Monday, August 27, 2012

5 Ways to Write A Martian Manhunter Movie

With The Avengers a rip-roaring success for Disney, fans on the Internet are busy wondering when Warner Brothers will launch a Justice League of America film. They tried before, with George Miller as the director and a script that tied-in to then-current storylines like The OMAC Project and Checkmate, but he had cast too many relative unknowns as the heroes and the script had been rushed into production too quickly.

There's a lot of talk about how c  following the formula Disney-Marvel made to get to an Avengers film would not be possible - Christian Bale is done playing Batman, Green Lantern tanked, Zack Snyder's The Man of Steel  is still a question mark and nobody knows what to do with Wonder Woman or The Flash. So everyone is looking toward the rest : Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, Plastic Man...etc. I want to play, too, starting with the other green guy - not the Hulk, not the Green Hornet, not the Spectre, not Green Arrow, not Green Lantern (he needs a break)...J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter .

I already mentioned in a previous post that I imagined Taylor Lautner as the Martian Manhunter and I haven't been turned off yet by that decision (the character is shirtless and pantless most of the time, so we need a popular young actor with pecs that can carry over 120 minutes). He played Sharkboy, for crying out loud! As for the voice, that's moot. Lawrence Fishburne was the voice of the Silver Surfer, so why not try casting him again as the voice of J'onn? There we go. Actor? Check. Voice? Check.

Also, the powers. MM has a wide range - he's Superman with extra powers, or the Fantastic Four-in-1. He can shapeshift/stretch, become invisible/intangible, has super "breath" (he can blow out any candles on any birthday cake), flight, super-strength,super-speed, "Flame vision" (fire shoots out of his eyes) and is telepathic. He is also a compulsive snacker: he loves Oreo cookies, or any other sandwich cookies (obviously, I would love to see a package of Oreos with J'onn J'onzz on the wrapper. That would be just right). He also may or may not still have a fear of fire...and may or may not still be the last of his kind...I'd rather avoid all that continuity baggage and focus on J'onn as an interesting complete character.

The villains - the White Martians, Scorch (a winged devil-gargoyleish chick with firestarting powers), Bette Noir (an albino vampire, kind of like Batman foe Nocturna, but BN is a vampire, whereas Nocturna was just a glamed-up goth who played like a vampire)...I'd throw the Ultra-Humanite in there because he'd offer a  great visual - an albino ape with a Broccoli-shaped head and the voice of Jeremy Irons. Works for me.
Directors are tricky. I wouldn't mind Brad Bird or Terry Gilliam taking a crack at it - they would find a way out of the rut that a lot of these superhero movies are in - MM  would/should have a different approach to it...

5 short as possible.

Film Noir - yes, yes, in this genre, there are no winners, but who cares? In the comics, he supposedly rivals Batman as a great detective, so I would revisit The Maltese Falcon, only instead of a statue of a bird, how about kryptonite? An absorbascon? A talisman of the Bat-God Barbattos? Mercury's slippers? A golden lasso? set-up, set-up, set-up, set-up...

High Noon - how about planting the seeds for the rise of the Justice League with the disbanding of the Justice League International? J'onn has to suddenly put down the cookies and save Earth on his own, showcasing the full range of his powers. I would pit him against Manga Khan, who always seems one step away from the Fourth World  villains of Apokilips... set-up, set-up, set-up...

"It's Like Die Hard But With A Martian Superhero!" - I couldn't resist that old chestnut, but think about it - J'onn rivals Batman in efficiency as well as deductive reasoning. This could be fun. Supervillains only, please. Bank robbers and generic Bond villains need not apply.

Remington Steele - The romantic comedy. He's fronting a struggling detective agency run by an attractive and intelligent, but neurotic P.I. and they go search for that macguffin I'd set up in the film noir pitch. How about Pierce Brosnan dubbing the voice?

Supermax - a few years ago, there was a pitch for a high-concept Green Arrow feature inspired by the TV series Prison Break, in which Green Arrow wound up in a prison filled with DC Comics Supervillains. Sharp-eyed fans might recognize the story played out in Marvel Comics' Thunderbolts with Hawkeye, not GA. Anyway, forget Green Arrow - why not let it happen to J'onn J'onzz? The concept would still work, only it would rise more to the occasion because you had a superhero who could put up a real fight.

Anyway, that's enough from me. It's time Hollywood put the spaghetti in the machine and started rolling. I know a place that sells green paint real cheap.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Silver Dollars - Ducktales at 25 Part 3

In our last episode, I talked about free stickers and erased video tapes. And now, back to our story...

Season 2 (1989): Now Ducktales was going to be on a different TV station in New York - PIX11, and it would be part of an hour-long block with a new show, Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers. I've got to admit that by this time, I had seen all the episodes from the first season at least three times and was watching other stuff. There was a clone of Double Dare called Fun House, which I found more entertaining because it had more of a pace to it (Double Dare tended to be show host Mark Summers motormouths play-by-play on updated versions of rounds of ring toss, frankly), but it was knocked out of PIX11's Fall schedule to make way for the new "DisneyHour". Who was going to complain? New Ducktales episodes? Not me!

But come September, I was willing to skip the Monday afternoon premiere in favor of watching an episode of The Super Mario Brothers Super Show, which had premiered a week earlier. Big Mistake. The episode of SMBSH that aired that day was a clunker, so I switched over to see what was happening on Ducktales. The were showing the "Tralla La" episode. I couldn't believe what I had missed out on! It's even more of a big deal now, because the episode has been censored - a key scene where Fenton creates a rescue flare by lighting up a bottle of Scrooge's nerve tonic was deleted from future broadcasts. If the episode is ever released on DVD, I wonder if they'll show it complete and uncut...
Anyway, the heck with Mario, I went right back to watching Ducktales. Among the notable episodes from that season:

Tralla La: Scrooge has a breakdown from too much business. The antidote is a stay at an exotic faraway land where money and greed do not exist - until he gets there and Fenton makes the discarded bottle caps from Scrooge's nerve tonic the new currency. It wasn't until I actually read the Carl Barks comic that inspired it that I understood why Scrooge specifically choose to act like a squirrel in his "fugue state". Nervous breakdowns are heavy subject matter for a weekday afternoon cartoon. As the years went by, characters plagued by stress and anxiety become recurring themes in most of the Disney Afternoon toons (Scrooge and his "worry room", Dale's inferiority crises in Rescue Rangers, Pete and his "stress level" in Goof Troop, Lucky Piquel and Sgt. Grating in Bonkers, even Darkwing Duck suffered from stress about his public image and paranoia about being usurped by anyone offering a helping hand).

Allowance Day: I included this one because the "convince-someone-else-that-today-is-payday-and-realize-that-the-whole-world-was-fooled-and-you-have-to-move-the-clouds-to-reveal-an-eclipse-of-the-sun" theme was also used in an episode of Talespin. I think it worked better on Talespin, due to the handily established Thembrians and their politics, but act 3 of this episode (with Scrooge and Fenton facing a firing squad - the one sequence that plays out better than it did on the Talespin episode) is terrific, the stuff of old Golden Age Superman comics.

The Big Flub: this episode, in which Fenton tries to get a promotion in one of Scrooge's other companies, only to wind up creating a marketing campaign for Gyro's helium-infused bubble gum prototype that makes people float into the air before and after they've chewed it, is very, very Barksian . I don't know if there's a speciffic story that inspired it, but it does seem like one of Donald's blunders.

The Masked Mallard: One of the few episodes in which Scrooge saves the day entirley on his own. I don't know if this was one possible inspiration for Darkwing Duck, but I'm inclined to think the inspiration for Scrooge's pogo cane in the Ducktales NES video game came from here. The plot: Scrooge thinks dressing up as a superhero will result in good PR. Obviously he's never read Spider-Man comics.

Scrooge's Last Adventure: another story in which a clunky 1980s computer outperforms anything we have on the market today and tomorrow, as well as a new feature for Scrooge's cane that Capcom forgot to add in the video game. The Plot: Scrooge thinks he's dying and Fenton suggests downloading his fortune into a computer. The problem is that Fenton doesn't know how to work a computer! so, obviously the best way to retrieve the data (or electric assets) is the enter the computer, TRONstyle and catch the dollar signs with butterfly nets while evading Moby Glitch. Again, we have another episode that was recycled into a Talespin story, though this time both work well on their own terms.

Metal Attraction: Gyro builds a robot maid, Robotica, who develops a crush on Gizmoduck. When Giz turns her down, she instantly decides it must be because he's overworked protecting the money bin and seems preoccupied with Fenton's girlfriend Gandra Dee for some mysterious reason, so she set both of them in range of a handy guided missile and prepares to launch. This episode is the only one where Bubba, Tootsie, Fenton and Gizmoduck appear, but not together, save for a "family photo" highlighted in one scene.

Blue Collar Scrooge: Scrooge plans to sell a skateboard factory to Donald Trumpcard (I love puns!) but then, oh, the irony, he skids on a motorized skateboard then drops him into a lake and hits him on the head. Now suffering from amneisia, he loses his looks and ...gets a job at the skateboard factory and organizes a strike! Oh, and he also gets freash and cozy with Fenton's mother, Ma Crackshell, while her son is away impersonating Scrooge. If anyone wants to see a less avuncular Scrooge, this is the one to watch.

The Bride Wore Stripes: Ma Beagle is at it again, this time posing as Scrooge's wife to fool the Justice of The Peace into thinking they are married and get his fortune. Yep, another screwball comedy episode, notable for featuring none of the new characters and only the season 1 cast. This epsiode was given heavy rotation during reruns - instead of seeing "My Mother, The Psychic" "Attack of The Metal Mites" or "New Gizmokids on The Block", we would get this one, like finding a penny on the sidewalk. It's very good, but it appeared all the time.

The Unbreakable Bin: Another Carl Barks tale gets tweaked, actually this borrows bits from two stories featuring Magica De Spell, ("Bye, Bye, Money Bin" and "The Unsafe Safe") her only appearance in the later episodes, but they made it count. Her late entrance in the second act is a neat surprise, since I had not read the comic at that time. It would have been neat if SHE had been the main villain in "SuperDucktales" instead of Ma Beagle. Sure, it's the same actress in both parts, but the characters have different bags of tricks.

Yuppy Ducks: again and again, stress, allergies, anxiety, being replaced, pests - these themes pop up a lot in the Disney shows over and over. Scrooge gets "loot lice", lice with Beagle Boy masks and has to sealed in a plastic bubble at the hospital. Huey, Dewey, Bubba (remember him?) & Louie take over running the business before everyone remembers this is a violation of child labor laws (technically, that only applies if they were being exploited, but they did come off pretty dumb, here - Fenton's not around this time, so they can't blame him). The best scenes are of Scrooge at the free clinic - holey moley, the writers did their research!

Ducky Mountain High: Glomgold was another villain that got the short end of the deal (though not as much as Magica), appearing only in a handful of episodes, but kind of, sort became the main villain in the hodge podge "3rd Season". Seeing him compete with Scrooge in a scheme to get a plot of land from old flame Glittering Goldie is a lot of fun. I would've loved to have seen a character like Brigitta MacBridge appear as a semi-regular on the show, because whenever the writers tackled screwball comedy, they did it very well. Brigitta was created by Romano Scarpa to even out the number of female characters available - she's like a "nice" Millionaira Vanderbucks (from "'til Nephews Do Us Part"), the tycoon Scrooge almost married in the season 1 finale.

The Duck Who Knew Too Much:  It's The Fenton Crackshell Show as Fenton pretends to be sick so he can go on vacation with his girlfriend and avoid an assignment from the boss - but whaddyaknow, the assignment was to go to the same be he's having his vacation! Is this a Jetsons episode? More spy high jinks, plus there's a giant mechanical Praying Mantis (I guess Jon Peters produced this episode). This is one of several episodes where Fenton saves the day without the Gizmoduck suit, though he conveniently forgets in time for another episode in which he does it again. The highlight: Scrooge gets some screen time with Gandra Dee...waitaminute, doesn't she work for him too?

My Mother, The Psychic: Fenton and his mother deserved a spinoff - maybe that was the forerunner to Johnny Bravo? Fredericka Von Strangeduck appears in a cameo as the star of a daytime soap opera playing "Erica" (draw your own conclusions on what this is referring to) and gets psychic powers from a jolt on her TV. I think this was inspired by the urban legend about the couch potato who died of a heart attack while watching TV, but as he was being lifted onto a gurney, his hand smacked the TV screen and broke the glass. He was electrocuted and revived by his TV set! Anyway, Glomgold gets to play Goldfinger, only his mansion gets to be OddJob by hurling giant discus into space (what on Earth could that have been built for before this episode?).

Part 4 will be up soon - feel free to practice your Golf swing with a Pogo Stick while you wait...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Silver Dollars: Ducktales at 25 - Part 2

My memories of watching Ducktales episodes continues with Premiere events/episodes/stuff:

There was a lot of merchandise with Ducktales characters in 1988, just a few months after the show premiered in 1987. McDonald's Happy Meal toys, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, a tie-in magazine with a comic strip. Then there was Gladstone Comics, which published the Ducktales comic book, which premiered with adaptations of two episodes in it's first two issues: "Armstrong" and "Jungle Duck". I was slowly being schooled on the history of Carl Barks and Disney comics by following letter columns, editorials and profiles of other series offered by the company. (Yes, it was named after Gladstone Gander, but it was almost named after Gus Goose) ;) . I had mentioned in the comments for Part 1 that the first Disney comic I saw was an issue of Uncle Scrooge in a grocery store; I started visiting the shops because the grocery stores would stock comics at random - they would just receive a bundle of comics from the distributor, maybe two or three copies of each, and that was that. My mom had mentioned seeing comic shops in  Manhattan, so I asked if we could visit them. I have no reason to believe she regrets starting the hobby off - I just don't think she would like to say so out loud: she'll blame Dad or my Grandpa, instead. That's a whole other blog entry.

But then there were the videocassettes: Fearless Forutne Hunter, Daredevil Ducks, High Flying Hero, Masked Marauders, etc... Two episodes per tape, for the price of $14.95. This seems like a rip now, as well as the laserdisk offering (4 episodes for a few dollars more), compared to how you could get a boxed DVD set of over 20 for the same price. I remember Disney also had "Gold Editions" - about an hours' worth of the classic short cartoons, compiled accoring to a theme, Like Donald's Bee Pictures - those were almost $100.00 in some places! What was the appeal? ... You got a perfect recording. Even the current VCR/DVD recorder combo units tend to be very clumsy on the VCR end, with each pause and stop noticable on playback. Plus, you can never tell what the TV signal is going to be - even now with pop-up ads and emergency broadcast "tests". Pfft.

Pathmark Halloween Commercial: One Year later (1988), Pathmark aired a commercial featuring Scrooge, Webby and the nephews preparing to go Trick-or-Treating. The ad was for a special sheet of stickers available only at Pathmark Supermarkets/Drugstores featuring the characters, which could be used as an alternative to handing out candy. I'm certain most people thought the way I did: get the stickers, get the stickers, get the stickers ... and the kiddies can have the marked-down Fruitzee Rolls.

 The stickers were interesting: Scrooge, Launchpad, Webby, the nephews, the Ducktales title logo...and introducing...Bubba the cave duck. This was the first time I saw him anywhere - when Ducktales magazine announced that he would appear as a new character, they did not include a picture of him. This sheet of stickers was it - it may be the only merchandise with him at all! His first appearance on TV was months later, too. Because the sticker had him standing alone, I had imagined he might be one of the tall brutish cave ducks that appeared in the "Dinosaur Ducks" episode - like it would be a sequel to that.

Time is Money (1988): A new 2 hour movie! This was great, but I don't remember it being promoted well. This was probably when I got into the habit of reading TV Guide. Fall Previews of new Saturday Morning Shows (Remember Saturday Morning programming?), listings of new schedules and occasional adverts for new Ducktales episodes (I had seen a half-page ad taken to promote "The Golden Fleecing" when it aired on a Monday afternoon, so that might have been what inspired this). Anyway, the point is, I found out about this just days before it aired, so I erased a tape of Daffy Duck cartoons. For many years, my recording of "Time is Money" was on a tape with the crude "Daffy Duck" scrawled on it.
So what did I think? I was surprised to see that Bubba was portrayed more like an adopted son of Scrooge's than a new pal for the gang. Scrooge's behavior was odd (although it's more in-character than we're used to seeing on the show) more like it was for the 1st 1/4 of  "Treasure of The Golden Suns" - only there it took about 15 minutes to change - here it took 2/3 of the movie! The best parts were the odd stuff - the laser pen, the bombastion pops, the shopping cart chase (which the crew must have liked, because the print ads for the new episodes had Scrooge perform a rescue riding a shopping cart with a helicopter blade attached  to it), the teleconference calls via computer (those old Apple2s could do so much more than an iPad in those days, couldn't they?) and the weird "I've got fish in my pockets" exchange, which made no sense to me when I first saw it - why bother with the banks in town when he has a wall safe at home (and THAT was a deleted scene which aired in the reruns of the film)?

The most remarkable thing about the memory of this event was that it aired on a Friday. I had been conditioned to expect new episodes the following Monday. That did happen, so I was left wondering if I had just seen the final episodes, which ended with "Scooge" building Jurassic Park in his backyard.

Speaking of which, did Michael Crichton's novel inspire what we just saw? That's a stretch, but who a popular sci-fi action film would inspire what came next...

Superducktales (1989): airing as a 2 hour film on NBC on a Sunday night as a special on the fading-fast Magical World of Disney, this seemed like confirmation that a little syndicated afternoon cartoon was a really big draw (when there's no internet, you end up trying to look for clues to a show's popularity beyond the schoolyard) . The Gizmoduck character name had not been announced, but the half-page ad was so obviously Robocop that it had to be "Roboduck", so of course they surprised us with that twist.
Right up until the premiere, they did not show Fenton Crackshell anywhere, so I wonder if they wanted us to think it was Donald under that armor. That would make sense - shift the paradigm back to Scrooge and Donald with HD& L, only this time, Donald has this new status quo following his for real stint in the navy. At the time, I was expecting to see Bubba in there. They went out of their way to establish him in the group and he's not there! I'm not sure if I thought they just imagined he wasn't there, but they don't mention that adventure at all, plus they were careful not to feature Glomgold, the main villain from that story.
Speaking of villains, Ma Beagle becomes the main villain of the series from here on, with June Foray's performance sounding more like Granni Gummi form The Gummi Bears . I guess it takes a certain kind of old woman to pull off schemes like that. Incidentally, they still have Gizmoduck's instruction manual, which appears to include schematics and data allowing for a pirate remote control to be built. The writers were probably wise to ignore this, since Gizmoduck eats up a lot of screen time as their puppet. Also, the focus on Scrooge protecting the money bin becomes a big part of the later episodes - it's all foreshadowed here. If I wasn't a fan of the show, I might be inclined to think the well had run dry!
In retrospect, the characters that own this are Fenton and Scrooge. Where did Fenton come from?  He's often regarded as a milquetoast Donald with a lisp like Daffy Duck. The suit reminds me of Howard the Duck, but Fenton was more excitable than Howard. If I can imagine a plot connection to a bestselling novel to the last special, I can imagine a character connection to a classic movie. I think Fenton was inspired by the character of Sam Lowry from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. You go watch that film and you'll see what I mean.
Oh, another tape got erased for this one. This one featured a TV special, Down and Out With Donald Duck, which got wiped because I needed the space (I had already learned not to record anything in EP or LP mode). It turns out that was rebroadcast in 1993 with the premiere of Bonkers because Donald had a cameo in that. If only they had rebroadcast Soccermania with the premiere of Goof Troop...

Part 3 will appear next week...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Donald J. Sobol - RIP

I'm saddened to have learned about the passing of Donald J. Sobol, the creator and author of the Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective mystery series. He passed away on July 11th, at age 87 of gastric lymphoma. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Encyclopedia Brown series, of which a new book, perhaps Sobol's last, Encyclopedia Brown and The Soccer Scheme, will debut next year.

The stories are set in Idaville, Florida. Leroy Brown is the son of the town's police chief and is nicknamed "Encyclopedia" for his incredible knowledge of obscure facts, which he uses to solve mysteries - he is also  referred to as "Young Sherlock Holmes in Sneakers". He often helps his father solve crimes whenever the chief sits down at the dinner table and discusses a case that has him baffled. As a result, the success rate of the Idaville Police Department is extraordinary.

Encyclopedia has his own detective agency set up in a shed by his parent's house. He fee is one quarter, plus "expenses". His right hand/chief aide/hired muscle is Sally Kimball, an attractive blond who may or may not be his would-be girlfriend, but is very useful in keeping the local bully (and Encyclopedia Brown's arch nemesis) Bugs Meany at bay. Meany wears a ridiculous paper crown hat and leads The Tigers street gang but is surprisingly intelligent, able to think up complex scams to bilk money out of local kids and adults (he once even set up a rival detective agency as a ruse to get money from gullible would-be clients and sully Encyclopedia's reputation).

The format of each book is the same - all short stories, each ending with a challenge to the reader (similar to Ellery Queen), with solutions offered in the back. The first story is always an introduction to new readers, with "E.B" solving one of his Dad's perplexing cases at the dinner table. The second story always introduces Bugs Meaney, while the third introduces Sally.  The mysteries themselves are different from what you would find in a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys adventure in that they are set in the proper scale - this is why I preferred this series over the other two when I was a kid : Encyclopedia Brown actually solved puzzles, whereas the other series were primarily chases - Nancy, Joe and Frank eavesdropped or stumbled into something suspicious and stumbled their way through what was happening; Encyclopedia Brown was the real thinking machine. Fans who "don't like mysteries" have stumbled across an Encyclopedia Brown book.

I did not know he lived a middle-class existence and was not a rich man when he died, or that he had mistakenly sold the TV/movie rights for just $25,000 in the late 1970s (the late-80s HBO TV series was made without his involvement). Still and all, I still love those books.

Donald J Sobol - RIP.

Mike Gruss's Tribute

Recommended Reads: The Encyclopedia Brown Mystery Collection (Scholastic) - omnibus reprints 3 books, including the cookbook - Encyclopedia Brown Takes The Cake(!)

                                   Encyclopedia Brown Lends a Hand (aka "Encyclopedia Brown and The Exploding Toilet"/ "Encyclopedia Brown and The Exploding Plumbing") (Penguin Books)

                                   Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective - the one that started it all.