Friday, December 31, 2010

DVD AND Movie Reviews: TRUE GRIT (Paramount, 1969) / TRUE GRIT (Paramount/Skydance, 2010)

N&V closes out 2010 with a bang by coupling a review of The Coen Brothers' impressive remake (or, taking a cue from Ape Entertainment, perhaps I should say "reimagination") of the beloved 1969 classic with some notes on the original, the DVD of which Nicky and I watched immediately after letting the Coens have their head. The obvious temptation is to take sides on which film is better, but I don't really feel comfortable doing so without having read Charles Portis' original novel. It suffices to say that both cinematic interpretations work extremely well in the context of the expectations of their times, and that I have no doubt that the Coens' film, like the original, will "wear" as well as a comfortable pair of chaps over the next several decades.

The 1969 True Grit, directed by the notoriously exacting Henry Hathaway, made a wagon load of money and, as is well known, earned John Wayne that long-awaited Best Actor Oscar for his memorable portrayal of the raffish, one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Seeing it again on the heels of viewing the Coens' movie, I was struck by how unnaturally neat and clean it looks -- fer gosh sakes, outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) has a fresh white sheet handy to bind up the wounds of the hapless Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) after the latter is winged by the teenaged Mattie Ross (Kim Darby)! -- and how thoroughly Wayne dominates the action, even though revenge-seeking Mattie is technically the main protagonist. The cast is made up of neophytes (Glen Campbell as the popinjay Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Darby in her first major big-screen role) and a raft of indelibly distinctive character actors (Strother Martin, John Fiedler, James Westerfield, Dennis Hopper), and all but a few scraps of action take place in the blazing light of the Colorado mountain-country day, suggesting that Wayne's salary took up a generous chunk of the overall budget. No matter, Wayne's avuncular interpretation of Rooster is a delight, and, for a G-rated movie, the film's scary moments still pack a punch, especially the scene in which Mattie shoots Chaney and then topples into the snake-haunted cave. (The trailer above lists the movie as having an "M" rating, but Paramount was able to get it changed. It's actually somewhat surprising decision in light of the film's use of words like "bastard" and "bitch." Today, I imagine the film would be re-rated "R" simply because of all the smoking that goes on.) Scriptwriter Marguerite Roberts tees up the plot by actually showing us how Mattie's father came to grief at the hands of Chaney, and, while this has the undoubted effect of stripping some of the "evilness" away from Chaney (since he is clearly drunk when he shoots Mr. Ross), the more straightforward narrative approach has the advantage of getting the audience to fully commit to Mattie's "mission" from the start. It also gives the '69 Grit more of the feel of a high-class contemporary TV Western of the time, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Elmer Bernstein's brass-heavy musical score often sounds "TV-ish," as well, but sometimes lightens the mood at inopportune moments; for example, Mattie's trek through Fort Smith to scare up help for her revenge-quest is "tracked" at one point by a chorus of whooping trombones that momentarily had me wondering when the clowns and bareback riders were going to appear. The "happy ending" and memorable Wayne "ride-off" sequence were created for the movie, but no one seemed to mind the changes at the time. Excellent craftsmanship, touches of humor and humanity, and a charismatic performance by the star -- what's not to like? Well, maybe Glen Campbell's mostly woodenish performance as LaBoeuf, but even he isn't completely hopeless -- and he does provide a good title song, which made the Summer of '69 pop charts.

I went to the new edition of Grit never having seen any of the Coen Brothers' previous films, which I remember being festooned with words like "dark," "grotesque," and "weird" in the past. I had been encouraged by what I had heard of the Coens' adaptation -- which reportedly had stuck very close to the novel and consciously avoided any attempts to ape the '69 version -- but I couldn't help but feel that, at some point, I was going to witness the postmodern equivalent of someone peeing on "The Duke"'s grave. I shouldn't have been concerned. The palette is considerably drabber -- all brown, tan, and sepia tones -- and the moments of violence are (as I fully expected) more brutal and more realistic, but the Coens play things reasonably straight, allowing Portis' lyrical narrative to do most of the heavy lifting. The cast, rather than resembling the pyramid of the '69 Grit (with Wayne sitting serene and unquestioned at the top), instead resembles an inverted pyramid: the leads are uniformly excellent, while the supporting players are generally forgettable. You'll need to bring Mumbles along to interpret some of Jeff Bridges' dialogue as Cogburn, but Matt Damon is amazingly good as LaBoeuf, while someone named Hailee Steinfeld acts rings around the occasionally whiny Kim Darby as Mattie. Steinfeld takes Mattie's calm, calculating personality closer to what I would call "spawn of Beelzebub" territory -- think of those horror movies with deathly deadpan evil children -- but a child forced to "grow up before her time" in the still-wild West of the late 1800s would probably have needed this kind of an emotional carapace around her in order to cope with the dirt, death, and disappointment she would encounter on a regular basis. The trio's relationship is spikier in the Coens' version, but not so much so that you actually want to see the gang break up before the job is done, while the ending, which is lifted straight from the novel, is anything but warm and fuzzy, yet nonetheless satisfying.

I have considerable affection for the 1969 Grit, but the Coens have proven that a redo doesn't have to smash all the existing crockery and put a perverse spin on what came before in order to seem fresh and interesting. And with that happy thought, I wish all my readers a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

DVD Review: THE BAND WAGON (MGM, 1953)

Nicky loves Fred Astaire and strongly urged me to watch this, one of her favorite Astaire flicks. This Arthur Freed musical, aside from featuring a number of sprightly tunes (including one stone-cold classic), is an interesting comment of sorts on a peculiar phenomenon that accompanied Dwight Eisenhower's ascendancy to the White House -- namely, the installation of the overly intellectual "egghead" as a figure of fun. Venerable Hollywood singer/dancer Tony Hunter (Astaire), feeling a bit behind the times, agrees to star in a comeback show penned by two Broadway friends (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant), only to have artistically pretentious director Jeffrey Cordova (the British stage actor Jack Buchanan in his most memorable film role) masticate the simple tale and regurgitate it in the form of a modern-day version of Faust. The full-of-itself production bombs, Cordova mends his ways, and soon, we're back to a far more light-hearted show that culminates with a memorable musical tribute to the popular "tough guy" novels of Mickey Spillane. Oh, and Astaire winds up falling in love with his graceful ballerina co-star (Cyd Charisse). Add the introduction of the iconic Hollywood "theme song" "That's Entertainment" as part of the festivities, and you've got a thoroughly enjoyable piece of craftsmanship. Granted, the thing has about as much intellectual "nutritive value" as a Mallomar, but it's refreshing to watch a film that exists for no other reason than to make people smile as they're leaving the theatre.

Speaking of smiling, Nicky can personally vouch for the fact that I guffawed out loud while watching the "Triplets" number.  Now, I know that a lot of modern-day stars have taken on rather strange roles, but just try to imagine an A-lister's reaction to being asked to recreate this business. In animation, maybe, but in live-action?!

The DVD we watched also included a bunch of trailers from other Astaire efforts, ranging from The Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) to Finian's Rainbow (1968). Viewing these clips in succession provides sort of a mini-history of the development of Hollywood musicals, from the "let's put on a show and to heck with the plot" era to the "let's try to recapture that old Sound of Music magic" compulsion that nearly drowned several studios in oceans of red ink. Astaire's class, however, remains a welcome constant.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #303 (December 2010, Boom! Kids)

Mickey's snazzy new wheels -- provided by the Mouseton Police Department, which, judging by the number of high-tech accouterments packed into the vehicle, must be doing double duty as an affiliate of Double Duck's "Agency" -- take The Mouse and his lady into something resembling an adventure in "Mickey Mouse and the Tools of the Trade." For what is basically a six- to eight-page plot from a Dell/Gold Key issue of MICKEY MOUSE stretched out, like the proverbial piece of discarded gum attached to one's shoe, to over 20 pages, this 2002 Italian story is surprisingly enjoyable. The antagonists (a pair of supermarket thieves who intend to use the proceeds of their petty theft to "escape to South America"? Uh huh...) are easily dismissed, allowing us to focus on the wonder-car's many attributes. Minnie kvetches in somewhat annoying fashion before getting caught up in the chase, and the two mice don't even get (or deserve) the lion's share of the credit for sacking the bad guys, but this story rises above the humdrum for two reasons: Saida Temafonte's good scripting (Temafonte has improved a great deal since those early installments of WIZARDS OF MICKEY, HERO SQUAD, and Double Duck) and Giorgio Di Vita's artwork, which preserves the liveliness of the best Italian artists without stepping "over the line" into rampant sloppiness. Not a deathless work by any means, but a nice time-passer while we gin ourselves up for 2011 and the return of "classic" Mouse material.

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #714 (December 2010, Boom! Kids)

We're sittin' on 714, with the 70th anniversary issue of WDC&S due next month. If we are fated not to have any new Casty material for a while, then at least the much-praised creator improved on the disappointing "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare" with the enjoyable, albeit somewhat frothy, "Mickey Mouse and the Menace from the Future." It turns out that I correctly called the true nature of Goofy and the Bubblebrains' "Purple Rain Punch," but Pete's role in the affair was not expected, nor did I foresee Special Agent Uma's complete lack of a direct connection to Mickey. Given Uma's physical looks and scrappiness, I was certain that she would be some sort of descendant of The Mouse. Then again, with our heroes having straightened out the Mouseton of 2049, we don't even know whether a Special Agent Uma will need to exist in the altered future, so perhaps she should count her blessings that she had a hand in creating a future where her presence would be required. (But why would she not be used to "positive reinforcement"? Wouldn't her superiors sending her on a mission that could alter the future of Mouseton signify a certain amount of basic trust in her abilities?)

Casty would have been well advised to have worked on this tale's backstory just a bit more. Why would the Mouseton conquered by "The Grim Gagagoofy" have experienced such a universal "great leap forward" in technology, even unto possessing the secret of time travel? I would think that "The Grim One" would have wanted to limit the development of bubble cities, "omnidisks," etc. so as to maintain the upper hand over the populace. It's not even clear how "The Grim One" managed to assemble the tech to create a robot army in the first place. I suspect that the tech may have been stolen from some other source (Gyro Gearloose? I certainly hope not, for his sake). David Gerstein does another fine job with the dialogue; there are fewer pop-culture gags but a couple of "wink-wink" references (such as the characters entering "The Ladder District") that help us to remember that the story is not meant to be taken all that seriously.

The three-page filler story "Pluto at the Beach" (WDC&S #177, June 1955) is an odd choice in view of the fact that it is completely "out of season" for a comic with a December cover date. In fact, apart from the inclusion of "Christmas Cheers" as a backup story in UNCLE $CROOGE #398, Boom!'s Disney books let the holiday season pass without comment. Between this and the lack of holiday movies this year, do we have reason to be worried? Hopefully, Boom! will top off its "classics"-heavy slate of 2011 releases the right way and bring back some sort of special Christmas release a year from now.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from Chris, Nicky, Harry, and Shasta!

Just in Time for Christmas... A Few Welcome Presents from Boom!

We now have some additional information on the "Classics" collections heading our way from Boom! early in 2011. The WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES ARCHIVES series is particularly intriguing -- will Boom! go "whole hog" and reprint the ENTIRE issue, ephemeral non-comics-related features and all, or will it simply reproduce the plethora of newspaper strip reprints that dominated those early issues? Personally, I'd prefer a literal replication.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Comics Review: DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS #361 (December 2010, Boom! Kids)

If only the sole feature of DD&F #361 were as lively as Sabrina Alberghetti's clever cover! Not even the heroic efforts of David Gerstein can mask the undeniable fact that Francois Corteggiani and Comicup Studio's 1994 effort "Donald Duck Tsunami" is one lame excuse for a story. "Retconned" as representing the continuing adventures of the feudal ronin Tekka-Don introduced in DD&F #359-360's "Son of the Rising Sun," "Tsunami" mixes byplay between T-D and (in order) work-wearied villagers, the massive (and terminally stupid) "advance scout" of a horde of ruthless bandits, and the "full complement" of said bandits with the completely gratuitous on-pouring of a pair of tidal waves. I don't know which is harder to believe: the notion that a bandit-band worth its stolen salt would employ a "scout" who is so absurdly easy to recognize and to fool, or the idea that a tsunami happens to arrive just when the bungling T-D needs it to subdue his foes. T-D makes a comment that tries to pass off the improbable inundations as unexpected "high tides," but I think Gerstein may have meant it as a joke, if not a wry comment on how silly the original plot was. (Comicup inadvertently does the same thing when it shows one of the villagers fleeing the first tsunami with an inexplicable grin on his face.) Gerstein tries manfully to make this thing worth reading, and he succeeds to the extent that "Tsunami" actually ends up being fairly readable... but it's little more than that. This whole "Kung Fu Donald" sequence -- the back-up story "The Titan of Tae-Kwon-Duck" in #360 excepted -- is making the Double Duck stories look better and better all the time.

Comics Review: DARKWING DUCK #7 (December 2010, Boom! Studios)

Part three of "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings", not unlike part two, rolls along in relatively straightforward fashion... but a surprise revelation at the end justifies some



As promised in #6, Gosmoduck (assisted by Honker) and the reformed "Crimebots" do indeed join Darkwing, Morgana, and, in a manner of speaking, Launchpad (who gets one grand two-page splash panel's worth of combat against some of the "infinite Darkwings" and virtually no other exposure) in their fight against Negaduck and Magica. Good guys and bad guys finally square off in the villains' subterranean lair, and the expected magical fireworks and exaggerated punch-ups ensue. I'm not normally a fan of overheated superhero battles, but here is a case where a few additional pages might actually have improved matters. Magica "neutralizes" Morgana with surprising ease -- in view of how many times Morgue has been battered, brainwashed, and the like in this story, can we infer that writer Ian Brill has something against DW's girlfriend? -- and thus, a magical showdown that Darkwing Duck and DuckTales fans had literally anticipated for years doesn't deliver on its promise. Likewise, the ruse that DW uses to counteract Negs' assault a la chainsaw, mace, etc. is almost childishly simple. Gosmoduck makes up for some of the letdown when she receives a near-deadly blow from a "Wolfman DW," but, after 20 years of waiting, I could have hoped for a little more of an epic "feel" to this battle. (DW's entrance line, "I am the TV crossover that doesn't live up to the hype!", turned out to be truer than Brill probably intended.) All current antagonisms will probably have to be shoved to the rear in part four, when everyone will be forced to deal with the "sinister force" behind St. Canard's misbehaving water... which turns out to be Paddywhack, the frankly unsettling force (the word "villain" seems a bit inappropriate for such a creepy being) who made such a memorable impression in the TV episode "The Haunting of Mr. Banana Brain".  Paddy was reportedly supposed to get a second TV appearance in the fourth DW season that never came to pass, so I'm happy to see Brill bring him back, but tossing Paddy into a narrative that already seems so overstuffed may not be the most effective use of the character. Paddy is a strong enough adversary to merit a story in which he is the principal antagonist from start to finish. 

In the course of his fight with DW, Negs reveals his ulterior motive in dumping the "infinite DWs" into St. Canard. After the unwelcome visitors "exterminate" the "Regularverse" DW -- and I'm hard-pressed to see why simply causing mass chaos in the streets and skies of St. Canard would help to accomplish that task, but whatever; perhaps Negs is simply letting them run riot on general principle before directing them to their main task -- Negs will turn around and destroy them, thus eliminating all DW simulacra apart from himself. This is definitely a believably grandiose (and ego-driven) scheme for Negs, next to which he must regard Magica's desire for the Old #1 Dime as the equivalent of Oliver Twist's request for an extra helping of gruel. It's hard to see how Paddywhack relates to Negs' game plan, though.

As things stand right now, unless Brill really outdoes himself in part four, "Crisis on Infinite Darkwings" is not quite measuring up to "The Duck Knight Returns." The plot is a little easier to follow, but the appearance of the "kitchen-sink DW" in DARKWING #6 reflects Brill's "throw-in-everything-you-possibly-can" approach to this storyline, and some of the parts are fitting together better than others. I can't quibble too much, though; this continues to be a first-rate read.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Belated RIP Billie Mae "Rudolph" Richards

I've had more than the usual amount of time to Web-surf this week while recovering from surgery. Thus it was that I learned, only a couple of days ago, of the death of Billie Mae Richards, the Canadian actress who voiced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on three extremely memorable occasions, this past September 10. She was 88 and had suffered several strokes. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) remains my favorite of all the perennial Christmas specials -- yes, even over A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) -- and Richards' winning, boyish portrayal of Rudolph, so similar in so many ways to Billie Lou Watt's portrayals of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, is a VERY big reason why. Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) was a popular (and still, to my mind, highly underappreciated) sort-of-sequel, with Richards in fine form after a decade away from the character, and even the maddeningly slow-tempo'ed feature film Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979) had its good points (plus a solo song by Richards, "No Bed of Roses," which, quite honestly, wasn't one of them). Younger (in a comparative sense) folks probably best "know" Richards as the voice of Tender Heart Bear, one of the Care Bears.

In tribute to Richards, here's "No Bed of Roses."