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Trading PlacesTrading Places on DVD

Take one part "buddy film", mix in a bit of "The Prince and the Pauper," add a little social commentary and leaven it with humor and you have Trading Places, now available in a new, "Looking good, feeling good, edition."

SNL alumns Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy star in what's really Murphy's first performance in a comedy movie. And it's a good one, arguably one of director John Landis' best films.

Aykroyd is Louis Winthorpe III, a snooty elite commodities trader whose life is turning out just as he wants it to. He's rich, engaged to what he thinks is a beautiful and lovely girl, and is the fair haired boy of his bosses, the Duke Brothers (played deliciously by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche).

Then there's Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), a poor, down on his luck street person who's at the opposite end of the fiscal and social spectrum. He's a man of good humor, but it doesn't seem to help him in his pan handling.

The two meet accidentally, and after Billy Ray is accused of theft the Dukes devise a scheme – and a bet – to see if heredity or environment is the most important factor in making a person what he or she is. So they have the charges against Billy Ray dropped and frame Louis so they can built up Billy Ray's life while destroying Louis'.

All goes according to plan, and evidence is beginning to point toward environment as being the most important factor: Billy Ray is doing well at Duke and Duke, while an increasing frustrated and desperate Louis resorts to crime.

But about the time when Billy Ray is discovering the nefarious Duke plot Louis happens upon an angel of mercy in the persona of a "hooker with a heart of gold" Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis). He convinces her of his past reality and she vows to help him (as a business investment) get back on his feet.

Eventually Billy Ray, along with his current and Louis' former butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott),  teams up with Louis and Ophelia to turn the tables on the Dukes, and the result is funny and appropriate.

The movie is funny, but it also has heart and it works on many levels – comedy, social commentary, even a romance. Heck, you can even learn something about commodities trading….

The new DVD is a worthwhile effort, with a sparkling picture and plenty of extras. The movie is featured in anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible), and it's terrific. There's a bit of grain in places, but for the most part the picture is sharp and bright and deep and colorful.

The audio, which is "fudged" 5.1, isn't quite as good but it's definitely up to snuff – and the Elmer Bernstein/Mozart score sounds great.

Then there are the extras, which kick off with "Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places," and "Trading Stories", both of which give you a good look back at the film from the perspective of cast/crew. There's also a deleted scene with optional commentary, "Dressing the Part," "The Trade in Trading Places," a pop up trivia thingy, and more.

In all, a very satisfying re release.

Trading Places, from Paramount Home Entertainment
116 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche
Produced by Aaron Russo
Written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, directed by John Landis

NorbitNorbit on DVD

Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker star in this strangely compelling comedy from director Brian Robbins.

Rick Baker?

Baker is a special makeup effects wizard, perhaps the greatest working today (if not the best ever). He began small, with films such as the first King Kong remake and The Incredible Melting Man, then leapt to fame with his Oscar-winning work on John Landis' An American Werewolf in London and, more recently, for movies such as Men in Black(s), Hellboy and X-Men: the Last Stand.

The guy's a genius and it's easy to see why Eddie Murphy chose him to work his magic in Norbit (besides the fact that they'd worked together before in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor). Murphy (who also co-wrote) needed him because he chose to tackle three main characters in the movie, the nerdy perpetual victim Norbit, his incredibly gross and shrewish wife Rasputia and his "father" Mr. Wong. And Baker's work is so good that we, having deliberately ignored the promo materials before diving into the movie, didn't even realize Murphy was Wong until the closing credits rolled. Oh, we suspected Wong's look was achieved via makeup, because he aged during the course of the movie, but we figured it was just the young Wong actor being made to look old.

So kudos to Murphy and Baker, the latter for his incredible work and the former for his performing skills in pulling it off.

The story isn't as good, but it's better than we expected going in – and we did laugh out loud more than once. There's plenty of bathroom humor, but it isn't quite as crude as we expected, either.

Norbit is an orphan and a perpetual victim. He's a guy with a good heart, but small and nerdy and therefore the perfect target for life's bullies. The one ray of light in his life is his best buddy, Kate (played later as a grown up by Thandie Newton), but she gets adopted and moves away, whereas Norbit seems destined for a life of victimhood until he's taken under the wing of a young Rasputia, the lone girl in a tough family of bullies who run a construction company that operates more like the mafia than a normal business.

Eventually Norbit and Rasputia marry and Norbit's life becomes a living hell as he's dominated by her and her thug brothers. But a ray of hope enters his life when Kate returns to town with her fiance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). She wants to buy the old orphanage and run it with her old buddy Norbit, while Gooding's character joins forces with Rasputia's family to take it away from her and turn it into a strip club.

All ends predictably, though after a bizarre wedding scene where Norbit's friends hijack the proceedings to buy time for him to escape from his basement prison and, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, arrive at the wedding just in time to sweep Kate off her feet and ride off with her into the sunset. Or something like that.

We didn't expect a lot going in, and as mentioned above were pleasantly surprised. This is by no means a great movie, but it's okay – and Murphy's performances are outstanding, especially when you take into account the makeup time as well as the incredibly involved shooting it took to have him on screen with himself over and over again.

The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible), with Pan&Scan sold separately. Picture quality is good, but by no means reference quality. Audio is Dolby Digital surround and it's good but by no means reference quality.

You get a decent set of extras, though, including 14 deleted scenes and "Man of a Thousand Faces", a feature on Rick Baker (though the title came from an old James Cagney biopic about Lon Chaney Sr.). There's also a fake "Power Tap" infomercial with Marlon Wayans, The Stunts of Norbit, a "making of" feature, and more.

Norbit, from Dreamworks Home Entertainment
102 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, 16x9 TV compatible)/Pan&Scan (sold separately), Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Eddie Griffin, Terry Crews and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Produced by John Davis, Eddie Murphy
Written by Eddie Murphy & Charles Murphy and Jay Scherick & David Ronn, directed by Brian Robbins

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

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