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?