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Ishtar: Director's Cut Blu-ray Review

Ishtar (1987) movie poster Ishtar

Theatrical Release: May 15, 1987 (Director's Cut Premiere: April 21, 2013) / Running Time: 105 Minutes (Director's Cut) / Rating: Not Rated (Theatrical Cut: PG-13)

Writer/Director: Elaine May

Cast: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck "Hawk" Clarke), Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel), Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison), Jack Weston (Marty Freed), Tess Harper (Willa Rogers), Carol Kane (Carol), Aharon Ipale (Emir Yousef), Fuad Hageb (Abdul), David Margulies (Mr. Clarke), Rose Arrick (Mrs. Clarke), Julie Garfield (Dorothy), Christine Rose (Siri Darma), Abe Kroll (Mr. Thomopoulos), Hannah Kroll (Mrs. Thomopoulos), Herb Gardner (Rabbi Pierce), Bill Moor (Edgar Smith)

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Ishtar is one of the most infamous films of all time. People who know this 1987 comedy typically do so because it got some of the worst reviews ever and because it was a high-profile flop
whose costly failures were the stuff of headlines, late night jokes, and Razzie Award recognition.

There is an element of schadenfreude to Ishtar's legacy, as it was made by individuals who had earned quite a bit of fame and respect over the twenty years prior to the film's release. Writer/director Elaine May was the rare female filmmaker to rise to prominence. For her, Ishtar followed three highly regarded directorial efforts as well as contributions to the Oscar-nominated screenplays of Heaven Can Wait and Tootsie. The leading men of those two esteemed comedies, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, were eager to reunite with May and did so as Ishtar's stars, carrying with them the clout of New Hollywood landmarks like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and revered more recent films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Reds. Beatty believed in May's desert comedy enough to take his fifth producing credit and thereby gamble his perfect commercial track record. Charles Grodin, star of May-directed The Heartbreak Kid, was also along for this ride. Ishtar even boasted the participation of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), who would win his third Academy Award the same year for his work on The Last Emperor, and Anthony Powell, a three-time winner of the costume design Oscar.

With a sterling cast and creative crew and a budget of $55 million (the equivalent of $110 million today), Ishtar was made with high expectations. Finally released in mid-May 1987, it opened atop the box office, narrowly edging out the supernatural horror thriller The Gate that had an identical 1,139 theater count. But Ishtar soon sank on ice cold reviews and toxic word of mouth, its eventual 3.31 opening weekend multiplier more akin to a poorly-received, front-loaded modern-day sequel than the typical 1980s comedy trajectory.

New York songwriters Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) are unsure of the situation they face in the deserts of "Ishtar."

Months after meeting, Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) have quit their respective jobs as an ice cream truck driver and marginalized restaurant pianist to pursue a songwriting partnership. As they effortlessly crank out trite and nonsensical lyrics and melodies, Rogers and Clarke believe they could be just as successful as the musicians whose images adorn their New York apartment walls, like their heroes Simon and Garfunkel. They just need an agent. They find one in Marty Freed (Jack Weston) and though he's unimpressed by their performances of original songs at open mic nights, he lands them two low-paying job offers abroad. Recently abandoned by their women and their savings accounts running dry, Rogers and Clarke take the gig in Morocco, where they'll play the lounge of the Chez Casablanca.

The fates of the two men change at the airport in Ishtar, a fictional country near Morocco's border. There, Chuck is persuaded into swapping belongings with and loaning his passport to the desperate, mysterious Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani, whose French look and sound betray her character). Shirra, it turns out, is Ishtar's most hunted fugitive and believed to be in possession of a map at the center of an ancient prophecy foretelling of two messengers of God. The very map has just gotten Shirra's brother killed and now she is hoping to use it to overthrow her nation's tyrannical Emir.

Meanwhile, in his hotel, Chuck is casually recruited by the CIA's Jim Harrison (the reliably amusing Grodin), an agent who's aware of the map and weary of its potential to spark calamitous upheaval throughout the entire Middle East. Clarke and Rogers emerge as the unlikely, unwitting individuals at the eye of the political tornado full of severe implications for the assortment of international intelligence agencies invested in the situation.

French actress Isabelle Adjani, Warren Beatty's girlfriend at the time, makes for an unconvincing Middle Easterner with her alabaster skin and spotty accent. Charles Grodin is, as always, a delight, this time playing concerned CIA agent Jim Harrison.

Ishtar begins harmlessly enough as a buddy comedy about two middle-aged New Yorkers down on their luck. Deluded about their talent but undoubtedly able to pen a catchy tune (most of which are the product of May and '70s pop/Muppets composer Paul Williams, with some conceived by Hoffman and Beatty), Rogers and Clarke are appealing enough antiheroes we don't mind following halfway around the globe.

When the film hits the Middle East, though, it shifts gears and loses its way. The convoluted espionage plot is escalated to the foreground
and the personalities of Rogers and Clarke instantly fade in favor of duplicitous double-crossing and mutual suspicion. When the film settles into the desert, dropping its leads into the enormity of the sand and heat, we become all too aware of how unfunny its story is. Without the mild entertainment of their songwriting shtick, the movie creeps to a halt and its finale is downright insufferable. The first act and establishing material may not be a barrel of laughs, but it doesn't elicit the scorn forever associated with the word "Ishtar."

Whether it was the embittering production experiences or the hit their reputations took after the film was trashed by critics and shunned by audiences, both Beatty and May seemed to take a step back from filmmaking after Ishtar. Beatty would return to directing and producing on 1990's Dick Tracy, while May has since avoided the director's chair and seemingly left the industry after writing the adapted screenplays for the '90s comedies The Birdcage and Primary Colors directed by her old Chicago comedy partner Mike Nichols. Grodin's career was unfazed by this flop, as he slowly rose to co-lead in hit movies from Midnight Run to the first two Beethoven flicks. Hoffman, meanwhile, rebounded the fastest of all, following this first post-sabbatical credit with Rain Man, a film that won him a second Best Actor Oscar and sparked a career revival that hasn't completely let up just yet.

So legendary are the failures of Ishtar that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment strangely chose not to release it on DVD in North America. Instead, the film was to make its debut exclusively on Blu-ray in January 2011. That release was pulled from Sony's schedule without explanation, but those who feared they would never see Ishtar for sale on a legal 5-inch disc in its native country have just two weeks to go to prove their fears wrong. On August 6th, Ishtar makes its Blu-ray debut as one of Sony's rare in-house catalog BDs and in a new Director's Cut at that. That 81-year-old Elaine May, who hasn't written a film since 1998 and hasn't acted since Woody Allen's 2000 caper Small Time Crooks, would take another look at her ill-reputed career killer and try to improve upon it and would do so with the cooperation of the studio that lost dozens of millions of dollars on it is nothing short of bizarre. And yet, that is exactly what this Blu-ray offers, presenting a cut first screened at Chicago's Music Box Theatre in April 2013, without preserving the theatrical cut for posterity or comparison's sake.

The Director's Cut runs 105 minutes, just two minutes shorter than Ishtar's widely-cited 107-minute theatrical runtime and two minutes longer than a presumably PAL-sourced, French-dubbed version uploaded to YouTube. It's doubtful the minor difference in length has a dramatic effect on the film, though the first half's nonlinear editing does seem suspect. It is worth noting that the re-edit follows a long, contentious shoot and postproduction that saw May and Beatty clash while studio heads tried to keep a safe distance.

In perhaps the one upside to its reputation, Ishtar has in recent years grown to count some noteworthy filmmakers among its fans. Wikipedia, citing an Ain't It Cool News interview and expired DirecTV link, claims that directors Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Edgar Wright have all voiced an appreciation for this ongoing lightning rod for criticism.

Ishtar Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Previously released on VHS (June 24, 1994)


Ishtar is treated to surprisingly good picture quality on Blu-ray,
especially considering the fact that it is a quarter-century-old film given a new edit. The pleasing results may suggest that May's edits are minor trims rather than restoring cut bits. Whatever the case, the 1.85:1 1080p transfer is spotless, upholding the pale, dated visuals with a fitting amount of grain and no perceivable shortcomings.

Sound is offered in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack more faithful to the film's original presentation. Sampling found the two tracks not terribly different, as channel separation is limited in the default 5.1 remix. The recordings hold up sufficiently, though volume levels fluctuate on occasion. English and English SDH subtitles are offered, but won't likely be needed by those without hearing problems or a loose grasp of the English language.

Passport photos of Rogers & Clarke (Beatty & Hoffman) share the screen with a map depicting their journey from New York to the Middle East on the Ishtar Blu-ray Disc menu.


Sony's Blu-ray houses no bonus features, which isn't particularly surprising or disappointing
given that it seemed the movie itself might never see the light of day on five-inch disc. This still is a big missed opportunity, especially since May took time to put together this new edit of the film and could have easily explained the re-cut in an introduction or commentary. It also couldn't have been hard for the studio to include the film's original trailer, if nothing else, but no such luck.

The menu's "Previews" listing plays a reel of HD trailers for Before Midnight, Love Is All You Need, Stranger Within, BreakOut, and Magic Magic, suggesting that today's Ishtar viewers are limited release junkies.

The menu montage plays clips with moving Middle East map overlays. The disc both supports bookmarks and resumes unfinished playback.

The side-snapped keepcase isn't joined by a slipcover or any inserts, but the disc features a unique label and the cover's reverse side displays further artwork.

Move over, Simon & Garfunkel! Here come Rogers (Warren Beatty) & Clarke (Dustin Hoffman)!


One's first impression of Ishtar is that it's a tad tone-deaf like its protagonists, but once it hits the desert for an unfunny and uninteresting espionage plot, you start to understand the notoriety the film won't soon be able to shake. The big budget largely went to the stars and writer-director, all of whom fall far short of past glories and their potentials. The promise and modest diversion of the film's early sequences are a distant memory by the time we're stranded in the Middle East for a prolonged, humorless climax.

Ishtar's North American five-inch disc debut is void of extras but wields a terrific presentation of the film, albeit only in a new director's cut unlikely to be given a fair chance by fans or detractors alike. While one expects a comedy as lowly regarded as this one stands likely to improve from a re-edit, a director as far removed from a film as May from this seems unlikely to do it any favors. As my first viewing of this elusive, legendary bomb, I can't provide a comparison, but can say that this cut of Ishtar is unsatisfactory. The Blu-ray would have been easier to recommend with some context and an option to view the theatrical cut. As is, though the infamous movie is worth a look, a single viewing ought to satisfy your morbid curiosity.

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Reviewed July 22, 2013.

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