Chicago’s historic cinema palace, the Music Box Theatre, has been the setting for a vast portion of my all-time greatest moviegoing experiences. I shall always cherish my memories of joining the audience in cheering on George Bailey during “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or attending a double bill of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and “Rope” with Farley Granger in attendance. Since 2013, the venue has screened various classics at its annual 70mm Film Festival, including a rare print of Clyde Geronimi’s widescreen Disney gem, “Sleeping Beauty,” which preserved the hand-painted textures criminally obscured on Blu-ray. No home entertainment system can replicate the majesty of a visually stunning film when projected in 70mm on the big screen, so it’s no wonder this festival has consistently proven to be an unmissable event for cinephiles.
The line-up for this year’s installment, kicking off on Friday, is every bit as impressive, with a new print of David Lean’s masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia,” sure to rival the grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the ageless marvel currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning performance in the title role of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Patton” will also be among the return offerings, and I’m planning on finally catching it at the fest, especially since it prompted Roger Ebert to write, “It’s startling how good a film can look.”
Though you simply can’t go wrong when choosing what to see here, I’ve decided to provide five of my own personal recommendations (in order of appearance), many of which I’ve already marked in my calendar. Grab your tickets, and I’ll see you there!
West Side Story
Opening 70mm Fest this year is Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 musical that made singing and dancing gang members not only credible characters but indelible showstoppers. One of the great pleasures of this festival is how the entirety of the old-school moviegoing experience is left intact, complete with the Overture music. Only once I saw this film at the festival did I realize just how crucial this pre-show segment—which I had routinely skipped at home—is in setting the mood, enabling us to become fully immersed in the swooning yet volatile emotions of the story before it even begins. The onslaught of ear-splitting ads at modern multiplexes extends the time it takes for us to lose ourselves in the actual movie when it finally materializes, often at a diminished volume. Since “West Side Story” has some of the finest songs ever written for the Broadway stage, the Overture heightens our anticipation for them by weaving together their melodies, as we meditate on the changing colors illuminating an abstract skyline. As the camera pulls back to reveal the film’s title, signaling that the show is about the begin, the audience broke out into enthusiastic applause. I cannot imagine a more magical way to enter a movie.
“West Side Story” screens at 7:30pm Friday, September 14th; at 6pm Sunday, September 16th; at 2:30pm Monday, September 17th; and 2:30pm Tuesday, September 18th.
John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 1951 horror classic about an alien attack on a remote research post in the arctic may have received tepid reviews upon its initial release, but it now stands as one of the most inventively upsetting creature features ever made. Though the Music Box has noted that the print set to screen this year—usually around midnight—is somewhat marred by faded color, nothing can dilute the queasy genius of this film’s timeless practical effects. Rather than devolve into a standard zombie infection thriller, Carpenter finds endlessly surprising ways for the otherworldly organism to contort and splinter the bodies of its victims. My favorite bit is easily the set piece where the man’s screaming head rips from his body, sprouts enormous spider legs and scuttles toward the door, causing a dumbfounded onlooker to quip, “You’ve gotta be f—in’ kidding me…” Further bolstered by magnetic leading man Kurt Russell and a brooding Ennio Morricone score, this gleefully hellacious spectacle serves as an impeccable primer for Halloween season, provided you can pry your hands away from your eyes.
“The Thing” screens at 11:30pm Friday, September 14th; at 11:59pm Saturday, September 15th; and at 7:30pm Wednesday, September 19th.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
A year after screening Steven Spielberg’s flawed yet thoroughly entertaining “Hook,” the 70mm fest hops back to another of the blockbuster king’s underrated works, the 1989 conclusion to his original “Indiana Jones” trilogy. Though it lacks the freshness of “Raiders” and the go-for-broke looniness of “Temple of Doom,” it may be the franchise’s most emotionally satisfying entry, thanks to the sublime chemistry between Harrison Ford (at his deadpan best) and Bond himself, Sean Connery, as Indy’s father. Back in high school, I devoted a major research paper to examining the recurring theme of fractured father-son dynamics in Spielberg’s oeuvre, and how they were reflective of the director’s relationship with his own dad. After a spirited introductory sequence featuring River Phoenix as young Indy, the film succumbs a bit to stale leftovers—that is, until Connery arrives onscreen. His often hilarious banter with Ford springs the picture to life, leading to a finale of well-earned poignance. Yet the real reason to see this in 70mm is the masterful cinematography of Douglas Slocombe (“The Lion in Winter”), whose retirement after production wrapped was due to fading eyesight. He passed away only two years ago at age 103.
“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” screens at 7:15pm Friday, September 21st; at 3pm Saturday, September 22nd; at 7:30pm Tuesday, September 25th; and at 2:30pm Wednesday, September 26th.
The Dark Crystal
Prior to discovering the mind-boggling behind-the-scenes stories shared in Frank Oz’s indispensable doc, “Muppet Guys Talking,” I gained an entirely new appreciation for Jim Henson’s screwball delight, “The Great Muppet Caper,” when the Music Box screened a 35mm print of it last summer. I was stunned at how thrilling the production numbers were, with choreography expertly designed to make Miss Piggy resemble a star on the order of Esther Williams. Her dance with Kermit is so seamless that we’re never for a moment thinking of the puppeteers scooting along the floor on their backs, peering at monitors between their legs. Henson’s personal favorite feature he directed—in collaboration with Oz—was this brilliantly crafted 1982 fantasy populated entirely by puppets. Taking a deliberate departure from his earlier comedies, Henson strove to create a wholly original world that illustrated the duality of all living things. Oz’s feisty Aughra and Dave Goelz’s Fizzgig—an adorable fur-ball with teeth—are the chief scene-stealers, yet what impresses, above all, is the soulful humanity in Henson and conceptual designer Brian Froud’s artistry (it’s also channeled in Trevor Jones’ magnificent score). Considering the audacious sights packed into every frame, I can only imagine how astonishing this film will look in 70mm.
“The Dark Crystal” screens at 12:30pm Saturday, September 22nd; at 9:15pm Sunday, September 23rd; and at 7pm Wednesday, September 26th.
The Sound of Music
Robert Wise will be a fitting bookend to this year’s festival, as his other Oscar-winner for Best Picture brings down the house on closing night. Like “West Side Story,” this 1965 worldwide crowd-pleaser opens with striking helicopter footage of the landscape upon which our story will unfold. In a way, this sequence serves as a second overture, surrounding us with the natural sounds of the environment—whether it be an urban metropolis or the Swiss Alps—before the music fades in. This is one of many reasons why Wise’s film is superior to its stage-bound source material. “North by Northwest” scribe Ernest Lehman penned a screenplay that favored endearing warmth over sickly sweetness, while allowing the encroachment of Nazism to emerge as a palpable threat in the final act. In light of recent memes celebrating Captain Von Trapp’s tearing of a swastika-laden flag, this film can undoubtedly be added to the list of cultural touchstones gaining newfound relevance courtesy of recent events, while also supplying a welcome reprieve from the vitriolic headlines. I’ve previously written at length about how Julie Andrews’ portrayal of the spunky nun-turned-mother of seven remains my favorite performance in the history of cinema, and I’m already counting the days till I get to see it on the big screen for the first time. Emily Blunt might very well do justice to Mary Poppins, but there is only one Fräulein Maria.
“The Sound of Music” screens at 6:30pm Saturday, September 22nd and at 7pm Thursday, September 27th.
The Music Box 70mm Film Festival 2018—which also includes Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon,” James Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day,” Nicholas Meyer’s “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado”—runs from Friday, September 14th through Thursday, September 27th at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., in Chicago. For the full list of showtimes or to purchase tickets, click here.