The Towering InfernoThe Towering Inferno on Blu-ray Disc

Irwin Allen's most famous, and most honored disaster movie has now been released on high definition disc. The Towering Inferno features very good picture quality overall, with about as good sound quality as you can expect from the old analog days.

There's also an abundance of extra to sweeten the deal.

The Towering Inferno is a tale of a devastating fire breaking out in the world's tallest building on the night of its dedication. This movie is not only bigger than Irwin Allen's previous disaster hit, the Poseidon Adventure, it's also better, if for no other reason than it's easier to identify with being in a skyscraper, which many people do every day, than an ocean liner, the closest many get is the tour of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California (which, apparently and coincidentally, was used as a stand in for the Poseidon in some shots).

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen lead this all star cast, which also includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner (who makes a surprisingly quick exit). Again, for the most part these aren't just stars, they're seasoned pros and that comes in handy.

The script, by Stirling Silliphant, is better than Poseidon, though in both movies the real villain isn't fire or water but corporate greed (gee, you'd think the movie studio heads, in their pursuit of mega profits, wouldn't want people to think about that, would you?), in this case via cost cutting and kickbacks in building materials. At least the builder (Holden) comes off as not a bad guy, with most of the blame going to his unscrupulous son in law (Chamberlain).

The movie opens with Doug Roberts, architect extraordinaire (Newman), returning to San Francisco for the premiere of his skyscraper, the Glass Tower. It's basically his swan song in Frisco, 'cause he's about to chuck it all in favor of some rural gig, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend (Dunaway). But much to his chagrin, he discovers that his wiring specifications have been messed around with and he begins to freak out at the potential disaster in the making (he must have read the script).

Naturally, fire breaks out (otherwise it would be a darn short film), and the rest of the movie is a roller coaster ride of danger and derring do that ends up being a paean to the fire fighters of the world, chief spokesman for whom is Steve McQueen as the chief on duty when the alarm comes in – from a building far too tall for them to have a decent chance of saving it.

It's neat stuff, with great stunts and action sequences and special effects that, save for a few obvious blue screen shots, are spectacular and breathtaking. The worst plot hole concerns a deaf woman saved from the blaze who from that point onward seems to disappear from the rest of the film, though her kids keep right on getting into harm's way with bigger stars (Jones and Newman) at their side. Or maybe we missed something. Oh, and O.J. Simpson disappears partway through the movie, too, after he rescues a sweet little pussycat, only to reappear at the end safe and sound, pussy in tow. Hey, we're pleased he saved the pussycat, but was he doing goofing off while the rest of the cast was fighting for its lives? If so, he should be sacked.

And the movie packs a post-September 11, 2001 punch when people plummet from the burning tower in a way that seems eerily prescient considering the manner in which some desperate people met their deaths on that infamous day.

The Towering Inferno is presented in 1080p widescreen and as mentioned at the top the picture quality for the most part is very good indeed. There are some hints of graininess in some shots, but overall we're very pleased with the presentation. Colors are bright and the image is sharp, but we would've liked to see more of that depth that makes it seem as if you could almost reach into the screen.

The audio is pretty good. It's presented in dts HD Master Audio 5.1 surround, though there isn't a lot of surround. But the quality is pretty good. We only wish there were more low frequency effects that would give the subwoofer a good workout. This is the type of movie where that would work really well.

Then there's the array of extras.

Inferno comes with commentaries and a plethora of other programs. Commentaries are by film historian F.X. Feeney (and isn't it appropriate that a movie like this is commented upon by someone going by "FX"?) and a scene-specific commentary Mike Vezina and Brakno Racki, effects and stunt guys respectively. It's pretty interesting stuff.

There are also some 30 extended and/or deleted scenes, and nine featurettes that deal with everything from the making of the film to a retrospective on the screenwriter. And there's an AMC Backstory, storyboard to film comparisons, a promotional presentation reel, three American Cinematographer interactive articles, an old interview with Irwin Allen, stills, and more.

A bit of trivia the film features an excellent John Williams score.

In all, 20th Century Fox has done a very nice job with this disaster flick.

The Towering Inferno, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
165 min. 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), dts HD Master Audio 5.1
Starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Fay Dunaway
Produced by Irwin Allen
Written by Stirling Silliphant, Directed by John Guillerman


Spaceballs on Blu-ray disc

by Johnny Bray

Not so long ago in a galaxy about as close as they come, a man named Mel Brooks liked to poke fun at movie genres. After parodying horror, western, epic, and a few others successfully, Brooks realized he had but one left: sci-fi.

That came in the form of Spaceballs, a parody of all things Star Wars and some things Star Trek. And while this isn’t a timeless, epic classic of cinema, it has a few things going for it.

President Skroob (Brooks) has managed to squander the air supply of planet Spaceball, and enlists Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of planet Druidia and hold her for ransom against the combination to Druidia’s air supply. So King Roland (Dick Van Patten) enlists the help of Lonestar (Bill Pullman) and his sidekick, Barf (John Candy) to save the princess and the citizens of Druidia.

After a successful rescue, they crash land on a desolate planet frighteningly similar to Tatooine and encounter Yogurt (also Brooks), the keeper of the Schwartz. With Yogurt’s help, Lonestar, Barf and the princess should be able to thwart the evil Spaceballs.

I was seven years old when I first saw Spaceballs upon its theatrical release, and I loved every second of it. It’s probably due to this fact that I still enjoy the movie, because when I examine it these days, I can’t help but notice it’s not really all that funny. Considering Star Wars is essentially a kids tale, it’s possible that Brooks also wanted to make a more kid-friendly film, which would explain the extra enjoyment I got at a younger age. This is supported by the fact that my dad claims to have never really enjoyed the film. His favorite Brooks titles are High Anxiety and Silent Movie, neither of which are available on Blu-ray as of this writing.

Spaceballs does have some classic moments (“I see your Schwartz is as big as mine!”), and a great cast to make the mediocre material that much better. Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet is pure genius, even if it means the poor guy has yet another nerdy role. The humor is about as subtle as that of the Wayans Brothers (but infinitely funnier), so if you don’t mind having jokes shoved down your throat you just may have a good time.

Spaceballs is the kind of movie that would be best left to fans of Mel Brooks, kids, people who saw the film as a kid, or just any fan of good old fashioned science fiction.

Originally released as a pretty bare-bones edition on DVD, the movie later got its very own special edition. And the Blu-ray disc is a two disc extravaganza that probably gives you more supplements than the movie really deserves.

Spaceballs is presented in 1080p widescreen (1.85:1) with dts HD Master Audio 5.1. Audio and video are both fine, though hardly reference quality. There's good color and detail, though not a lot of depth, and the audio soundtrack is fairly rich and makes good use of the surrounds.

The audio commentary by Mel Brooks is the same as the previous version, and is unfortunately not that good. Not only is the comic mastermind not the least bit funny, but he doesn’t even really have anything interesting to say. If that isn't lame enough for you, there are also commentaries in "Mawgese and Dinkese". And if you find yourself getting a tad bored, you can watch the movie in "ludicrous speed" which certainly speeds things up.

“Spaceballs: The Documentary” runs half an hour and is typical of this sort of thing. It features interviews with the main players and takes us through the production of the film, from pre to post. It’s always fun to watch people reminisce on their experiences, but it’s even more fun to see what they look like almost 20 years later.

“In Conversation” is a 20-minute interview with Brooks and co-writer Thomas Meehan, in which they play off each other and talk about stuff. “John Candy: Comic Spirit” takes us through the career of everyone’s favorite Mog and makes us sad that he’s no longer with us. Finally, we get some outtakes, storyboard-to-film comparisons, spacequotes, a trivia game, costume & art galleries, and trailers.

Disc two is a new DVD version of the film, which is a nice way to encourage people who haven't bought the film yet to jump on board without their new purchase becoming obsolete the instant they upgrade to Blu-ray.

Spaceballs, from MGM Home Entertainment
96 minutes, 1080p widescreen (1.85:1) dts HD Master Audio 5.1
Starring Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga
Written by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan & Ronny Graham
Produced and directed by Mel Brooks

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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