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The Incredible Mel Brooks:
An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy

A little Mel Brooks tends to go a long way, which makes this five-disc set not only exhaustive but, at times, exhausting.

Handsomely packaged in a book with liner notes from the likes of Gene Wilder and Bruce Jay Friedman, the discs yield a good amount of comedy gold, including remarkable recollections of Brooks' years writing the landmark Sid Caesar comedy-variety series Your Show of Shows alongside legends including Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. That show yielded Brooks' fruitful side project with YSoS's Carl Reiner, the famed 2000 Year Old Man records, thoroughly recounted here with commentary from fans such as Paul Reiser, Bob Newhart and an unusually crass Garry Shandling.

Each disc also contains a look at a sampling of Brooks' films, from the sublime (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) to the... not sublime.

There's a reason History of the World Part One didn't have a "Part Two."

This is especially useful as it tends to give us highlights of films that are best not viewed in their entirety. I love the included scene from High Anxiety when Brooks's character, a psychiatrist, serenades Madeline Kahn with the title tune, performing it with unexpected, Sinatra-esque stagecraft. Elsewhere, Brooks shows this was no accident when he does a brilliant impression of Sinatra singing America the Beautiful on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show: "... for purple mountain majesties, above the tutti-fruiti plain...")

How thorough is this collection? It features a series of commercials Brooks produced with Dick Cavett, and episodes of obscure, Brooks-scribed TV series best left obscure.

It might be valuable if Brooks was, say, the subject of your doctoral thesis on comedy. For the average fan obliged to winnow through the hours of video material, it's just too much. 3 stars

 

Savages

When a novel is adapted into a movie, convention has it that the book will be streamlined.

Ever perverse, director Oliver Stone actually throws added material into Don Winslow's already streamlined novel Savages.

The essential stuff remains. Ophelia, a.k.a. "O" (Blake Lively), is a Laguna Beach babe who forms the feminine side of a menage trois relationship between pals Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an Iraq war vet, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a neo-hippie.

They're best buds bonded by Southern California's best bud, a potent marijuana strain perfected by businessman/botanist Ben, and protected/enforced by Chon, a guy with no karmic qualms about employing violence when necessary.

It soon becomes necessary. The lads are contacted by the Baja Cartel, a besieged Mexican criminal empire looking to expand northward, headed by ruthless matriarch "La Reina" Elena (Salma Hayek). A video depicting the beheadings of the cartel's enemies (evidently inspired by a grisly real-death video) is sent with an invitation to join forces. Ben and Chon decline anyway. So Elena's brutish enforcer, Lada (Benicio Del Toro), kidnaps O.

The boys don't take this kind of thing lying down. Employing intelligence supplied by corrupt DEA cop Dennis (John Travolta), Ben and Chon launch a surreptitious counter-attack on the cartel. Meanwhile, the captive O must not only live through the queasy attentions of Lada, she forms a kind of twisted relationship with Elena, whose own daughter despises her.

Stone should feel at home with this story because, in a way, he may himself be the embodiment of the two male heroes, one a spiritual seeker and the other the haunted warrior of Platoon.

But despite the sex, drugs and violence of the premise, Stone doesn't really seem to click with this material. He adds some unnecessary and confusing narrative that only seems to exist to pad out Travolta's screen time. He leaches much of the sardonic humour from Winslow's book. And what he does with the denouement is an outright travesty, a schizoid blend of existential despair and Hollywood ending. 2-1/2 stars

 

Brave: Ultimate Collectors Edition

While other studios laboured at re-inventing Disney princesses in films such as Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, Pixar started from scratch with a singular heroine who has neither time nor inclination to moon about her marriage prospects while singing "Someday my prince will come..."

Merida (voiced in full, mellifluent burr by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) is the flame-haired daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly), the jovial monarch of a rugged, primitive Scotland of indeterminate epoch.

Bad luck for Merida, she tends to take after her dad when it comes to adventure-seeking, riding horses, and generally engaging in earthy pursuits.

That puts her at odds with her mum, the genteel Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who attempts to school the princess in more refined behaviour ("A princess does not stuff her gob") to no avail.

The abrasive relationship comes to a head when Merida is obliged to be the prize in a meeting of the clans, her hand in marriage promised to one of a trio of undeserving, doltish scions.

From here, the film turns into an unexpected blend of farce, adventure and drama. Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman create a lavish, lush landscape, but some of the more impressive moments are in the details. For example, Merida's magnificent mane of red hair is so gorgeously realized, it's practically a character unto itself.

The fact that the heroine is a princess represents a departure for the company that has tended to fixate on boys-and-their-toys material (Toy Story, Cars). Brave bravely steps away from that kind of easy-money spectacle in favour of material that is more nuanced, more beautiful, and decidedly more feminine in its perspective: When it comes to portraying a fractious mother-daughter relationship, Brave gives Terms of Endearment a run for its money. 4 stars

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 C18

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