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New Line Home Cinema presents
The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

"Everybody thinks there's something wrong with you."
- Perry Corcoran (Ian McKellen)

Review By: Jeff Rosado  
Published: September 23, 2003

Stars: Suzy Amis, Ian McKellen, Bo Hopkins, David Chung
Other Stars: Heather Graham, Rene Auberjonois, Carrie Snodgress, Olinda Turturro, Anthony Heald, Melissa Leo
Director: Maggie Greenwald

MPAA Rating: R for violence (nudity, language)
Run Time: 02h:01m:04s
Release Date: September 02, 2003
UPC: 794043636820
Genre: western


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BAB+ D+

DVD Review

Though the role of women in movie Westerns has evolved somewhat over the years, one must admit that other than those of wives of towering strength, tomboys, showgirls, or ladies of the evening, there's not much in the way of choices. I've always enjoyed when filmmakers shake things up and offer role reversals (Johnny Guitar and The Quick and the Dead being two notable examples).

Even though its "disguised as a man" concept isn't original, The Ballad of Little Jo is an appealing, quirky, and evocative entry into the genre, packed with interesting characters, beautiful scenery, and terrific performances from a very eclectic cast, including the unlikely presence of a pre-Gods and Monsters Ian McKellen. Suzy Amis plays the title character: Josephine Monaghan, a once prominent society gal who shamed her family by having a child out of wedlock; kind of a no-no in those pre-pre-pre-women's liberation days of yore. Leaving home in disgrace and playing vagrant on foot in search of a new life, she takes a wagon ride from gruff but charming traveling salesman Streight Hollander (Rene Auberjonois).

Ah, but remember when your mama told you about a wolf in sheep's clothing? Josephine's mom evidently skipped over that page in the child-care book. Sold into bondage to two horny soldiers by her double-crossing ride at a stopover, our heroine finds herself scurrying through a forest in search of a place to hide. Eventually, she stumbles upon a general store in search of fresh duds. One glance at the men's apparel section is all she needs. Rather than be subjected to a repeat performance of the night past and left with very few option in a foreign territory, Josephine becomes Jo. Before you can say "extreme makeover," she's cut off her long tresses, washed off the war paint and disfigured her comely looks with a knife inflicted scar.

Ruby City, a nearby mining town becomes home to the gender bender and Jo jumps right into her new role with gusto, excavating for gold and such. But with femininity intact on the inside, there's no way she can bring herself to do a complete 180 and put the moves on pretty Mary Addie (Heather Graham), much less visiting hooker Elvira (Olinda Turturro), actions met with guffaws from many of the locals. Luckily, the collective IQ of the dimwit section of the town couldn't register above the teens, so Jo's secret remains safe—until a new ally suddenly reveals a dark side and her yearning for a man she can't have threaten to blow the lid off the masquerade.

Aside from a couple of storylines that seem unfinished, and a downright peculiar finale, The Ballad of Little Jo is surprisingly involving film whose flaws are rendered insignificant, thanks to director Maggie Greenwald's excellent feel for the genre (savvy film watchers can see echoes of Unforgiven and Pale Rider to name but a couple of influences). I also admired the way the story takes time to develop its characters along with resisting the urge to move at breakneck speed and surrounding the storyline with unnecessary gunplay. Despite a glammed down appearance and lack of lower-range speaking ability, it takes a while for us to accept former model Amis as a full-fledged cowpoke. But not unlike Gary Busey became Buddy Holly, she pours herself into her role with such zeal that you eventually forget it's a former glamor girl under that hat. Although most of the supporting players roles are disappointingly brief, there are memorable bits from Pale Rider leading lady Carrie Snodgress; future Boston Public vice-principal Anthony Heald; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine mainstay Auberjonois, and the great Sir Ian as a local city worker whose outward congeniality masks a dark side. Yet veteran character specialist Bo Hopkins steals the show as Jo's longtime mentor and semi-best friend, Frank Badger (great name, eh?), who forms an unlikely and somewhat touching affiliation with this rather peculiar fellow cowboy.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: An absolutely immaculate print with practically no discernable flaws that I could ascertain. Declan Quinn's extraordinary beautiful cinematography looks positively stunning. A warm, natural transfer that will no doubt please the film's massive cult following that succeeds on all levels. New Line may be one of the most underrated DVD studios in terms of quality presentations, and this is one of their best.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes
DTSEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: I must admit before putting this disc in, I wondered why a cult piece like this would merit so much in the way of aural options. One listen to David Mansfield's excellent score will put such inquiries to rest. However, aside from this asset and reserved rear channel activity, all the soundtracks are somewhat low key and mainly dialogue based in quieter moments. With its more pronounced low end and increased clarity all the way around, DTS winds up on top in terms of preference.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Once Were Warriors, Death and the Maiden, Bitter Moon
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:00m:50s

Extras Review: Although I found the abundance of quality previews for art-house fare somewhat appealing, I would have enjoyed hearing a woman's perspective on making a western, thus it's disappointing that no such track with Greenwald was conceived; I'm sure it would have been a fascinating listen.

Extras Grade: D+

 

Final Comments

More than worthy of a spin, The Ballad of Little Jo has the look and feel of a typical Western, but with a style, sense of imagination and a dash of off-kilter goodness that makes it stand apart.

 


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