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Case Number 26056: Small Claims Court

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Ishtar (Blu-ray)

Sony // 1987 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 3rd, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Naugle can't tell his ass from a hole in the ground.

The Charge

Lions and tigers and…blind camels? Oh my…

The Case

Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty, Dick Tracy) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman, Meet the Fockers) are two terrible singer-songwriters who are down to their last dime. When their subpar agent (Jack Weston, Short Circuit 2) books the duo at a resort in the republic of Ishtar, the men think they may have found their next meal ticket. The good news is there is a need for them in Ishtar. The bad news is that it's as rival spies for a planned uprising. Vying for the affections of a beautiful freedom fighter (Isabelle Adjani, Monsieur Ibrahim) and trying to stay alive with CIA assassins hot on their trail, Rogers and Clarke will need all their wits and skills before the curtain closes on their act…forever!

"Ishtar". Just the name is synonymous with "big budget bomb." It's a film that has gone down in Hollywood history as such an enormous failure that other bombs have been sometimes unfairly compared to it (Kevin Costner's notorious action picture Waterworld was jokingly referred to as "Fish-tar"). Essentially, Ishtar is sort of the measuring stick Hollywood still uses when they talk about colossal cinematic failures.

The history of Ishtar is filled with difficult film shoots, attempted rescue in the editing room, and dismal box office receipts. Warren Beatty helped shepherd the movie into being as a sort of thank you to writer Elaine May for doing an un-credited rewrite on his award winning film Reds. Once May was onboard, along with Dustin Hoffman, things went from bad to worse. The film's desert shoot was a mitigated disaster with May and Beatty clashing over how the film would be shot (and edited). When Ishtar finally did hit theaters, it brought in a little over $4 Million dollars ($8 Million adjusted for inflation), and went on to make just slightly over $14 Million on a $55 Million budget. The final consensus: Ishtar was a complete and utter failure. So mocked and reviled was Ishtar that the film has never been released on DVD and is just now making its debut on digital media on Blu-ray. Fans can thank the good Lord for small favors.

So, the $55 Million dollar question is this: Is Ishtar as bad as its critics would have you think? The answer: Not really. Yes, it flounders and fails at many turns, but is it the worst film ever to grace the silver screen? If you saw Adam Sandler's Grown Ups 2, you already know the answer to that question. I went into Ishtar really hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Unfortunately, the film falls into the latter. While the first twenty minutes of Ishtar are rather amusing, the rest of the film is a muddled mess of mistaken identity, boring espionage, and unfunny bits involving a blind camel.

Give credit to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman; they both do their best at making these roles work. Beatty and Hoffman were cast against type with Beatty playing the dim bulb and Hoffman taking up the mantle of ladies' man. I especially enjoyed Beatty's Lyle, a guy who's as sharp as a butter knife and can't seem to say the word "schmuck" (he pronounces it "sss-muck"). Hoffman is good as Chuck (Hoffman's character is basically Hoffman the actor), but it's Beatty who really steals the show here. The twosome spend a lot of time on stage trying to be the next Simon & Garfunkel, singing hideous songs by composer Paul Williams (who "had a ball" writing such ear-bursting numbers) and attempting to play instruments. It's during these moments in Ishtar where both actors look like they're having an absolute ball.

Then things take a turn for the worse. As soon as Beatty and Hoffman's characters take off for the fictional region of Ishtar, the film looses any and all steam. Charles Grodin (Midnight Run) is trotted out as an American agent and does his best to make us smile (and at times, he does), but the rest of the movie is just sort of inert, flopping around on the screen waiting for something to happen. When the heroes get stuck in the desert with a blind camel, I had all but lost interest in their misadventures and patiently waited for the end credits to start rolling. The screenplay by Elaine May has some funny dialogue ("Move the camel. He's on my foot!") while her directing is passable. It's just a shame May couldn't keep the silliness of the first twenty minutes running through the rest of the film.

Ishtar (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD widescreen, available for the first time in its original aspect ratio on any medium (at least in North America). The transfer is very clean with a thin layer of filmic grain, giving the film a warm cinematic presence. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a front heavy mix that gets a boost from Dave Grusin's musical score and Paul Williams's intentionally bad songwriting. Also included are the film's original Dolby 1.0 Mono mix, and English SDH subtitles.

I'm disappointed to report that Sony did not see fit to include any bonus features whatsover. Ishtar was a movie begging for a special edition—or, at the very least, a commentary track by May, Beatty, and Hoffman—and it's sad the studio didn't take the time or money to shed some light on the film's infamous history.

Ishtar isn't as bad as history would have you believe, but that's small consolation considering the movie is still not very good. Hoffman and Beatty's characters would have been a lot funnier had they been planted in a different screenplay (without the political revolution angle). It isn't a pain to sit through, but there are better movies out there deserving of your time.

The Verdict

Fans can rejoice! Everyone else can care less.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 61

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• DTS HD 2.0 Mono (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Adventure
• Blu-ray
• Comedy
• Concerts and Musicals

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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