Monthly Archive for August, 2009

Funny People

Funny People (8/31/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***¼) Written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, with Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. A famous funnyman (Sandler) learns he’s dying and hires a fledgling comic (Rogen) as his assistant. I’m a little worried about what this says about me, but this film really got under my skin. I found it to be both funny and depressing, sometimes alternating, sometimes at the same time. As I watched, I was reminded of two films for different reasons: (1) Punchline (2008 — Directed by David Seltzer, starring Tom Hanks & Sally Fields) which explored the serious side of being funny in front of a live audience and the fragile egos involved; and (2) Terms of Endearment (1983 — Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine). I may be wrong, but I wondered as I watched the film if Apatow, the hottest comedy director to hit the movie business in a long time, may be aspiring to become a modern James L. Brooks, finding a way to combine the best of comedy and drama. If that is in fact his intended goal, he’s well on his way with Funny People.

Must Love Dogs

Must Love Dogs (8/30/09) Netflix (2005 **) Directed by Gary David Goldberg (who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Claire Cook), starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, with Elizabeth Perkins and Christopher Plummer. Two neurotic divorced people almost don’t wind up together, yet somehow they do. I knew after the first ten minutes that this romantic comedy was — please forgive me — a real dog. It consistently felt like warmed over Nora Ephron, with unmotivated “quirky” characters and lapses in story and character logic. For example, Cusack played a divorced guy (who we’re told is paying alimony) who builds hand-crafted boats that nobody wants to buy. What was the source of his income? As far as I could tell, he only ever built one boat! There was also very little real sexual chemistry between Lane and Cusack. Still, I kept watching, hoping against hope that the film would get better. And you know what? It actually kind of did! In the final half hour the writing seemed to improve dramatically and I began to care about the characters. Crazy! However, that last-minute uptick wasn’t enough for me to recommend the film.

Enemy Mine

Enemy Mine (8/30/09) TV-FMC (1985 ***1/4) Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, screenplay by Edward Khmara, story by Barry Longyear, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. The director of Das Boot presents the touching story of two space pilots — one human, one alien — whose battle leaves them stranded on an unforgiving planet; these “enemies” must work together to survive. Also, there’s a “mine.” This film got off to a shaky start, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t manage to get to me somewhere along the way. Enemy Mine was actually kind of a love story between its two male co-stars, and as such it was really ahead of its time. Imagine, if you will, a contemporary remake in which those homosexual themes are explored, directed by Ang Lee.

Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug

Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug (8/29/09) Comics (2009 [stories 1982-1992] ***¼) Most stories plotted & penciled by Keith Giffen (official creator of the character), scripted by Robert Loren Fleming and inked by Bob Oksner. Back in the mid-1980’s when I was still buying comics in that flimsy pamphlet form, there was a period when Justice League took a cue from the TV show Moonlighting and got silly. Writer Keith Giffen (along with J.M. DeMatties) was one of the people responsible for that. It’s probably fair to say that this was was a natural reaction to the Crisis series and generally served as a needed break from comics taking themselves way too seriously. Giffen took his comedic sensibilities into the pages of various Ambush Bug titles, which mostly existed as one-shots and limited-run series. The result was a self-aware, stream-of-consciousness anarchy that worked more often than it flopped. It is probably worth noting that the plotter/stenciler comic production structure was (and still is) an unusual one, but it was a natural for this kind of book.

Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies

Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (8/29/09) Netflix (2001 ***) Written and directed by Ray Greene. This documentary examines the origins and history of the exploitation film, a chapter of Hollywood’s history rarely discussed in polite company. Independently-produced made-for-DVD documentaries like this can either be very polished or decidedly amateurish, and this one fell somewhere in between. Its apparent production values were elevated, however, by a strong (and apparently uncredited) narrator as well as interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman and others. I found the film as a whole, particularly the original footage, interesting, though I did have a strange compulsion to wash my hands afterwards.

Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock (8/28/09) Glendale Americana 16 (2009 ***) Directed by Ang Lee, starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsh, Liev Schreiber and Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur. Based on a true story, a young man stuck working at his family’s run-down Catskills motel becomes a catalyst for the most important rock concert ever, which took place August 15-18, 1969 in White Lake, New York. Martin was consistently likable as Elliot Teichberg and he did a good job as the film’s somewhat ambiguous central character, though it often seemed he was just playing himself. Or at least the version of himself as seen on The Daily Show and Important Things with Demetri Martin. While I enjoyed much of the film (including several scenes of gratuitous hippy nudity), it felt uneven, particularly in scope. The challenge of the film was to capture the magnitude of the historic event. Some scenes did that quite well, but the scene in which Elliot and his friend Billy (Emile Hirsh of Into the Wild) slid through the mud felt like it had been filmed in someone’s backyard.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (3D)

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (3D) (8/28/09) DWA Screening (2009 **½) Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier, featuring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah and Simon Pegg as Buck. I remember generally enjoying the first film (which was directed by Chris Wedge), but I never saw the second one in the franchise. Unfortunately I was never completely engaged by the central conflict in which the “herd” must travel into a land time forgot to rescue Sid the sloth from dinosaurs. Part of the reason I felt apathy creeping in was that the characters kept talking about how Sid was a smelly pain-in-the-ass and I wondered why they were risking their lives to save their “friend.” The story was also interrupted periodically by B-story running gag comedy antics featuring “Scrat” and “Scratte,” which were only mildly funny and were completely unrelated to the main story.

Die Hard

Die Hard (8/27/09) TV-FMC (1988 ****) Directed by John McTeirnan, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. New York cop John McClane takes on heavily-armed high-tech kidnappers/terrorists/bank-robbers holding hostages in an L.A. office building, and he does it barefoot! I was astonished to see just how well this film has held up in the 20 years since it was first released. What’s even more amazing is that this was really Willis’ first leading role if you don’t count 1987’s Blind Date. There’s no doubt that John McClane was the role that made his career. The film continues to work incredibly well as an action film, but there was plenty of humor (“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”) and even a hint of self-awareness as well, what with the references to John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Finally, they say a film like this is only as good as its villain, and Alan Rickman certainly delivered on that front.

Doctor in the House

Doctor in the House (8/25/09) TV-TCM (1954 ***) Directed by Ralph Thomas, based on the book by Richard Gordon, starring Dirk Bogarde. Simon Sparrow hijinks his way through medical school at London’s St. Swithin’s teaching hospital. I have memories of buying and reading the original book when I was in my mid-teens. Yeah, I was a weird kid. This British medical comedy was a forerunner not only of M*A*S*H (the film and the TV show), but also Scrubs. In spite of myself, I found the madcap and slightly racy antics of Sparrow and his fellow students to be — forgive me — infectious, and Bogarde was certainly charismatic. I wish the film had been close-captioned, however; I missed much of the dialogue because of the thick mid-1950’s British accents.

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That (8/24/09) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Four-year-old Marla Olmstead is a painting prodigy. Or is she? That’s the central question of this documentary that asks more questions than it answers. I found the film interesting, though when the Olmstead family’s story took a darker turn (after a damning piece by Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes), I felt my intestines contract, fearing what would follow. In addition to its subject, the film also raised some basic questions about the nature of abstract art, though it never explored them in any real depth.