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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Ishtar (Blu-ray)
Ishtar (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // Unrated // August 6, 2013 // Region A
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted July 30, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
As wannabe singing stars Rogers and Clarke sing in their main song, telling the truth can be dangerous business… and the truth is that Ishtar is a pretty good film.  I'm sure many people are going to be foaming at the mouth and announcing that this is the worst film "EVER!!!!" but a lot of the people who use Ishtar as the butt of jokes have never actually seen the movie*.   It's a film that has been unfairly maligned since it was released, and has such a bad reputation that it wasn't even released on DVD in R1.  Now Sony, in a bit of a perplexing move, I'll admit, has released the film on Blu-ray without any extras but with a nice looking transfer.  If you only know the film due to its reputation, seek it out and give it a spin.  You'll be surprised to find a funny and entertaining film.

Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) are a pair of good friend who have bonded over the one true love in both of their lives:  writing songs.  They truly know in their heart of hearts that the tunes they pen are great, wonderful pieces and if they could only catch a break, they'd be as big as Simon & Garfunkel.  The only problem is that they're totally wrong.  Not only are they not great, they're not even mediocre.  The songs that they write are astoundingly, tragically, and hilariously bad.  Take their would-be masterpiece, Dangerous Business:
Telling the truth can be dangerous business
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand
If you admit that you play the accordion
No one will hire you in a rock 'n' roll band
But we can sing out hearts out
And if we're lucky, then no neighbors complain
Because life is the way we audition for God
Let us pray that we all get the job.
After they have a repertoire of other such self-written tunes, Rogers and Clarke realize that the one thing they need is an agent.  Enter Marty Freed (Jack Weston), a small time rep who can always find a job for Americans wanting to play in the Middle East.  He signs them and sends the pair on tour in Ishtar, a country under the rule of a brutal dictator that's on the edge of revolution.  Once there, the pair meet the attractive Shirra who manages to get the not-too-bright Chuck to switch passports and luggage with her.  It turns out that Shirra is Ishtar's most-wanted revolutionary, but when CIA agent (Charles Grodin) recruits Lyle to help preserve the current regime since it's in the best interests of the US to have a stable government, the two buddies find themselves on opposite sides and in the middle of some very dangerous business.
It's a funny buddy comedy that gets a lot of things right.  Most comedy duos have a smart half (Abbott, George Burns, Dick Smothers) and a dumb half (Costello, Gracie Allen, Tommy Smothers).  Not so with Rogers and Clarke.  This team has a dumb half Clarke, and his even more clueless partner Rogers.  Like the Laurel and Hardy, the comedy arises because neither of them have any idea how far off the mark their ideas and plans really are.  The banter as they're writing songs is great.
This film has been unfairly maligned since it was first released.  With an all-star cast and crew it should have been a huge hit.  Writer/director Elaine May had written a lot of comedy gold and had been nominated for an Academy Award (for Heaven Can Wait ).  This was Warren Beatty's first film since winning the Oscar for Reds (Best Direction, he was also nominates for Best Actor though he lost to Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond) and Dustin Hoffman had mined comic gold in his previous theatrical film Tootsie.  They even managed to get two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Reds and Apocalypse Now… he would win a third the year that Ishtar was released for The Last Emperor) to shoot the picture.  Paul Williams (who also had an Oscar along with a slew of other awards) along with input from May and Hoffman wrote the wonderfully horrid songs.  How could it go wrong?
The production was troubled, and it did go over budget.  The two stars were also paid plenty, and with other notable bombs that had a lot to do with the bad press.  I remember reading reviews when the film was first released and being astonished that every one of them mentioned how huge the budget was ($40 million, which was a lot at the time).  It's not like ticket prices were raised because of that, so it really shouldn't matter how much the studio was on the hook for, but a film's high budget is a bludgeon that critics still use to this day. 
Ultimately, this is a fun, but light movie that's not perfect.  The beginning of the film, where Rogers and Clarke are in New York writing their songs and playing on open mic nights, is hilarious and well worth the price of admission.  Both stars play their roles with a seriousness that adds to the comedy.  Rogers and Clarke have no clue that they suck, and that's want sells the movie.  The picture does slow down a bit once they get to Ishtar (in an homage to the old Bob Hope Bing Crosby The Road to… films they're originally headed to Morocco) and the CIA/Ishtar rebel plot plays out pretty predictable but it's still a fun outing.
That's the big problem that critics and audiences had back in 1987:  This is a fun, goofy movie.  It's not a sophisticated comedy like The Graduate or a revealing satire that comments on American life, something that would be fitting of such pedigreed stars.  It's just a decent movie that entertains and provides for plenty of laughs.  If the same film were made with a couple of SNL alumni it would have received decent reviews, but with an all-star team behind it, and a huge budget to boot, people were just expecting more.
The Blu-ray:

The film comes with 1.85:1 1080p image that preserves the original aspect ratio.  It actually looks pretty good, especially for a 25 year old flick.  The colors are strong and the level of detail is very good.  I was expecting something much worse than this.
The Blu-ray arrives with a 5.1 DTS-HA MA track as well as the original mono track.  The multi-channel track that was constructed doesn't have a lot going on as far as the soundstage is concerned, but it's not bad.  The dialog is clear and easy to hear and there isn't any annoying background noise.
Unfortunately, there is no bonus content.  I would have loved to hear writer/director Elaine May discuss the film, but it's not really a big surprise that Sony didn't want to pony up the money for a commentary track.
Final Thoughts:
No, this isn't a great film, but it's not anywhere near as horrible as its reputation would lead you to believe.  A truly funny film that does stumble a bit at the end, it's a decent flick that has some very good laughs.  If you only know Ishtar from its status as a horrible bomb, they you'll do well to check it out.  Chances are you'll be pleasantly surprised.  Recommended.
*In his book The Complete Far Side, creator Gary Larson admitted that he shouldn't have criticized the movie in one of his cartoons.  "When I drew the above cartoon, I had not actually seen Ishtar. ... Years later, I saw it on an airplane, and was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it's not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so."
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