HD DVD Movie Reviews for June 5, 2007

This week’s Word from the Street for June 5, 2007 includes reviews of these new HD DVD releases: Rio Bravo, The Cowboys, Trading Places, Coming to America, and Norbit.

Rio Bravo (Warner) [HD DVD]

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 HD DVD release is identical to the Blu-ray title and features a new digital transfer from restored picture and audio elements. Offered in 1.85 widescreen (1080p), the video is of course, quite sharp with an astonishing level of detail presented. Audio is Dolby Digital Plus 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) [HD DVD]

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). Tech specs are identical to the Blu-ray release. The sharp and clear video image is offered in 2.40 widescreen (1080p) with audio in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (English), with French and Spanish languages offered in DD Plus 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.

Trading Places (Paramount) [HD DVD]

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 Plus 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 Plus 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 (Paramount) [HD DVD]

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 HD DVD 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 Plus 5.1 track (DD Plus 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.

Norbit (DreamWorks) [HD DVD]

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 HD DVD release is similar if not exact to the Blu-ray: it’s 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 audio mix on the HD DVD release is much better than the Blu-ray with a 1.5kpbs DD Plus 5.1 track that gives a much rounder feeling to the dialog. Nevertheless, it’s still a rather lifeless mix. (French and Spanish in DD Plus 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.

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Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson enjoys knife throwing, growing exotic mosses, and that warm spot where the sun shines through the corrugated box. Christian also writes for Gadget Review. You can also find Christian on Google+, and Twitter.

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