Albert Brooks: Defending My Life

STREAMING REVIEW:

HBO/Max;
Documentary;
Not rated.
Featuring Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner, Jon Stewart, Sharon Stone, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Brian Williams, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Cliff Einstein, Judd Apatow.

“Do you know what time it is?” my old man wauled, the force of his footsteps as he bounded towards the living room causing the shoulders of the dining room chairs to clack together.

It was coming up on 11 p.m., and the reason for Larry’s rude awakening was the fit of uncontrollable laughter that had suddenly overpowered me. “What’s so goddamn funny?” he demanded. “Albert Brooks,” I replied while pointing to the couch. “Sit down and watch.”

The comedian’s legendary “Danny and Dave” routine, in which the overconfident ventriloquist unashamedly moved his lips, was re-created in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, but does anyone remember Al and Buddy? Albert jury-rigged a face to the back of a Fisher Price Speak and Spell and a new ventriloquist act was born. Johnny Carson never stopped laughing. Neither did dad. A snippet from this singularly monumental father and son bonding moment and more can be found on HBO’s Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, now streaming on Max.

For director Rob Reiner, the task couldn’t have been simpler: a few days spent in Matteo’s Restaurant interviewing a lifelong friend in simple reverse angles. Reiner got to leave the restaurant to conduct interviews. Albert didn’t. For die-hards, there isn’t much new to uncover, although this is the first time I’ve heard Albert discuss his father’s passing. Harry Einstein, a comedian who went by the name “Parkyakarkus,” died famously in the middle of the Friars Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Then there’s the subject of his birth name, Albert Einstein. The fourth son in the family reasoned it took his father so long to name a child Albert because he wanted to make sure that the theory of relativity wouldn’t be proven wrong. Brian Williams surmised his parents named him Albert because they wanted him to spend the rest of his life getting beaten up for his lunch money.

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I have spent the greater portion of my adult life defending the comic (and at times cosmic) genius of Albert Brooks. The reasons why most Americans shun spastic Jerry Lewis and gamy Howard Stern are fairly obvious: Detractors either dislike them or they despise them. Certainly Albert didn’t provoke the same spirit of disregard. From the start, he was branded an “acquired taste.” Didn’t they catch-on to his conceptual slant on “The Ed Sullivan Show”? What about “The Albert Brooks Famous School for Comedians,” the perpetually too-hip-for-the-room swipe at showbiz sycophancy that first aired on PBS’s “Great American Dream Machine.” I find it almost impossible to put into words the effect this eight-minute short had on me. Only a crazed original could have left such an indelible brand simply by spoofing artless industrial films. I was at that point in my upbringing where I was beginning to seriously question the merits of many of the fleeting showbiz funnymen whom I grew up blindly accepting as icons. Were Allen and Rossi really that funny? “Hello, Dere.” Okay, I chuckled the first few times. The same goes for Wayne and Shuster. I used to wait for those two Canadian cutups to appear on the Sullivan Show. The W.C. Fields Box Set Vol. 2 has a television “documentary” on the Lord of the Grampian Hills that’s hosted by W & S. I defy you to get through it.

Albert saw (through) them all. He inverted the “serious” Jerry Lewis and played it for laughs. I didn’t know it at the time, but long before “SCTV” alum Dave Thomas “owned” Bob Hope, Albert was helping to interpret the violently insane thought transmissions emanating from Toluca Lake. Before Albert, I’d just as soon stare at a blank wall than watch a Bob “For Texaco” Hope special. Mind you, this was long before I embraced his collaborations with director Frank Tashlin and some of Hope’s stronger pre-TV vehicles (The Lemon Drop Kid, Son of Paleface, The Big Broadcast of 1938). I found nothing funny about the man and it took several years before I realized just how funny the fact that he wasn’t funny was. I can’t tell you how many hours of Hope’s TV work I have in my collection. Hope was probably the single finest example of showbiz royalty flying on auto-pilot to ever scan an idiot card. Once I tapped into this, I couldn’t stop taping, darlin’.

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Though Brooks was originally considered the West Coast’s answer to Woody Allen, the latter’s name is fleetingly mentioned by Larry David. One need only do a side-by-side comparison of Modern Romance and Annie Hall to understand which film packs more honesty, structural integrity, and sheer visual storytelling. Albert is now, always has been, and always will be Woody’s cinematic superior. Woody’s recurring themes are all cerebral, and visually speaking, the major difference between the “early, funny films” and his later dramas can be traced to the director’s ability to eventually afford imposing cinematographers. Without the collaboration of a quality DP, Small Time Crooks, Allen’s comedic nadir, shows zero structural or visual advancement over Take the Money and Run, his 1968 directorial debut. In Woody’s defense, not all great comedic directors are formally faultless (Preston Sturges and Frank Capra come to mind) and therefore should be studied for their ability to draw on laughter as a means of chipping away at societal pretense.

Woody Allen may not be the big, bad Jewish intellectual middle-America perceives him to be, but he is definitely an above-average thinker with a devastating sense of humor. Woody’s my cranky celluloid Rabbi and I am always eager and curious to hear his observations on the modern world. Alas, film comedy must first and foremost be judged on formal presentation, not laugh quotient. Aside from being one of the funniest men alive, Albert Brooks is also a master visual storyteller. As with all great comics he is constantly aware of his body placement in the frame. His timing is impeccable; no one cuts a comedy quite like Albert. When it comes to using film as a means of comedic expression, Albert is closer in style and spirit to Keaton and Tati than Woody is to Chaplin.

The one film in Albert’s canon that goes largely overlooked is Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The premise was pure genius: In order to bring about peace through understanding, Albert is asked by the government to travel to Pakistan and compile a report on what makes the locals laugh. It’s the greatest Bob Hope vehicle that Hope didn’t live to star in. Albert presents a self-eviscerating overview of his career and no one is more aware of their ‘Q’ rating (the measure of a celebrity’s name recognition) than Albert. Hindus might not place the face, but everyone knows the voice of Nemo’s father! Albert took comedy seriously enough to actually attempt a breakdown of just what makes us laugh. You didn’t see it. Nobody saw it. The title terrified distributors and exhibitors. The moral of the story turned out to be: Don’t release a film with the word “Muslim” in the title that soon after 9/11. Sony Pictures Classics refused to release it. At a time when movie comedy was defined by wedding crashers and 40-year-old virgins, Albert and Warner Independent’s stab at bringing logic back to laughter was a resounding flop at the box office.

Jon Stewart called him the first alternative comic. According to Brian Williams, “It is about time for a Hollywood reassessment of the gift to moving pictures and television that Albert Brooks is.” As much as one enjoys watching the carousel of clips and listening to friends lavish praise, there’s no happy ending to this story. I’d rather be watching an Albert Brooks film than a film about Albert Brooks. The greatest cinematic tragedy in my lifetime is not the conversion to digital, nor is it studios’ dependence on comic books to do most of the heavy lifting. The awful truth is, we’re coming up on 20 years since Albert Brooks stepped behind a camera.

Casino (Remastered Edition)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
$21.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for strong brutal violence, pervasive strong language, drug use and some sexuality.
Stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, L.Q. Jones, Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollak, Pasquale Cajano.

When did Martin Scorsese depart his endlessly experimental Sam Fuller period and cross over to the dull side by hemorrhaging equal doses of David Lean’s picturesque vacuity and the well-intentioned messaging of Stanley Kramer? The crushing letdown sustained by his last three pictures is almost too much to bear. Silence appeared to have been made in order to avoid litigation that stemmed from a verbal agreement the director had with Italian producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori after the release of Kundun (1997). Next up, the made-for-Netflix gangster rehash, The Irishman. Given the film’s limited theatrical release, Scorsese, knowing full well that the majority of the viewing public would watch the film in their home theaters, shot accordingly. I preferred it when the director, not the medium, dictated shot size. With well over half the picture framed in TV safe tight shots, the end result was more closeups than a colonoscopy. When it came to trafficking in messages, Martin Scorsese once prided himself on being a master smuggler. His latest feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a bloated message picture, felling viewers with an overinflated sense of manufactured prestige and self-importance. We’ll have more to say on Flower Moon when it settles on physical media. Until then, there’s a newly remastered edition of 1995’s Casino to savor, and boy, do we need it now!

No contemporary American filmmaker in my lifetime has done more to preserve film and encourage the theatrical life cycle of motion pictures than he. Taxi Driver made such a profound impact on my 21-year-old psyche that I was halfway through the 4:30 presentation before realizing the 2:15 matinee had ended. The Landmark Varsity in Evanston, Ill., brought it back on Oct. 6, 1981, the same day Anwar Sadat was assassinated. The crowd was anything but the somber gathering one might have expected. They greeted Travis Bickle as they would a character in a screwball comedy. True comedic force. I’ve never looked at the film the same way since. Offscreen, film-devotee Scorsese was the first to decry the multiplexing of American single screens in the name of staggered showtimes. Knowing that greater numbers of viewers were watching films on home video, he waited until 1991 — when TV screens were big enough and viewers finally tolerant enough to deal with a letterboxed image — to at last shoot a picture in Panavision.

Raging Bull was filmed in black-and-white to protest what he understood to be a crisis in unstable color film stock. I was working the day watch out of dispatch at Cablevision when Raging Bull first played on HBO. A customer called to complain that she heard profanity coming from the driver’s two-way radio. Was it wrong to try and bring a smile to the faces of my co-workers in the field by hitting the push-to-talk button every time a certain line of dialogue, something about Salvi and an elephant, came on? (I was written up and almost fired over it.) I’ve seen it so many times that my lips move while I’m watching it.

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Goodfellas is Mean Streets is I Call First: all masterpieces, but after his debut gangster outing there wasn’t much in the way of cinematic headway. Mean Streets is raw cinema compared to the more polished Goodfellas, and if hard pressed, the nerves struck in I Call First (a much stronger title than Who’s That Knocking at My Door?) are more brutally honest than anything else in Scorsese’s canon. Casino is a wall-to-wall rollick, the director’s only unmitigated comedy and a definite advancement in gangster picture-making. At their core, Scorsese protagonists are thinly veiled Christ figures. After years of experimenting, Scorsese finally worked through his Christ fixation by killing Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in reel one, only to have him resurrected in reel seven.

The astonishing opening hour — a historically resplendent introduction to the inner workings of Las Vegas — can hold its own alongside any of the so-called “legitimate” documentaries on the subject. And “Moonglow” in the money room? Nothin’ finer! This time, he not only gave New York a rest, he let the Italians off the hook by handing the Jews a thorough working over. The result is some of the funniest dialogue in any of his films, and without the hint of irony associated with the ending of Taxi Driver. The laughs keep building at a steady flow until reaching the point of it ain’t funny no more. The culmination is Scorsese’s most unrelentingly effective use of violence to date. We’re not talking “cool” violence like the fountain pen tracheotomy. The final act of inhumanity leaves an indelible mark, making it impossible to unsee the barbaric demise of the Spilotro Brothers substitutes. The whacking and subsequent desert deposition of Nicky (Joe Pesci) and Frank (Frank Vincent) is a chilling update of the time-honored “crime doesn’t pay” dictum.

Lastly, the resurrection of Rothstein isn’t the only thing Scorsese aced. For the first (only?) time, Scorsese presents us with a strong female character capable of running with the herd. As for the special features, they’re all holdovers from previous pressings.

Murderville

STREAMING REVIEW:

Netflix;
Comedy;
Not rated.
Stars Will Arnett, Haneefah Wood, Lilan Bowden, Phillip Smithey, Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone, Ken Jeong.

The hilarious new comedy series “Murderville” offers a spoof of police procedurals with a twist. Each episode, homicide detective Terry Seattle (Will Arnett) takes on a new trainee partner in the form of a celebrity guest star playing themselves. The catch is, the celebrities haven’t been given a script to let them know what’s going on, forcing them to improvise their way through the scenes, leading up to them choosing which of the episode’s three suspects they think is the killer.

Think of it as “Law & Order” meets “Police Squad” with touches of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and one of those murder mystery party games, as the premise, inspired by the British TV series “Murder in Successville,” serves as an excuse to subject the celebrity guest to humiliating scenarios while distracting them from trying to notice clues.

For instance, the first episode ensnares Conan O’Brien in a situation in which he has to keep eating a sloppy joe even as Arnett keeps pouring hot sauce on it. Another set-up sees former NFL star Marshawn Lynch pretending to be the mirror image of a suspect he looks nothing like because the two-way mirror in the interrogation room is missing.

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There are also running gags that flow through all six of the episodes, giving sharp-eyed viewers plenty to appreciate. Arnett shines as the detective at the center of it all, acting as ringleader to egg on the celebrities while guiding them through each case, not to mention the audience, who can play along at home.

You know you’re dealing with an elevated level of silliness when one of the secondary objectives seems to be trying to make the actor playing the corpse crack up (and a couple of times it almost works). Even the skilled performers guest starring or playing suspects aren’t immune to breaking from time to time, which just contributes to the dumb fun.

Total Recall

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 12/8/20;
Lionsgate;
Sci-Fi;
$22.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Marshell Bell, Roy Brocksmith.

The latest edition of the 1990 sci-fi classic offers a new Ultra HD transfer and some engaging new retrospective bonus features that should please fans.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” the film that eventually became Total Recall went through dozens of script revisions before ending up in the hands of director Paul Verhoeven, who had just had a massive success in the sci-fi/action genre with RoboCop.

At one point Richard Dreyfuss was attached to star, playing a meek accountant who awakens hidden memories that he is, in fact, a deadly secret agent. When Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on, the character was changed to a construction worker, as the writers felt a character played by the famed muscle-man would not be believable having a number-crunching desk job. (Interestingly, four years later in True Lies Schwarzenegger would play a secret agent pretending to be a boring family man.)

Verhoeven’s version, set in the late 21st century, involves Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid attempting to break from the monotony of his life by visiting Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories of exotic vacations. However, Quaid’s attempts to implant a trip to Mars seems to trigger a dormant memory that he’s actually a spy named Hauser working with a revolutionary movement at the colony on the red planet. The unsurfacing of these memories prompts the Martian administrator (Ronny Cox) to send a security team to subdue Quaid, who manages to stay one step ahead thanks to clues his alter ego left himself, but who also wonders if this whole adventure might be nothing more than a dream.

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Even after 30 years, the film holds up as a pulse-pounding actioner with sumptuous visuals, snappy quips and a fair share of laughs.

The film is filled with over-the-top violence, a particular trait of Verhoeven’s style. Ronny Cox, who was so effective as the heavy in RoboCop, takes on a similar role here. Legendary tough guy Michael Ironside, who plays the leader of the hit squad after Quaid, had been in line to play RoboCop before dropping out, Verhoeven said, but ended up working with the director here, as well as in 1997’s Starship Troopers. Meanwhile, Sharon Stone, a mainstay of bit parts throughout the 1980s, got a lot of attention playing Quaid’s supposed wife, leading to Verhoeven casting her in his 1992 thriller Basic Instinct, a role that would catapult her to superstardom.

According to Verhoeven on the film’s commentary, a planned sequel to Total Recall would have adapted Dick’s Minority Report and involved Schwarzenegger leading a team of psychics — mutated Martian colonists — to prevent crimes before they happen. Eventually Minority Report ended up a standalone movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise.

The 30th anniversary Blu-ray set of Total Recall features a new 4K transfer by StudioCanal overseen by Verhoeven. The image retains a fair amount of grain to retain that film look, while giving the color palette a bit more pop, particular the extensive use of red on Mars.

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Among the extras carried over from earlier home video presentations are a 23-minute featurette about the film’s innovating visual effects, which won a Special Achievement Academy Award (meaning it received so many more nominations than any other film that there was no point in actually voting for a winner along with the other categories). Also included are a vintage eight-minute making-of featurette that seems to have been produced to promote the film’s original theatrical release, and a 30-minute “Imagining Total Recall” behind-the-scenes featurette that first appeared on the film’s 2001 DVD.

Also carried over from that original DVD is Verhoeven’s commentary, which he shares with Schwarzenegger, making for an accent-heavy affair as they discuss the film’s development, its production tricks, story points, and working together.

Newly added for this Blu-ray release are the new hourlong documentary Total Excess: How Carolco Changed Hollywood, about the history of the film’s production company — a fun look back at some of the biggest action blockbusters of the 1980s and ’90s.

Also new is the 21-minute Open Your Mind: Scoring ‘Total Recall,’ a featurette in which several music experts discuss Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable score for the film. Finally, there’s the eight-and-a-half-minute “Dreamers Within the Dream: Designing Total Recall,” a look at the production design of the film from concept sketches to final product.

Not making the cut this time around from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases is a half-hour Verhoeven interview, Rekall vacation vignettes, photo gallerys, storyboard comparisons, and other featurettes, including “Visions of Mars.”

HBO’s ‘Mosaic’ Coming to Disc in July, Four Months After Digital Release

Mosaic, a six-part limited series from Oscar- and Emmy-winning director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, will be released on Blu-ray Disc and DVD on July 10, HBO Home Entertainment has announced.

Starring Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund and Beau Bridges, the series previously was available as a digital download (as of March 5).

The Mosaic Blu-ray and DVD comes with a two-part featurette, “Heart of Homicide.”

Set against the backdrop of a mountain resort town, Mosaic follows popular children’s book author and illustrator Olivia Lake (Stone). When she disappears, leaving behind a blood-soaked studio, all eyes turn to two new men in her life: graphic artist Joel Hurley (Hedlund) and charming stranger Eric Neill (Frederick Weller). It’s left to detective Nate Henry (Devin Ratray) and Eric’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), to unravel the mystery.

HBO previously released a Mosaic app that allowed viewers to explore the world of the story and choose different paths through the narrative.

HBO’s ‘Mosaic’ Available for Digital Download March 5

Oscar- and Emmy-winning director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh’s six-part limited series Mosaic, starring Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund and Beau Bridges, will be available through digital download starting March 5 from HBO Home Entertainment.

Set against the backdrop of a mountain resort town, Mosaic follows popular children’s book author and illustrator Olivia Lake (Stone). When she disappears, leaving behind a blood-soaked studio, all eyes turn to two new men in her life: graphic artist Joel Hurley (Hedlund) and charming stranger Eric Neill (Frederick Weller). It’s left to detective Nate Henry (Devin Ratray) and Eric’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), to unravel the mystery.

HBO previously released a Mosaic app that allowed viewers to explore the world of the story and choose different paths through the narrative.