Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Directed by
Alan Coulter
Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum
Starring Adrian Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney
IMDB Entry

I don't really understand the current dislike toward Ben Affleck. He strikes me as a perfectly good actor who has put together good performances in quite a few films. He came off quite well in Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, and Shakespeare in Love, and he did a credible job with a weak script in Daredevil.  People do complain about his "wooden" acting, but I don't see that.*  It may have had something to do with the "Bennifer" tabloid fodder; I don't recall the vitriol against him before then.  But, for some reason, he's considered something of a lightweight.

That may be one reason he appeared in Hollywoodland.

The movie's title is especially poor, since it doesn't really give a good idea of what the film is about. At best, some film buff might remember that the famous Hollywood sign originally was "Hollywoodland," but that fact is also misleading.  The problem was that any title that made the subject of the movie clear would (and did) run into copyright problems. 

The film is about actor George Reeves, who became a star playing Superman on TV. Reeves had an interesting history.  His first film role was in Gone With the Wind, and he had a successful career (though not as a lead) in the 1940s. When a Superman TV show was in the works, Reeves was cast.  The role was a chore for him.  He didn't like the association, and felt it would keep him from getting good roles.** Superman became a straitjacket (though Reeves did like meeting kids) and when it went off the air, he found it hard to get roles.  He wanted to move on, but couldn't and eventually, he killed himself. 

Or did he?  And that's the speculation that fuels the film. In it, Louis Simo (Adrian Brody), a two-bit private detective, decides to make a name for himself by proving that Reeves (Affleck) had been murdered.  There are plenty of suspects.  Reeves had been having a long-term affair with the wife of the powerful studio head (with mob connections) Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). He had ended the affair, however, and Mannix's wife (Diane Lane) was furious.  And there are plenty of suggestions that the death was not a suicide.***

The movie is primarily about Simo, who tries to unravel the truth while also keeping his life from unraveling.  But Affleck's portrayal of Reeves is what really stands out. We see (in flashback, of course) the ups and downs of Reeves's career. Affleck plays him as a man ambivalent about his fame -- loving parts of it, but hating much more until he feels it's been a failure.

Brody and Hoskins can always be depended on to give good performances and this is no exception.  Brody brought a lot of depth to his detective, a man who starts out as an opportunist, but who understands the demons that haunted Reeves.  Hoskins brings his usual unpolished style to a role that is meant to be ambiguously threatening.

The film was stymied by trademark problems. Warner Brothers and DC Comics were very protective of their trademarks, so much so that they almost prevented the film from showing the Superman logo on his uniform.  They vetoed the original film title, Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and didn't allow the film to use the opening for the TV show (it was reshot for the film).

The film opened to mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office. Affleck's performance was overlooked, so it did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. 

The film is a nice combination of film noir and historical fact and speculation.  It's a shame that it the film isn't better known.


*I was equally perplexed about the same charge against Keanu Reeves, who had plenty of good performances.  The issue with Reeves is understandable.  His best performances were in films like I Love You to Death, Tune in Tomorrow, My Own Private Idaho, and Feeling Minnesota -- movies few people saw.  Reeves, like Affleck, also had some high profile flops. But I am also reminded of an actor who had the very same charge leveled at him throughout his career, but today is considered one of the greatest of Hollywood stars -- John Wayne.

**The most notable role around this time was a small part in From Here to Eternity.  Legend has it that audiences recognized him as Superman and that the film cut his scenes down dramatically, but those involved deny there were any changes. The makes sense, since From Here to Eternity was not a film many kids would be watching, and the adults would probably not pay attention to who was playing Superman on TV. I suspect the legend cropped up during revivals of the film; those who watched Superman as kids recognized Reeves immediately (I did when I saw in in the early 70s).

***This follows modern speculation; some have suggested that Reeves showed no signs of depression and was looking forward to playing Superman again when he died, leading them to look for foul play.  I'm always skeptical about this sort of conspiracy, and I don't find the lack of outward signs of depression particularly telling.  Reeves's friends could only know what he showed them, not what he was actually thinking.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz (book)

image( 1967)
Art by
Don Martin
Written by Dick DeBartolo, Phil Hahn, Jack Hanrahan, and Don Martin.

Don Martin was always billed as "Mad's Maddest Artist."  From his first appearance in Mad #29 in 1956, he stood out with his ultra-cartoony style and bizarre sense of humor. He filled his panels with long-nosed people whose feet bent as though they were on hinges and sound effects that had never been used in comics before, but which somehow fit the scene perfectly.*

Recently, Mad reprinted a deluxe two-volume set with every cartoon he did for the magazine, something I had to have (once I saw it for a ridiculously good bargain).**  I did realize, though, that one things was missing:  my favorite Don Martin book, The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz.

This was a standalone book of original material, and if you're a fan of comics, you'll love this.  The book was co-written by several MAD writers, most notably the great Dick DeBartolo.  DeBartolo was to my mind the best writer in the magazine, best know for his TV and movie parodies.***  Though others are credited, the main stories of the book seem to me to have been mostly DeBartolo's work -- it's the same sort of voice as in his best parodies.

Captain Klutz is Ringo Fonebone, who grew up as an avid comic book fan**** who can't handle life.  When he attempts to commit suicide by jumping off a building (in his long underwear), he ends up landing on a bank robber and stopping him for the police.  The robber calls him a klutz and, when the police ask his name, the dazed hero says, "I'm a klutz, captain," which is immediately garbled into being called Captain Klutz.

The main adventures include the origin story, "Sissyman," "The Case of the Chicken Soup," "Captain Klutz Meets Gorganzola," and "Captain Klutz Meets Mervin the Mad Bomber." They are filled with slapstick and surprises. There are also a couple of short gag strips to fill things out.

The book was obviously a success, and there were even a couple of sequels. But it seems to have gone out of print.  Martin left Mad in 1988 and continued cartooning elsewhere.  He died in 2000.

I'm delighted that there is now a retrospective of his work in Mad (even if it is an expensive one), but I wish it had included the Don Martin books as well as the magazine.  It would have made it all complete.


*An interesting sidelight is that before Martin established himself with MAD, he did art for science fiction pulp magazines.  I was surprised to see a drawing in an old Galaxy Magazine that showed the trademarked hinged feet and style (for a story titled "Trader's Risk').  The artist was credited as "Martin." A further discussion of this sidelight to Don Martin's career can be found at the Datajunkie blog.

**As I read through it, I realized I realized that I had already seen nearly all of the cartoons. My Mad reading had paralleled Martin's career and those that appeared before I started were reprinted in various Mad books and annuals.

***In his day job, he wrote the questions for the TV game show The Match Game. He was billed as "Mad's Maddest Writer," but, really that honor goes to Larry Gore.

****Not unlike Herbie the Fat Fury, something I'd love to write about except for the fact that I know him solely by reputation.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

One Year Affair (Comic)

One Year Affair (1973-1975)
Story by
Byron Preiss
Art by Ralph Reese

The influence of The National Lampoon on modern comedy can't be overstated. People know it for Animal House and the Vacation films, but it was much more.  Saturday Night Live, for instance, owes much to the magazine.*  People like John Hughes, P.J. O'Rourke, Chris Rush, Bruce McCall, Chris Miller, Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and many others.

One of the Lampoon's features was their comic pages, featuring top comic artists and writers doing some of their best work, with plenty of creative freedom.  And, hidden among people like Gahan Wilson, M.K, Brown, Shari Flennikan, Vaughn Bode, and many others, was a small unassuming strip by Byron Preiss and Ralph Reese titled One Year Affair.

The strip started out with an ominous note:

Just 52 weeks from today, the characters introduced here will terminate their relationship . . . This, then, it the ignominious beginning of a . . . ONE YEAR AFFAIR.

The first strip showed a man picking up a box of tampons in a store, saying, "Miss!  You dropped your box of . . . ah . . . "

Her reply:  "Thanks.  Why don't you take one of these as a reward?"

And so the relationship begins. 

The man is Steve, who finds the woman's name is Jill and gets her phone number off some "For a good time, call Jill," graffiti on a men's room wall.

Jill is a terrific character.  She sexy, uninhibited, happily promiscuous**, and shameless.  Steve is a schlub and know that Jill is out of his league.

The strip appeared each month in the Lampoon, usually four panels showing the latest ups and downs of their relationship.  Steve's insecurity and Jill's past were all fodder for humor, as were landmarks like moving in together.  The relationship flourished, fell apart, got together, all with some wild ideas and and plot twists.

And, as promised, the relationship ended. 

The humor and twists still work, even if the dating world portrayed is long gone.  It often verged on soap opera (especially near the end), but managed to remain fresh and funny.

After the run, Preiss and Reese started a strip new strip for the Lampoon called Two Year Affair, which tried to focus on three people, but it only ran a couple of time before being dropped.  Preiss went on to for Byron Preiss Visual Productions, which collected the strips into book form.  BPVP went on to be a successful publisher of graphic books and then of packaged novels.***  He died in 2005.  Ralph Reese continued to work regularly in comic arts.


* John Belushi and Chevy Chase joined SNL after a stint on the off-Broadway revue National Lampoon's Lemmings.  They also worked on the National Lampoon Radio Show with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.  Michael O'Donoghue, a Lampoon stalwart, was an early writer and one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  Anne Beatts was another NatLamp writer who started writing for SNL.

**Remember, this was after the sexual revolution and before AIDS.

***Preiss would pitch ideas for book series and sell them as a package, hiring authors to then write them.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Beat the Queen/Porko von Popbutton (book)

(December 23, 1968)
by William Pene Du Bois
Story at Sports

Porko von Popbutton Back in the 1960s, Sports Illustrated was struggling.* The market for a sports only magazine, especially a glossy one with photos, was small.  So it did many different things to try to attract readers:  articles on non-mainstream sports and some odd features.  And once, they even published a children's book.  Beat the Queen was one of their few forays into fiction of any kind,** but it was a great one.
Beat the Queen is the story of Patrick O'Sullivan Pinkerton.  Pat was fat.  Extremely fat (in the first paragraph, his bed falls through the floor of his house).  His parents send him off to the President Coolidge School for Boys, where he is separated from his beloved food. 
The school is a sports-mad institution, and that sport is hockey. His roommate is the irrepressible Jim "One-Point-Two-Five" Finger***, goalie for the team.  Jim dubs Pat "Porko von Popbutton," and takes a liking to him, having him help with practice and teaching him about their archrivalry with Queen Mary School, the reason why there are big signs all over campus saying "BEAT THE QUEEN."
And then Pat discovers an interesting fact:  He's almost the same size as a hockey goal.  So he decides to don the pads and become a goalie.
I think you can probably guess how this ends up.****  But the story is charming.  Pat is perfectly happy with himself; he may be fat, but he likes it that way.  He wants to keep eating, even though everyone wants to stop him, because it's something he truly likes to do. Du Bois makes it clear that all the sympathy is for him, and not for those who are trying to help him.
Jim is also the type of friend that many people would love to have. He may tease Pat, but it's never malicious, and ultimately it's clear that he does like his roommate.
William Pene Du Bois was an author and illustrator, winner of Newberry Medal (Children's literature's highest honor) in 1948 for The 100 Balloons and gaining Caldecott Honors (for being a runner up for top children's illustrators) twice.
The story was published soon afterwards as a book, with the title changed to Porko von Popbutton. If anyone was looking for it due to the Sports Illustrated article, they may have missed it, but Du Bois was well established enough at that time so it probably was successful.
Alas, despite the delights of the tale, it's out of print.  I would guess that, with childhood obesity a serious problem, the subject matter is a bit touchy these days, and children's literature likes to avoid controversial positions.
But if you have a little time, read the story at the Sports Illustrated website. It's something people of all ages can enjoy.
*It ran at a loss from its founding in 1954 until about 1968
**About a month earlier, they published a tongue-in-cheek article about how the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl. It was meant to be a joke, but, oddly enough, predicted that the Jets beat Oakland (who had to face a division playoff because they were tied for first) and Baltimore.  Those opponents were exactly how things worked out.
***The nickname is his goals against average. 
****The problem with stories about sporting events is that there are only two outcomes at the event.  You can usually assume the underdogs will win, mostly because it's hard to write an ending where they lose that feels satisfying. In any case, Pat does end up tending goal in the big game.
*****One of the highest honors for a children's book author.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

(1992) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Directed by
Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aiden Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, John Cleese
IMDB Entry

I first heard of Kenneth Branagh when he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for Henry V.  I was surprised to hear it -- I missed the movie when it came out, and I knew how highly regarded Lawrence Olivier's 1944 version was. I wondered how this first-time director could be compared to what was considered one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever.

I discovered that Branagh's version was just as good.  And, after Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing, he became one of my favorite directors.  So I was very interested in his take on Frankenstein.

The movie, alas, has a bad reputation, but I loved it.

Branagh (and writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont) did something brave:  instead of showing the familiar story, they went to the original book, which is nothing like what moviegoers were used to.  Frankenstein's creation really wasn't a monster,* but was thoughtful and intelligent. And, Branagh made a brave decision:  he filmed the story almost as an opera, with bravura performances that were over the top just a tad, but which worked that way.  He also made important artistic choice in sticking fairly closely to the book.

The melodramatic elements work perfectly.**  Robert DeNiro's performance is clearly a different version of the creation than any other, giving it a gravity and depth rarely seen.  He's more pitiable than monstrous, and DeNiro was still at the height of his acting career.

Branagh's Frankenstein is the scientific genius who ends up regretting his enthusiasm.  He dominates the screen, making his anguish very real.

The film started out with some bad critical buzz, however.  Producer Francis Ford Coppola wanted Branagh to cut the first half hour. Branagh refused and Coppola denounced the film.  And when it came out, people who were not attuned to the bravura felt it was a bit silly.*** It was a box office flop; people who wanted a bloody monster movie were inevitably disappointment and the audience that might have liked it were turned off by both Coppola's comments and the fact that they thought it was a bloody monster movie.

Branagh's career stumbled a bit with this and the obscure In the Bleak Midwinter, but he scored an artistic triumph in his full-length version of Hamlet.  But the film didn't do well, and he's has been turning to acting rather than directing.

The movie is not for all tastes and if you insist on "realistic" portrayals, don't bother with it.  But if you like larger than life characters and emotions -- opera without music -- the film is an unusual take on the legend.


*Other than the fact he was ugly.

**Most of the time.  The scene of the creature's creation, where he and Frankenstein are slipping in the amniotic fluid that gave it birth, does seem like slapstick.

***It also inspired one of the stupidest critical comments ever, when one reviewer wondered derisively why the movie started out with a scene in the Arctic. This is precisely how the Shelley novel started out, and the move clearly indicated by its title that it was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.