Defending Your Life Forever

Oh man, I really love that, after an excruciating period of neglect, we finally seem to be in the heyday of Albert Brooks' films getting released in HD.  Modern Romance, The Muse, Lost In America and now Defending Your Life.  I only hope this trends holds up long enough for us to get the remaining three, because every one of his movies is one to treasure and revisit.  But whatever happens, for now I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth; I'm just relishing my dive into this new release from Criterion.
You could accuse Albert Brooks of getting sappy with his fourth film.  But Brooks has always been a master of meshing heart with his satire, and you can't begrudge a writer letting the pendulum swing a little to the sentimental side every once in a while.  And there has to still be a little healthy cynicism to be found in a depiction of a world where, when you die, you're transported to another, larger bureaucracy of just slightly more advanced people who condescend and placate everyone into conformity.  And while passing through to the other side only to find your life is on trial is hardly an original concept in Hollywood - we've all heard of "Judgement Day," after all - the idea that you're not judged on morality or piety but your ability to overcome your personal fears so that you may become your further realized self is a very creative and thoughtful spin.
The hallmark of Albert Brooks' films is that of course they're very funny, but they would also work as smart, touching films even if all of his comedy was removed.  But rather than feeling joke his schtick has been squeezed in where it doesn't belong, he manages to make it thrive.  We all know what it's like to be stuck in the middle of a picture pulling us in two directions at once, but his work is so special because he manages to fully pull off both, where most filmmakers are lucky to manage one, and not have them feel discordant.  So on the one hand, it's always "The Albert Brooks Show," but at the same time, it's a Capra classic.  In this case, we've also got Meryl Streep, who's sweet and brings the degree of effervescent star power the story demands, but Lee Grant and especially Rip Torn take the reigns with far more impressive supporting roles.  There's also a funny celebrity cameo I won't spoil and some surprisingly good performances by the child actors.  How has this movie not hit blu-ray until now?
Warner Bros first released Defending on DVD in a snapper case in 2001.  They've repackaged it a few times with different covers - as a double bill with Looking for Comedy in 2008, again in 2010 and just recently this past December (on DVD-R) for Warner's Archives collection.  But Criterion's new blu is the first time it's been actually updated on disc, not just to HD but with a new 4k restoration from the original 35mm negative.
2001 WB DVD top; 2021 Criterion BD bottom.
As you might expect, Warner Brothers frame their DVD at a lazy 1.78:1, while Criterion apply the little mattes to make it exactly 1.85:1.  But what I was surprised to discover is that Criterion actually zooms in and crops information along all four sides.  Being "director-approved," one can only hope this tighter framing is more correct; but I think we've all learned over the years how little a director's stamp of approval necessarily means.  Still, it's minor enough that it doesn't hurt the viewing experience any either way; and after all, it very well might be the more accurate representation of the filmmaker's photography.
2001 WB DVD left; 2021 Criterion BD right.
Besides that, the colors are gently corrected and differentiated.  WB's DVD was actually rather good, especially for an older disc, so there wasn't that much to fix.  It's not interlaced, non-anamorphic or hideously compressed.  We're not suddenly discovering tons of small details.  This film always had a soft, gentle look anyhow.  But with that said, this is a nice healthy step forward to HD, with compression artifacts transformed into actual film grain.  Look at that colorful packet on the coffee machine behind Albert.  I don't know what that is, but it's much more distinct on the blu.  A very slight vertical pinch is also fixed.

The DVD already had the original English stereo mix with optional English subtitles, plus French, Portuguese and Spanish subs and a French dub.  Criterion dumps the foreign language options, but restores the English mix from the original elements for a bolder DTS-HD track.
Now, when Criterion announced a "new interview on the afterlife with theologian and critic Donna Bowman," I thought alrighty.  They're going to present us with some crazy incense-toting crackpot who was was going to explain to us what Brooks got right and wrong about the afterlife, because she's visited it personally a number of times.  But happily, no, it's an intelligent comparison of Hollywood's history of afterlife comparisons and the existentialist and Kierkegaardian concepts Brooks depicts in his script.  But more important than that is the all new retrospective interview with Albert Brooks, who takes a thoughtful look back the film.  Also included appears to be a re-edit of a promotional featurette with vintage interviews from Brooks (who thankfully says all different things from his separate interview), Torn and Lee.  And we get the trailer (Brooks is known for making creative, original theatrical trailers for his films... but this is just a regular one) and a fold-out insert with notes by horror director Ari Aster.
After I watch this movie, I think wow, this is his best film.  But then I watch Lost In America, or Real Life, or Mother and I think the same thing.  How has Netflix, Amazon, or any of the others not tapped this man for one of those "small budget and full creative freedom" deals yet?  Well, hopefully releases like this show that the world is finally catching on.

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