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Billy Bathgate & Blaze: Double Feature Blu-ray Review

Billy Bathgate (1991) movie poster Billy Bathgate

Theatrical Release: November 1, 1991 / Running Time: 107 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Robert Benton / Writers: E.L. Doctorow (book), Tom Stoppard (screenplay)

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Arthur "Dutch" Schultz/Mr. Flegenheimer), Nicole Kidman (Mrs. Drew Preston), Loren Dean (Billy Bathgate/Behan), Bruce Willis (Bo Weinberg), Steven Hill (Otto Berman), Steve Buscemi (Irving), Billy Jaye (Mickey), John Costelloe (Lulu), Tim Jerome (Dixie Davis), Stanley Tucci (Lucky Luciano), Mike Starr (Julie Martin), Robert F. Colesberry (Jack Kelly), Stephen Joyce (Mr. Hines), Frances Conroy (Mary Behan), Moira Kelly (Becky), Kevin Corrigan (Arnold), Xander Berkeley (Harvey Preston), Barry McGovern (Father McInemy), Barton Heyman (Banker)
Blaze (1989) movie poster Blaze

Theatrical Release: December 15, 1989 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ron Shelton / Writers: Blaze Starr, Huey Perry (book Blaze Starr: My Life As Told to Huey Perry); Ron Shelton (screenplay)

Cast: Paul Newman (Governor Earl Kemp Long), Lolita Davidovich (Blaze Starr/Fannie Belle Fleming), Jerry Hardin (Chester Thibodeaux), Gailard Sartain (J.W. LaGrange), Jeffrey DeMunn (Eldon Tuck), Garland Bunting (Doc Ferriday), Richard Jenkins (Picky Picayune), Brandon Smith (Arvin Deeter), Jay Chevalier (Wiley Braden), Robert Wuhl (John "Red" Snyder), Michael Brockman (Bobby), Eloy Casados (Antoine), James Harper (Willie Rainach), Teresa Gilmore Capps (Tamara Knight), Diane Brill (Delilah Dough), Blaze Starr (Lily)

Buy Billy Bathgate & Blaze Double Feature Blu-ray from Amazon.com

To some Blu-ray collectors, 2012 will go down as the year that Disney finally remembered that their library consists of more than just animated features.
But releasing four older movies to BD each month isn't putting much of a dent in a catalog whose theatrical output alone is several hundred titles deep. To that end, Mill Creek Entertainment has been helping the Mouse out, providing Blu-ray Discs for some of the many Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures releases too obscure to elicit Disney's own attention.

A small studio somewhat infamous for their overloaded DVD collections, Mill Creek puts out discs that fly beneath the radars of many customers and retailers. Their Blu-ray offerings have been of a generally high quality, comparable to Disney's own minimal effort catalog discs and at half the price. But though they may drag their feet at making older movies available in high definition, Disney has evidently been reluctant to part with movies that the public might remember. Mill Creek gets the scraps that most have forgotten, if they ever heard of them in the first place. Maintaining their taste for customer value, Mill Creek recently began pairing up some of the less familiar Disney catalog titles they've been given without upping their very reasonable standard Blu-ray list price of $9.98.

It isn't hard to figure out how Billy Bathgate and Blaze wound up sharing one of these Double Feature Blu-rays. Both Touchstone Pictures films are adult period dramas made at the turn of the 1990s with a seasoned movie star taking top billing. The parallels extend even further than that. The films' respective upper middle aged leading men -- Billy's Dustin Hoffman and Blaze's Paul Newman -- were each exactly three years past winning the Best Actor Oscar (Hoffman for Rain Man, Newman's long-awaited first win for The Color of Money) when they made these.

Both movies opened in around 900 theaters during Hollywood's holiday season, the prime time for serious dramas with award prospects. Each went on to gross under $20 million, earn mixed reviews, and get shut out of all but one somewhat major award category (for Blaze, the cinematography Oscar; for Billy, the best supporting actress Golden Globe). Each film assigned second billing to a 20-something up-and-coming foreign actress, Blaze to Canada's Lolita Davidovich and Billy to Australian Nicole Kidman. Each tells the story of a powerful figure being investigated for tax fraud getting involved with a young, naοve person near the end of his life. And each film currently has an average IMDb rating a bit shy of the 6.0 basement for respectability.

Billy Bathgate (Loren Dean, squandering a potential breakthrough role) finds work under the deadly New York City gangster Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman).

Taken from E.L. Doctorow's 1989 novel (the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize), Billy Bathgate is set in 1935 New York City. The titular protagonist, poor, young Billy (Loren Dean) from the Bronx, is an amateur juggler and magician who one day catches the eye of notorious mob boss Dutch Schultz (Hoffman). Awestruck Billy's bold move to infiltrate Schultz's headquarters with a bag of chocolate cupcakes pays off and it immediately lands him a job inside the unit. A mix of good luck and doing as told quickly moves Billy up to Schultz's trusted inner circle. That gives him more money than he's ever seen in his life, but also exposes him to spontaneous murders, power plays, and deadly repercussions.

The film is given just a touch of nonlinearity, which feels like a desperate attempt to ring some intrigue out of routine mob movie material. The reordered plot involves the questioned affiliations of enforcer Bo Weinberg (an underutilized Bruce Willis). Weinberg's dame, a Mrs. Drew Preston (Kidman, who married Tom Cruise halfway through this shoot) emerges as a love interest both to Dutch, whose friends call him "Arthur" and whose lawyer in a persistent tax evasion case calls him "Mr. Flegenheimer", and to the young Billy Bathgate.

Though the big name movie stars are joined by easily recognized performers here, including Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci in supporting roles, the acting stands in the way of the film exceeding mediocrity. Dean, who was clearly being groomed as Hollywood's new leading man, infuses his bland protagonist with a single blank expression for every scenario. Hoffman, meanwhile, may only be an inch and a half shorter than the real Schultz, but he doesn't believably cut the imposing figure he is supposed to. Hoffman's knack for picking projects has easily done as much for him as his own talent, but that makes Billy Bathgate one of the few nonstarters of his illustrious career. Only 8 of his 65 other acting credits currently possess an average IMDb user rating lower than this one's current 5.8.

With a reported production budget of $48 million (which is tough to understand), this was a pretty severe flop, quite a contrast from Hoffman's previous film for director Robert Benton, the highly decorated, tremendously popular divorce dramedy Kramer vs. Kramer. Billy's screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Empire of the Sun) would rebound with his next feature screenplay, his Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love seven years later.

Louisiana's Governor Earl K. Long (Paul Newman) is drawn to stripper Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich) in "Blaze."

Adapted from the 1974 memoir Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry, Blaze follows young Southern belle Fannie Belle Fleming (Davidovich) from rural West Virginia to Baltimore in 1950, where she quickly switches jobs from a $30/week waitress to a $30/night stripper at the advice of a lecherous manager (Robert Wuhl).
The newly-named Blaze Starr is reluctant to shed her clothes and would rather play guitar and sing, but nine years later in New Orleans, she is an old pro, still inviting whoops and hollers. Among those whose attention she grabs is longtime Louisiana governor Earl Long (Newman), who extends an invitation to the "dancer", only to get turned down and turned on by her strong will.

Long's womanizing, which he denies, is one issue he's called out for. Another is his progressive stance on racial equality, which does not sit well with the Democratic Party. While the governor and his well-mannered yet scandalous muse are happily living together with a pet panther, Long is committed to a mental hospital, his sanity questioned. Long has a solution for that just as he has a plan to get back into the governor's chair by skirting legislature on term limits.

Newman seizes a couple of opportunities to add weight to his portrayal, most notably in the critical disruptive outburst that gets him censured. But neither his inexplicable relationship with "dancer" Starr nor his political battles present much of interest, making the nearly two-hour runtime something of an endurance challenge. Viewed today, Blaze's second most recognizable actor is the much in demand Richard Jenkins, who plays one of the reporters with whom Long maintains an adversarial relationship.

Billy Bathgate & Blaze: Double Feature Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

Billy Bathgate: 1.85:1 Widescreen; Blaze: 1.78:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (Spanish, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: October 23, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $9.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Both films also available in 2-Disc Triple Feature DVD with Nixon: Director's Cut ($9.98 SRP; June 26, 2012)
Billy Bathgate also available on Amazon Instant Video; Previously released as Buena Vista DVD (October 8, 2002); Blaze previously released as Buena Vista DVD (April 6, 2004)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Blaze's 1.78:1 transfer features a consistent element that is plagued by some small specks and scratches throughout. A few of its scenes are strangely grainy and not just the expected optical credits shots. The picture is generally good, but not great, looking a little soft and dark while maintaining a decent amount of detail. The movie's 2.0 DTS-HD master audio is adequate, though on occasion you may need to consult the all-caps English SDH subtitles.

Appearing in 1.85:1, Billy Bathgate looks and sounds quite a bit better. Much cleaner and a bit sharper, its picture is satisfactory. The colors are a tad pale, which contributes to the film looking older than it is (perhaps by design). Its 2.0 DTS-HD MA mix is fairly strong as well.

Bruce Willis spends much of his limited "Billy Bathgate" screentime tied up. Haskell Wexler cinematography like this landed "Blaze" an Oscar nomination.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's menu montage seamlessly alternates from one movie to the other based on the title you highlight. Pressing enter plays the highlighted movie. While it may seem that that's it, each film is equipped with a nice unique pop-up menu providing access to its one standard bonus feature:
the movie's original theatrical trailer. These previews (Blaze: 2:54 & Billy: 1:49) are presented in unsightly 1.33:1 standard definition, but it must be said that is still more than what Disney gave them on their respective barebones DVDs.

Though the disc does not support bookmarks, it does resume playback just like a DVD. It's a simple little touch that Disney themselves have not yet mastered.

The standard side-snapped Blu-ray case evenly divides rear cover real estate to supply technical specs, credits blocks, synopses, and details for each film. The front cover, meanwhile, gives the lion's share to Billy Bathgate, whose top billing is not merely alphabetical. No insert or reverse side artwork is found inside the case, whose spine prints the movie titles in a plain bold, italicized font as opposed to the menu, disc, and front cover's more thoughtful title logos.

Nicole Kidman earned the first of her thus far eight Golden Globe nominations for playing the role of Mrs. Drew Preston in "Billy Bathgate." Governor Earl Long (Paul Newman) objects to racial inequality.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Neither Blaze nor Billy Bathgate is a movie you must see, let alone more than once. Still, fans of either can easily view this low-priced Double Feature Blu-ray as containing a free similarly-fashioned bonus movie. The disc's presentations are adequate, especially given the small price tag. The effort and design are easier to appreciate than the films themselves. You can't fault Mill Creek for inheriting weak films. Here's hoping Disney gives them better ones to apply this treatment to.

Buy Billy Bathgate & Blaze: Double Feature Blu-ray at Amazon.com

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Related Reviews:
New: Magic City: The Complete First Season • A League of Their Own • The Raven • Annie • An American Christmas Carol
Turn of the '90s Cinema: The Rocketeer • New York Stories • Newsies • Arachnophobia • Dead Poets Society
Historic Pairings: My Week with Marilyn | Mill Creek Double Features: The Grand Duel & Keoma • Father Hood & Life with Mikey



The Cast of Billy Bathgate:
Loren Dean: Say Anything... • Enemy of the State | Dustin Hoffman: The Graduate • Finding Neverland • Kung Fu Panda
Nicole Kidman: Eyes Wide Shut • Margot at the Wedding • Nine • Australia • Just Go With It | Bruce Willis: Armageddon

The Cast of Blaze:
Paul Newman: The Color of Money • The Verdict • The Hustler • Cars | Lolita Davidovich: Jungle 2 Jungle • Adventures in Babysiting
Richard Jenkins: The Cabin in the Woods • Eat Pray Love • Step Brothers | Jeffrey DeMunn: Ebbie • The Walking Dead: Season 1
Robert Wuhl: Good Morning, Vietnam | Jerry Hardin: The Firm • Cujo

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Reviewed October 22, 2012.



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