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Wednesday
Sep212016

Westerns Kick Off Olive Films' Delectable "Signature" Line!

I've always had an easier time recommending the movies Olive Films releases than the releases themselves. The Chicago-based boutique film distributor has a penchant for scooping up odd gems and slipping them back into the popular consciousness, but their DVDs and Blu-rays tend to be fairly bare-bones. Should you buy, sight-unseen, Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle; Jack Hill's kick-ass collaborations with Pam Grier, Foxy Brown and Coffy; or Fred Williamson's blaxploitation opus, Black Caesar?

Yes. Absolutely. By all means.

Should you pay more than fifteen bucks for a movie and (if you're lucky) a theatrical trailer? That's a tough sell, especially in these tight times, when consumers are wary of taking chances on something as passé as physical media.

I know, I know. It breaks my heart to write that. As a collector, I'm a big fan of multi-colored spines lining floor-to-ceiling shelves. But it's inevitable that studios will either begin offering the full suite of commentaries, making-ofs, and other special features as part of their digital download packages--or these features will simply go away (they cost money to produce, after all). So, for now, we slip-case cineastes should enjoy these goodies while we can--and that means seeking out releases that give us a reason to invest in the format.

Luckily, Olive has not only stepped up their game with this week's debut of the new extras-heavy "Signature" line, they've made a case for being a major player in the collector's market. Looking at their debut releases, High Noon (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954), it's clear the company has taken a page from Criterion, offering 4k restorations of beloved/obscure films; a bevy of retrospective pieces and video essays; an audio commentary; and even an understated "Signature" logo on the vibrant, classy, satin-feeling slip-covers.

The films themselves are astonishingly good, and you can read about them on the KtS main page throughout the week. Here, I'd like to focus on the presentation, the extras, and the price points.

First, the sound and picture are flawless. Having never seen High Noon or Johnny Guitar until watching the "Signature" versions of them, I can't compare their picture or sound to previous releases. However, one only need to do a Google Image search for stills of each movie to see what they have looked like. Screen grabs of the restorations were not available as of this writing, but the older images are generally fuzzy and "old-movie-on-TV"-looking.

Watching both in high-definition is truly an all-consuming assault of delicious details that make even home viewing feel expansive. Check out the piercing whites of Joan Crawford's eyes in Johnny Guitar and you'll swear the color doesn't appear anywhere else in the film. The crane shot at the beginning of High Noon's climax, in which Gary Cooper's Will Kane realizes he's all alone in his fight against vengeful marauders is positively dizzying in its depiction of scale (pulling out from the man, to reveal the town, then the desert beyond).

The extras are plentiful on both discs, and I didn't have time to get through all of them. Like the best documentaries, the featurettes on Johnny Guitar and High Noon provide just enough context and juicy tidbits to make me want to dive into the full back story of each film's production. High Noon contains a chilling video essay, (narrated by the late, great Anton Yelchin) which explores the film's behind-the-scenes Cold War drama. Another feature lobs mind-blowing fact grenades every couple minutes, such as an incident on the train tracks that nearly ruined a key scene, and the real-life claim to fame of an actor playing one of the villain's posse. In a Johnny Guitar feature that touts the film as the first Feminist Western, a gaggle of very convincing talking heads lays out some wild interpretations of the characters, which made me want to re-watch the whole movie from beginning to end.

I can't recommend these discs enough, even if you've never seen the films. Olive Films has put a lot of care into making High Noon and Johnny Guitar as visually arresting as possible, and the supplemental materials amount to fun film-history crash courses. As of this writing, Amazon has them for seventeen bucks each, and that's a steal for this calibre of release (some folks--including yours truly--pay more than that per title during Criterion's semi-annual "Half Off" sale).

Now, if only Olive would give this marquee treatment to some of their catalogue titles...

Where's the "Signature" edition of Mannequin, dammit?

Tuesday
Sep132016

Auto(bot) Restoration & Detail

Transformers: The Movie* is hard to defend, but I'm happy to do so every chance I get (don't worry, it's not that often). Fortunately, Shout! Factory has saved Future Ian a lot of bluster by releasing a gorgeous 4k restoration of the film on Blu-ray, to mark its thirtieth anniversary. This package makes a solid case for director Nelson Shin's work as a piece of capital-"A" Art, with several new bonus features that will make even the most ardent scoffers shut up and take notice.

Let's get this out of the way: Transformers: The Movie was conceived as a ninety-minute toy commercial and an extension of the wildly popular kids' cartoon show (which were half-hour toy commercials--or ten-minute ones when spliced into vignettes for The Bozo Show). Product tie-ins are nothing new, especially in today's mega-media landscape, where every movie is an advertisement for another series of three movies--plus spin-offs, Netflix series, comics, games, etc. But in 1986, Hasbro wasn't interested in expanding their product line; they wanted to clean house, unveiling new characters/toys that fans, they'd assumed, would simply swap out in their hearts as easily as their shelves.

For Shin, writer Ron Friedman, and story consultant Flint Dille, "cleaning house" meant removing any doubt from young minds that their beloved, first-generation Autobots and Decepticons were dead. Optimus Prime and Megatron didn't take their war for supremacy to some distant nebula, ceding the fight for Earth and Cybertron to a new class of robots-in-disguise. No, they straight-up murdered each other on screen, and took out just about any other Transformer whose original form wasn't futuristic enough for 1986's sophisticated consumers.**

As Dille recalls in the Blu-ray's new making-of documentary, 'Til All Are One, the studio and filmmakers weren't ready for an aggrieved fan reaction. Even the film's voice actors, like Dan Gilvezan ("Bumblebee") and Neil Ross ("Springer"), who hadn't known about the overhaul until they received their scripts in the recording studio, were taken aback by the passion with which children everywhere mourned the death of John Wayne-esque Autobot leader, Optimus Prime.

Ah, yes, Optimus Prime. It's no secret that I still tear up (or, at the very least, get goosebumps) every time I see that big, red semi-truck roll across the bridge into Autobot City, which has been overrun by Decepticons. This early scene follows several others of extreme violence (particularly for an 80s animated kids' show), in which planets are destroyed, hero-bots are shot at point-blank range in the face, and black smoke billows out of mouths as bodies collapse in shredded heaps. In other words, Optimus' declaration that "Megatron must be stopped--no matter the cost" isn't just macho posturing; it's a promise to the viewer that a childhood icon is about to die (horribly) saving the world.

The Blu-ray's newly restored picture lends this moment even more heft. The landscapes are crisp, the waterfalls along the bridge are crystal clear, and we get a clean sense of movement from Prime as Stan Bush's "The Touch" kicks in--first with a power-anthem battle-cry; then with soft, almost lonely notes that sell the necessity of Prime going it alone; then with the full-on stadium-rock charge as Prime plows through a Decepticon blockade. A behind-the-scenes look at the restoration process offers jaw-dropping, side-by-side comparisons of this and other scenes, revealing much more detail than was available to audiences in 1986. In particular, The Autobot City charge is perfectly realized now, allowing audiences to fully appreciate the balletic fluidity of Prime's transformation as he blasts out of truck mode, flips in the sky, and glides back to earth in humanoid form with his hand canon ablaze.

I don't know what went through my parents' minds as they watched me watch this movie in the theatre three decades ago, but the contradictions of this moment--with its innocuous aesthetics, pending martyrdom, and relentless gun violence--must have been downright chilling. As an adult today, I remember someone once describing the violence in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch as a "beautiful bloodletting". Swap out squibs for painted cells, and, yeah, you've got that.

Count me among the kids of that generation who was shocked by the movie, and didn't care for the new toys that accompanied it, but who also appreciated the fact that Shin and company were giving me an early taste of grown-up animation. It's easy to snicker at Dille's assertion that many of the film's compositions and designs are like something out of an art film, but Transformers: The Movie really does have more in common with Akira than with anything Michael Bay has done for (or, more precisely, to) the property.

Comic-book artist Livio Ramondelli, who created the new poster-cover for Shout! Factory's release, was also a childhood fan. In one of the disc's cooler features, Ramondelli talks about what Transformers means to him, and takes us through his creative process--from the challenges of staying true to thirty-year-old character designs while still maintaining his artistic voice, to tweaking the poster layout for maximum dynamism. The segment ends with a mystery, though: Ramondelli's final thumbnail sketch is slightly different than the painted art you'll see on the shelves. Originally, Optimus Prime held a striking ready-for-battle pose. In the final piece, he's depicted as opening the Matrix of Leadership, an all-powerful Maguffin that lives in his chest. From this puzzling, straight-forward perspective, the classically noble Optimus Prime looks strange, as if he's flashing for Mardi Gras beads.

The featurettes, documentary, and assortment of classic ads go a long way in making up for this edition's one shortfall: the only commentary track was recycled from the 20th anniversary DVD release. Gone is the DVD's fan commentary track, which offered a fun, minutiae-packed, outsider's take on the movie. The filmmaker track is fine, though, and newcomers should be content with Shin, Dille, and actress Susan ("Arcee") Blu's*** thoughts on the making of the film. This omission is far from a deal-breaker; it's just a small detail that keeps this from being a definitive package.

If you've never watched Transformers: The Movie, and have never considered watching it, there's no better time to be adventurous. Yes, it was born of a corporate mandate, but Nelson Shin's team put together a bold, stakes-heavy (occasionally corny) film that transcends mere commercialism and nostalgia. Shout! Factory's loving restoration and examination of the work finally pays this overlooked gem its due.

*Sorry for dropping the title's first "The". Much as I love the film, "The Transformers: The Movie" is just too damned clunky.

*The tape-deck Transformers survived, though, because cassettes were--and always will be--the (Sound)wave of the future.

**Trivia Time: Blu also appears in 'Til All Are One, and I got the strange feeling that I'd seen her before. Sure enough, the actress also played Mrs. Shepard in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.

Thursday
Jul072016

F Breast Cancer!

It would be really nice if the only “Big C” in the world was “Cinema”, but the universe is full of cruel, unpredictable garbage, like cancer. Fortunately, there are noble souls like Patrick and Erika Bromley out there, who use their talents to make things better for everyone.

Not only is Patrick the proprietor of F This Movie, one of the internet’s most consistent (and consistently obsessive) movie-review sites, he’s also the kind of guy who would enlist family and friends for an 18-hour film podcast to benefit cancer survivors and promote awareness.

That’s right, beginning at 8am CST this Saturday, July 9, F This Movie kicks off almost a full day of incredible, live movie talk,* which will double as a drive to support The Magnolia Tree Foundation. Magnolia Tree was the vision of Alexa Rodheim Cutler, a teacher and water polo coach at Elk Grove, IL’s Elk Grove High School. A friend and inspiration to many, including the Bromleys, Alexa passed away in March of 2016 after a courageous two-year battle with triple negative, BRCA1 positive breast cancer. The mission of The Magnolia Tree Foundation is to educate and provide financial assistance to those affected by the BRCA mutation.

F This Movie and Magnolia Tree are accepting donations via a GoFundMe campaign, which you can contribute to now and throughout the show. All donations, small to not-so-small, go directly to the Foundation, and are greatly appreciated. And if you’re listening at 4pm, you might just hear a certain seat-kicker on F This Movie’s critics round table, discussing the ins and outs of the craft!

For anyone who has fought cancer or fought alongside someone fighting cancer, this fun, uplifting, and important event is not to be missed!

See you Saturday!

*The show will stream directly from F This Movie's website.

Friday
Jun032016

30 Years of Ferris Bueller with WDCB's Brian O'Keefe!

Ferris Bueller taught us the ins and outs of epic hooky nearly thirty years ago. I spoke with WDCB's Brian O'Keefe recently about why John Hughes' love letter to Chicago and youthful rebellion still resonates. Enjoy!

 

Friday
May272016

WILDERPEOPLE Wows at CCFF!

THE CHICAGO FILM CRITICS ASSOCIATION announces Winner of Audience Award of THE 4th ANNUAL CHICAGO CRITICS FILM FESTIVAL

Taika Waititi-directed comedy, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is the top choice of attendees of the just-completed film festival.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the uproarious and engaging comedy from writer-director Taika Waititi (“What We Do In the Shadows”) about a rebellious boy (Julian Dennison) and his foster uncle (Sam Neill) whose disappearance into the New Zealand bush following a tragedy inspires a national manhunt, was the favorite of audiences at the 4th Chicago Critics Film Festival. The film, which was among the most popular of the recently completed weeklong program of titles from around the globe curated entirely by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, was named the winner of the Audience Choice award.

Created by the Chicago Film Critics Association in 2013 and held once again at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre, the festival offered a selection of films comprised of recent festival favorites and as-yet-undistributed works covering a wide variety of genres from a wide variety of filmmakers ranging from award winners to talented newcomers chosen exclusively by members of the organization, the only current example of a major film critics group hosting its own festival. Audiences were given ballots before each screening in order to present their opinions of the programming choices afterwards and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” which is scheduled to be released commercially on June 24, 2016, proved to be the favorite amidst heavy competition.

About The Music Box Theatre

For 30 years, the Music Box Theatre has been the premier venue in Chicago for independent and foreign films, festivals and some of the greatest cinematic events in Chicago. It currently has the largest cinema space operated full-time in the city. The Music Box Theatre is independently owned & operated by the Southport Music Box Corporation. SMBC, through its Music Box Films division, also distributes foreign and independent films in the theatrical, DVD and television markets throughout the United States. For additional information, please visit www.musicboxtheatre.com