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 dialoguing 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."

DVD Review: REAP THE WILD WIND (Paramount, 1942)

Mix together the historical ambience and romantic histrionics of Gone with the Wind, the maritime perils of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and the bizarre sight of Ray Milland performing "dog ventriloquism" and decking John Wayne with one punch in the same movie, and you wind up with the fizzing, fuming, infuriating, yet endearingly watchable bowl of "flip" that is Reap the Wild Wind. Cecil B. DeMille's second color film was a big hit upon its release in early 1942, at a moment when a nation recently rocked by Pearl Harbor and gearing up for total war was particularly amenable to a slice of pure escapism. The movie, despite garnering comparisons with GWTW at the time, hasn't sustained much of a reputation, and not simply because the giant squid that horns in on the final action sequence (and helped the movie win an Oscar for Special Effects) now looks so transparently phony. Several of the actors are either miscast or allowed to get away with two-dimensional portrayals of their roles, the dialogue veers from serviceable to (charitably) hokey, and there are numerous incidents of racial stereotyping that seem rather gratuitous, even for the era. If you stick with the film past its sketchy first half-hour or so, however, you'll find yourself becoming involved in the story almost despite yourself -- and the climactic events beneath the waves of the Caribbean are legitimately exciting, the sight of the pseudo-squid notwithstanding.

Set against a background of cutthroat salvage operations in the Florida Keys circa 1840, Reap the Wild Wind centers around a classic love triangle, with two-fisted sea captain Jack Stuart (Wayne) and well-coiffed, lapdog-canoodling Charleston maritime lawyer Stephen Tolliver (Milland) locking horns over feisty salvage-company president Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard as an odd sort of cross between Scarlett O'Hara and Rebecca Cunningham). Having fallen for Stuart following the latter's wreck at the hands of the unscrupulous salvage-pirate King Cutler (Raymond Massey), Loxi plays up to Tolliver during a jaunt to Charleston, hoping to help Stuart get a gig as captain of a steamship belonging to Tolliver's company. Loxi does her job too well, causing Tolliver to fall for her, and the obligatory "complications" ensue. (To make matters worse, or at least more complicated, Loxi's Cousin Drusilla [Susan Hayward] has fallen for King Cutler's brother Dan [Robert Preston], the slimy King's partner in crime.) Stuart, convinced that Tolliver is actually trying to keep him from getting his new command, agrees to cooperate with the King in staging another wreck, but the treacherous deed has deadly consequences, with the result being that Tolliver and Stuart must both dive to the wreck to recover evidence needed in a trial. Cue the squid, which breaks up the love triangle for good but also ties up all the other plot threads to boot (you see, sometimes it helps to have eight arms).

Admittedly, there are a lot of things in this movie that will make the viewer uneasy, not the least of which are that (1) we are asked to buy John Wayne as a bad guy -- or a sort-of-good guy gone bad -- and (2) we are asked to believe that Tolliver can stand toe to toe with Wayne and fight him to a draw. DeMille reportedly had to do some serious lobbying to convince Wayne, whose breakthrough moment in Stagecoach (1939) was still recent enough to allow for some fears of backsliding, to play the role of Milland's foil. Massey is a solid villain, but so clearly a villain that it's a wonder he wasn't taken into custody long ago, much less taken out and keelhauled in such a wide-open milieu as the antebellum Keys. The character parts range from funny and enjoyable (Lynne Overman as a colorful "Yankee cracker-barrel Skipper" type who is Loxi's right-hand man in the salvage biz) to squirm-inducing (Louise Beavers as the Claibornes' maid, a likable enough version of a "Mammy" who nonetheless is afraid of the dark, references voodoo, and is made a fool of by Stuart's pet monkey). As for the dialogue, Stuart's patter contains about 50 too many strained sea-related metaphors, Milland's pathetic attempts to wring humor out of manipulating a dog's jaws are usually painful (and not just for the dog), and the romantic-clinch exchanges are at best banal. Given the technical limitations of the time, however, the scenes at sea are good, even the ones that obviously feature models in tubs, and the crowd scenes (on the docks, in a proper Charleston drawing room, and in a courtroom) are, as always in DeMille movies, first-rate. Even the squid would have worked had it not been for the sight of the creature's eyes, which look and move like the eyes on one of those "goo-goo" dolls.

The DVD version of Reap is the cut-rate variety, with extras limited to still menus describing cast and crew, plus the original theatrical trailer (introduced and narrated, of course, by DeMille himself). Perhaps, at some point in the future, an upgraded edition can be issued with commentary by someone like Scott Eyman, additional details on the technical aspects of the production, etc. Reap isn't a great movie, but it is interesting enough to merit a slightly more elaborate video treatment.

Finally, for those of you who refuse to believe that Ray Milland could EVER be passed off as a "he-man"...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ripping Me a New/Old One

I had surgery Wednesday morning to repair my umbilical hernia, so I'm in a fair bit of pain at the moment. Not enough to require the use of heavy-duty pain medication, but enough to make getting up from a sitting or lying position something of a chore. The stitches are right over my belly button (or what is left of it), and if I'm not careful getting up, it can feel as though my abdomen is tearing open. Nicky is staying close to minister to my needs, but hopefully the worst of the pain will subside by this weekend. A follow-up visit is slated for the 22nd.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Swanson's sequel-of-sorts to the enjoyable MANHUNT intertwines two stories: Confederate President Jefferson Davis' flight from the doomed capital of Richmond and his eventual capture by Federal troops, and the organization and progress of the funeral ceremonies for Abraham Lincoln, climaxing with the legendary train journey that took Lincoln back to Springfield for burial. Of necessity, Davis gets the lion's share of the back of the book, as Swanson also tells the story of his imprisonment, release, and gradual semi-rehabilitation (at least in the South). In death, Davis even got a funeral journey to match Lincoln's own, though that trip is much less celebrated. The "Meanwhile..." problems inherent in switching back and forth between two narratives are a bit more acute here than in MANHUNT, in part because the stories really do have relatively little to connect them (apart from the North's brief "certainty" that the fleeing Davis must have been involved in Lincoln's assassination -- a theory that was quashed relatively quickly, though Davis lingered in stir for several years while the government tried to decide what to do with him). There is also a fair amount of repetition from MANHUNT early in the book regarding the circumstances of Lincoln's death. You don't have to read both books, but I found following up MANHUNT with BLOODY CRIMES to be a pretty seamless reading experience. Another excellent effort from Swanson.

"Reimagining" RICHIE RICH... Is "Imaging" Everything, or Nothing?

Thanks to Mark Arnold for alerting us to Ape Entertainment's announcement of plans to publish a comics title starring what the independent company terms a "reimagined" version of Richie Rich. Or perhaps Ape's mixing up its buzzwords a bit; one of the press releases that I saw online described the planned version of Richie as "a new incarnation imaged (sic) for modern audiences." Actually, Ape may be splitting semantic hairs over nothing. Despite the anime-flavored look of the redesigned characters -- a makeover not unlike those given to Casper, Wendy, and Hot Stuff in Ardden Entertainment's CASPER AND THE SPECTRALS title -- the much-trumpeted thematic changes to the character and his world do not represent a drastic departure from what has gone before. Provided that you are aware of what has gone before, of course.

Here's a portion of Ape's press release about the retrofitted Richie:

Part James Bond, Jr., and part Indiana Jones with Donald Trump's bank account, Richie Rich is an altruistic adventurer who travels the world helping the less fortunate. With his close-knit team of friends, including an updated iRona (sic) and a butt-kicking Cadbury, Richie is a hero for a new generation, acting as the voice for the underprivileged while putting his wallet and exceptional character to good use, spending some, but helping many.

Er... "spending some" of his character? Money? Wallet collection? Proofreaders to the front of the store! But I digress. Aside from the overtly "socially conscious" tone suggested here -- which could be effective if handled correctly, but, especially in the wake of the financial crisis and recession, could just be an excuse for crude capitalist-bashing of one sort or another -- the notion of Richie as a globe-trotting adventurer is certainly nothing new. Thanks to my long-running RICHVILLE RUMINATIONS column in THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES!, I suppose that I have written more about Richie for public consumption than just about anyone in existence. My first series of RUMINATIONS columns for THFT!, back in the early- to mid-90s, covered the many, many ways in which Richie led an adventurous existence in the Harvey Comics of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. The sight of the (bulked-up) Cadbury packing heat on the cover of Ape's first RICHIE release doesn't faze me; Richie himself was known to handle firearms to good effect on many different occasions. As for faceless minions ganging up on Richie's gang, we have seen that too, thanks to such "classic" adversaries as The Condor and Dr. N-R-Gee. Those baddies don't really qualify as "hip," "cool," or "cutting-edge," though, which is probably not going to be an issue here (despite the reported contributions of old Harvey hands Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon to an early Ape issue). The question is, will political correctness trump the simple desire to tell a good, rousing adventure tale?

The appearances of the characters aside, the cast also reflects treatments seen in past RICHIE stories. Cadbury was always a remarkable athlete and "Renaissance man" -- heck, Dos Equis' spokesman could have taken a few lessons from the Riches' butler -- so the acquisition of a lantern jaw and a few more layers of muscle (along with, strangely, a pair of Mickey Mouse-style gloves?) won't be too much of a stretch to imagine. I gather than iRona (I hope that that name doesn't get Ape in copyright trouble) is simply a sleeker version of the Riches' robot maid, with up-to-date computer technology added to augment her already superhuman strength (and, if the Hanna-Barbera cartoon version of RICHIE RICH is to be believed, Transformers-style body-modification abilities that predated the original TV version of Transformers itself). iRona bears a certain unsettling resemblance to the tit(t)ular star of a Phil Foglio XXXENOPHILE story, "I Swing the Body Electric," but I am confident that Ape won't go THAT far in the course of its "reimagining" activities. Richie's girlfriend Gloria's role isn't described above, but "tomboyish ass-kicker" is a pretty good guess as to her personality -- and, wouldn't you know, even that idea has some precedent (cf. the Gloria of the live-action Richie Rich movie from 1994 starring Macaulay Culkin). As for Dollar the dog, well, as long as Ape can stay an arm's length (or ten) away from the Frank Welker-voiced "comic relief" character of H-B days... To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a dog should just be a dog.

The previous observations should serve to convince you that Ape's new version of the RICHIE RICH "universe" is built on a sturdier foundation that you might guess. What is yet to be determined is the attitude that the creators, and particularly the writers, will take. A lot of comics fans have admitted to disliking the Harvey Comics version of Richie because of the (mistaken) perception that the flaunting and/or abuse of vast wealth was all that Richie brought to the table. In its zeal to attract a "new generation," will Ape go too far in the other direction and turn Richie into a smug, preachy character who pays obeisance to all the appropriate secular "gods"? (Dr. N-R-Gee and The Iceman in a global warming story, anyone?) I really do hope that Ape does this project right. Richie is too enjoyable a character to simply be left on the "diamond heap" of comics history.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Book Review: MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN'S KILLER by James L. Swanson (William Morrow, 2006)

With MANHUNT, Swanson -- whose follow-up production, BLOODY CRIMES, is also on my bedside table at the moment -- provides a romanticized account of the most notoriously "romantic" of American Presidential assassinations and its aftermath. Part of the intrigue surrounding John Wilkes Booth's dramatic killing of Abraham Lincoln stems from the fact that, barring some bad luck and misjudgments, Booth might very easily have gotten away with his crime. In tracing Booth's long, painful journey from the floorboards of Ford's Theatre to Garrett's Tobacco Barn, where the assassin was cornered and shot, Swanson demonstrates why he did not. Swanson does take sides regarding some of the latest historical research (e.g., he portrays Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who set Booth's broken leg, as being far more of a knowledgeable accomplice of Booth's than the old historical and pop-culture consensus would have it), but, in most particulars, he approaches the project as a simple story-teller, rather than as an academician with a point to prove. The manuscript could have done with one final proofread -- tenses are sometimes mixed up, and the same telegram is quoted twice in two separate places in the narrative -- and a few more detailed maps of Booth's escape route would have been appreciated. Still, this is an excellent and, at times, hair-raising read.

Comics Review: UNCLE $CROOGE #398 (December 2010, Boom! Kids)

Well, it took three issues, but the current "we're-pretending-it's-a-story-arc-to-justify-a-paperback-collection-but-it-really-ain't-so," "Messes Become Successes," finally lives down to its name (the first part of it, at least) with this issue's lead (and leaden) tale, "The Belt of Time." This Brazilian story was originally published in 1993 -- a bit late in the game to be entering this particular field of play -- and, despite the fact that only a what Scrooge would term a "wee handful" of DT epics were ever produced in Brazil, its sheer tiredness is more appropriate for the tail-end of the Egmont or Disney Studio DT output. Wearing Gyro Gearloose's time-traveling "century belt," Launchpad bips and bops out of several scenes as counterpoint to Scrooge and HD&L racing Flintheart Glomgold to the Andes to claim the rights to a "frozen super-ape" trapped in an ice cave. Anyone who has seen the Darkwing Duck episode "Extinct Possibility" and can guess the climactic twist is hereby excused. Actually, it's not the plot, blah as it is, that truly fails here (thanks to the ever-energetic contributions of David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray); rather, it's Haroldo Guimaraes' artwork, which would have been much better suited to one of the four-page "quickie" stories that ran in the old DUCKTALES activity magazine. Given the high quality of some of the recently-published, previously-unseen DT tales, I find it difficult to believe that "The Belt of Time" was the best of the leftover lot. This may be an indication that the upcoming 400th issue of $CROOGE, with its promised turn in a more "classical" direction, may be arriving none too soon.

Speaking of "classics," who's the talented fellow who provided the backup story for this issue? Carl Banks? No, he played football for the Giants. Karl Marx? Nope, the guest star is a capitalist who, while irritating at times, is not evil. Could it be... why, yes, indeed, it's The Old Duck Man himself, Carl Barks, bearing a "Christmas present" (so trumpeted by Boom! -- though they probably shouldn't have encouraged the simultaneous enjoyment of "a nice glass of eggnog," given the number of youngsters that may be reading this) in the form of the ten-pager "Christmas Cheers" (WDC&S #268, January 1963). Even a relatively minor Barks Christmas story is an occasion for rejoicing -- not to mention a nice foreshadowing of some of the "vintage treats" that Boom! has in store for us in 2011. This is one of those cleverly-woven Barks tales in which multiple individuals/entities want very different things -- Scrooge a gold mine, HD&L a "science set," Donald a dump truck (a real one, not a toy one -- don't be silly!), and the City of Duckburg a badly-overdue street-paving job -- and the plot-dominoes topple in such a way that everyone gets what they want, but not necessarily in the manner in which they want it. We also get what some (and I don't want to know who, thank you) might term "fan service" in the form of several panels' worth of the naked Nephews toweling off in a tub. Great fun, and a much-appreciated gift to the long-term fans.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I certainly didn't envy the managers of the Harry Potter movie franchise their task in bringing this movie to the screen. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS received decidedly mixed reviews when it was published, and one of the main objections to the massive tome was the inordinate amount of time spent in the early portion of the book on what fittingly became known as "The Camping Trip From Hell" -- viz. Harry, Ron, and Hermione's long sojourn in the English countryside as they (1) try to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes containing the pieces of Lord Voldemort's soul and (2) feast on a heaping plate of blood-raw teen angst, complete with jealous misunderstandings. The decision to split the movie version of DEATHLY HALLOWS into two parts (with the other slated to be released next Summer) thus guaranteed that Part One would be a long, hard, depressing slog, made all the more difficult to endure by the fact that the familiar supporting characters only make brief appearances. Director David Yates certainly gets the gloomy tone of the "Camping Trip" right, but not even Frank Capra at his corniest would have been able to inject much color into this mix. The concluding scene -- one of the few actual action scenes in the movie -- works well; there's a touching moment at the start in which a grieving Hermione wipes her parents' memories of her clean in order to protect them from Voldemort and the Death Eaters; and the brief dance sequence between Harry and Hermione (in the absence of the fuming, jealous Ron) is a warm reminder of the strong friendship that exists between them. Other than these, however, truly memorable highlights are conspicuous by their absence, and there's a definite sense 0f time-marking while we wait for the upcoming Battle of Hogwarts to commence.

While the movie-makers have to take the blame for the consequences of the decision to make Deathly Hallows: The Movie a "two-fer," the other major problem that becomes clear during the film is a direct result of what I consider to be J.K. Rowling's primary mistake while constructing the Potter series. I have always felt that Voldemort regained his full powers too quickly; the inevitable result was that, the longer he was allowed to hold a piece of the stage, the more he would come to resemble "super-villains" that we all know and loathe -- and, in some cases, are distressingly easy to parody. Deathly Hallows 1's opening "board meeting" with Voldemort and the main Death Eaters comes across like nothing so much as one of Blofeld's SPECTRE meetings in an early James Bond film, or, taking things to another level (or depth), a "conference table" scene with Dr. Evil. Even if Voldemort did not actually say, "This organization does not tolerate failure" or "Throw me a frickin' bone here!", I'm sure that some people were letting their minds wander along those lines. Voldemort's grotesque physical appearance also works against him the longer he is permitted to be visible; all sorts of jokes about "Ol' Turtle Face" immediately come to mind. J.R.R. Tolkien's decision to let the Dark Lord Sauron work entirely through intermediaries looks better all the time. My own preference would have been to have had Voldemort's "full recovery" coincide with Dumbledore's death in some way. Of course, that might have required DEATHLY HALLOWS to be even thicker, but we might have gained something back through the excision of some of the camping-trip padding in the seventh volume... which, among other things, would have given this well-intentioned but glum visual entry the added energy it so desperately needed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Comics Review: CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS #1 (December 2010, Boom! Studios)

All due apology to GeoX -- who, in his latest post, waxed properly eloquent about all the good things that Boom! Studios will be offering to "classic" Disney comics enthusiasts next year as part of the "Boom 2.0" roll-out -- but C&DRR #1 may be the single most important comic that Boom!'s Disney "arm" has published to date. "The Duck Knight Returns" got plenty of attention from the wider comics-reading world, as well it should have, but the folks who snapped that arc up probably included a lot of people who were already general comics collectors, in particular of superhero titles. The new C&DRR, by contrast, has the potential to draw a lot of people back into collecting Disney comics who may have dropped off the radar after Disney canceled the first version of the title in 1991. The cohort of remarkably loyal C&DRR fans who frequent The Acorn Cafe and other haunts have been waiting for a new wave of "officially sanctioned" C&DRR material for quite some time. If Boom! hits the mark with this title -- and, judging by the first issue, the omens look very favorable indeed -- then a whole new cohort of readers will climb on board the Boom! bandwagon at precisely the time when the line's overall "creative vector" is pointing due north. You've heard of "synergy," I suppose? This could be "it," whatever "it" is.

The splash panel that appears on pages 4 and 5 of Ian Brill and Leonel Castellani's "Worldwide Rescue, Part One" definitely indicates that Boom! "gets it" regarding what is expected from this title. As enjoyable as the Disney Comics work of Scott Saavedra, Tom and Mary Bierbaum, and the Jaime Diaz Studio was, it -- much like the DUCKTALES stories produced by William Van Horn and John Lustig -- was rather sui generis, veering somewhat far afield from the parameters established by the TV series. Such major villains as Fat Cat and Professor Nimnul didn't appear very often -- in the case of the overused "Mr. Fat," that actually was something of a relief -- while minor players like The Pi-Rats, Bubbles ("The Case of the Cola Cult"), and Dale's pipistrell paramour Foxglove ("Good Times, Bat Times") fared little better, not even getting much "muzzle time" in the C&DRR stories that ran in DISNEY ADVENTURES DIGEST. Now, however, after 20 years of fanfics and such, C&DRR fans have a very clear idea of the full potential of the show's extended cast, and they want to see these characters used in "authorized" stories. I count Castellani's splash, with its mass gallery of series regulars and much-loved one-shotters, as the comics equivalent of an olive branch thrown to the fans, and as a very politic way of reassuring them that none of their favorites will be forsaken. (So, too, is the sepia-toned opening flashback sequence in which a young Gadget saves her aviator father Geegaw -- a character who'd never made an "official" appearance anywhere, save in fanfics, prior to this -- from drowning by throwing together a doohickey.)

"Worldwide Rescue," with its scenario of "animals gone wild" all over the world -- perhaps due to misuse of an "Animal Rescue Signal" device constructed way back when by a group of critters that included Geegaw -- bids fair to include a rarity for "official" C&DRR stories, namely, a globe-girdling mission with a purpose. One complaint that I always had about the TV series was that, when the writers wanted to put the Rangers in another country -- or even such an exotic setting as Hawaii -- they simply tossed them in headfirst, with little to no backstory being provided. Scott Saavedra did a story line called "Rangers Coast to Coast" for Disney Comics, but even that consisted of a bunch of pretty much unrelated plots hooked together. The Rangers' quest to reassemble the "Super Key" that will enable them to enter the A.R.S. and find out who's misusing it (actually, we already have a clue as to who's behind the scheme, but maybe others are involved as well) gives this story a strong "throughline" that should sustain it well. It's already clear that some of the places and critters that the Rangers will be visiting will leave the door wide open for logical appearances by familiar faces. Part 1's final panel sees a dramatic appearance by several of said faces, and, given that the "animals gone wild" include a pack of Brazilian bats, I think I can guess who might be flying in to follow them. A "true" C&DRR story also includes some manner of character conflict, and Brill gives us one here. Monterey Jack's sudden (and temporary) abandonment of the gang -- and Chip's sharp reaction to it -- shows that Brill has definitely been paying attention to the fact that good characterization is one of the reasons why the Rangers are so popular. Castellani's artwork is, quite simply, magnificent -- the best C&DRR comic art I've ever seen, by far -- so we should have no worries on that score.

The only shadow I can cast on this otherwise "scathingly brilliant" first ish is that some CD&RR fans whom I've seen comment on the release have said that they might be willing to wait to buy it (gasp!) until the collected paperback is issued. Now, I can't imagine why any fan who's been awaiting new C&DRR material for years would be willing to wait even that long while the new stuff is sitting on the shelves, but the poor economy may be playing a role in the decision. In any event, this situation does illustrate that releasing so much recently published material in collected form may sometimes rebound to the line's overall disadvantage, especially when there is a built-in audience for such material.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #713 (November 2010, Boom! Kids)

Oh, no! Not the Goofy Family Album... story! And from the hitherto adventure-minded Casty, no less. It's a little early in the game to say for sure, but "Mickey Mouse and the Menace from the Future," the first part of which appears here, bids fair to be the most overtly humorous Casty story to date. I mean, how seriously can you take a scenario in which what appears to be an Astro-Boy-booted secret agent (from the future?... maybe) is hypnotizing Goofy's relatives, all of whom are in town to help their cousin make an eggplant-flavored soda to enter in the Mouseton "Invent the World's Wildest Soda Pop" contest? All the Goof men have different versions of the famed Goofy laugh, even the Cockney fellow from England named Dogueberry. From the manner in which Agent Uma's bosses advise her about her mission -- they describe Goofy, head of "The Bubblebrains" (sounds like a foe of Underdog to me), as a "destroyer of worlds" (an' maybe houses an' movie sets, hyuck!) -- it would seem as if "Purple Rain Punch" might be a super-fuel or super-explosive of some sort. In that case, Pete's presence in the plot (as a fellow contestant and would-be prize-stealer) suggests that he might move in on the substance at some point. This story seems so weird, however, that any speculation seems as foolhardy as entrusting Goofy with the "nuclear football." Scripter David Gerstein certainly gets into the free spirit of the thing, throwing in references to Buffalo Springfield, Mary Poppins, the United Negro College Fund... he may even have added some ingredients to the eggplant soda, for all I know. I can't wait to see how this one shakes out.

The main feature is backed up by the five-page early-90s Brazilian story "A Goofy Look at Romance," drawn in a pleasantly sketchy style by Aluir Amancio, whose credits include storyboard work on a number of the classic Warner Bros. animated series of the 1990s. It's more elaborate than #709's "A Goofy Look at UFOs" but in much the same GOOFY ADVENTURES-inspired spirit -- perhaps even more so, since it includes a "mini-costume role" for The Goof as Casanova (the mind reels... that is, until you note that the only women attracted to him are of the Goof-lookalike persuasion). Nice job by Saida Temafonte on the dialogue, too.

Comics Review: MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #302 (November 2010, Boom! Studios)

Sergio Badino and Giorgio Cavazzano's "Legend of the Robo-Presidents" turns out to have been a more substantial epic than I'd thought. I was expecting another "half-and-half" deal here, with one story closing and another opening; instead, "Robo-Presidents" takes up all the space. In said space, we learn that The Phantom Blot has retrofitted the giant robot Presidents that inventor Borzon Gutglum had been commissioned to build to complement the newly-sculpted Mount Rushmore attraction (make sure to read that again, slowly) with the help of software designed by Gutglum's slightly wayward grandson. For all of The Blot's pleonastic, pompous pedantry (at least translator Saida Temafonte is consistent on this score; s/he used the same characterization for vastly different versions of The Blot in the ULTRAHEROES and WIZARDS OF MICKEY tales), the villain's plot is what he himself might call a "dreadfully banal" strike at the gold in Fort Knox. This comes, it should be noted, on the heels of The Blot's channeling of Hugo Drax in Casty's "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare." Honestly, if The Blot's new image as an intellectual is to be taken entirely seriously, then he really should be above ripping off schemes by James Bond villains, much less relying on the help of goons with names like "Billy Bob." The Blot, in the tradition of Pinky and the Brain, seems not to realize that the flying Robo-Presidents couldn't possibly get off the ground if they were truly "stuffed" with gold, but at least he has writer Badino to blame for that little oversight. Morty and Ferdie get a rare chance to fill the HD&L hero role, and, as you might guess, the "Nintenduck" obsession that they displayed in #301 winds up being a key to the good guys finally winning. An absurd story, to be sure, but oddly engaging, with Cavazzano's energetic art, as always, a point in its favor.

In the wake of The Blot's appearing without his black hood and cloak throughout the WIZARDS OF MICKEY sequence and in civvies in part two of "Mickey Mouse and the Orbiting Nightmare," his partially-unmasked status here is notable. Once he captures Mickey, Minnie, Morty, and Ferdie, he pulls off his hood and spends the rest of the story with his head showing above the cloak. I suppose that this is an "Italian thing," and, after mulling over the events of both this story and "Orbiting Nightmare," it's a "thing" that I actually do understand. The Blot can't pretend that absolutely no one knows what he looks like anymore (otherwise, why use a disguise to infiltrate Space Hotel Olympus in the first place?) and, while he can still rely on the "full effect" of his costume to produce some "fright value," there is no real reason why his face can't be regularly shown. This, of course, provides the writers with a challenge, to make The Blot's schemes really imaginative so as to compensate for the "loss of mystery." If The Blot's next caper involves "toppling" Mousetonian rockets or swallowing up Duckburgian space capsules, then he has every right to lodge a protest.

Monday, November 29, 2010

RIP Mary Margaret Lee

My Aunt Mary Margaret died earlier today after a long struggle with pneumonia. She was 65, which was remarkable in itself, given that she was born with Down's syndrome. My grandparents refused to institutionalize her, instead giving her as full a life as they could, including allowing her to work at a facility for mentally handicapped people. After my grandparents died, Mary lived with my Uncle Tom and Aunt Eileen in New Hampshire, but finally had to be put in a home after Alzheimer's took hold.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS by Michael Medved (Times Books, 1979)

Long before his talk show, RIGHT TURNS, Sneak Previews, or the hatching of the first Golden Turkey Award, Michael Medved was a successful author of/contributor to such non-fiction works as WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF '65 and THE PEOPLE'S ALMANAC. THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS is, in many senses, his most ambitious work prior to his recent spate of BIG LIES... books, and one that I wish he would consider updating at some point in the future. Spinning out of Medved's experiences working on the political campaigns of such notables as Robert F. Kennedy, THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS tells the story of the top aides of Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter: how they came to be so indispensable to their bosses, the kinds of influences that they wielded, and their lives after their days in the White House. Released just a few years after Watergate, the tome undoubtedly tapped into a new level of public fascination with the "powers behind the Presidential throne," but Medved is less interested in "juicy details" than he is in the nuts-and-bolts stories of how the aides did (or, in some cases, failed to do) their work. The result is a fascinating book, with a great deal of information being provided in a little space, though I'm sure that many of the findings have been superseded by the revelation of new information.

In compiling his book, Medved was fortunate enough to be able to personally interview such figures as Sherman Adams, Clark Clifford, Bill Moyers, Ted Sorensen, Dick Cheney... and the just-recently-unjailed H.R. Haldeman, who, if not exactly rehabilitated here, is at least treated in a fair manner. Medved's developing conservatism is on display in his rather rough handling of Colonel Edward M. House (Woodrow Wilson's foreign-policy guru) and Harry Hopkins (the man who "came to dinner" with FDR and stayed for several years) and his "storm warnings" regarding the problems that President Carter was then having with his White House staff. The most interesting parts of the book are Medved's treatments of the much-less-well-known 19th- and early-20th-century aides, starting with Lincoln's secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. The quality of these ronin run the gamut and then some, from utter venality (Ulysses S. Grant's showy pal Orville Babcock) to remarkable competence (George B. Cortelyou, who served McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt so efficiently that he earned a Cabinet post and was even considered to be a potential Presidential candidate at one time). Dated it may be, but this survey still repays reading today... except for those Cheney-loathers who may be aware of the fact that Medved was one of the first people to predict that Cheney (who straightened up Gerald Ford's slack White House operation) was destined to ascend to high office before long.