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Documentaries explore lives of entertainers

Nov. 5, 2012 |

By G. Michael Dobbs news@thereminder.com Two documentaries on popular culture are featured in this DVD review.
Her Master's Voice
I hadn't heard of British ventriloquist Nina Conti prior to this DVD landing on my desk, but I was immediately intrigued as I'm a life-long fan of the odd show business art form. I was one of those kids who watched Paul Winchell religiously and stood in front of a mirror with my own Jerry Mahoney puppet trying to talk without moving my lips. Conti is an amazing performer and this film is about her coming to grips with her career as a ventriloquist and dealing with the death of her former lover and mentor Ken Campbell, a leading figure in experimental theater in Great Britain. Campbell was the person who insisted that Conti try ventriloquism and left her several dummies of his own. Conti decides that in order to make her decisions she must go to an annual ventriloquist convention in Kentucky and possibly donate at least one of Campbell's dummies to a museum there. Much of the film shows Conti perfectly comfortable talking to herself through her dummy, a chimpanzee puppet named Monkey. As she tries Campbell's puppets, she immediately seems at ease with one of an elderly woman, but repulsed by another whose voice is cruel. Explaining this process of an entertainer pretending to be two "people" is at the heart of the film and Conti, through self-examination and interviews with other ventriloquists, grapples pretty successfully with that issue. I think the most revealing moment is that she began using her Monkey puppet nine months after she had an abortion. At only an hour long, Conti's film has a fast pace, although there are some odd moments, especially when she takes the old lady dummy into the hotel's pool with her. I enjoyed this film a great deal and Conti's complete performance at the convention shows she is an amazing ventriloquist and comic. Take a look for this film online.
With Great Power ... The Stan Lee Story
I think the best way for me to sum up this loving, self-indulgent documentary about the life of the man who changed American comic books in the 1960s is to note the children of his principal creative partner, the late Jack Kirby, aren't interviewed but Paris Hilton offers that Stan Lee is "hot." Thanks to the recent spate of successful Marvel superhero movies such as "The Avengers," the two "Hulk" movies, the two "Fantastic Four" films, the two — soon to be three — "Ironman" movies and "Thor" (sorry, but Lee did not have a hand in the creation of "Captain America"), Lee's awareness in pop culture has increased. Stan Lee was the editor and head writer at Marvel Comics during the company's rise to prominence beginning in 1961 with the publication of "The Fantastic Four." The difference between the "Superman" and "Batman" comics published by DC and those by Lee is that his scripts paid almost the same amount of attention to the private lives of the superheroes as their adventures. His heroes had trouble paying the rent, meeting the right girls and getting along with one another. In other words, Lee humanized his four-color heroes like no other writer had done to that point. This is a great accomplishment and one that has earned Lee much deserved attention, but the success of those comics and the characters also was due to artists such as Kirby and Steve Ditko, Spiderman's first artist and co-creator. Although Lee does give both men praise and thanks in this film, a depiction of the creative process and Lee's diminishing role in it doesn't play much of part. This film isn't a history — it's a memoir. Key parts of Lee's story are glossed over and his chronology is muddled. The result is a film that the causal observer might enjoy, but the comic fan familiar with the story of Lee and Marvel comics will find frustrating. The winners and the last people standing write history. At age 90, Lee fits both of those requirements.

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