This week’s Word from the Street for June 5, 2007 includes reviews of these new Blu-ray Disc releases: Rio Bravo, The Cowboys, Blood Diamond, Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band: Live in Dublin, Hellboy, The Messengers, Rescue Me: The Complete Third Season, and Norbit.
Rio Bravo (Warner)
Featuring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and Walter Brennan
While this release was supposed to hit the street on May 22nd, Warner Bros. pushed it back to June 5th. In this classic Western by Howard Hawks there is nary a close-up of the actors, but the gravitas of John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance is unmistakable. One of the premier Westerns of the Hollywood studio system, Rio Bravo is also highly influential. See this film and then race to see John Carpenter’s gritty Assault On Precinct 13 (NOT the 2005 “reimagining”) and you’ll be astounded that, essentially, Carpenter’s film, while not an remake, is a glorious homage to Hawks style and Rio Bravo’s basic plot: A lawman in a small town pulls together a couple of local men to hold a murderer (Claude Akins) in jail until the state marshal can arrive. The murderer has help however in the form of his rancher brother and his gang. The gang surrounds the town and lays siege to the jail while Chance and his two deputies: the town drunk (Dean Martin) and a disabled old man (Walter Brennan) assist Chance in fending off the attacks and protecting their prisoner. Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett wrote the crackerjack script (Brackett is well remembered for her input on The Empire Strikes Back) and Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the memorable score (Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson also get to stretch their vocal cords in the film!). The film’s so good it was remade twice (once by Hawks himself) and finally given the homage treatment by Carpenter.
The Blu-ray release features a new digital transfer from restored picture and audio elements and is offered in 1.85 widescreen (1080p). The video is of course, quite sharp with an astonishing level of detail presented. Audio is Dolby Digital English 1.0, French 1.0. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish. The features offered are an exquisite audio commentary by director John Carpenter and film critic Richard Schickel who give insight into why the film is so influential to this day and how it was a prism into Howard Hawks’s own personality and psyche. Additional features include a John Wayne trailer gallery, a documentary from 1973 called The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks, and two new featurettes: Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked. This is a crucial addition to any video library though the impact of hi-def is really noticeable in the remastered and cleaned up video image.
The Cowboys (Warner)
Featuring: John Wayne, Bruce Dern, Roscoe Lee Browne and Colleen Dewhurst
A pure revenge drama with a Western backdrop, Mark Rydell’s terrific and underrated film The Cowboys features The Duke as rancher who presides over a bunch of misfit boys that he’s hired for a cattle drive. With a not-so-subtle father and son theme playing throughout, Wayne teaches hard-earned coming-of-age lessons to the boys until they meet up with some nasty cattle thieves fronted by Long Hair Asa Watts (Dern in a sinister role that defined his career for quite some time). I won’t give up the plot twist, but it’s a tragic one that propels the narrative toward murder and revenge until the circle of “sons” becoming men is complete. It’s a small classic that deserves to be seen and is now newly restored and remastered by Warners for the hi-def releases (this is another Warner’s release that was pushed back from May 22nd). The sharp and clear video image is offered in 2.40 widescreen (1080p) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), with French and Spanish languages offered in DD 1.0. Subtitles are offered in English, French, Spanish. The features included a detailed audio commentary by Mark Rydell with plenty of reflections on his directorial style and how he worked with The Duke and a cast of children). There’s also a new featurette: The Cowboys: Together Again which offers a reunion with the surviving cast and director., as well as a vintage featurette: The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men, lastly there’s a standard-def theatrical trailer for the film.
Blood Diamond (Warner)
Featuring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Arnold Vosloo and Michael Sheen
The movie that the De Beers company loves to hate, Blood Diamond actually received less mainstream press than I thought it would upon its premier last year. I figure most of the outrage against “blood” or conflict diamonds has already been generated from years of media reports covering the West African conflicts and South African profiteering that occurred during the 1990’s and eventually ended up in a process for ferreting out illegal diamonds mined out of war zones in order to illegally finance insurgent forces and their respective warlords. This process, called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (with “Scheme” sounding kinda sketchy, don’tcha think?) is supposed to create transparencies in the diamond trade and make those declaring their effusive love each other feel good about putting a high-grade, 4-C rock on the ol’ ring-finger. And that, with the development of character archtypes we care about, is basically the plot for this earnest film that offers plenty of bloody action for the gung-ho and grim reminders for the socially conscious.
The acting earned plenty of awards nominations, but some might find the characters to be rather two-dimensional as they race to find a rare pink diamond and discover the true meaning of Christmas (I’m kidding about that last part). The Blu-ray disc offers the same tech specs as the upcoming HD DVD disc including widescreen 2.35 ratio image (1080p) with a video quality that focuses on the 4-Cs of hi-def: clarity, crispness, compression and color levels. Audio is offered in a solid DD PCM 5.1 mix as well as Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English, Spanish and French like the subtitles). The Blu-ray disc release offers an audio commentary by Director Edward Zwick along with a slew of production features and video diaries called “Focus Points” that include:
• Blood on the Stone: Follow a Diamond’s Path from the Ground to the Stone
• Becoming Archer: Profiling Leonardo DiCaprio
• Journalism on the Front Line: Jennifer Connelly on Women Journalists at War
• Inside the Siege of Freetown: Edward Zwick on One of the Movie’s Pivotal Sequences
• Nas Shine on ‘Em Music Video
• Theatrical Trailer
Note that the HD DVD release (in early July) will include even more features including hi-def only items such as In-Movie Experience (IME) which is a picture-in-picture offering that allows a power-user to have an ongoing pop-up video commentary during the film and will offer additional behind-the-scenes footage and interview commentary. Warner Home Video will also include a web-based feature that will allow the viewer to rate aspects of the film as well as additional commentaries and video diaries. WHV is not releasing these features on Blu-ray, so consider that when purchasing for your hi-def system.
Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band:
Live in Dublin (Sony BMG)
Featuring: The Boss, Patti Scialfa and the Seeger Sessions Band
Pulled from three different shows during a stay at The Point Theater in Dublin Ireland, this November, 2006 performance features The Seeger Sessions Band (though the “Seeger” was dropped for the video and CD releases) and a series Springsteen faves and variations of folk and spiritual standards. Songs featured include:
• Atlantic City
• Old Dan Tucker
• Eyes On The Prize
• Jesse James
• Further On (Up The Road)
• Mary Don’t You Weep
• Erie Canal
• If I Should Fall Behind
• My Oklahoma Home
• Highway Patrolman
• Mrs. McGrath
• How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live (Bruce Springsteen Version)
• Jacob’s Ladder
• Long Time Comin’
• Open All Night
• Pay Me My Money Down
• Growin’ Up
• When The Saints Go Marching In
• This Little Light Of Mine
• American Land
• Blinded By The Light
• Bonus Tracks: Love Of The Common People & We Shall Overcome
This hi-def release does not feature the five bonus tracks found in the PBS pledge-drive CD.
Screen Resolution is offered at 1080 progressive in a 1.78 widescreen aspect ratio enhanced for 16×9 screens. The entire production is HD digital from soup to nuts making for a nice disc to show friends who’ve never seen the depth of HD performance. The fidelity of the audio is pristine with a great mix of mid-range and bass in Dolby Digital uncompressed PCM 5.1 and 2.0 channel variations as well as DD 5.1 surround. For fans of The Boss, this simply can’t be beat… for fans of concert films in general it’s worth consideration for a buy as it’s one of the finest concert films produced in the last few years.
Featuring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Evans and Karel Roden
Based on the Dark Horse comic created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy is a showcase of stunt and effects work but offers a mighty confusing narrative and plot for those unfamiliar with the comic; nevertheless, under director Guillermo del Toro, the film has managed to be a fan favorite and considered one of the best Hollywood adaptations of a superhero comic. I prefer del Toro’s more adult forays into dark fantasy, but Hellboy does have an amazing look and solid acting with a cast headed by ace character actor (and man underneath many a prosthetic makeup) Ron Pearlman.
The Blu-ray disc offers amazing detail and color saturation that does not bleed in the least (an important point when you’re hero’s basically a solid red demon). Black levels and contrast look good and the sharp 1080p resolution of the 1.85 widescreen image makes this one fine lookin’ disc. Audio formats offered were also quite impressive with the uncompressed DD PCM 5.1 sounding brightly intense during the action sequences without seeming muddy on the low-end (English and German offered in PCM, the other offerings are the English/French/German DD 5.1 channel version. Subtitles are offered in a smorgasbord of English, French, Korean, Arabic, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Greek, Turkish, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Croatian and Romanian. The features on this release are rather light for a comic-based film and include:
• Audio commentary with director Guillermo Del Toro
• Hellboy: The Seeds Of Creation documentary
• Deleted scenes With optional Director’s Commentary
• VFX How-To’s
• Make-up and Lighting Tests
• Scott McCloud’s Guide to Understanding Comics
The Messengers (Sony)
Featuring: Penelope Ann Miller, Dylan McDermott, Kristen Stewart and John Corbett
Annoyingly bad PG-13 “horror” movie from the Brothers Pang (pangs of guilt for making it, no doubt), it features the usual lightweight scare tropes found in other vapid PG-13 horrors (read: pale imitations of Japanese horror productions). The video is nicely transferred in 1.85 widscreen (1080p), the darkest images reveal plenty of detail and the shots of the sunflower farm visually pop with bursts of yellow and green. The audio, when cranked to fear factor 11 maintains a nice balance of highs and lows with dialog at the fore. You get a choice of uncompressed PCM 5.1 and DD 5.1 (English and French, as are the subtitles). There’s cast and crew audio commentary and several behind-the-scenes featurettes (Exhuming The Messengers).
Rescue Me: The Complete Third Season (Sony)
Featuring: Denis “Asshole” Leary, Andrea Roth, Jack McGee, Diane Farr, Steven Pasquale, et. al.
The third season of the sardonic and dark humored FX Network show continues the story of Tommy Gavin (Leary) a self-destructive New York City firefighter who’s post-9/11 traumas and tribulations continue to shake up his broken family and his fellow fire crewmen. This season features Susan Sarandon as Alicia and a truly twisted cliffhanger at the season’s end. The video is offered up in 1.78 widescreen (1080p) and looks better than the original broadcast (even with digital delivery) and the audio is robust in DD PCM 5.1 and DD 5.1 (English and French) tracks. Subtitles are offered in English and French. The Featurettes include:
• On-Set Location Tour
• Blooper Reel
• 14 Deleted Scenes
• Sneak Peek of the Fourth Season
• Rescue Me Comedy Short
• Behind-the-Scenes Clips
Trading Places: Special Collector’s Edition (Paramount)
Featuring: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Paul “Mr. Beeks” Gleason and Denholm Elliot
While not a classic film in the truest sense of the word this is a well-remembered comedy from a well-regarded, genre-hopping director, John Landis, who always seems to have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek regardless of the project. Here, under a style of comic direction he perfected in such films as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Landis ably directs Eddie Murphy (who, without a good director, seemingly has trouble honing his comedic talent for a feature film) as Billy Ray Valentine, a small-time hustler who finds himself in the middle of a nature vs. nurture argument between two wealthy brothers that devolves into a mean spirited contest for the soul of Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd). The true pleasure of the film, aside from the gleefully goofy performances (even the usually stiff-lipped Brit Denholm Elliot), are in Landis’s typical touches and call backs from his prior films (See You Next Wednesday!) as well as the high ratio of quotable lines. For an older 80’s film given the so-called “special collectors edition” treatment on hi-def the actual video image is still rather soft and flat though the transfer material seems to have been cleaned up nicely from prior video releases.
The video is offered in 1.85 ratio widescreen (1080p) but is not something you’ll discern as being better in hi-def. The audio is given the DD 5.1 treatment, but the mix isn’t as pleasant as the audio transfer of a newer release. The music tracks sound rather muddled when they’re not tinny, while the dialog track offers limited range at best. The entire mix is less than dynamic (there’s also a DD 1.0 mix in Spanish and French with subtitles in English, French and Spanish). The fun to be had, aside from the laugh-out-loud feature, is found in the featurette: Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places, which shows just how much fun the cast and filmmakers had during the Philly-based production. There’s also Trading Stories which catalogs a 1983 press tour and a single deleted scene with Optional Commentary by Executive Producer George Folsey, Jr.. Other special feature items include Dressing The Part (regarding the film’s costumes) and The Trade in Trading Places (a helpful little segment where stock traders discuss the film’s complicated little ending). Lastly there’s a Trivia Pop-Ups item for fans of that kinda stuff and an “Industry Promotional Piece” (a teaser item for the film). You’d be selling yourself short if you didn’t have this film as part of your video library, but make sure to buy low (and sell high).
Coming To America: Special Collector’s Edition (Paramount)
Featuring: Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, Madge Sinclair, Shari Headley and John Amos
The second Landis and Murphy related release for the week is Coming To America which, while not as truly comic as Trading Places, still manages to offer up plenty of laughs in its fish-out-of-water look at a young African prince who finds his way around the mean streets of Queens, NY in search of a, well… queen! The cast, under the controlled chaos of John Landis, plays things broad and the funniest bits often involve the multiple Murphys (and Halls) during the barbershop sequences (later to become a hallmark virtually every Murphy comedy since). The callbacks to Lands’s earlier films are there (“Mortimer!? We’re back!”), but the film feels somhow bloated and less light with the comic touch than Trading Places.
The film looks brighter and more colorful, with a bit more visual pop, than the Blu-ray release of Trading Places but it’s still not showcase material for a hi-def theater setup. The nice looking 1.85 widescreen image (1080p) gives the viewer nice detail, particularly in the visually gorgeous African sequences. The audio for this release offers a bit more clarity and less mud than the Trading Places release and you get a pretty smooth DD 5.1 track (DD 1.0 for Spanish and French with subtitles offered for those languages and English). The features are typical of a “special collectors edition” with my personal highlight being the featurette showing the genius of make-up artist Rick Baker (Character Building: The Many Faces of Rick Baker). The other featurettes offer more making-of short docs including:
• Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America
• Fit For Akeem: The Costumes of Coming To America
• Composing America: The Musical Talents of Nile Rodgers
• A Vintage Sit-Down with Eddie and Arsenio
• Photo Gallery
• Theatrical Trailer
I recommend Coming To America for those who enjoy the rare, but good Eddie Murphy comedies as well as those with a soft spot for John Landis’s brand of filmmaking, though Trading Places is by far the better comedy of the two.
Featuring: Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Cuba Gooding Jr., Marlon Wayans and Eddie Griffin
A not-so-great Eddie Murphy comedy that still, nevertheless, manages to showcase his genuine talents for mimicry and comedic timing, Norbit offers a different version of the “mad black woman” character popularized by the morality movies of Tyler Perry. Murphy’s Rasputia is a grossly overweight and overbearing sexual bully who seemingly does everything she can to make Murphy’s Norbit miserable. With one of those bookended setups that telegraph every coming scene the film seems written by the numbers, but still manages to let Murphy do what he does best in creating multiple character roles that are indistinguishable from the real Eddie Murphy, and that alone is but the only reason to see this misfire of a comedy.
The video offered on the Blu-ray release is handled in a transfer (1.85 widescreen at 1080p resolution) with a high degree of contrast that makes the colors bleed at the edges and give a certain lack of definition to the character’s faces. The overall image is a disappointment for hi-def, while the audio mix is a low-end (640kpbs) compression DD 5.1 track that offers rather lackluster sound (French and Spanish in DD 5.1 as well with subtitles in the same). There are a few extra features including 14 deleted scenes, another (awfully sub-par) Rick Baker documentary on the character makeup designs and a short on the stuntwork. There’s photo gallery, a theatrical trailer and, last but not least, a mock commercial that features Marlon Wayans called “Power Tap.” I’d avoid this one and put the money on Murphy’s earlier efforts.