capable of until this film.  It's a perfect merger of writing and performance, zeroing in on a real human life in a way very few films in history have ever managed.  We actually caught a glimpse of him before, in Kicking and Screaming, played by Elliot Gould; but here he's really fleshed out and brought to life.  It helps that Laura Linney strikes the perfect balance as a counterweight to all of his energies, and really his whole world billows out around him thanks again to Baumbach's writing (this script was nominated for an Oscar) and a strong supporting cast, including William Baldwin and Anna Paquin.
Sony originally put this film out on DVD as a new release in 2006, and it was a pretty strong disc.  Anamorphic widescreen, nice selection of extras.  But when it came time time to graduate to HD in 2012, all we got was a crummy Mill Creek double feature, where the same old master, with obvious tampering in post, was slapped on double disc along with Running With Scissors, shorn of its extras.  But thankfully, in 2016, Criterion finally came through to do the film justice.  And have they?
2006 Sony DVD on top, and 2016 Criterion blu below.
2006 Sony DVD left, and 2016 Criterion blu right.
So yeah, some very nice improvements here.  Criterion has done an all new 4k scan of the original negatives, and like I mentioned in the intro, there was some concern that 4k might not do all that much for a 16mm film.  Like, it wouldn't be one of those nice examples where signs in the background and text that was unclear would suddenly become readable... but as you see in the close-up above, that's exactly what happened here.  Sure, it's grainy, but actual image has been recovered as well.  The colors are a lot richer, too.  That tennis court and Owen Kline both look like they're fading away on the DVD.  You'll also notice that the DVD was slightly window-boxed (again, think old television overscan areas), which has been fixed on the blu, turning a strange 1.81:1 ratio to a proper 1.85, essentially revealing what's hidden under those vertical bars.

Sony gave us a solid 5.1 mix, plus optional English subtitles, and several language options (alternate English CC subs, French subs, and a French 5.1 dub track).  Criterion keeps it strictly English (sorry, overseas importers), but gives us a remastered 5.1 track in DTS-HD and optional English HoH subs.
So I was 100% relieved about the picture restoration, but here's where I still get a little grumpy.  Sony came up with some great special features for this release.  There's a photo gallery/ audio commentary by Baumbach where, because he says he doesn't feel comfortable completely analyzing the entire film, he talks for just over an hour over a series of film stills.  It's really insightful, and I have to admit, I don't miss him trying to stretch with "um"s and "ahs" just to meet the film's running time.  There's also a substantial (well over half an hour) film festival Q&A with Baumbach, the promotional 'making of' featurette, a crap-ton of bonus trailers (11), and a multi-page insert with the film's original LA Times review, and an article on the film from The New Yorker.
Well, Criterion carried over the vintage featurette, but that's it.  So holding onto the original DVD (or picking it up if you don't have it already) is unfortunately pretty essential for any serious fan.  On the other hand, Criterion did come up with some pretty terrific new extras of their own.  There's a new, on-camera interview with Baumbach that runs over 25 minutes, an all-too brief (under 8 minutes) interview with Jeff Daniels, a featurette interviewing Eisenberg, Kline and Linney, some original audition footage, and a short piece on the film's score, with Baumbach talking to composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.  Oh, plus the trailer, which I'm surprised Sony forgot, and a substantial, 38-page booklet featuring an essay by Kent Jones and another Baumbach interview.
So, look.  I can't complain about anything Criterion gave us, it's all great.  A killer new transfer that exceeds expectations, souped up audio, and some terrific new special features that bring in the voices of a lot of key players left out of the DVD.  This is a must-have release of a must-have film.  It's just frustrating that this could've felt truly definitive if they'd've just licensed the Sony extras, too.  We should be able to chuck our DVDs at this point.  But oh well.  Don't make the same mistake I did and let it put you off upgrading.  Criterion's blu-ray definitely belongs on everyone's shelves.


  1. Great, great, great movie. As wonderful as Jeff Daniels is, I think Baumbach and Eisenberg really caught lightning in a bottle with the character of Walt. The whole thing about being young and pretentious because you don't know any better is so real and on-point. Great stuff.

  2. Yeah, and I love the little brother's line about "I think I'm a philistine." XD

  3. Ha! I just rented this again and forgot about the great moment in the Q&A when the host says: "Jeff Daniels says that "A Tale of Two Cities" is minor Dickens. And the audience laughs, because this is seen as a very pompous thing to say. But at the same time... he's absolutely right!" So good.

    Also, there's a priceless moment in the Q&A when the host becomes clearly irritated with Baumbach and makes a face. And the shot is awkwardly edited in and clearly included just because it's so funny. It's great.