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Mitch is a middle aged big-city radio ads salesman. He and his friends Ed and Phil are having mid-life crisis. They decide the best birthday gift for them is to go on a two week holiday wild west cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. There they meet a genuine cowboy, Curly, who not only teaches them how to become real cowboys but also one or two other things about life in the open air of the west!
For more about City Slickers and the City Slickers Blu-ray release, see City Slickers Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on June 9, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Patricia Wettig, Helen Slater, Jack Palance
Director: Ron Underwood
» See full cast & crew
City Slickers Blu-ray Review
“I’m 39, and I’m saying ‘moo cow!' In a river!”
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, June 9, 2011
City Slickers won Jack Palance an Oscar and gave Billy Crystal some of the best material of his Oscar-hosting career, thanks to Palance's memorable acceptance speech (complete with one-armed push-ups). It was a fitting outcome for a film that mined big laughs from serious subjects: mortality, fatherhood and true friendship, all within a gentle parody of a Western. Or was it a parody? There are moments in City Slickers when it's easy to forget that the film is set in modern times - long shots of cattle and men on horses set against gorgeous landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico; rain pounding on the brims of cowboy hats as riders battle a raging river; Palance's rugged features silhouetted against a blazing sky, even more iconic than when he played Wilson in Shane, the first film Crystal ever saw and the reason he wanted Palance for the part. One of the pleasures of City Slickers is that it's a Western created by people who never imagined themselves making one, but did it anyway for sheer love of the genre.
The film centers on three men in their late thirties who've been friends since childhood. Mitch (Crystal) works in the ad department of a New York radio station, lives on Roosevelt Island with a wife and two kids and feels that life has passed him by. Phil (Daniel Stern) manages a supermarket, married the boss's daughter (Karla Tamburelli) and has regretted it ever since. Ed (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his finest performances) sells sporting goods and, to the shock of his two friends, has finally gotten married after years of serial dating - to a much younger woman who models for underwear ads (Walker Brandt). Ed is also an adrenaline junkie who's constantly goading his two friends into increasingly dangerous "fantasy holidays". As the film opens, they're running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
A year later, it's Mitch's 39th birthday, and the full weight of his dissatisfaction hits him like a wall collapsing. To the credit of the screenwriters (the prolific team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, with an uncredited Crystal), they take the time to thoroughly establish Mitch's emotional terrain and his relationships with all the key people in his life - including his best friends and his long-suffering wife, Barbara (Patricia Wettig) - without any sense that the film has bogged down in exposition. When this kind of thing is done well, it seems effortless, but it isn't easy. At the office, Mitch's boss (Jeff Tambor) wishes him happy birthday, after complaining about his listless performance on the job. Then it's off to his son's grade school class, where it's Mitch's turn to be the dad who presents what he does for a living, but you don't even think about the coincidence of this event falling on his birthday, because you're too caught up in the appallingly hilarious monologue Mitch delivers about the futility of life. Even the teacher gets depressed. And at Mitch's birthday party that evening, disaster occurs because . . . well, if you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil it. ("Good party!", Barbara says, after everyone has left.)
(In addition to clever writing, these early scenes benefit from terrific casting in small roles. Besides the aforementioned Tambor, watch for Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, as a checkout girl at the supermarket Phil manages. And if the son whose grade school class Mitch addresses looks familiar, that's because he grew up to be Donnie Darko, Jack Twist, Dastan and, most recently, Colter Stevens. Yes, City Slickers was Jake Gyllenhaal's first film.)
As a birthday present, Phil and Ed give Mitch a two-week stay at a Colorado ranch where they get to be real cowboys, and Barbara insists that her husband go, so that he can find whatever he's looking for. Before you can say "dissolve!", the film heads west for John Ford territory.
The ranch is run by Clay Stone (Noble Willingham, much of whose colorful slang was added to the script) and staffed by a motley crew, including two cowboys, Jeff and T.R. (Kyle Secor and Dean Hallo) who are just tolerable when they aren't drinking; a chef, Cookie (the inimitable Tracey Walter), who has a bad habit of bringing a private stash of liquor on the trail; and, of course, the trail boss, Curly (Palance), an intimidating old-school cowboy described by Mitch as "the toughest man I've ever seen in my life". As befits a larger-than-life figure, Curly makes several entrances, and they're all memorable.
The three buddies are joined by other guests, and here again City Slickers is distinguished by talented performers in smaller roles. Barry and Ira Shalowitz (Josh Mostel and David Paymer) are successful ice cream entrepreneurs loosely inspired by Ben and Jerry. They not only supply interesting variations in the comic tempo, but they also provide the occasion for one of the film's classic set pieces, a mock "showdown", shot Sergio Leone-style, between Barry and Mitch over ice cream flavors.
Drs. Ben and Steven Jessup (Bill Henderson and Phill Lewis) are a father and son team of dentists from Baltimore. In a film that deals with many troubled father/son relationships, they provide the impressive counterexample. And then there's the damsel, Bonnie Rayburn (Helen Slater), whose friend had to cancel at the last minute and who isn't sure she wants to stay. Watch the reaction from the entire group of men when Bonnie suggests she'd be better off calling it quits and going home.
After a few days' training, Curly leads everyone on a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Adventures ensue, some comic, some dangerous, many of them both. For example, a proper Western requires a stampede, and City Slickers provides one that begins and ends with a punchline. But it's no laughing matter while it's happening, and the actors did it for real without stunt doubles or visual effects. The same is true of the sequence where Mitch, Phil and Ed have to drive the herd across a river. It's every bit as dangerous as it looks, and the actors did it themselves.
Still, some of the film's biggest adventures and most memorable scenes occur in quieter moments, when characters are just talking. Far more than the three buddies ever expected, their trip becomes a voyage of discovery, as they learn, on horseback, things about each other that they never shared before and things about themselves that they've never faced up to. Central to these developments is the overnight detour that a terrified Mitch makes with Curly to round up strays. It's an engrossing section of the film, not because we fear (as Mitch does) that Curly will kill him, but because these are two characters who don't belong together in the same landscape - and two actors who are unlikely occupants of the same frame. But there they are, Crystal's yapping smartass bouncing off Palance's laconic tough guy, and the result is mesmerizing. The Academy may have awarded Palance the Oscar for best supporting actor in part to acknowledge a lifetime's achievement, but his performance is fully worthy of the honor. From moment to moment, Palance makes Curly tough, wise, weary, disenchanted, resigned, mocking, furious and regretful - but never so much that any one quality takes over. The performance is so deft that Curly always remains a complex and interesting man, with Palance's magnetic twinkle in his eye.
Director Ron Underwood juggles these characters effectively, keeping the balance just right, but the film had a secret weapon behind the camera. Its cinematographer, Dean Semler, had just won an Oscar for his work on Dances with Wolves, and there is no one working today who is more skillful at capturing the menace and majesty of remote locations. Semler's resumé also includes all three Mad Max films, both Young Guns entries, The Alamo and Appaloosa. Throughout the latter portions of City Slickers, Semler's ability to infuse the frame with a rugged sense of the landscape provides essential context to the characters' emotional drama.
Some of the jokes in City Slickers have dated - the routine about programming a VCR will probably never again elicit the belly laughs I remember from audiences in 1991 - but most hold up fine, because they arise from universal anxieties. Did I make the right choices in life? If I didn't, what can I do about it? What should I do with the limited time left? What's most important to me? The genius of City Slickers is to address these questions by regressing its three lead characters back to their childhood playing cowboys - and letting them find answers in the shadow of an icon from the Old West.
City Slickers Blu-ray, Video Quality
The AVC-encoded Blu-ray of City Slickers presents a richly detailed image that has been neither artificially sharpened nor degrained for sensibilities conditioned by digital technology. It's a film-like image that may strike some viewers as "soft", but fully preserves all the rough detail of rocks, cliffs, dust, cattle hides and Curly's leathery visage. Black levels are generally excellent, with only minor crushing occasionally evident in scenes where the exposure clearly had to be "pushed" to obtain certain effects (e.g., the rain storm). Dean Semler's color palette favors cooler blue tones in the urban scenes of Mitch's real life, but he immediately switches to warm browns, ochres and greens when the friends head west. Even the scenes at night have the warm yellow and orange of campfires, and the skies are purple (a phenomenon that should be familiar to anyone who has visited New Mexico). The "cold open" in Pamplona has its own distinctive look, dominated by red kerchiefs.
Film grain is visible but not obtrusive. The source material appears to be well-preserved.
City Slickers Blu-ray, Audio Quality
City Slickers was originally released in Dolby Surround, and its first DVD included that track as an option. However, the creators of the 5.1 track presented here in DTS lossless must have had access to the original stems, because the soundtrack has none of the artifacts often heard when discrete tracks have to be "extracted" from a surround matrix. Pans from front to rear and left to right are clean and effective, e.g. during the cattle stampede, and dialogue remains firmly anchored to the center channel, without any of the echo or hollowness that remixing often creates. Typical ambient sounds such as raindrops or hoofbeats occur naturally in the surrounds without calling too much attention to themselves. City Slickers isn't an action spectacular, but if you didn't know otherwise, you'd think it was made in 5.1.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the remix (and lossless presentation) is the stirring score by Marc Shaiman (with Thomas Richard Sharp). A musical chameleon, Shaiman is an expert at reviving musical styles, not as parody or pastiche, but as if they'd never gone away. His gifts are evident in films as diverse as The Addams Family, A Few Good Men and the South Park movie, and he's also a successful Broadway composer. For City Slickers, Shaiman wrote a theme that could have come from Elmer Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven but is completely original. As the film progresses and the characters grow, Shaiman's theme swells from irony to triumph. In between, he finds the appropriate underscoring for the thrust of every scene, whether slapstick comedy or genuine peril. My estimation of Shaiman's score grows every time I revisit City Slickers, and the Blu-ray presentation is the best I've heard.
City Slickers Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the extras have been ported over from the 2008 "collector's edition" DVD.
As with other recent MGM discs, e.g., The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Fox has mastered this title with no main menu. The disc goes directly from loading to playback. During playback, the pop-up menu contains an option for "pause" but none for "menu", and any attempt to access a "top menu" produces an error message. After the film finishes, it simply starts again from the beginning. This arrangement is a huge inconvenience for playing extras.
Despite the "bare bones" menu structure, Fox has nevertheless mastered the disc with BD-Java, which wouldn't matter so much except that the ability to set bookmarks has been omitted. No BDJ-encoded disc should ever lack this capability. BDJ prevents the user from stopping playback and starting from the same position, and bookmarking is the only workaround. Its omission is inexcusable.
City Slickers Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I've seen almost every video incarnation of City Slickers (including laserdisc and DVD), but watching the Blu-ray brought back a level of enjoyment I haven't experienced since sitting with an enthusiastic audience in the theater in the summer of 1991. Westerns need their landscape, and I don't think I realized until now how much the film lost without its fully resolved image. If you haven't seen the film before, the Blu-ray is the only way to see it. If you're a fan, it's time to rediscover it.
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