Those of us who spent entirely too much time listening to Bill Cosby records in our youth can’t help but have a lingering affection for Cosby himself and for characters he created, perhaps most famously Fat Albert.
But Albert proved more than a piece of Cosby’s Buck Buck monologue. He became the center of a series that not only brought an ensemble of African Americans to Saturday morning but did so in a way that respected the characters, embraced all kinds of diversity — and made the experiences of a bunch of urban kids into something both recognizable and appealing to the children watching in all manner of homes across America.
If you think I overstate, check out Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory / Classic Media, 110 episodes, $119.99). There have been previous sets of episodes, but this 15-disc set includes Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-76), The New Fat Albert Show (1979-80), and The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1984-85). That’s a lot of learning from each other while we do our thing.
And learning was a major part of the show, not only in the humorous adventures of Albert, Rudy, Weird Harold, and other characters, but in live-action segments where Cosby himself offered commentary on the events, guiding the littlest viewers toward a message. All in all, a sweet show — and one carefully thought out. In addition to a booklet, the set includes a 40-minute making-of presentation from 2012 with Cosby explaining in detail the development of the show and the individual characters.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in a comedic confrontation. Unfortunately, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (Warner, $28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray / DVD / digital combo) proved a dud with audiences and critics as it never seemed sure of exactly what it was — crazy comedy or heartwarming drama.
Carell is the title character, who with his best friend (Steve Buscemi) has had a long-successful magic act in Las Vegas. But Burt has become jaded and bored even as there is a new magician (Carrey) whose radical — and painful — approach to the craft is pulling audiences away. It has sporadic big laughs, and a fine supporting performance by Alan Arkin as another magician. But overall, its bits don’t fit together; it reminded me of early, hit-and-miss Adam Sandler — only Sandler was better.
Far more enjoyable are the films of Simon Pegg. While you might know him as Scotty in the most recent Star Trek movies, he has also been successful in several comedies made in collaboration with writer-director Edgar Wright and actor-writer Nick Frost: zombie film Shaun of the Dead, the hysterical Hot Fuzz, and the alien-among-us comedy Paul. All three have been available on DVD and Blu-ray but Universal is reissuing them on Tuesday in Blu-ray / DVD / digital combos for a budget price of $19.98 each.
The death of actor James Gandolfini still resonates, and you can see why on video. The Sopranos, the HBO series that made him a star (and was his greatest cumulative achievement as an actor), is available in its entirety on DVD; the first and last seasons are on Blu-ray. But Gandolfini was a reliable character actor before and after that series.
Especially noteworthy, and on both DVD and Blu-ray, are the drama Welcome to the Rileys (Sony), which also includes a rare good performance by Kristen Stewart; the ensemble satire In the Loop (IFC); Not Fade Away (Paramount), which reunited Gandolfini with Sopranos creator David Chase; another effective supporting turn in Get Shorty (MGM); and a pivotal role as the director of the CIA in Zero Dark Thirty (Sony). I sometimes think that he was cast in Zero Dark Thirty because, when Jessica Chastain delivers a blunt four-syllable epithet, it’s all the more impressive because she says it to Gandolfini.
But it’s also a demonstration of Gandolfini’s skill in that he kept often formidable company onscreen, not only opposite Chastain but also in so many ensemble pieces. Look at the cast of Get Shorty, for instance. Or find the old VHS tapes of the 1997 TV production of 12 Angry Men (which I cannot find on a U.S.-format DVD). A pre-Sopranos Gandolfini played a juror alongside Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, Ossie Davis, Edward James Olmos, and other acting aces. As Cronyn later said of the group, “There wasn’t a bum in it.”
Down video road
Three films by director Roberto Rossellini — Stromboli, Europe ’51, and Journey to Italy — will make their U.S. DVD and Blu-ray debuts Sept. 24. The fifth season of The Mentalist will be out Sept. 17. Oscar-winning Cavalcade will mark its 80th anniversary with a Blu-ray release on Aug. 6.