The 1970s saw a period of revisionism spread across all cinematic genres, particularly the western.
That period was marked by the debut of pictures like John Wayne’s
old-fashioned “Big Jake” at its outset, while nearly ten
years later, depressing westerns like Michael Cimino’s
“Heaven’s Gate” would permeate the landscape, almost
signaling the end of the genre altogether.
In between, Wayne himself began to break from convention, leading to
his acclaimed final role in Don Siegel’s superb “The
Shootist” in 1976.
Wayne’s role in Mark Rydell’s THE COWBOYS (***½, 1972, 134 mins., PG-13)
the beginning of a new phase for the star, as this rousing tale of
Wayne leading a cattle drive with a group of teenaged cowhands showed
its aging lead as being human, capable of defeat and with physical
Without giving the film away (but shame on you if you haven’t
seen it by now), “The Cowboys” is mostly an old-fashioned
tale with an ending that, at the time, most viewers wouldn’t have
seen coming. Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne are trailed by a group of vile
psychos including Bruce Dern, who inflict an amount of damage on
Wayne’s character that was positively shocking at that point,
particularly for viewers accustomed to seeing their hero playing a
veritable group of Old West super-heroes.
The film is flavorful, beautifully shot (by Robert Surtees), and
benefits immeasurably from a classic John Williams score.
Williams’ memorable motifs and colorful orchestration (later
adapted into a brilliant concert suite that became a Boston Pops
staple) aid the picture at every turn, especially on disc where the
music flows in full 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Warner’s Special Edition HD-DVD (the movie is also available on
Blu Ray and standard DVD) offers a marvelous transfer (VC-1 encoded) of
“The Cowboys,” retaining its Entra’cte, Intermission
and Exit Music structure. The print may not be as sharp as “The
Searchers” was in high-definition, but this is still a marvelous
presentation of the picture that fans will savor, doing justice to
Surtees’ gorgeous cinematography and Williams’ soundtrack.
Special features, available in all three versions, include a terrific,
new 30-minute featurette, offering Rydell, Dern, Browne, A Martinez and
others reflecting on the production. Packed with affectionate memories
of “The Duke,” this is one of the more satisfying DVD
featurettes I’ve seen of late, mixing in vintage footage with
wonderful new interviews. It’s an absolute must for
Rydell also contributes an informative commentary track, while a
vintage featurette and the theatrical trailer round out the disc.
Also new from Warner is a new Collector’s Edition of Howard Hawks’ Wayne western RIO BRAVO (***, 141 mins., 1959),
surfacing again on HD-DVD (Blu Ray and standard DVD editions are likewise available).
This quintessential western offers a textbook genre script, with Wayne
the noble sheriff who teams with a gimpy deputy (Walter Brennan), the
town drunk (Dean Martin), and a young “whippersnapper”
(Ricky Nelson) to ward off an attempt at springing a criminal from the
Angie Dickinson and Ward Bond star in this highly-regarded Hawks film,
one that I’ve always respected but never been a particular fan
of. True, all the performances are engaging, but the picture is
slow-going and overlong at 141 minutes, and what might have seemed
fresh in the Jules Furthman-Leigh Brackett script at the time comes
across as being a little cliched and predictable today. “Rio
Bravo” is a film that western fans consider one of the
genre’s finest, and is unquestionably an influential picture as
well (leading to works like “Assault on Precinct 13,” whose
director, John Carpenter, talks on the disc’s commentary track),
but it does, admittedly, take an awfully long time to reach its
Warner’s HD-DVD disc does look nifty with a restored VC-1 encoded
transfer, clear 1.0 Dolby Digital sound, and a good array of special
features, including commentary with Carpenter and critic Richard
Shickel; three featurettes examining the film, Hawks, and its shooting
locales; and a trailer gallery for other Wayne productions.
New DVDs & HD-DVDs From Paramount
TRADING PLACES: Collector’s Edition (***½, 116 mins., 1983, R)
COMING TO AMERICA: Collector’s Edition (**½, 116 mins., 1988, R)
NORBIT (*, 102 mins., 2007, PG-13)
There’s good news and bad news regarding Paramount’s
release of the latest Eddie Murphy comedy, “Norbit,” on
DVD. First for the positive spin: the success of “Norbit”
has lead the studio to remaster two of Murphy’s most successful
comedies, John Landis’ “Trading Places” and
“Coming To America,” for both standard DVD and HD-DVD (as
well as Blu Ray), each with extras. The bad? “Norbit” is
being issued along with them, and it’s easily one of the
star’s worst vehicles, ranking with “Pluto Nash” and
“Holy Man” as the nadir of Murphy’s cinematic output.
Thankfully, though, better times are to be had with the Special
Editions of both “Trading Places” and “Coming To
Landis was in the midst of one of his hottest streaks when
“Trading Places” was released in June of 1983. This tale of
two conniving tycoons (Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy) who conspire to
replace obnoxious but hard-working trader Dan Aykroyd’s identity
with down-on-his-luck street con artist Murphy, all for the purposes of
a $1 bet, remains one of the ‘80s’ most satisfying
comedies. The Timothy Harris-Herschel Weingrod script is filled with
belly laughs and the chemistry between Aykroyd and Murphy is terrific,
with sterling support turned in by Ameche, Bellamy, Paul Gleason,
Denholm Elliott, and Jamie Lee Curtis, breaking her out of
“scream queen” mold as a kind-hearted hooker. Landis was
working at the top of his game with this picture, and it shows, while
Elmer Bernstein’s fine score adds the requisite touch of class.
Paramount’s new release of “Trading Places” is
available in standard definition, HD-DVD and Blu Ray. The HD-DVD
release I screened boasts a wonderfully detailed, crisp picture with
robust 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. It is, for all intents and
purposes, flawless, and one of the more satisfying catalog discs
I’ve viewed to date on HD-DVD.
Extras on all three platforms include a 20-minute Making Of segment,
offering new interviews with Landis, Aykroyd and Curtis, along with
vintage clips, one deleted scene with Gleason (which was incorporated
into expanded TV broadcasts), a pop-up trivia track offering all kinds
of anecdotes, a featurette on the costume design, and a few other
goodies. Highly recommended!
Landis reunited with Murphy for the genial 1988 comedy “Coming To
America,” a film that wasn’t screened for critics on
release day -- a move made not because the studio was hiding something
(it ultimately received positive reviews), but rather because the
filmmakers had to rush in order to meet the movie’s late June
tale of an African prince who arrives in New York to court a
prospective queen is nice enough but hasn’t aged all that well.
Some of the laughs are directly related to topical humor of the day
(sweaty music videos, slobbering televangelists), while Murphy’s
multiple roles often strain to be funny. However, a strong supporting
cast keeps the material afloat (James Earl Jones, John Amos, Arsenio
Hall, an amusing supporting performance from future “E.R.”
star Eriq LaSalle, and an early role for Samuel L. Jackson as well). It
may be a bit dated in its appearance, but Murphy’s good-natured
performance and Landis’ comic timing deliver the goods, while
Nile Rodgers’ score is pleasant as well (and be on the lookout
for Ameche and Bellamy reprising their “Trading Places”
Paramount’s new Special Edition of “Coming To
America” offers another Making Of segment stringing together
recollections by Landis, featurettes on costume design, make-up and
music (offering an interview with Rodgers, reflecting on his career and
the score), plus vintage interview segments with Murphy and Hall.
It’s all mildly interesting but not terribly comprehensive. The
HD-DVD transfer is solid, though, and audio is again offered in 5.1
Dolby Digital Plus surround.
Murphy’s penchant for playing multiple roles worked for the
comic-actor again in the “Nutty Professor” films of the
‘90s, but the recent “Norbit” seems to have exhumed
all the unused material from those films in a desperate project
that’s unquestionably one of Murphy’s most painful vehicles
to sit through.
Murphy essays the title character, a nerd raised by an Asian-American,
who marries an obese loudmouth named Rasputia, even though he’s
still in love with his childhood sweetheart (Thandie Newton),
who’s engaged to smarmy Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Brian Robbins directed this torturous exercise in would-be comedic
shenanigans, packed with racial stereotypes that are patently offensive
and performances from a supporting cast that looks like they’d
rather be anywhere else (Newton and Gooding in particular). Visually
the film looks alright and offers a nice David Newman score, but
“Norbit” is a dud, and easily one of the worst films to
ever gross north of $90 million at the box-office.
Paramount’s HD-DVD edition includes deleted scenes, a featurette
on Rick Baker’s make-up, and a standard Making Of featurette. The
Dolby Digital Plus sound is satisfying and the 1080p, VC-1 encoded
transfer is just fine -- if only the film had any pleasing images to
pack in it.
WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICHAEL (**½, 1990, 96 mins., PG-13; Paramount):
One of Winona Ryder’s follow-ups to “Heathers” was
this so-so 1990 high school comedy with the actress starring as an
outcast hoping that the return of celebrity “Roxy
Carmichael” to her small Ohio town breaks her out of the
doldrums. Jeff Daniels co-stars in this watchable film from writer
Karen Leigh Hopkins and director Jim Abrahams (of the
Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio), which flirts with -- but regrettably
never gels into -- becoming an especially moving coming of age tale.
Thomas Newman’s score does help this Paramount release, which has
arrived on DVD in a decent 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo
sound. No extras are present.
SHOOTER (**½, 2007, 125 mins., R; Paramount):
Wahlberg essays a former Marine sniper thrust back into action when
Colonel Danny Glover explains that there’s a plot afoot to
assassinate the President. Things, however, aren’t what they seem
once Wahlberg is double-crossed and set up for the event. Director
Antoine Fuqua’s decidedly “old school” action romp is
overlong but highly watchable, fueled by effective action sequences and
good work from the cast. Paramount’s DVD includes a commentary by
Fuqua, seven deleted scenes, two featurettes, a fine 16:9 (2.35)
transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. HD viewers should note that
high-definition versions are due out on July 31st.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN: HD-DVD (***, 2007, 115 mins., R; Paramount):
performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci put this
emotionally charged, pulpy tale of redemption over the top. Director
Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his “Hustle and Flow”
follows Ricci as a wayward young woman whose boyfriend (Justin
Timberlake) leaves for military service, prompting her to fall back on
her sexual drives; Jackson is a man whose wife has left him (for his
best friend, no less), prompting him to take her in and
“tame” her. Both learn life lessons in Brewer’s
atmospheric, well-filmed character study, which Paramount has brought
to HD-DVD in a crisp, AVC-encoded MPEG4 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital
Plus sound. Extras include commentary, deleted scenes (in HD), and
New Blu Ray Discs
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET: Blu Ray (***½, 1997, 136 mins., R; Sony):
Less hyped than Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” but
ultimately far more successful at the box-office, Jean-Jacques Annaud's
sumptuous travelogue of an Austrian mountain climber's real-life
relationship with the Dalai Lama during the 1940s makes for a most
pleasing Blu Ray disc.
Brad Pitt has been lambasted for some of his performances, but he's
surprisingly good in “Seven Years In Tibet” as a man
searching for spiritual guidance after escaping from a British P.O.W.
camp, only to have his wife divorce him and son grow up with another
father while he attempts to enter Tibet during WWII.
Pitt is low-key, believable, and uses a great deal of restraint as the
former Gold medalist Heinrich Harrer, while Annaud's usual specialty in
bringing foriegn cultures to life on the big-screen is on full display
here -- it's like watching a National Geographic special in its
depiction of the Tibetan people and their culture, while breathtaking
cinematography captures the Himalayas like few films have ever done
before. Some were bored by the picture, but I was thoroughly
captivated, with the sequences between Pitt and the Dali Lama being
subtly poignant, never once reverting to Hollywood melodramatic
If the film is "emotionally aloof," it's probably because the movie is
done with taste and a sense of realism, in keeping with the true-life
story it cinematically recreates. It's all perfectly punctuated by a
restrained, sublime John Williams score that really soars over the
finale. Great entertainment all around!
Sony’s Blu Ray release sings in high-definition: the 1080p
transfer marvelously captures Robert Fraisse’s cinematography,
most especially during the exterior Himalayan sequences. I’ve
written that Ridley Scott’s films translate spectacularly to the
HD realm and, judging from “Tibet,” I’m sure that
Annaud’s other works would likewise benefit from high-definition
mastering (“Quest For Fire,” “The Name of the
Rose,” and “The Bear” in particular).
Sound options here include uncompressed 5.1 PCM and a 5.1 Dolby Digital
track, both of which do justice to the film’s sound design. No
extras are included.
HELLBOY: Blu Ray (**½, 2004, 132 mins.; Sony):
Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mingola's Dark Horse comic book
is a valiant attempt at bringing the cult hero to the screen, though
the end result is not entirely successful.
Ron Perlman is terrific as the title hero, a creature from the depths
of hell whom professor John Hurt raises as his own son after he crosses
over into our world during WWII. Raised to be good in spite of his
demonic origins, Hellboy works alongside Hurt's paranormal team of
heroes (including an aquatic gill-man dubbed Abe Sapien and FBI agent
Rupert Evans) to eradicate monsters from terrorizing humanity.
Hellboy and Co. face a stiffer challenge than their typical creature of
the week, however, when mad monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) appears on the
scene, wanting to finish the job he started while working alongside the
Nazis decades before. Rasputin needs Hellboy's power to open a portal
and unleash hell on Earth, forcing our hero to question his origins and
make the ultimate choice between good and evil.
"Hellboy" has some great moments and special effects to match, while
Perlman makes the protagonist's struggle to come to grips with his
history and do the right thing believable. His comedic quips help to
distinguish the character from other, brooding super heroes, and
lighten the action in comparison with similar movies like "X-Men."
Where "Hellboy" pales in comparison with the latter, however, comes in
the film's uneven script and odd pacing, which spends too little time
with the characters (Hurt and Perlman, for example, don't share enough
scenes for their relationship to carry any weight) and too much with
Hellboy and crew fighting the slimy, egg-laying creatures Rasputin has
unleashed into the world. After the second or third fight between these
monsters, I had seen enough, but Del Toro brings them back for
subsequent battles that go on forever.
Also disappointing is the movie's love story, with Perlman and vanilla
recruit Evans battling for the affections of Selma Blair's
"Firestarter"-like heroine. Awkwardly shot and written (perhaps the
partial result of Evans's bland performance), this aspect of the
picture doesn't pay off at all. (Ditto for Roden's bad-guy, who is
never as remotely interesting as the title character).
"Hellboy" works best when Perlman gets an opportunity to illuminate
Hellboy's wild persona, but throughout, I kept thinking a better movie
could have been made from Mingola's comic. It's diverting for the most
part and Perlman is great, but the pacing is wildly inconsistent (some
scenes feel oddly truncated, others play as if they'd never end) and
Del Toro's claustrophobic direction accentuates the phoniness of the
Prague locations (which are supposed to be NYC but look like the same
sets Del Toro used for "Blade II").
Sony’s Blu Ray release of Del Toro’s 132-minute
“Director’s Cut” looks very good for the most part,
though the film is often so dark that “Hellboy”
doesn’t quite benefit as much from its HD appearance as you might
anticipate. There are also some intermittent artifacts
(“ringing” around some objects) here and there, though for
the most part “Hellboy” fans will be happy with the
presentation. Audio options are again in 5.1 PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital
Extras include a good assortment of extras, though not quite all of the
extensive content found in the 3-disc standard-edition DVD from a
couple of years back. The lengthy, 140-minute “Seeds of
Creation” documentary takes you through the production
step-by-step, while deleted scenes, commentary from the director,
lighting/make-up tests, VFX How-To’s, and “Scott
McCloud’s Guide to Understanding Comics” round out the disc.
BASIC INSTINCT: Blu Ray (**½, 128 mins., 1992, Unrated; Lionsgate):
Paul Verhoeven’s sleek, stylishly made, and quite silly thriller
makes its Blu Ray debut in a somewhat underwhelming presentation from
Lionsgate. On the plus side, the film’s DTS audio is sensational,
doing full justice to Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding, haunting
score in a way no previous video release has, and extras (reprieved
from prior Special Edition discs) include a commentary from Verhoeven
and cinematographer Jan De Bont; another track with feminist critic
Camille Paglia; the trailer; screen tests; storyboards; a montage of TV
edition scenes; and the documentary “Blonde Poison.” The
disappointment comes in the disc’s new 1080p transfer, which
suffers from an over-abundance of noise reduction and even visible
“ringing” around certain objects and in the backdrop
occasionally. One expects more from an HD transfer than what
“Basic Instinct” provides, though it’s still superior
to any version we’ve seen outside of a theater to
New on DVD from Fox
Several additional vintage titles join Fox’s “Cinema Classics Collection” line-up this June.
Jack Benny stars as CHARLEY’S AUNT (***, 1941, 82 mins.)
in this George Seaton-penned adaptation of the Brandon Thomas play (brought to the screen several times before and since).
Fox’s Special Edition DVD of this short, raucous comedy, playing
off Benny’s shenanigans, includes a new B&W transfer with an
informative commentary by historian Randy Skretvedt, a promotional
short (“Three of a Kind”) and a still gallery.
Don Ameche, meanwhile, is the straight man to the antics of the Ritz
Brothers in the entertaining, though slight, 1939 comic musical
adaptation of THE THREE MUSKETEERS (**½, 1939, 72 mins.),
with loads of pratfalls, musical numbers and a bit of swashbuckling derring-do making for a fine time for the whole family.
Fox’s DVD is one of the lighter “Cinema Classics”
releases, offering only several Fox Movietone news reels, along with a
color transfer. As with “Charley’s Aunt,” sound
options include 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks.
Meanwhile, the crew of the SSRN Seaview start off on their third season in the latest DVD anthology culled from VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1966, 507 mins., Fox).
Offering the first half of the episodes (basically the 1966 portion of
the ‘66-‘67 season) from Season 3, “Voyage”
heads towards the wild and woolly with more outlandish plots (giant sea
monsters!) that the show’s fans still seem to be divided over.
Yet it’s undeniably fun, full-color Irwin Allen escapist fare,
with Fox’s theee-disc set including a David Hedison interview and
various still galleries. Recommended!