John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Chassy Media
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (7th October 2017).
The Film

“John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs” (2017)

An Academy Award winning director. Led seven actors to receive Academy Award nominations. The director of the most successful independent film on 1970. Cast Daniel Craig his first feature film role. The director of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid”. With all that on one resume you would expect the average film watcher to know him by name. But even when you mention the name John G. Avildsen, even critics must think for a moment on who that is.

Born on December 21st 1935, the Illinois native was only 34 years old when his second feature film “Joe” broke box office records. Produced on a miniscule budget of $106,000, the starring independent film grossed $26 million theatrically, becoming the highest grossing independent film of the year, and winning accolades especially for star Peter Boyle. Controversial as the subject matter was and the violence it depicted, it certainly hit a chord with the uncertainty of the changing times. 1973 saw the release of “Save the Tiger”, an adaptation of the novel by Steve Shagan. A major studio film from Paramount Pictures, the subject matter was not the most commercially appealing, though critics were far more supportive than the box office grosses. Nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards, it received the Best Actor award at the Oscars for Jack Lemmon in the lead. What more can be said about the director’s towering achievement with 1976’s “Rocky”? It was truly an underdogs story. The leads actors were unknowns. The supporting included stars but past their prime. Major studios were not interested, no one had any high aspects for the film. The film that cost barely $1 million to produce became the highest grossing film of 1976 with a $226 million worldwide gross, receiving ten Academy Award nominations and winning three - Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing. It spawned a series of sequels, became a cultural phenomenon, showcased the earliest use of the Steadicam in a film, and gave inspiration to filmgoers and filmmakers worldwide for generations to come. Fast forward to 1984 when Avildsen directed “The Karate Kid”. Another underdog story of a young kid who trains to become a champion, the film became one of the most iconic pieces of the decade, spawning two sequels directed by Avildsen, an Academy Award nomination for Pat Morita, and grossing $90 million theatrically.

Besides the those films and the sequels directed by Avildsen (“Rocky V”, “The Karate Kid Part II” and “The Karate Kid Part III”), most people could not point a finger at his other works. “The Formula” (1980), “Neighbors” (1981), “Lean on Me” (1989), “The Power of One” (1992), “8 Seconds” (1994). Probably none of them ring a bell. “The Formula” starred Marlon Brando. “Neighbors” starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. “Lean on Me” starred Morgan Freeman. “The Power of One” starred Stephen Dorff and John Gielgud. “8 Seconds” starred Luke Perry and Stephen Baldwin. Interestingly the films that Avildsen was fired from were of extremely high interest. He was the original choice for director of “Serpico” but was let go due to a casting dispute. He was also the original director of “Saturday Night Fever” and did a lot of preproduction work but was fired for basically personal reasons. In “King of the Underdogs” Avildsen comes clean about the films he almost worked on as well as interesting tidbits and trivia about the films he did work on and his life story.

Director/Screenwriter/Producer Derek Wayne Johnson’s portrait documentary of Avildsen is a very personal and intimate piece, featuring Avildsen talking candidly about his life through interviews, vintage stills, home movies, the director’s 8mm and videotape rehearsal footage and behind the scenes materials. Interviews range from candid at-home pieces to Q&A sessions at theatrical retrospectives for the director, but his voice is not the only one to be heard. Johnson was fortunate enough to get interviews with an impressive range of people who were willing to talk about Avildsen and the films he made. Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Weintraub, Burt Reynolds, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Ralph Macchio, Tamlyn Tomita, Lloyd Kaufman, Carl Weathers, and many more are interviewed sharing their thoughts on the man and his work. Many are incredibly sweet and thoughtful of how he was an uncompromising and focused director. Burt Reynolds recalls the difficulty they had working together but stills has a joyous smile thinking about the experience. One thing for certain is that Avildsen made sure to put the talent on screen first, rather than having the film as a auteuristic directorial work. What he was able to bring out from actors in dramatic roles and making sure the humanity was the key aspect brought a connection to the audience and the characters. Why movies like “Rocky” or “The Karate Kid” live on are not the cheesy dialogue in certain scenes or the flashy training montages. It’s the connection that the characters have with each other and that in effect grabs the audience. Avildsen may have made films in various genres from comedy to action to documentary to drama, but it’s the films about the underdogs that have resonated and stood the test of time for decades.

Avildsen worked closely with Johnson on the production of the documentary which does focus a lot on the major two franchises of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid”. Some of the films get the short end of the stick with barely a blip or a mention, but this is not a comprehensive look at the director’s filmography but a great overview of his life and art and Avildsen advised Johnson on less focus on the non-major films as the documentary should be like a Avildsen film - “Give the audience what they want”. Sure there may be fans who would have liked to see more on Morgan Freeman as he had worked with Avildsen in a few of his later films. “8 Seconds” is an underrated true story adaptation with a stellar cast in their early days. Nothing about the Jean-Claude Van Damme starring “Inferno” from 1999 that Avildsen decided to remove his name from the credits due to creative differences. It could have also been a showcase for some of the director’s lesser known films to get a boost in recognition. The runtime of 78 minutes could have been lengthened as it does seem short in writing, though with the amount of information and the context given in the time never feels too short.

“King of the Underdogs” started as a Kickstarter funded project from 2014, and after three years of work the film received special theatrical screenings in July of 2017 followed by a Blu-ray and DVD release in August of 2017. Unfortunately John G. Avildsen passed away on June 16, 2017 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81 years old and was not able to see the finished film theatrically with an audience. Johnson said it was a surprise considering how healthy Avildsen seemed and the making of the documentary could have led to a directorial comeback but that was never to be realized. The man may be gone from the world, but his work remains and continues to inspire new audiences and give nostalgia to the older ones. He’s given us so much to cinema and pop culture. His name deserves to be known.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray which can play back on any Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

Chassy Media presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. As the film is comprised of newly filmed interviews, vintage footage, and film clips, the image can look fairly inconsistent as expected. The newly filmed HD interviews look very good with bright colors and clarity. Some interviews have some issues with compression making certain figures look waxy in appearance, but nothing too distracting from the content. As for the vintage footage, some look very weak, such as the VHS camcorder footage and the footage from the early short films. To be noted, the original vintage footage has been cropped from its original 1.33:1 ratio to the 1.78:1 ratio to fit together with the rest of the film with no use of black bars on the sides. The licensed footage from the feature films such as “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” look as good as the Blu-ray counterparts of the films, though some such as “Lean on Me”, “Save the Tiger” and others that did not have an HD master made available were upscaled from standard definition sources, and they are sometimes noticeable. Overall the transfer Is very pleasing.

The film’s runtime is 78:23.

Audio

English Dolby Digital 5.1
The audio track is presented in 5.1, though unfortunately in lossy Dolby Digital audio. The interview segments and film clip dialogue moments are mostly center based while the surround speakers are used for music and effects. The music for the documentary composed by Greg Sims and the music tracks from the many Avildsen films sound very good with subtle use of the surround channels. A lossless track would have been obviously a better fuller choice, but the Dolby Digital track does get the job done fine.

There are optional English subtitles in a yellow font for the main feature. Note that the subtitles are included in the “extras” menu tab and can also be accessed via the remote during playback.

Extras

Audio commentary with director Derek Wayne Johnson and producer Chris May
The director and producer of the film give a recollection of the making of the film. Recorded only a week and a half after the passing of Avildsen, they share memories of interviewing him, going through his archives, the problems faced in production, how they tried but could not get Morgan Freeman to schedule an interview session, and much more. Although it talks about the production standpoint, it would have been interesting to hear about the pre-production and how the film was organized and why they started to make the film.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Trailer (1:38)
The effective original trailer is presented here.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Strangely missing from the extras are deleted interviews. There must have been much more covered considering people such as Leonard Maltin and Luke Perry get very minimal screentime. Hours of interviews are not offered on the disc which is a bit unfortunate. Nor are there behind the scenes footage of the making of the film or additional vintage behind the scenes from the director’s films.

Overall

“John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs” is a heartfelt and intimate tribute to a director whose name sadly does not ring a bell as high as his iconic works. The film doesn’t shy away from his highs and lows and gives a special look from the eyes of Avildsen as well as the many people who worked with him through the decades. The Chassy Media Blu-ray gives good presentation in video and audio, and the commentary is an informative extra, though there could have been more of a push in the extras department. The disc comes very recommended.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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