Monthly Archive for September, 2006

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (9/29/06) Graphic Novel (2006 ***½) Written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel, creator of the syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. This was a beautiful, well-written book about Bechdel’s family. The two main characters were Bechdel herself and her father, who was killed by a truck when Bechdel was in her early twenties. The book jumped around in time and was organized thematically rather than chronologically. As you might guess from the name of her strip, Bechdel is a lesbian and in this book she explored her own sexual coming-of-age, capturing nicely the myriad emotions she felt in the process. She came out to her parents in the form of a long typed letter shortly before her father died. The reaction she got wasn’t what she’d expected; her mother told her it ran in the family – her father had been having homosexual relationships of his own on the side for years. As Bechdel looked back, the pieces fell into place and she wondered how she could have ignored the signs. This was one of those graphic novels that truly demonstrated the power of the medium; Bechdel’s illustrations worked elegantly in concert with the material and with the words she chose. Some readers may find the story and subject matter depressing or distasteful, but it captured a picture of a very real, very imperfect family. In her acknowledgments, she thanked her mother and siblings, saying, “Thank you for not trying to stop me from writing this book.” Clearly it took a great deal of courage to create a work like this.

Comedian

Comedian (9/28/06) DWA Screening (2002 ***) Directed by Christian Charles. This was a strange documentary to review. Its primary focus was Jerry Seinfeld’s fresh start as a comedian after returning to the comedy circuit following the end of his successful TV show. For reasons not adequately explained, Seinfeld decided to retire his entire repertoire of stand-up material and start from scratch. This documentary followed him as he built and fleshed out his new act. Seinfeld came across as sympathetic, though I wondered how material was selected, given that the documentary was directed by a personal friend of his. As a subplot of sorts, Comedian also showed an important period in the live of another, lesser comic, named Orny Adams, including the beginning of his relationship with Seinfeld’s agent George Shapiro and his debut appearance on the Letterman show. Adams appeared considerably less sympathetic, mostly because every time he opened his mouth he sounded like a real jerk. Was the lesson that only nice guys like Seinfeld deserve of comedy success? I don’t know. The film did a reasonably good job of painting the bleak world, insecurities and behind-the-scenes machinations that make up the life of the working comic.

The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon (9/27/06) Netflix (1953 ***) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse. The Band Wagon was featured recently at the Greatest American Musicals AFI concert I went to at the Hollywood Bowl. It was ranked number 17, just below Funny Girl and just above Yankee Doodle Dandy. I thought I hadn’t seen this movie since sometime in the early 1990’s, but as I watched I realized I’d seen it much more recently. Thank God for my movie journal, which informed me I saw it last on 11/16/02, at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. At the time I gave it four stars, so why am I only giving it three this time? I hate to admit it, but maybe it was because I watched it this time around on DVD instead of on the beautiful big screen of the Stanford. Watching it this time, I kept feeling all the elements didn’t quite work as well as they might have: Everything seemed phony; the film took too long to get off the ground; Fred Astaire seemed to be phoning it it; Cyd Charisse was a great dancer but sorely lacked Ginger Rogers’ charisma. Finally, I thought The Band Wagon came off as being too obviously derivative of Singin’ In the Rain, which had come out the year before. Okay, enough already with the critical analysis. I’m done. Now, if I can just get that damned “That’s Entertainment” song out of my head…

V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta (9/26/06) Netflix (2006 **½) Directed by James McTeigue, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers behind the Matrix films. This movie was based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, which was written in the mid-eighties during the Thatcher/Reagan years. I read that graphic novel a couple of years ago but wasn’t particularly impressed by it. In fact, I ended up selling it at a garage sale to a co-worker for $2. From the first five minutes of the film I found its politics heavy-handed. However, the message was eerily appropriate for today’s political climate. Though V For Vendetta was nominally a political intrigue, it dragged a lot, especially in the second act. At one point late in the film Natalie Portman discovered a roll of paper that led to a sub-story that totally derailed the narrative flow. There were about four scenes in which John Hurt (as the evil chancellor) appeared on a huge video screen to bark orders at his underlings. These scenes must have been easy and cheap to shoot, but I found them incredibly annoying and repetitive. One final thought: Halfway through the film I realized all the story elements seemed familiar, and then it hit me: V For Vendetta was a near-perfect amalgam of Batman, Beauty and the Beast, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Laws of Attraction

Laws of Attraction (9/23/06) Netflix (2004 *½) Directed by Peter Howitt, starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore. Normally in these capsule reviews of mine I don’t call out the screenwriter, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Laws of Attraction was written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Robert Harling. McKenna also wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada. Why the special shout-out? The writing was pretty stinky. The situations were all lifted from bad romantic fiction and at no point did any of the characters feel alive. It was obvious from the opening titles that the film had aimed for a kind of Doris Day / Rock Hudson sensibility, but it never once hit its target. There were lines of dialogue so clunky they actually made me groan and shake my head. While I like both Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore and consider them to be charismatic, solid actors, they had nothing to work with and there was virtually no on-screen chemistry between them.

Old School

Old School (9/23/06) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell. Old School isn’t the kind of movie intended to make you think. Instead, it’s a film in the tradition of Meatballs, Animal House and Caddyshack where the good guys were more than a little irreverent and subversive. Old School included some great, pitch-perfect comic performances by Vaughn and Ferrell. It may be argued they were playing the same characters they always play, but in a movie like this, who really cares? I certainly didn’t.

Hollywoodland

Hollywoodland (9/20/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 **½) Directed by Allen Coulter, starring Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Diane Lane. One of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Hollywood remains whether or not George Reeves killed himself. The film alternated between the past (George Reeves’ career in Hollywood) and the present (Adrien Brody as Louis Simo, a private investigator hired by Reeves’ mother). The challenge of that structure was that it was never clear whose story is being told. There were many good performances in the film, including some superb acting by Bob Hoskins, but most of the characters were sadly underdeveloped.

Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch

Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch (9/17/06) Novel (2006 ***½) Written by Lara Parker, who played the role of Angelique on the original Dark Shadows. Ms. Parker wrote an earlier novel based on the series, entitled Angelique’s Descent, in which she explored the origins of her character. When I read that a number of years ago, I was happily surprised by how good her writing was. I know that’s unfair, but her writing was far better than one might expect, and it transcended any accusations of “literary stunt-casting.” The Salem Branch picked up where the TV series left off: Dr. Julia Hoffman has cured Barnabas of his vampirism and in gratitude he has proposed marriage. The novel ping-ponged between the present day (1970) and the Salem witch trials of the 1600’s. A series of gruesome murders informed Barnabas that another vampire had come to Collinwood; Barnabas had to fight, but this time without his superhuman gifts. Overall, I had a great time revisiting the world of Dark Shadows, and Lara Parker was a wonderful tour guide.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Monster A Go-Go

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Monster A Go-Go (9/17/06) Netflix (1965/1992 ***½) Original film directed by Bill Rebane. Joel Robinson and the other inhabitants of the satellite of love delivered some of their best material in this presentation of a truly awful, awful movie. This for me is what MST3K was all about; I laughed out loud at least a dozen times.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (9/16/06) Netflix (1970 **½) Directed by Russ Meyer. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” In the world of Russ Meyer, there were no flat-chested women. In my view, that’s not necessarily a bad place to spend a couple of hours. The major claim to fame for this film was that its screenplay was written by none other than film critic Roger Ebert, and that was my primary reason in renting it. The storytelling and dialogue were especially revealing. It was clear that young Ebert, who was in his late 20’s when the film was released, was really trying to do good work. Unfortunately, his dialogue was peppered with occasionally clever but more frequently awkward turns of phrase. As I prepared myself to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I anticipated a horror show of bad direction, the sort one might expect from a soft-core porno flick. I was surprised the production values were as good as they were. The real failing of the film was the story, which was all over the place.