Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Early Man

Aardman Animation, perhaps best known for their series of Wallace and Gromit shorts by Nick Park, is a studio unique for persisting in the Claymation style of stop-motion animation, particularly featuring plasticine characters. Though their main output consists of animated shorts, they have produced a handful of feature films, including, but not limited to, Chicken Run (2000), Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Arthur Christmas (2011) and Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). Though I had enjoyed many of their films in the past, I didn’t know how to feel about their most recent release, Early Man, based on previews. With theatrical showings rapidly dwindling, however, I went to see it while I still had the chance. Having finally seen it, I now better understand why audiences weren’t really flocking to it.

In prehistoric Earth, an asteroid impacts the surface and wipes out the dinosaurs, but spares a nearby tribe of cavemen, who invent soccer (consistently called football throughout the film) while kicking a ball-shaped chunk of the asteroid. Fast forward to the Stone Age and this same tribe now hunts rabbits in the valley for survival. One of the cavemen, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), wants to hunt mammoths instead, but Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) insists otherwise. Later, a Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) drives the caveman out of the valley and into the nearby badlands. Dug seeks revenge, but unknowingly triggers a sequence of events which leads to him challenging Nooth’s best soccer team to a match with his tribe’s future on the line.

What unfolds is more or less the plot to a typical underdog sports movie. If you’re familiar at all with how that sort of movie works, then you have an idea of what to expect. The way Early Man executes this type of plot is entertaining, since it also injects a little Stone Age flavor and has some clever laugh-out-loud moments. However, it doesn’t leave a huge impact one way or another, just kind of somewhere in the middle. That said, the voice acting is pretty good overall, especially from Eddie Redmayne as Dug and Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth, the latter of whom plays a much sillier kind of villain than in the Marvel Studios films.

As with Aardman’s other features, the animation is a definite strong suit. The animation helps to capture the scale of each moment, including the crowd scenes that were undeniably difficult to animate in stop-motion and at least one moment where a giant prehistoric duck becomes larger as it enters the foreground. Animating a sport in stop-motion convincingly is also an achievement in and of itself. Notably, two dinosaurs, a Ceratosaurus and a Triceratops, at the very beginning of the movie are also animated in the style of the late Ray Harryhausen, a highly influential stop-motion animator.

Early Man is a good film, but not one of Aardman’s best. The clever writing and great animation don’t do enough to mask the predictable plot. It’s entertaining, but it’s obvious why it underperformed. Aardman fans are sure to find enjoyment in it, as would hardcore animation fans. As for everyone else, use your own judgment.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Deadpool 2

Two years after the box office record-setting Deadpool (2016), especially for an R-rated movie, Fox has released a sequel, Deadpool 2, previously teased during the post-credits scene of the original. In that time, director David Leitch took over for Tim Miller, who had left after creative differences with lead actor Ryan Reynolds. In spite of this, Deadpool 2 is true to the spirit of the original, though perhaps a little too true to the original in some minor areas.

In the two years since the ending of Deadpool, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) has been killing people all over the world as an international hitman. One time, however, he fails to kill a target and pays the price for it. He recovers at the X-Mansion and assists Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) in stabilizing a standoff involving a young mutant named Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), aka Firefist, though Wade’s intervention does more harm than good. At the same time, a man named Cable (Josh Brolin) travels back in time in an effort to change the past and undo a dystopic future.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) briefly becomes an
X-Men Trainee, only to make things worse.

The story of Deadpool 2 features a more complex plot due in part to its larger cast of characters and three running plotlines, one each for Deadpool, Cable, and Firefist. Thankfully, however, the movie is still easy to follow and the plotlines all actively contribute to the running theme of “Family”. As such, Cable’s backstory is kept simple and to the point, which helps greatly with time travel involved; on that note, the time travel logic is also kept simple and consistent. The pacing also effectively helps the nearly two-hour runtime breeze by.

What also helps is that like the original Deadpool, Deadpool 2 has a good sense of humor. The scope of the jokes is greater this time, now including a number of meta jokes that poke fun at not only other Marvel movies, such as a reference to Josh Brolin’s role as Thanos, but also the DCEU and other Fox films. At the same time, however, the sexual humor is a little raunchier this time around and, in some instances, they seemed to stick too closely to the style of the original by recycling a handful of jokes. Though they didn’t repeat these jokes wholesale and introduced enough variation on them that they could still elicit a laugh, it was still hard not to notice the repetition.

The action also has an increased scope this time around, with one sequence creating collateral damage across a small stretch of a city. However, the damage is relatively minimal compared to superhero films with a larger budget and I appreciate the fact that the final fight once again takes place in a controlled area, this time a small plot of land. The special effects and choreography are also very impressive, especially one sequence which perfectly demonstrates Domino’s (Zazie Beetz) luck-based mutant ability.

All of the returning actors do an amazing job reprising their roles, especially Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, since he’s the most prominent. Newer characters are also portrayed very well by their respective actors, including Josh Brolin as Cable and Zazie Beetz as Domino. Brolin’s Cable effectively communicates the loss he felt from his decimated future and his relentless quest to find the one responsible for it while also giving him a sense of depth and emotional growth. Beetz’ Domino is fun to watch due to her interactions with Deadpool as well as her confidence in her mutant ability, though she is fully capable of fighting seriously when the situation demands it.

Josh Brolin gives a great performance as Cable.

Deadpool 2 is largely an example of how to properly do a sequel, increasing the scope of its story without feeling overly ambitious or hollow and effectively maintaining its style of humor. In exchange, however, some of the jokes are raunchier and some minor story beats, and nearly entire jokes are lifted straight out of its predecessor. This doesn’t, however, prevent the movie from being thoroughly entertaining and I highly recommend it to people who either liked the first movie or have been keeping up with the superhero genre and want something that’s sure to stand out (or want the tonal opposite of Avengers: Infinity War). As with the original, however, Deadpool 2 has an R rating for a good reason and parents should seriously take this into consideration before deciding to bring kids along, especially with the more explicit nature of the sequel.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Shrek 2 - Could Use A Little Change

Three years after the success of the Academy Award-winning Shrek (2001), Dreamworks released the inevitable sequel, Shrek 2 in 2004. I had seen this in the theater when it first came out and loved it at the time, though I would later become burnt out on it due to overexposure. Having seen it again years later, shortly after re-watching the original Shrek, it seems to have held up well in some areas and aged poorly in others.

While on their honeymoon, Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), are summoned to the kingdom of Far Far Away to celebrate their marriage with a royal ball. Upon arrival, however, things immediately get off to a rocky start when Fiona’s parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lilian (Julie Andrews), have differing feelings about their daughter marrying an ogre. At the same time, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), originally meant to marry Fiona, had arrived too late to rescue her from the dragon. As a result, he becomes part of a somewhat complex revenge scheme to make sure that he’s the one wed to Fiona instead of Shrek.

King Harold and Queen Lilian are surprised
to see that Fiona has married an ogre.

By comparison to the original film, Shrek 2 has a more complex and comparatively original plot with a larger cast of characters, more interesting villains and subplots which all contribute to the main plot. A major twist that comes near the end of the movie, and also contributes to the ultimate failure of the villain, is also set up with a surprising amount of foreshadowing and changes how the viewer looks at certain scenes. As the film explores life beyond the initial happy ending, its lesson is ultimately that you can be yourself and still make a relationship work, even a marriage. While rather simple, it’s pulled off rather effectively. Some of the humor in Shrek 2 is also still genuinely funny, though the cruder jokes seem to only exist to reinforce just how different Shrek was from its competition.

As befitting an animated sequel, the actual animation is a real improvement and has aged far better than the original Shrek. The character models are generally more detailed and the hair and liquid physics are comparatively closer to the real world. There’s also more detail in the backgrounds, along with improved lighting and a greater variety of locations.

With all of that said, however, it seems that Dreamworks truly did take a wrong lesson from the success of Shrek. Where the original had a rather minimal use of pop culture jokes and anachronistic references in its obviously medieval setting, Shrek 2 is absolutely filled to the brim with such references, so many, in fact, that it’s at times distracting. While some of the pop culture references predate the movie, including Alien (1979), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Flashdance (1983), others were very contemporary at the time, including Spider-Man (2002), Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Other pop culture references, however, either come out of left field, such as the O.J. Simpson murder case of all things, or feel incredibly forced, such as one throwaway reference to Garfield’s catchphrase, “I hate Mondays.”

The anachronisms, as well, are far more numerous and harder to ignore. The most noticeable ones involve Far Far Away, as its modeled after Los Angeles and Southern California in general. The kingdom has its own equivalent to the Hollywood Sign and there are fairy tale versions of several real-world businesses, including, but not limited to, Starbucks, Burger King, Gap, Old Navy, Bob’s Big Boy and Tower Records (now defunct in the US). A particular anachronism that stretches the setting further relates to the original Shrek as well. In the first movie, the Magic Mirror could be controlled similarly to a recording, but still fit within the setting. In Shrek 2, however, television just straight-up exists, including a scene where a handful of side characters watch the show Knights (itself a parody of the show Cops) and another where Joan Rivers plays an announcer at the royal ball as though it were a live broadcast.

Notably, the home video release (not viewed for this review) contains yet another reference, an extended parody of American Idol called Far Far Away Idol which not only loosely follows the format of the show, but also literally includes Simon Cowell voicing an animated version of himself as a judge. There was even a way for viewers to vote on a winner of the competition (the official winner was Doris). Since American Idol was new at the time, it only made sense that Shrek 2 would want to reference it, but nowadays it only contributes to the “Early 2000s” vibe that permeates the film.

The home video release features an extended American Idol
parody in which Shrek (Mike Myers), Fiona (Cameron Diaz)
and Simon Cowell (Simon Cowell) are judges.

On that note, as with Shrek, Shrek 2 includes a good number of licensed songs. However, the ones performed in the movie are predominantly covers, including one for “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. and two (yes, two) for “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. However, it does include some original material, including “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows, which would receive Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

While Shrek 2 has arguably had less of a lasting impact on internet culture compared to the original Shrek, its presence as a pop culture powerhouse for the time cannot go unstated. Due to how well it stood out compared to its contemporaries, Shrek 2 was highly successful at the box office, making about $920 million against a budget of $150 million. As Dreamworks’ most successful film to date, it was the highest-grossing animated film of all time until Toy Story 3 (2010), the highest-grossing animated film in the US until Finding Dory (2016) and was the highest-grossing film of 2004. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but lost to The Incredibles (2004).

The most lasting part of this film’s legacy, however, is the introduction of Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). His popularity eventually led to a spin-off film, Puss in Boots (2011) and the Netflix series The Adventures of Puss in Boots, which lasted for 78 episodes across six seasons between 2015 and 2018.

Shrek 2 introduces the popular Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

While Shrek 2 improves on its predecessor in terms of story, character and humor, the higher concentration of pop culture nods and anachronistic elements are nearly a distraction. It’s easy to see why the movie was such a juggernaut on release, but now it’s a little harder to see where the movie truly shines without consciously peeling back the outer layer of dated references that haven’t aged as well as they could’ve. After 14 years, Shrek 2 is still an enjoyable film that’s worth viewing today, partly due to its historical significance, although the original Shrek gets a slight edge for its balance of story and references.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shrek - It Ain't The Sharpest Tool In The Shed

Originally released in 2001, the original (Academy Award-winning) Shrek came out at a time when the Disney Renaissance had recently ended (and Pixar was not yet owned by them), shaking up the animation scene and putting DreamWorks Animation on the map. Shrek, based on a book by William Steig, has since become a multimedia franchise that set the tone for many of the studio’s follow-up films until the release of Kung Fu Panda in 2008, when the Shrek style of humor was falling out of favor. Though I first saw this movie when I was a kid, I had not seen it again for several years due to an overexposure to Shrek 2 and not getting around to my desire to rewatch the original until recently. While it has held up fairly decently in spite of its age, some aspects of the movie cause it to come off as rather dated.

While trying to enjoy his life of solitude in peace, Shrek’s (Mike Myers) swamp has become overrun by various fairy tale creatures who were thrown out of their homes by the ruler Lord Farquaad. Wanting to settle things with Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), Shrek is accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a talking donkey who knows the way to Duloc, Lord Farquaad’s residence. Shrek ends up winning a brief tournament and making a deal with Lord Farquaad to retrieve the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whom Farquaad wants to marry, from a castle guarded by a dragon, in exchange for Shrek regaining the deed to his swamp.

The story of the original Shrek follows a more simplistic plotline, though this isn’t really a bad thing as it makes things easier to follow. I don’t know how much it differs from the original book, though the movie essentially takes the story beats of Disney movies at the time and places a different twist on them, with the title ogre character not exactly being your typical prince charming and yet still finding love in the end. While Shrek himself, like an onion, has a lot of layers to his character (a metaphor actually used in the movie), as does Princess Fiona, I can’t exactly say the same for Donkey or Lord Farquaad. While Donkey does have some emotional range aside from his wit, he comes off as more of an annoying chatterbox, leading characters (and possibly the viewer) to constantly want him to stay quiet for more than a few seconds. Farquaad doesn’t have much of a character either, being onscreen for less than ten minutes (someone counted [spoilers in link]), though some aspects are evident through background design and visual gags and not entirely shoved in your face.

Shrek (Mike Myers; right) explains to Donkey (Eddie Murphy; left)
how ogres, like onions, have layers.

The animation hasn’t really stood the test of time, looking more or less unfinished by comparison to modern standards, however it is still watchable. This can be attributed to all-CG animation being in its infancy at the time (the last Pixar movie to come out was Toy Story 2), though it’s evident DreamWorks Animation put effort into making the animation look good for its time. That said, the liquid effects, especially mud, haven’t aged well at all.

As for the fairy-tale setting, while it is clear it’s meant to be a medieval aesthetic, there are some anachronisms such as modeling the façade of Duloc after a modern amusement park (including a parking lot, Farquaad mascot, turnstile and souvenir photo). That said, it otherwise sticks largely true to its art direction. This movie is also surprisingly minimal when it comes to pop culture references (ex. the magic mirror acts like a game show host and there’s a quip about celebrity marriages), though one that stands out is a reference to the (in)famous “bullet time” scene from The Matrix that has been parodied to hell and back. By comparison, its follow-up Shrek 2 contains even more pop culture jokes, which means to me that DreamWorks must’ve taken the wrong lesson from Shrek’s success when deciding to turn it into an ongoing franchise.

One of many anachronisms in the movie.

The voice acting is one aspect that has held up better, primarily amongst the four main characters. Mike Myers, prior to his career nosedive, gives a memorable performance as the titular Shrek character, his iconic Scottish accent allowing him to stand out from most of the other characters. Though his character can get grating, Eddie Murphy’s performance as Donkey makes sure that you won’t forget him anytime soon. Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow also do a good job with their respective roles of Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaar, Lithgow in particular being good enough to let you believe the character has more depth than he actually possesses. Though a bit character in this film, Conrad Vernon admittedly made the Gingerbread Man memorable, which may explain his (somewhat) expanded role in Shrek 2.

Unlike the Disney films it was making fun of, Shrek makes use of a number of licensed tracks, most notably the highly-memetic Smash Mouth song “All Star” during the opening credits and said band’s cover of The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” towards the end. Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is also used briefly in one scene, though the song would later receive more association with Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy. Donkey sings parts of a few other songs at different points in the movie, adding on to the aforementioned anachronistic pop culture references, though as with the other modern references they are brief and don’t really interrupt the narrative.

To say that Shrek made a splash on the internet is an understatement. In more recent years, the first film and its sequels made a resurgence in popularity via an ironic fandom that would become more unironic as time passed, including legitimate discussion on the franchise’s overall quality. Aside from various lines from the movies becoming memes on their own, a more tasteful meme for discussion is the previously-mentioned song “All Star” getting remixed and parodied into oblivion, with Shrek usually having some presence due to association. Chief among these is YouTuber Neil Cicierega creating the “Mouth” trilogy of remix albums that heavily feature “All Star” in some capacity, going so far as to include hidden references to the song that can only be found by digging into the sound files.

Rather notably, this movie takes some influence from some bad blood between DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Once Katzenberg was booted out of Disney and went on to co-found DreamWorks SKG (of which DreamWorks Animation is a subsidiary), he would later use the Shrek adaptation as an opportunity to get back at Eisner, to the point of having Lord Farquaad act as a caricature of him. The success of Shrek and its first sequel would also indirectly contribute to Eisner being eventually let go from Disney.

Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) is a caricature of Michael Eisner.

After 17 years, the original Shrek holds up pretty well, though the animation quality (by modern standards), crass humor and dated references bog it down a bit. That said, the story and its message are still good and its characters are memorable, which makes the film watchable even today. If anything, this film has become better known for impact on internet culture, though it’s worth a look for its historical significance in feature animation (it won the first Acadaemy Award for Best Animated Feature after all) and makes for a generally enjoyable viewing. If you’re looking for a Disney parody that has better stood the test of time, I would instead suggest The Emperor’s New Groove, ironically made by Disney themselves and released just five months prior to Shrek.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

God of War (2018) - It All Begins Here...Again

After God of War III concluded the story of Kratos’ run in Greek mythology, alongside the PSP game God of War: Ghost of Sparta later that year (which expanded on a one-off line from Zeus), Santa Monica Studio made the bold move of following things up with a prequel, God of War: Ascension, which set out to expand on Kratos’ actions prior to the events of the original 2005 game. Years later, a new chapter in Kratos’ saga, also called God of War and set in Norse mythology, was hyped at E3 and I was instantly hooked from the first trailer. I was, in fact, so hyped that I pre-ordered the Stone Mason Edition, which includes several physical and digital items, among them a cloth map of the game world and a statue of Kratos and his son Atreus. After spending some time with the game following release day, I would say that this new God of War was overall worth the hype and proved to be an interesting learning experience on Norse mythology.

Some time after the events of God of War III, Kratos is in the land of Norse mythology teaching his son Atreus how to survive in the wild. After giving his late wife a Viking funeral, Kratos and Atreus go on a journey to fulfill her last wish and spread her ashes from the highest point in all the realms. This is compounded, however, when the Norse Gods start going after them for reasons Kratos had been keeping secret from Atreus.

The story is not only excellently pulled-off (the secret ending is worth it), it also explores Kratos more as a character beyond his admittedly flatter portrayal during the Greek Era. His bonding with Atreus on their journey has him acting more subdued and wiser, as well as trying to be a good father to his son to the best of his ability, though his stoicism can still lead to some funny moments. In any case, it’s interesting to see a more three-dimensional Kratos, aided by Christopher Judge’s talent and the way Atreus is handled in-game, and I can’t wait to see what more they can do with this in future games.

The graphics are absolutely spectacular, surpassing even God of War III and pushing the PS4’s capabilities as far as they can. The backdrops are gorgeous and everything manages to have lots of detail without being off-putting (unlike its PS3 predecessor, God of War: Ascension). A notable aspect of the game is that, outside of menus, the visuals are presented in one continuous shot, an effect that, along with the graphical quality, helps make gameplay and cutscenes indistinguishable from each other.

The visuals are spectacular. (From left: Kratos, Atreus)

The gameplay is both similar and different to the previous entries, different in that Kratos instead wields a new weapon known as the Leviathan Axe. This weapon has its own useful features, mainly in the ability to throw and retrieve it (much like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, as many have noted) to pull off some crazy combinations, in addition to some different abilities you can equip to the Axe for a more versatile play-style. Kratos also wields a customizable Shield (though your pre-order dictates how many options you have at the start) that works in tandem with different abilities in addition to blocking, plus his son Atreus can shoot arrows at enemies on command along with different summons for holding the button down. What makes the gameplay similar in this regard is that, despite the changes to combat, it still feels like a God of War experience, just at a somewhat closer camera angle.

A new armor and crafting system has also been introduced to the series, wherein you can customize Kratos and Atreus’ armor and weapons, as well as equip Kratos’ armaments with various Talismans that actually affect gameplay in addition to stats. Choosing the right combination can mean life or death at certain points in the game, however the exact loadout you want is entirely up to personal preference in the end. The game also features a somewhat different game world, in that it is still linear with some non-linearity, leaving itself open to including various side quests and hidden treasures to find. There’s also different realms to explore, two of which are optional, giving the player even more things to do in the game world. In general, there is so much to do in Midgard alone that after the playing through the story you’ll want to just keep exploring more and see what you get. So much so that there is now a fast travel system that involves activating special gates to warp between specified locations; whether or not this works well is up to the player.

Among the things you can find are different types of chests, each of them designed such that you can easily tell what sort of thing you will get. One of these types is the Nornir chest, which requires undoing three well-hidden seals (runes) to open, which encourages exploring the environment to see if you can find them (until you resort to a guide in some cases). One type I was not particularly fond of, though, were Nornir chests that required ringing three bells in order to undo the seals, often requiring several tries to get the timing just right. Regardless, the rewards inside are usually worth the trouble.

One thing I commend the game for is that, much like its Greek-centered predecessors, it serves as a great, if unconventional, way of learning about Norse mythology. The game is packed with information on the subject, largely contained within side conversations and hidden shrines throughout the game world that present this information in the form of stories. The way the story utilizes aspects of Norse mythology contributes to this, since, once you know more about said mythos, it’s interesting to see the game put somewhat of a different spin on certain elements. While there is so much to learn from this game alone, the way things are presented makes me want to see what else they can put into any subsequent installments.

God of War (2018) is an excellent entry in the God of War saga that should not be missed by fans and PS4 owners alike. It tells a very intriguing story that explores a different side of Kratos’ character, as well as featuring a glutton of information regarding Norse mythology that many will find interesting to learn. The quality-of-life changes to the formula help keep the series fresh and, alongside the introduction of Atreus, opens up a lot more options during combat. This game can be a good jumping-on point for newcomers, however certain aspects of Kratos’ character make more sense for those that have at least played the main entries in the series. Regardless, it’s an amazing game on its own merits that will leave players wanting more.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

After 10 years of buildup across 18 previous films, Marvel Studios has finally released Avengers: Infinity War, the movie where the Avengers finally confront Thanos. While this highly anticipated movie is a landmark event for the superhero genre, I was unable to see it until this weekend and had fortunately dodged just about every spoiler until now. With that said, Infinity War was well worth the wait, but with an unfortunately large caveat.

Immediately following the events of Thor: Ragnarok, Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his lieutenants are onboard Thor and Loki’s ship. While Thanos uses his attack on the ship to obtain one of the six Infinity Stones, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is able to send Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) back to Earth to warn others of Thanos’ arrival. On Earth, the Avengers subsequently become involved in the fight against Thanos in some form or another while, out in space, the Guardians of the Galaxy become wrapped up in the conflict after following an Asgardian distress signal.

The overall plot for Infinity War is actually pretty easy to follow in spite of the enormous cast. What helps is that the characters are actually split up in groups across multiple locations, which helps to keep the settings fresh and the encounters with Thanos and his minions unique. The execution is also a large contrast with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In Ultron, the story bogged itself down with an overly complex layering of individual plotlines and very slow pacing. In Infinity War, while there are various subplots, they’re all kept simple and to the point, which quickens the pace and allows them to more easily tie together in the end.

What also helps the pace is how Infinity War manages to incorporate humor without diminishing the tone of the story. Most of the humor comes from the various character interactions, especially when the Guardians of the Galaxy are onscreen. In the case of the Guardians it helps that they sound like how they did in their own movies, courtesy of James Gunn, who had written their dialogue despite being uncredited. Even outside of that, the movie knows exactly when to have a funny moment and when to take itself seriously, which allows the more powerful moments to stand out.

On that note, there is a rather large caveat that should be mentioned for anyone wishing to see this film. If you have not seen all 18 previous films in the MCU, you will undoubtedly become confused about one thing or another; it’s like having a test that’s inclusive to an entire school year. While Infinity War does try its best to be enjoyable in a vacuum, it features nearly every major character that has appeared in previous movies and, as a result, also involves plot threads that go as far back as Phase One. However, even if you have seen all 18 prior installments, there is a chance you will have forgotten something if you haven’t seen some of them in a while. Therefore, to get the best enjoyment out of Infinity War, it’s best to have seen all the other movies in the MCU, preferably as close together as possible.

Without spoiling much of anything, the acting from just about every character is very good. Of particular note is Josh Brolin’s performance as Thanos. Since he now has a lot more room to work with the character, he’s able to deliver an amazing, and occasionally emotional, performance that adds a lot more depth to what we had seen prior. Additionally, Thanos’ lieutenants all have distinct designs and performances, but good luck remembering their names (for the record, they are Ebony Maw, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive).

Avengers: Infinity War is a great example of a movie that can actually live up to its hype. The story is rather easy to follow, Thanos is a highly memorable and surprisingly complex villain and the movie is able to balance its humor such that powerful moments retain their impact, as well as its characters such that they are easy to keep track of. On top of that, the visual effects are absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, Infinity War will more than likely be confusing to those who either have not seen all of the previous MCU movies or are for some reason jumping into this one completely blind. I would highly recommend this for existing fans of Marvel Studios, as it really pays off for that audience, but everyone else has some serious movie watching in their future, if only to stave off confusion.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Stubs - South of St. Louis

South of St. Louis (1949) Starring Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith, Zachary Scott, Dorothy Malone, Douglas Kennedy, Alan Hale, Victor Jory, Bob Steele, Monte Blue, and Nacho. Director: Ray Enright. Screenplay by Zachary Gold, James R. Webb. Produced by Milton Sperling. Runtime: 89 minutes. U.S.A. Color, Western.

If you haven’t heard of United States Pictures before, you’re not alone. An independent studio run by producer Milton Sperling, United States Pictures produced 14 features from Cloak and Dagger (1946) directed by Fritz Lang to Battle of the Bulge (1965) directed by Ken Annakin. The studio would dabble in several genres, including film noir: Cloak and Dagger, and The Enforcer (1951) directed by Bretaigne Windust & Raoul Walsh; war films: Retreat, Hell! (1952), Merrill's Marauders (film) (1962) directed by Samuel Fuller, Battle of the Bulge; and Westerns: Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, Distant Drums (1951) directed by Raoul Walsh, and South of St. Louis (1949) directed by Ray Enright.

South of St. Louis was originally called Distant Drums, a title that would get used later, and was set to star Lilli Palmer with a screenplay by Ben Hecht. Of course, that’s not what happened. It’s hard to know what that film might have been, but that’s not the film we’re dealing with here. The term South of St. Louis is apparently a Civil War expression used to describe army deserters, though that is not really related to the final film.

The film opens in Missouri, south of St. Louis, during the Civil War. Far from the main battlefields of the war, Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders operate in the name of the Union Army. Driven from their homesteads, settlers migrate to Texas. On their way out, they pass the Three Bell Ranch which has been burned to the ground. The three owners and best friends, Kip Davis (Joel McCrea), Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott) and Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy), vow revenge.

Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott), Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy) and  Kip Davis (Joel McCrea)
find their ranch The Three Bell has been destroyed.

Despite the fact that Kip’s fiancée, Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone), wants him to go with her to the small town of Edenton, the three head to the Texas border town of Brownsville, a Union Army stronghold, to look for Cottrell. There at a bar run by Jake Everts (Alan Hale, Sr.), they find Cottrell and Kip beats him up.

Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders take a break in a Brownsville bar.

Later, Lee decides to leave and join the Confederate Army. The other two will stay behind and work to raise money to build back the Three Bell.

Lee joins the Confederate Army while Charlie and Kip keep working to raise money to rebuild the Ranch.

Afterward, Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith), a saloon singer and Rebel sympathizer, offers Kip $50 to transport a wagon load of furniture for her. Without hesitation, Kip agrees to do it and starts out immediately. However, on the way, he has an accident with a Union Army wagon, revealing that his freight is not furniture but guns intended for the Confederate Army. Kip is arrested and sent to the Stockade.

Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith) hires Kip to deliver "furniture".

On his way to the stockade, another Confederate sympathizer paid off by Rouge,  lets him go free. Immediately, a carriage carrying Rouge pulls up. She offers him a chance to work with her smuggling guns for the Confederacy from Matamoros, Mexico into Brownsville.

Rouge’s contact in Matamoros is a Frenchman, Henri Brugnon (Paul Maxey), who informs her that he has no more weapons, having sold them to Cottrell.

Meanwhile, Charlie hires a gang of men, including Slim Hansen (Bob Steele), who used to be a member of Cottrell’s gang.

Slim Hansen (Bob Steele) joins Charlie's gang after having run with Cottrell.

Some months later, Kip, Charlie, and their gang bring a load of guns across the river into Texas and find Cottrell waiting for them. A gunfight ensues, and Kip's men are rescued by a contingent of Confederate soldiers, led by Lee.

Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone) is the girl Kip leaves behind, but she moves herself.

When they arrive in Edenton with the guns, Kip goes to see Deb, who has been working as a nurse in a converted hospital. She’s happy to see him and begs him to stay with her.  Kip, however, is still determined to rebuild his ranch and continues to smuggle guns to keep making money.

After the Confederate Army recaptures Brownsville, Kip wants to return to Three Bell. Lee, who is now a lieutenant in the army, chooses to continue fighting. Meanwhile, Charlie has become more interested in making money than returning to the ranch and decides to continue gun running.

Kip returns to Edenton and asks Deb to marry him and come back with him to the ranch. Surprisingly, she turns him down, feeling that her work as a nurse it too important and decides she can’t leave. Kip goes back to smuggling, which pleases Rouge, who has fallen in love with him.

Cottrell threatens to kill Kip and Charlie if they ever return to Matamoros, so Slim suggests that they steal the shipment before it arrives. Dressed as Union soldiers, they steal the guns. However, getting back into Texas poses a problem when they are intercepted by Confederate soldiers as they cross the river. Mistaking them for Union soldiers, the Confederates open fire and a shootout ensues. While Kip and Charlie survive, they end up killing the leader of the Confederate band. Back in Texas, Lee suspects the truth and ends his long-term partnership with Kip and Charlie.

The three friends start to splinter when Lee suspects his friends have killed his fellow soldiers.

When Cottrell kills one of Kip's men, Kip resolves to kill him. Slim, who used to ride with him, warns Cottrell, hoping that warning him will help eliminate Kip allowing Charlie to become the sole leader of the gang.

Kip avoids Cottrell’s ambush, but before Cottrell can tell him about Slim's double-cross, Slim kills him.

Returning to Edenton, Kip learns that Deb has fallen in love with Lee. After having lost both his friends and his fiancée, Kip leaves for Matamoros, accompanied by Rouge. With time on his hands, Kip starts to drink heavily.

After the war, Lee joins the newly established Texas Rangers and he is sent to Brownsville to clean things up. It’s not clear what he’s supposed to clean up, but apparently, it’s his old friend Charlie’s operations, since as soon as he arrives in town, Charlie threatens him. Concerned for his safety, Deb, who is with her husband, rides to Matamoros to ask for Kip's help.

Rouge convinces Kip to help his old friend.

At first, Kip isn’t keen to get involved, but with Rouge’s encouragement, he rides to stand by Lee’s side. There is a standoff between Charlie and his gang against Kip and Lee. When Slim tells Charlie that he has a sharpshooter ready to kill Kip and Lee, Charlie can't take it and at the last minute, he joins his old friends in a shootout with his own gang.

The Three Bells stand side by side in their last gunfight.

While the three friends are victorious, a mortally wounded Slim shoots him. As Charlie lies there dying, Kip promises him that the ranch will always be called the Three Bell and that they won’t change the brand.

Later, married to Rouge, Kip returns to rebuild the ranch. When Kip mentions that they’ll need a couple of boys to help them rebuild, Rouge promises, if he gives her a couple of years, to provide them.

The fact that this is called a Western does not sit quite right with me. Westerns are often set on the American frontier during the last part of the 19th century (1865-1900) following the Civil War, in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. Typically, the subjects are white settlers vs. Indians, cattle ranchers vs. sheepherders, the coming of the railroad, cattle drives, and the like. Most of this film takes place during the Civil War, and while there is talk of cattle, we never really ever see any. No railroads. No Indians. Not that I’m against bending genres, but this one seems to be a Western only in passing.

Also, there are the bells that the three main characters wear on their spurs. Lee even continues to wear one with his Confederate uniform. Not sure what the motivation would be for three grown men to wear a little bell like that. There is never any explanation. This may sound a little old-fashioned on my part, but its a little too cute to be believable.

While I’m not a Civil War history buff, I am still dubious about the film’s historical accuracy. I always thought that Texas fell at the end of the war, rather than during it, as this film seems to suggest. Nor that Brownsville ever fell to the Union only to be retaken by the South. This film comes across more as bending history to make the movie work.

And speaking of the Civil War, the film’s protagonists are obviously on the wrong side of history. While there is no indication that none of them actually own slaves, we’re still supposed to be rooting for Confederate sympathizers. I’m not one of those PC types, but it still seems surprising that Hollywood would choose to make heroes out of them, even back in 1949. Don’t get me wrong, there can be some very compelling stories about people in this position, but sadly this isn’t one of them.

The acting is okay, but nothing really to write home about. Joel McCrea always seems to play the same sort of character, always earnest and likable. Not that I have seen all that many McCrea films, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a drunk before and he’s not all that believable as one.

Zachary Scott always seems to play the heavy, even though he starts out as a friend and ends up as one, there is a good part of the film where money has become the most important thing to him, friendships be damned.

Alexis Smith and Dorothy Malone seem to play two sides of the same character. Dorothy’s Deb is the pretty country girl who seems, at least in the beginning, to be in love with Kip. It’s only when her work and his work pull them in different directions that she ends up with another man. Alexis’ Rouge is a saloon singer, who one suspects has not been a one-woman man, but she is there to pick Kip up when he stumbles. In the end, both Deb and Rouge end up married and surprisingly it is Rouge who ends up on the ranch looking forward to being a mother.

Of all the genres, Westerns were probably the most popular in Hollywood. Relatively inexpensive to make, they always seemed to have a fan base. That said, there are several better examples of the genre out there that I would recommend over this outing. This film is sadly more forgettable than memorable. If you want a horse opera, you would be better served to look elsewhere.