Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Movie Review: Reet, Petite and Gone

Years ago, Schuyler Jarvis (Louis Jordan) was a young entertainer who fell in love with a woman named Lovey Lynn (Bea Griffith.)  She liked him plenty too, but her mother disapproved because Jarvis was a poor man, and forced Lovey to break off the affair.  Lovey was married to a wealthy gentleman and had a daughter named Honey Carter (also Bea Griffith) while Jarvis married some other woman and had a son named Louis Jarvis (also Louis Jordan.)

Reet, Petite, and Gone

Lovey passed some time back, and Schuyler, now quite wealthy in his own right, is on his deathbed.   He’s determined to marry his bandleader son to Honey, and sets up his will to ensure this by specifying the exact physical dimensions of the woman Louis must marry to inherit the dough.

Crooked lawyer Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker) sees an opportunity to profit and alters the will to make it appear that the required woman matches the description of his secretary Rusty (Vanita Smythe.)  He also heads off Honey and her friend June (June Richmond) at the airport, attempting to get them to fly back to New Orleans.  (June is a savvy woman and keeps the bribe he gives them so the girls can use it as the first month’s rent on an apartment.)

Talbot initially gets away with it because Schuyler passes away before Louis can get back from the radio station he’s performing at.  He’s repulsed by Rusty and wonders if perhaps he can skip the inheritance.  His manager Sam Adams (Milton Woods) reminds him that they’re about to put on a Broadway show, and the money would sure come in handy.  Then the show biz men get an idea.   They’ll scout for another woman with the same dimensions as Rusty but more palatable by claiming it’s a beauty contest/audition for the show.

This doesn’t go so well, apparently Rusty is unique among women.  However, Honey hasn’t been able to find a job and winds up at the Jarvis mansion to audition.   She doesn’t match the altered criteria either, but she’s able to remind Louis of who she is, and the two hit it off well.

Talbot manages to get one of the show’s backers to bail out, now making it absolutely essential for Louis to inherit if he doesn’t want to close the show before opening and become box office poison.  Things are looking pretty dire, and Louis must make his marriage decision before midnight.  At the last moment, Dolph the aged butler (David Bethea) reveals that he’s been holding a trump card….

This is another “race” picture,  where the cast and crew are all black, designed to air in segregated theaters.    This gave actors who normally got stuck with roles as maids and comic relief the chance to shine.   It’s also a musical and as such a showcase for Mr. Jordan and his Tympani Five band.  As such, there are multiple swing numbers, three of them before the plotline even starts!

Ms. Griffith was apparently not a particularly good singer, so the film avoids her breaking into song as much as possible.  Instead, we’re treated to a couple of fine numbers by June Richmond.  (She’d actually have made a better female lead, I think, but was too heavy-set for Hollywood to give her that role.)

The fan service is heavy in this film–the showgirl costumes and bathing suits are at least plot-relevant, but there’s a scene of Ms. Griffith in her underwear when she didn’t need to be.  (Really obvious when Ms. Richmond is in the same scene, fully clothed.)  Mr. Jordan’s taste for fine-looking ladies is treated as being a lovable scamp.  But the next to last song in the movie is a misogynist screed “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman?”, that really jarred when the finale is “If It’s Love You Want, Baby, That;s Me.”

As such, if you are watching this with younger viewers, you might want to discuss the harmful effects of casual misogyny

The Mill Creek edition of this movie cuts off just before the resolution of the plot; the Internet Archive print is complete, but has much worse picture quality.

Manga Review: Naruto

Manga Review: Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto

After 700 chapters and fifteen years, an animated TV series, multiple short movies and video games and piles of merchandise, the popular manga series Naruto has ended.

Naruto--the Final Chapter

For those who somehow missed the last fifteen years of hype, the premise goes something like this.  Blond, blue-eyed orphan Naruto Uzumaki is hated and feared by the people of his ninja village, Konohagakure.  This is because (unknown to him) he is the living prison of a monster known as the Nine-Tailed Beast.  Naruto has become a prankster and class clown, but in the first chapter learns a bit about his true heritage and shows potential to become a great ninja, perhaps even one of  the village leaders called “Hokage.”

Shortly thereafter, the story introduces Sasuke Uchiha, also an orphan, but who has gone all broody and vengeful about it; and Sakura Haruno, an intelligent if then-shallow girl who Naruto likes, but only fancies bad boy Sasuke.  They become a team under the laid-back instructor Kakashi, and slowly become best friends.  More young ninja are introduced, and eventually an overall plotline begins to develop.

The first part of the manga ends with snake-themed villain Orochimaru sending his minions to kidnap Sasuke.  But when the rest of the ninja rescue him, Sasuke decides to go to Orochimaru voluntarily, as he believes the “dark side” techniques will allow him to both surpass his best friend/arch-rival Naruto and gain vengeance for his murdered clan.

The latter part of the manga picks up a few years later, as Naruto and the other Konohagakure ninja have learned new techniques and ninja powers, and must now use them to deal with the murderous mercenaries known as the Akatsuki.  At much the same time, Sasuke, having learned all he can from Orochimaru, severs his ties with the villain–permanently, he thinks–and sets off on his own revenge trip.

What follows is a series of reveals of “man behind the man” as the real powers behind the misery and hatred of the world are slowly discovered.  At the same time, the true nature of the Tailed Beasts is revealed bit by bit.  This culminates in the Ninja World War, and Naruto and Sasuke must confront their fates, whether that means bringing an end to war, or killing each other to start the next cycle of violence.

Naruto ran in Weekly Shounen Jump in Japan, and shows many of the positives as well as some of the weaknesses of that magazine’s “friendship, struggle, victory” mission statement.  Naruto’s a pretty likable main character who has substantial character development while staying true to his roots.  There are a lot of interesting characters, a bunch of exciting combat scenes, and the ending is actually pretty satisfying.

Sasuke is less loved by many fans because he often takes over the story for weeks at a time, and his Uchiha clan kept becoming more and more central to the plotline.  This took focus away from more interesting/likable characters.

And then there’s Sakura.  It’s not so much that Kishimoto doesn’t have awesome female characters, as that he keeps forgetting to let them actually show off their awesomeness.   Sakura’s role on her initial team was to be the smart one, but she never got involved in fights where book learning was the key to victory.  She was left out of the “rescue Sasuke” arc as a male “smart guy” was the leader of the retrieval team and he didn’t need another brainy person (and he’s kind of sexist.)

After the time skip, Sakura has new medical ninja skills, and gets one good fight before being sidelined while Naruto and Sasuke got repeated power-ups.  When she did appear, her still-lingering affection for Sasuke was a more relevant part of her character arc than her smarts or combat prowess.  (It was hinted she was having important adventures off-panel, but that’s a fan fiction thing.)

There was also more than one instance where Kishimoto introduced a female character who should be awesome given her background, but in her only actual combat gets curbstomped to show off how powerful/skilled a villain is.  (Slightly redeemed by having one female character finally, finally turn out to be just as powerful and important as advertised.)

And as with many other long-runners, the final story arc kind of drags, with it taking nearly two years real time to cover maybe forty-eight hours in-story.  Lots of good bits in there, though, with even characters who’ve been dead for years getting to show up and do something cool.

Still, it’s good of its kind, and future kids should be able to enjoy it as much as many of the current ones did.

 

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.   My copy is an Advance Reader’s Edition, and changes will be made in the final version, including an index and more illustrations.

The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has had a great number of books written about him.  However, most of them are general biographies of his entire life, or focus on his two most active periods, being Commander in Chief of the American revolutionary forces, and being the United States of America’s first president.  This book covers the period between those two, when Washington was trying to retire to his day job as a farm owner and landlord.

As one might expect, Washington being away in the war for eight years had done Mount Vernon no favors, and there was much to set right.  In addition, land that he owned in the west was either mismanaged or infested with squatters.  For these personal reasons, and because he feared that the newly settled lands might pull away from the new republic unless there were good communication routes, Washington sponsored building a navigable waterway up the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for George, it quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation weren’t a sufficient framework to run the new country on.  The Continental Congress couldn’t pay its bills, including the back pay of the Revolutionary Army, because the individual states didn’t want to give them any money.  And the Articles didn’t allow them to force payment.  (Kind of like how certain countries are perennially behind on their dues to the United Nations in the modern day.)

Bad money policy led to hyperinflation in some states, while too strict a money squeeze in Massachusetts led to Shays’ Rebellion when debtors could not get relief.

So a convention was called to fix some of the problems with the government–only to have it taken over by those who felt a wholesale overhaul and a new constitution was the only way to go forward.  Washington was reluctantly called forward to chair the convention and give it the public gravitas it needed to be taken seriously.

The convention adopted a strict rule of secrecy as to its proceedings, and Mr. Washington took this very seriously, not writing any of the details in his diary or personal letters.  As he seldom spoke on the floor, what was going through his head, and what backroom conversations Washington might have been having are mostly unknown to us.

Still, the convention came up with an innovative three-part federal government with checks and balances built in.  Not everyone liked all the compromises made, but as a process for amendment was included, it was sent to the states, who mostly voted for ratification.

The problem for Washington at that point was that the new Constitution called for a strong central executive, the President.  And there was just one man the Federalists trusted to be the first, Washington himself.  So he spent the first Presidential campaign not running for office, but desperately trying to get on with his personal life before it was wrested away by his country again.

There’s an epilogue which briefly covers the Presidential years and Washington’s later life.  There is a long endnotes section and several black and white illustrations.

Mind you, this story isn’t all good news.  George Washington, like everyone else, had his flaws.  The most pressing one is that he was a slaveowner, one of the biggest in Virginia.   He seems to have been ambivalent on the subject of slavery, regretting its “necessity” but always finding it economically unfeasible to do without buying more slaves, and only making good on his promise to free his personal slaves in his will…with the actual freedom to be after Martha Washington’s death.

For more on one particular slave of the Washingtons, see this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oney_Judge .

However, it seems likely that his slaveholding helped the Southern states accept the Constitution and the idea of a President more willingly than they otherwise would have.  And Washington’s patriotism and sense of civic duty were strong influences on the early shape of the United States government.

As with other biographies that only cover a limited time span, students will want to supplement this volume with a more general biography.  I’d recommend this book for high schoolers on up, as the subject matter is a bit dry for most younger readers’ tastes.

And to round out this post, let;s have a look at the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Wonder Woman Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Wonder Woman Volume 4 Edited by Robert Kanigher

Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero in comics, nor even the first not to be a male character’s sidekick.  But she was the first to get her own ongoing solo series, and designed to be an equal to the male superheroes of the time.  Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston specifically to address issues raised by the violence in comic books and the overwhelmingly male superheroes.  Dr. Marston, a psychologist and one of the inventors of the polygraph, had some…interesting…ideas about the role of women in society, and the place of sexuality.

Wonder Woman Volume 4

This resulted in stories that were themselves psychologically interesting, especially in retrospect, with their themes of bondage and loving submission.   After Dr. Marston died in 1947, the new writers, most notably Robert Kanigher, tended to water down the more esoteric elements in favor of fantastic adventure and mythological monsters.  Unlike most characters published by what would become DC Comics, Wonder Woman was not created as “work for hire” under the standard contract, but would revert to Dr. Marston (or later, his estate) if DC did not publish her book on a regular basis.  Thus she continued to be published throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s when superheroes had gone out of fashion for a while.  As such, she became one of DC’s most recognizable characters, even if the management often treated her as an afterthought.

This black and white reprint volume covers 1965-68.  At this point, Wonder Woman (as Diana Prince) was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Intelligence division, serving under her love interest, Colonel Steve Trevor.    Steve is infatuated with Wonder Woman, but dismisses his mousy secretary Diana, little dreaming they are one and the same.  Steve is kind of a dolt.

The first story in the volume is a two-parter, pitting Wonder Woman against one of her most dubious villains, the hideously racistly depicted Communist Chinese monstrosity Egg Fu.  This giant egg-shaped mad scientist actually manages to kill Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor–thank goodness for Amazon science!  They’re then afflicted with a condition that prevents them from touching each other, but still manage to defeat the Red menace.

This is followed by a metafictional story that featured the first of a series of retoolings the Wonder Woman comics would undergo.  Robert Kanigher (face unseen) eliminates ninety percent of the supporting cast that had been built up, including such luminaries as Wonder Tot, and announces to a waiting crowd that starting next issue, it’s back to the Golden Age!

Sure enough, the next few issues are set in the 1940s with artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito imitating the art style of the period.  it’s not a very good imitation.  Several of the villains who hadn’t been seen since Marston’s death appeared, but stripped of some of their more interesting aspects.  For example, Cheetah’s alter ego and insane jealousy of Wonder Woman are dropped, making her just another costumed gang leader.

Dr. Psycho loses his creepy mind control powers and abusive relationship with his wife–this version is a “forever alone” misogynist who hates women for their reactions to his grotesque appearance and small stature.  He’s so twisted up inside that even when Wonder Woman shows him genuine compassion, Dr. Psycho is unable to process it as anything other than a feminine trick to hurt him more than ever.

Rather abruptly and without announcement, the series is suddenly taking place in the 1960s again.  Despite this, the revised Golden Age villains appear no older than before.  The volume cuts off just before the next big retool, in which Wonder Woman loses her powers and becomes martial arts secret agent Diana Prince (aka the “white pantsuit period.”

As you might have guessed, this is not a highly regarded point in Wonder Woman’s history.  Robert Kanigher, who had been writing the series for nearly two decades at this point, often seemed like he was phoning it in on the stories.  The villains range from mediocre (Mouseman, whose power is that he’s very short, is presented as a serious threat to WW) to offensive (Egg Fu and his brother/clone/replacement Egg Fu the Fifth) and even the classic villains are often stuck with lackluster plots.

Steve Trevor is a horrible love interest; the relationship worked in the Golden Age (to the extent it did) because of Marston’s understanding of the nuances he was trying to convey.  The nadir of that in this volume is a story in which Steve gets control of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso, and attempts to force her to marry him.  (He eventually decides that impressing her by beating up some crooks was more important than safety and accidentally dropped the rope.)  His most endearing trait is that despite several villainesses falling in love with him on sight, Steve remains completely loyal to WW.

Wanting to impress Wonder Woman is a common theme among the men in this volume, Steve, his boss General Darnell, would be superheroes, villains, even space gorillas!  A slight variation on the theme has nebbishy Paper Man falling for Diana Prince because she’s the only woman who’s ever been kind to him.  (When she nearly blows her secret identity by repeating the same phrasing Wonder Woman used while fighting the villain, he interprets this as WW trying to poison Diana’s mind against him.)

This volume is mostly for completeists.  something to slog through because you want to read every Wonder Woman story.  Check your library.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

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