Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review Hub - Pixar

Prior to the release of Toy Story in 1995, no one thought it would be possible to tell a feature-length story in CG, let alone one that could be fondly remembered. Once Toy Story proved that both were possible, the Disney-owned studio Pixar pioneered the rise in CG-animated movies, with the studio themselves being generally celebrated for their work and innovation. Though Cars 2 proved to be somewhat of a setback for the studio's track record, they still continue to push forward and persist in delivering the best quality movies they can (though some movies arguably do not quite match up to their output prior to Cars 2). Having followed the studio since the original Toy Story, we will continue to provide reviews of Pixar's work, assuming we believe it worth watching.

Below is a list of every Pixar review on this blog, organized by order of release. (Links to Second Opinions will be placed next to the original review in parentheses.)


Toy Story
Monsters, Inc.
Finding Nemo
The Incredibles (Second Opinion)
Cars 2
Monsters University
Inside Out
The Good Dinosaur
Finding Dory

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stubs - Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014) Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Borenstein. Based on Godzilla aka Gojira (1954) by Toho. Produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers. Run Time: 123 minutes. U.S.A. Color Monster, Horror, Science Fiction

Hollywood has a long history of remaking foreign films in their own image. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a remake of Seven Samurai (七人の侍 Shichinin no Samurai) (1954); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) is a remake of the French film Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932) and so on and so on. No film is safe, including monster films, like Gojira (1954), a Japanese film better known in the U.S. as Godzilla. Even that first film was bastardized by Hollywood with the insertions of scenes with American actor Raymond Burr to make it more accessible for American audiences.

That trend continued with a full remake of Godzilla (1998) directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick. Budgeted at $130 million, the film would underperform at the U.S. box office. Originally projected to make $90 million on its opening weekend, it only made $55.7 million. It would top out at $136 million domestically and make only $379,014,294. Considering its cost, that is not blockbuster numbers. That film received generally negative reviews and would win two Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Supporting Actress and Worst Remake Sequel.

Sony, which had dreams of a franchise, instead let their rights to the Toho property expire in 2003 and Legendary Pictures picked up the property. Legendary, in turn, brought in Warner Bros. as a co-financier and co-production company. Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures, announced “Our plans are to produce the Godzilla that we, as fans, would want to see. We intend to do justice to those essential elements that have allowed this character to remain as pop-culturally relevant for as long as it has."

It is rumored that Guillermo del Toro was approached about directing, but turned it down. In January 2011, Gareth Edwards was announced as the director. Edwards had directed exactly one film up to that point, Monsters (2010), a film with a budget of $500,000. Godzilla would have a budget of $160 million.

David Callaham wrote the first draft, but as is the way with blockbusters in Hollywood, he would not be the only writer. David S. Goyer was hired to act like a script doctor before Max Borenstein was hired to continue the rewrites in November 2011. Drew Pearce was hired in October 2012 to do a polish, but it was Frank Darabont who did the final rewrite in January 2013.

Principal photography got underway in Vancouver on March 18, 2013. Location shooting in Hawaii took place in June and July and principal photography wrapped on July 13-14.

Warner Bros. handled distribution worldwide, excluding Japan, which was handled by Toho. The film opened in the U.S. on May 16, 2014.

The film starts in 1954 (the same year as the original film). Godzilla, an ancient alpha predator, is lured to an atoll in the Pacific in an attempt to kill it with a nuclear bomb. (Note: This is not the way the monster is killed in the original.)

Fast forward to 1999. A collapsed mine in the Philippines reveals a colossal skeleton underground and Monarch scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are sent to investigate. In the cave, they find two giant spores; one dormant and one hatched with a trail that leads out of the cave to the sea.

One has hatched.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant experiences unusual seismic activity; Supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sends his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a nuclear technician, and a team of other technicians into the reactor to investigate. However, another tremor breaches the reactor. Joe rushes to the blast door, but the team is too far in to make it out before Joe has to close it. Sandra and the team make it to the door, just long enough for Joe to feel awful about what he had to do. Following the breach, the plant collapses, because that is what nuclear plants do.

Fast forward 15 years ahead to 2014. Stateside, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, is just home in San Francisco from his latest tour of duty. He wants to spend time with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son Sam (Carson Bolde), but a phone call changes all that. Joe has been arrested, again, for trespassing in the Janjira quarantine zone. Ford flies to Japan to get his father out of jail. Joe is determined to return to the zone and persuades Ford to accompany him back to their old home.

When they get there, they find that the zone is not contaminated with radiation, which is the official story. Back in their old house, Joe finds the data he’d been looking for. Shortly thereafter, soldiers discover them and they are taken to a secret facility in the ruins that had once been the nuclear plant.

While they’re there, there is a series of power failures and the facility is ultimately destroyed by a giant winged creature. In the attack, Joe gets severely wounded and dies on the helicopter that is taking him and Ford to the U.S.S. Saratoga. The news reports the incident as an earthquake.

Serizawa, Graham, and Ford join a U.S. Navy task force led by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) to search for the creature, called a "MUTO" (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that attacked the plant.

Serizawa and Graham reveal to Ford that a 1954 deep sea expedition triggered the appearance of Godzilla and that the nuclear tests in the 1950s were cover stories for attempts to kill him. Project Monarch, of which Serizawa and Graham are a part, was established to secretly study Godzilla and other similar creatures such as the MUTO, which traveled from the Philippine mine to Janjira and caused the meltdown at the nuclear plant, killing his mother. Ford reveals that his father had monitored echolocation signals which seemed to indicate the MUTO was communicating with something.

Meanwhile, the MUTO attacks a Russian submarine and pulls it out of the ocean, dropping down on a Hawaiian island, so that it can digest the sub's nuclear material. Godzilla finally arrives, causing a tsunami in Honolulu and briefly battles the MUTO until the latter flees.

A second, larger, wingless MUTO, meanwhile, emerges from the other spore in Nevada and devastates Las Vegas. The scientists deduce that the second MUTO is a female and the one the other MUTO was communicating with. Based on their movements, they figure the two MUTOs will meet to breed in San Francisco.

Godzilla on the way to San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Navy is following Godzilla to the mainland riding on the water right above him.
With all three in the Bay Area, Stenz approves a plan to use nuclear warheads to lure the monsters to the open ocean and destroy them. When the scientist objects and points out that this has been tried before, they are reminded that the nuclear weapons that we have now are much more powerful than the ones we had in 1954.

The Army greets Godzilla at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ford, meanwhile, ends up joining the team delivering the warheads by train. His past experience as an explosive ordnance disposal officer is considered useful by the force making the delivery. But when the track comes to a narrow bridge, the female MUTO intercepts it and consumes most of the warheads.

The Army escorting the missiles on the way to San Francisco.

However, one remains and Ford is airlifted with it to San Francisco. After a confrontation with Godzilla at the Golden Gate Bridge, the weapon is activated. However, before it arrives at its destination, the male MUTO steals it and presents it to the female. She uses it to form a nest around it in Chinatown.

Mr. and Mrs. MUTO in Chinatown.

While Godzilla and the MUTOs do battle, a strike team, which of course includes Ford, enters the city via HALO jump to find and disarm the warhead in Chinatown. However, when they are unable to access the timer, the team takes the warhead to a boat for disposal at sea.

Ford and other troops HALO jump into Chinatown.

The MUTOs get the upper hand on Godzilla, but when Ford blows up the MUTO nest, burning all of the eggs, the MUTOs are distracted enough to allow Godzilla to emerge victoriously. He kills the male MUTO by slamming him with his tail into the side of an office building and the female by firing his atomic breath down her throat. Exhausted, Godzilla collapses on the city shore.

Godzilla kills the female MUTO with his atomic breath.

With the rest of his team killed, Ford uses his last bit of energy to maneuver the boat with the warhead on it out to sea. Rescued at the last moment before the warhead explodes, Ford is finally reunited with his family at the Oakland Coliseum emergency shelter the following morning.

Meanwhile, Godzilla awakens and rises from the destroyed San Francisco. After a final, victorious roar, the monster returns to sea while the local media hails Godzilla as "King of the Monsters - savior of our city?"

The film was released in the U.S. on May 16, 2014 and made $529.1 million worldwide, resulting ultimately in what is estimated to be about $52.5 million in profit after all distribution and marketing costs are figured in. That seems to be enough profit for Legendary to propose a sequel pitting Godzilla against King Kong, tentatively titled Godzilla vs. Kong, for 2020 release.

When you see highly touted actors like Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Juliette Binoche in relatively small roles, it makes you realize that even actors have mortgage payments to make. Why else would they be in a film like this? I doubt it was the acting challenge their roles presented them. Tentpole films are not generally known for winning acting awards.

The others in the cast, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn are not bad, but Hawkins and Strathairn, in particular, seem wasted here. The acting may be the least of the film’s problems, but there are still many.

Primary among them is that in this retelling, the titular character, Godzilla, does not make an appearance until halfway through the film. The film’s somewhat plodding pacing makes it seem like it takes forever before we finally see the monster the story is supposed to be about. And then it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Does this look like a natural creature?

The creatures, Godzilla and Mr. and Mrs. MUTO, appear more mechanical than biological in appearance and don’t seem to have any evolutionary purpose. The eggs we are “treated” to in the female’s body seem to glow in an unnatural manner. I know it’s supposed to evoke radiation, but they don’t look natural. Not that I want to see it, but there never seems to be a time when Mr. MUTO fertilizes the eggs, which is still required in most biological reproduction. Perhaps the nuclear missile is a Freudian stand-in for the act, though the film leads us to believe the missile is just a missile.

Fertilized MUTO eggs wrapped around a nuclear missile.

The idea that they feed off of nuclear radiation makes the idea of killing them with a nuclear weapon seem sort of like trying to kill someone through making them overeat, perhaps hoping they would explode. Except for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), has that ever really worked? There is a lot of pseudo-science in Godzilla, the kind where if they talk fast and through in an explosion you’ll just have to accept.

Even for a science fiction fantasy, the film suffers from too much coincidence for me. Ford just happens to have the skill set necessary for the plot, even though one would have to imagine that there would be many currently in the military with the same skills. The fact that the military launched a plan without someone like him seems somewhat incredulous. Ford just happens to also be the son of the man and woman who ran the Japanese nuclear power plant that was attacked and he happens to live the same city where the action culminates. Was Ford born under a bad sign or what? But all too often, he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And frankly, I'm not really sure what Godzilla's motivation is to kill the MUTOs. It is not for food, Godzilla doesn't attempt to eat them after killing them. It's not for sport, like the Predator. And it can't be to help mankind since the last thing we'd done to him was to try and kill him. But for some reason, Godzilla puts his life on the line to save us. Why? Because this film needs a big battle, that's why and that's not really a good reason.

We watched this film on the anniversary of the original Gojira’s Japanese release in 1954. It is a great reminder that sometimes simple is better and more effective. A man in a Godzilla suit is more realistic than a CGI one. So, if you’re itching to watch a Godzilla film, I would recommend watching Gojira over this reincarnation.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Second Look - Space Jam

Three years ago, I reviewed the Looney Tunes/Michael Jordan movie Space Jam, both to look at something I had seen as a kid and as a lead-in to the game Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. In the years since the original post, I have come to realize that, among other things, my opinion on the movie may have been more influenced by an outside source than I had initially believed. So, in time for the movie’s 21st anniversary, I have decided to rewatch the movie and offer a re-review based on how I felt. Though some of my opinions stay the same, I have generally come to view Space Jam a little more positively, though still not entirely.

Based on a Nike Super Bowl commercial, the movie opens with a young Michael Jordan (Brandon Hammond) aspiring to become a professional basketball player, which the opening credits montage of NBA footage shows that he does. As he did in real life, the movie cuts to Jordan (played by himself) starting a professional baseball career to emulate his father. Over the course of the movie, he is dragged into an interstellar conflict in which he must help the Looney Tunes (who live in the center of the Earth) win a basketball game against a group of aliens called the Nerdlucks, who have absorbed the talents of professional NBA stars to become the Monstars. If the Looney Tunes lose, they will be forced to become the latest attraction of the space amusement park Six Flags Magic Mountain Moron Mountain, run by Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito).

The crossover 63% of you asked for (from left: Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan).

The story generally follows a consistent pace, managing to balance the two narratives of Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes to form a somewhat cohesive whole. There is, however, a plot point that seems to come out of nowhere, that being Bill Murray’s (playing himself) appearance in the final act, where he suddenly joins the Tune Squad to help defeat the Monstars in the big basketball game. His appearance is explained away by a meta joke (he was essentially able to walk onto the set), however it still seems like a deus ex machina since the only foreshadowing he gets is him discussing basketball, while playing golf, with Michael Jordan prior to Jordan getting taken to the Tunes’ world. In any case, as said in the preceding paragraph, it does accurately portray Michael Jordan’s professional sports career, since he went from the NBA to the MiLB before returning to the NBA, playing for the Chicago Bulls before and after baseball. Behind the scenes, production for Space Jam may have helped influence Jordan’s return to basketball, seen at the end of the movie, as the studio had constructed a full-size basketball court so he could practice and
 get back into the rhythm of playing.

The animation is actually pretty good, at least in regards to the Tunes and the aliens, and manages to hold up pretty well (although the general quality fluctuates a little during the climactic basketball game). The CG effects, on the other hand, are incredibly outdated by today’s standards, even with the context of the animated characters. When applied to humans especially, these effects can easily edge into nightmare fuel, among such moments a scene where Jordan is morphed into a basketball-like shape that the Monstars play around with to taunt the Tunes. In spite of this, viewers may enjoy seeing their favorite Looney Tunes characters on-screen, even some more obscure characters that appear in some crowd shots (including the recently-memetic Dover Boys, whose short is currently public domain). Though the Tunes themselves can be a little more mean-spirited than what you’d find in an old Looney Tunes short, one can view these versions of the Tunes as alternate counterparts to the ones featured in the shorts, partially due to this movie setting them up as living inside the Earth’s core.

Quick, before the copyright gets renewed!

As stated in my original review, a positive I would give the movie is its soundtrack, which features the memetic “Space Jam” by Quad City DJs, as well as the R. Kelly hit “I Believe I Can Fly” among other then-popular artists/songs that turn the 6x Platinum soundtrack into a ‘90s time capsule. Since my initial review, I have come to find more humor in the movie, including some visual gags and off-hand lines (including some of Bill Murray’s dialogue), however I still think it could have done without the occasional moments of toilet humor, at least one of which, where they literally spit-shine an old basketball court, was just a bit gross to see animated. The subplot of the now-talentless NBA stars is actually kind of funny, including a scene where it makes the plot of the movie sound even more ridiculous when put into spoken words. My opinion on the product placement remains the same, in that it can become a bit in-your-face; in one particular scene, the character of Stanley (Wayne Knight) rattles off a bunch of brands while telling Michael Jordan to get ready, with Jordan eating food from McDonald’s (who has actually sponsored him) on top of that.

In spite of the dubious quality of the movie, it does indeed have an enduring legacy, least of which is attaining a lasting cult following. Charles Barkley, one of the NBA stars featured in the movie as a victim of the Nerdlucks’ abilities, was made the main character of a (hilarious) fan-made RPG game, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (full name: Tales of Game’s Studios Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa), which actually features the story of Space Jam as part of the backstory as well as its own remix of the “Space Jam” theme. The game is set to get a Kickstarted sequel with original assets, Barkley 2 (full name: The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa), though it remains in development.

A more notable aspect of Space Jam’s legacy is that it features the first appearance of Lola Bunny; though she doesn’t have much character here (being introduced solely to give Bugs Bunny a love interest), she has since been given more development in following Looney Tunes offshoots, among them the Cartoon Network series The Looney Tunes Show, as well as having a descendent of hers starring in the Kids WB series Loonatics Unleashed. Talks of a sequel to Space Jam have also been going around for years, although so far nothing official has ever materialized for it.

Lola Bunny (right) didn't have much to go on in her first outing.

Upon giving it a second chance, Space Jam is, in my opinion, okay. There’s some legitimately funny moments in it and the traditional animation is a highlight (as is hearing the late June Foray actually voicing her regular characters), however it still doesn’t entirely appeal to me as a complete package. Regardless, it is rather easy to see why the movie has a cult following, especially when factoring in Lola Bunny’s debut in this movie as well as various memes and the aforementioned fan game starring Charles Barkley (plus I’m not one to judge unironic enjoyment of this particular movie since I unironically enjoy UHF). I wouldn’t entirely recommend Space Jam to Looney Tunes fans aside from its historical value for Lola, though it is overall somewhat enjoyable and is worth watching once to form your own opinion, especially if you’re a fan of Michael Jordan or are gearing up to play Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden.

Would you believe the official website is still active?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Stubs - Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Taika Waititi. Screenplay by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost. Based on Thor by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Runtime: 130 minutes. USA  Color. Superhero, Fantasy

While Thor has been a welcomed member of the Avengers, his solo films have been my least favorite of the solo MCU films. Both Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) were at best acceptable, though neither rose to the levels of Captain America's or Iron Man's films. Now, Thor had a disadvantage going in, as he was perhaps the least well-known of the Avengers, but the films were mostly dry affairs by comparison.

That has changed. Thor's third film, Thor: Ragnarok, which opened last week, is a much different film. One of the things that has separated the MCU from the DCEU is the humor that one has and the other seems to lack. The MCU, for the most part, has not taken itself too seriously. Finally, that has permeated the Thor franchise. One of the takeaways from this Thor is the humor as there are some laugh out loud sections.

But it's all not for the laughs; there is plenty of action with the fight scenes following the trend of only getting bigger with more at stake. In this case, it is Asgard itself that is at stake with the return of Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) until now, cinematically, unknown older sibling, sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), also known as the Goddess of Death. At one point, Hela and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) were out to rule all of the realms, but when Odin's ambitions waned he put Hela away and kept her from doing harm to others. But things have changed and Hela is now on the loose. Thor is left to fight her and his allies are his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a former member of the all-female Valkyrie now turned mercenary called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We won't get into how Thor and The Hulk link up because that would give too much of the story away, but the trailer will tell you.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are back in their fourth film together.

The film is a little like a homecoming, after all, these are sort of like old friends that you only see every few years. This is the fourth pairing of Thor and Loki in a film and their relationship doesn't appear to have really changed. Loki is only out for himself and will even deny he knows Thor if it suits him, and in this film he does. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are very comfortable in these roles and have a very good screen chemistry.

Besides Thor, Odin, Loki and the Hulk, Heimdall (Idris Elba) returns, though no longer the gatekeeper to Bifröst bridge, he is more heroic than ever. Elba is one of those actors who has a better reputation as an actor for the role he plays here.

Tessa Thompson plays Scrapper 142, a former Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok.

There are several newcomers to the franchise, including Scrapper 142 played by Tessa Thompson. She looks like she will fit in well with the cast of characters and I'm sure we'll be seeing her by Thor's side when next we see him.

Another newbie is Korg (Taika Waititi) a character made of stone who originated in the comic books as part of the Hulk, where he fights Thor at one point. Here, the character has been repurposed into an ally of Thor's. The director, who is also an actor, voices the character and infuses him with a soft-spoken and humorous tone, about the opposite of what you would expect from a stone-creature.

Cate Blanchett is Hela, the God of Death in Thor: Ragnarok

The MCU has become such a big deal that actors you might not think of as superhero players are in these films. Dr. Strange had Tilda Swinton, Ragnarok has Cate Blanchett, who has received two Academy Awards for her acting. Here she makes for a very good villainess, Hela, the Goddess of Death.

There are a couple of other bits of stunt casting. Jeff Goldblum appears as Grandmaster, one of the Elders of the Universe who runs a sort of interstellar deathmatch. The director, Taika Waititi, really wanted Goldblum to make the character his own, allowing him to improvise when the actor felt like it.

Karl Urban plays Skurge aka the Executioner.

Karl Urban continues the cross-franchise pollination, taking time off the Star Trek series to appear here as Skurge aka the Executioner, Hela's main minion. He really gets into the role to the point I honestly didn't recognize him.

Though the film is much better than its subfranchise predecessors, Thor: Ragnarok has the occasional best-not-to-think-about-it-too-hard moments. You're supposed to take it as it comes and not worry about how it may have gotten there in the first place.

But that doesn't take away from Thor: Ragnarok. If you've seen the entire run, like we have, you'll be happy to know that Ragnarok is not the spoonful of medicine that its predecessors were and you can pretty much sit back and enjoy the film. However, to really know what is going on you would need to have seen not only the first two Thors, but also The Avengers  (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and the post credit scene (oh, yes there was) in Doctor Strange (2016). While all of the MCU films are supposed to fit together, this is one that you should be able to enjoy if you're not a die-hard fan of the series. But a warning, try to curb your interest in the first two Thor films as they will probably not live up to your expectations.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Stubs: The Letter (1929)

The Letter (1929) Starring: Jeanne Eagels, Reginald Owen, O.P. Heggie, Herbert Marshall. Directed by Jean de Limur. Screenplay by Garrett Fort. Based on the play The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham (London, 24 Feb 1927). Produced by Monta Bell. Run Time: 61 minutes USA Black and White Drama

With the coming of sound, Hollywood went through a lot of changes. It’s pretty well known that many silent film stars were replaced by stage actors. Paramount Pictures even marketed their slate of talkies as serious filmmaking, focusing on the theatrical experience of the stars and the dramatic content of the stories. Monta Bell, their East Coast production head, had the idea of producing talkies with prominent stage stars in adaptations of well-known plays. His approach was not mere canned theater, but an attempt to blend the best of the Broadway stage with cinema.

Case in point, The Letter (1929), the first sound feature film made by Paramount Pictures at their Astoria Studios in New York. The Letter was a well-known play by W. Somerset Maugham, first produced in London in February 1927 and later that year on Broadway for 104 performances.

To star in this adaptation, Bell nabbed Jeanne Eagels, who had become a Broadway star with the lead in Rain, a play written by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham that debuted on Broadway in November 1922. Eagels had made a film for MGM, Man, Woman and Sin (1927) opposite John Gilbert and was available. While on tour with Her Cardboard Lover opposite Leslie Howard, Jeanne had missed several performances as a result with her own struggles with alcohol and drugs. As a result, in 1928, she was banned from the stage for 18 months by Actors Equity. She signed on to make three features for Bell.

For the film, in addition to Eagels, Bell brought in O.P. Heggie, Herbert Marshall and Reginald Owen, all actors with more stage experience, though a few had some experience with films as well. Heggie was an Australian actor who came to Broadway in 1915. In 1927, he was seen by Norma Shearer and her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in the Players Club revival of Trelawny of the Wells. The couple encouraged him to move to Hollywood. He appeared in his first film opposite Shearer in The Actress (1928).

Herbert Marshall, an English actor, had been acting since 1909 and had debuted on the London stage in Brewster’s Millions in 1913. At 24, Marshall enlisted in the British Army and served during World War I, losing a leg in the process. But with a prosthetic, Marshall continued acting after the war. By 1922, he was making regular appearances on Broadway. In 1927, he made his film debut in the silent British film Mumsie.

Reginald Owen, another British actor, had been working on Broadway since 1920. His first film was Henry VIII (1911), a silent British film. He would continue to make films in Britain while acting on the stage, including Possession (1922) and The Grass Orphan (1922).

Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen) informs his wife, Leslie (Jeanne Eagels), that
he's going into town to exchange his hunting rifle.

The Letter is set on a British-run rubber plantation outside of Singapore, headed by Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen). With him is his wife Leslie (Jeanne Eagels), who acts like an attentive wife while he fiddles with a hunting rifle. Feeling that it’s not heavy enough for the type of hunting he wants to do, he tells Leslie that he plans to go into Singapore that night to exchange it.

Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall) and his mistress Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei) before the letter arrives.

But no sooner has he ridden off on his motorcycle, then Leslie writes a letter which she has one of the manservants deliver it to Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), her lover. But Geoffrey is not alone, but is with Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei), his lover. The note is delivered and Geoffrey reads it, though he lies to Li-Ti about who it is from. He makes an excuse and leaves, though he drops the letter on the floor. Li-Ti can’t help herself but read it. She realizes that he has lied to her.

Li-Ti finds the letter on the floor and reads it.

When Geoffrey arrives, Leslie professes her love for him, but he tells her that he has tired of her and is in love with Li-Ti. Leslie is openly prejudiced against the locals, feeling they are beneath her.

Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) professes her love for Geoffrey.

But when he insists on being with Li-Ti, Leslie can’t understand. She becomes enraged and shoots him as he is leaving. And she shoots until the gun is empty.

Leslie does not take rejection well.

In the next scene, Leslie is in the midst of her murder trial. When asked by attorneys to tell her story, she makes up a somewhat believable story that Geoffrey came over while her husband was away. He was drinking heavily and forced himself on her. Rather than be raped, she found the pistol and shot him, not even realizing she had emptied the chamber. Everyone seems sympathetic to her.

Leslie bears false witness at her murder trial.

Her lawyer, Joyce (O. P. Heggie), is feeling pretty sure that she will be cleared. Her husband is so confident that he promises her that they’ll go to London on a holiday after her acquittal and then he plans to buy his own rubber plantation in Sumatra with the money he’s managed to save.

 Robert plans to take Leslie away when the trial is over.

Everything is looking good until Joyce’s Chinese assistant, On Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara), is approached by an emissary of Li-Ti’s about a letter she has. She gives Seng a handwritten copy of the letter, which he takes to Joyce. Li-Ti wants $10,000, a lot of money, but also demands that Leslie bring the money to her herself. After reading the copy, Joyce decides that the letter could lead to her being found guilty and he advises her to make the payment.

Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara) informs Joyce (O. P. Heggie) about the letter.

Joyce manages to get Leslie released into his custody and she delivers the money to Li-Ti at her house of ill repute. We witness Chinese men gambling on the outcome of a fight between a mongoose and a cobra. The actual battle is obviously borrowed from another film, the background makes this clear as it doesn’t match. I read somewhere that the footage was taken from an unknown silent German film.

Li-Ti makes Leslie bring the money for the letter herself.

Leslie is anxious to make the payment and take the letter, but Li-Ti makes her wait. A Chinese man comes into the room to examine women that Li-Ti has locked up in a cage. He doesn’t seem to find one to his liking and even gives Leslie a long leering look, much her humiliation, before he leaves. During the exchange, Li-Ti purposefully lets the letter fall to the floor, so that Leslie has to debase herself by picking it up at Li-Ti’s feet. She, along with her prostitutes, laugh at Leslie as she scurries away.

Joyce leaves the celebration after giving Robert the letter.

The next day, with the incriminating letter suppressed, Leslie is found not guilty and sent home. There, her husband, along with Joyce and his wife (Irene Brown), celebrate. While the two women are out of the room making drinks, Joyce presents his bill. While as an old-friend Joyce provided his services for free, he still presents a bill for $10,000, the amount he paid for the letter. When Robert demands to know what’s in a letter that is worth that kind of money, Joyce relents and lets him read it.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, Leslie tells Robert that she only loves the man she killed.

Robert waits until the other couple leaves before confronts his wife and forces her to admit everything. She offers to leave, but he refuses. As punishment, he decides to keep her on the plantation, as he no longer has any money to leave. In return, she boasts that she still loves the man she killed.

The film was released in the US by Paramount on April 13, 1929 in both sound and silent versions. They would also produce French, Spanish, German and Italian-language versions of the film at the company's studios in Joinville, France in 1931. Warner Bros. would buy the rights to the film and make their own version as a vehicle for Bette Davis in 1940. Included in the deal were not only the remake rights, but the actual film itself. Herbert Marshall would also appear in the remake, but rather than the lover, he plays the role of the cheated upon husband.

There are several things that set this film apart not just from its better known 1940 remake, but from modern films. Perhaps because it was a hybrid of sorts, there is very little sound except for the scenes with dialogue. All the establishing shots are silent, including the mongoose cobra fight. There isn’t even any use of a score to emphasize a scene. The lack of even ambient sounds sort of takes you out of the film since modern expectations are to have sound throughout. You are constantly reminded that this is essentially a silent film with dialogue, sort of like The Jazz Singer (1927), and that Hollywood was still not sure how and when to finalize the transition to sound.

Paramount’s desire to recreate the theater-going experience is pretty much achieved. However, as a result, the film feels too much like a stage play. There are very few set ups, so to speak, and the scenes are quite long. The director, Jean de Limur, lets the dialogue and acting carry the day.

Seeing as this is pre-code Hollywood, the film is more explicit about Li-Ti’s business dealings. That doesn’t mean there is nudity, but rather we know that she runs a house of prostitution. Rather than Chinese, in the remake she is Eurasian and I don’t believe she is defined as well as Li-Ti is here. In 1929, she’s Geoffrey’s mistress, in 1940, due to the Hays Code, his wife. In our version, Leslie is left unpunished for the murder, at least by the courts. In 1940, she has to die to pay for her acts, so a scene had to be added to deliver this justice.

For the most part, the acting still seems to have its feet firmly planted in the silent era. Of all the actors, only Herbert Marshall seems to be at ease with sound. He basically plays the same urbane gentleman that you see him play in many of his film roles.

Even though she would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in 1930, and her acting style dubbed "naturalism”, Jeanne Eagels seems to be overacting the most. Her twitching and wide-eyed expressions seem more in line with the silent version and not the sound. It has to be remembered that when the film was made, sound was still considered a gimmick and no one really knew what they were doing.

Jeanne Eagels was nominated for her performance in The Letter.

Eagels' nomination would come posthumously. She would make another film for Paramount, Jealousy (1929), now considered lost, but would not fulfill her three-picture deal. She was dismissed from her next film, The Laughing Lady, because Paramount would not wait for an eye infection to clear. She would have eye surgery in September 1929. After a ten-day stay, she was sent home. At her apartment she was apparently acting strangely and suffering from hallucinations. On October 3, 1929, she was taken by her secretary to an appointment with her doctor. While there, Eagels would go into convulsions and died shortly thereafter. Toxicology reports would show that she had alcohol, heroin and a sedative, chloral hydrate, in her blood. Her death was ruled as an overdose of chloral hydrate.

Reginald Owen would go onto have a long career at MGM. Perhaps his best-known role was as Ebenezer Scrooge in that studio’s version of the Charles Dickens inspired classic, A Christmas Carol (1938). He would also appear in British films playing both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in different films. In The Letter, he has a relatively small part.

I’ve read criticism about the depiction of the Chinese in The Letter. The British treat them as second-class citizens in their own country. The sentiment is expressed strongest in Leslie’s attitudes towards Li-Ti. It is not too much of a stretch to believe she kills Geoffrey not so much because he has chosen another woman, but because the woman in question is Chinese, a race she feels inferior to her own. His choice adds an insult to the injury that she cannot abide. Li-Ti seems to know this as well, enjoying humiliating Leslie in their one face-to-face encounter.

While the 1940 version is better known, the original film is not without saving graces. Free from the Code, the film can explore subject matters more in line with the play it is based on. If you’re interested in seeing how Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound, then The Letter is a good example. The success of these sort of films helped make sure that sound was not a short-lived gimmick. It’s too bad that the finished product hasn’t aged well.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Stubs - Side Street

Side Street (1949) Starring: Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, James Craig, Jean Hagen. Directed by Anthony Mann. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm. Produced by Sam Zimbalist. Run Time: 83 minutes. USA Black and White. Film Noir, Drama.

Hollywood is always looking for great screen pairings. Many of them have become legendary, like Kathrine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to name a few. Add to that the names Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. At least that’s what MGM hoped for when they paired these two actors together after they’re first appearance on screen in RKO’s They Live By Night (1948). While that film lost money, the reviews were positive, so a repairing seemed in order. Each was under contract to a different independent film producer, Cathy O'Donnell to David O. Selznick and Farley Granger to Samuel Goldwyn, but borrowing actors for a particular film was part of the business.

With a budget of nearly $1 million, the film went into production on April 21, 1949 using locations in New York City including Central Park, Stuyvesant Town, Battery Park, the Bellvue Hospital morgue, the Polyclinic maternity ward, Wall Street, Bowling Green Park, the Fulton Fish Market, the Queensboro Bridge and a Greenwich Village nightclub. Production ended in mid-June. According to an article in the New York Times, filming of a scene in which a taxicab is being chased through the Wall Street area ran into some difficulties when the taxicab that was supposed to hit a curb and flip onto its side in front of the J. P. Morgan Building failed to do so after repeated attempts. Eventually, they would get it right.

New York City is a character in Side Street as well as the setting.

There is narration at the beginning of Side Street. While the voice is not identified, we will later learn who it is. He introduces the story a la The Naked City (1948). It will appear occasionally throughout, but here is trying to set the tone of the film. Through it we are introduced to the story of Joe (Farley Granger) and Ellen Norson (Cathy O’Donnell), a young married couple living with her parents, but expecting their own baby in a matter of days. Joe, who had previously had and lost a gas station business, is only able to get a job as a part-time postal carrier. But Joe still has big dreams, telling Charlie (Robert Malcolm), a patrolman he knows on his route, that he wishes he could buy her a fur coat and take her on a trip to Europe.

Joe (Farley Granger) confides in Charlie (Robert Malcolm), a patrolman he knows from his route.

Meanwhile, Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey), a wealthy broker, goes to the bank to withdraw $30,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Chief teller Harold Simpsen (Whit Bissell) serves him.

Lucille Colner (Adele Jergens), Emil’s mistress, is on the phone with Victor Backett (Edmund Ryan) putting the final touches on their plans. In his office is George Garsell (James Craig), who is shaving with an electric razor and listening in. She needs to hear that Victor loves her and she tells him that she wants to get away afterwards. Victor throws out ideas like going to Cuba, which was still an option back then, to get her to complete the job. When they’re off the phone, George jokes that wherever she goes will be by way of the East River.

That is the day that Joe enters to deliver mail, temporarily interrupting the planning. He accidentally brushes two one-hundred-dollar bills to the floor. Out of politeness, he bends down to pick them up, but he’s stopped by George, who picks up the bills, puts them in an accordion file and puts them in a filing cabinet. He tells Joe to mind his own business, but Joe can’t stop thinking about it.

Later, with George in the other room as insurance, Emil shows up right on time. He tries to tell Lucille that he could only raise $15,000. But when she suggests she could go to his wife for the rest, Emil produces the money in exchange for the photos and negatives. George throws the envelope out of the room he’s in and holds a gun on Emil while he paws through the envelope for the evidence of his affair with Lucille.

Next time we see Lucille, her dead body is discovered floating in the East River. She has been strangled.

Joe steals what he thinks is an accordion file with $200 in it.

When Joe gets home, he’s reminded about how much he could use $200. Ellen is about to pop and he doesn’t want her to have to give birth in a Ward, but to do that, he needs money. Thinking the money will be the answer to his problems, Joe breaks into the now locked file cabinet when he finds the office is empty and Backett is away at court. Using an ax, he breaks the lock and steals the accordion file that he saw the money put in. He stuffs it into his mailbag and flees.

When Joe finally looks into the file he finds there is $30,000, not $200 in there.

On the roof of a building on his route, Joe stops to dig out the money from the file, but instead of $200, there is $30,000. He takes the money and stuffs the accordion file into a crevice he finds in a brick wall. He takes the money home and sneaks it into his bedroom. Fashioning a crude box, he puts all but $200 of the money into the box. When Ellen gets home, Joe pretends that the money he gives her is because he’s found a new job from an Army buddy of his. But he needs to leave that night for Schenectady so he can learn the business. He promises to be back before she has the baby.

Joe lies to his pregnant wife Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell) that he has a new job.

He takes the money to Nick Drumman (Ed Max), a bartender he knows, but he tells him the box is a nightgown he’s bought for his wife and asks Nick to hold it for him so she doesn’t find it in the apartment. Nick puts it in a cabinet. Joe then checks into a seedy hotel where he spends a couple of days that he’s supposed to be out of town.

Joe trusts bartender Nick (Ed Max) to watch after his new found fortune.

In the meantime, Capt. Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly) of the New York Police Department investigates Lucille Colner’s murder. A search of her possessions finds a “love diary” and they start to interview men whose names appear, including both Lorrison and Backett.

After a few days, he returns home, where a neighbor asks him what his wife had, a boy or a girl? He rushes down to the hospital and finds that his wife is in a Ward, not a private room. He gets to see his child for the first time but is rushed out of the Ward by the head Nurse, Williams (Sarah Selby).

When Joe goes back to Nick to retrieve his money, he finds out that he's sold the bar and moved away.

Feeling remorse about the theft, Joe goes back to Backett’s office under the guise that he’s running an errand for a friend. Not only does Backett tell him he has no idea what $30,000 Joe’s talking about, but Joe also notices the file cabinet is gone from the office. Joe, of course, tells Backett where he lives and that he doesn’t have the money on him, but knows where it is. He’s still in the office when George returns. Backett leaves sort of bewildered.

When Joe tries to return the money, Victor Backett (Edmund Ryan)
 acts like he has no idea what he's talking about.

When Backett tells George about Joe’s errand, he warns him that the money will lead police to Lucille’s murderer. Fearing a trap, Backett sends George to follow him to retrieve the money. Joe goes to Nick’s bar to retrieve his package, but in the intervening days, Nick has sold the bar. The new owners are friendly, though at first, they claim not to have seen a package. But they look a little harder and find a package the same size and shape as the one Joe had left in Nick’s care. But when he examines the package, he finds instead of the money, there is a nightgown inside.

When Joe asks about Nick’s address, the new owner gives him the one they have for him. Unbeknownst to Joe, another man, whom we learn was George, has already been there for the same information. The address is a small funeral home, where Joe is waited on by Nick’s young nephew Tommy Drummon, Jr. (Peter De Bear). For two bits he gives Joe Nick’s address. Again, Joe doesn’t know that he’s the second man to have paid the fee.

By the time Joe gets to Nick’s apartment, he finds that he’s been killed, strangled, just like Lucille had been. He finds one of the currency wrappers on the floor and figures out that the money was there and has been taken. The phone rings out in the hall, and when neighbors knock on the door, they believe he’s home since they saw a man go into his apartment. Joe manages to escape out the window, but now Anderson is looking for him, too.

The police know they have two murders, both strangled, but they believe they might have been done by two different men.

Joe goes back to the hospital and breaks in after hours. There he confesses to Ellen what he’d done. She advises him to go to the police. But Joe doesn’t think he can and flees.

Instead of going to the police Joe goes on the run, but while still trying to find out where the money came from. And his attempts to track down the source of the money only makes him look worse to the cops, as he looks guilty by association to the cops like Anderson who are looking for him. After he tracks down Harold Simpsen, he is only steps ahead of the police.

Joe tracks down Chief cashier Harold Simpsen (Whit Bissell).

He goes back to the accordion file and looks for anything that will help him. He finds a photo of Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen) and manages to track her down. She’s a singer in a Greenwich Village bar. Joe pretends to be someone else and tells her he’s trying to get in touch with his old friend George, her ex-boyfriend. He buys her drinks and she flirts. When she goes to get ready, she catches him going through her purse.

Joe tracks down Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen) at a Greenwich Village nightclub.

They take a taxi. Joe thinks they’re going back to her place, but instead, it turns out to be George’s. Along with cab driver Larry Giff (Harry Bellaver), George knocks Joe out and plans to kill him. Giff’s enthusiasm for the activity starts to wane.

George Garsell (James Craig) knocks Joe out. Larry
 Giff (Harry Bellaver), a taxi driver, helps him.

Harriette thinks her bringing Joe to George will restart their relationship and George appears to go along. But in the end, she knows too much, so George does what he always does and strangles her to death, dumping her body in the cab. Joe is taken down to the cab as well, with the plan to kill him and dump both bodies in the river.

Larry and George take Joe for a ride.

Meanwhile, Anderson has started to put things together. After interviewing and detaining Backett, he gets a tip and heads out to George’s apartment. A chase ensues through the very deserted streets of Manhattan. But Giff wants out. George lets him park the cab and get out, but while Giff is fleeing, George shoots and kills him. Then holding a gun on Joe, makes him drive the cab.

Capt. Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly) finally gets around to Backett and brings him in for questioning.

Joe’s heart isn’t really in trying to outrun the police to assist his would-be killer, so while he drives fast, he also manages to overturn the cab (see above). As the police surround the cab, George gets out and tries to run away, only to be shot and killed himself.

Joe manages to turn the cab over, ending the pursuit.

Ellen, who has been down at police headquarters, arrives on the scene as Joe is being helped from the cab. He’s injured and put on a gurney and into the back of an ambulance.

Ellen is there to see Joe taken away in an ambulance.

Anderson, who we realize has been narrating, leads us to believe that in the end, Joe will be all right, though that still seems to be up in the air at that moment.

The film was released on December 14, 1949, to less than glowing reviews. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Side Street “a fair enough crime picture” in his review the next day. The film would go on to earn $777,000, resulting in a loss to the studio of $467,000. It may be no wonder that after their two films together lost money that Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell were not reunited on screen again.

That said, Granger and O'Donnell make a pleasant and likable enough onscreen couple. Granger is perhaps best known for his roles in two Alfred Hitchcock films, Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), so his acting here is not a surprise.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell make a likable screen couple.

Cathy O’Donnell first made a name for herself in the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), playing the girlfriend of returning WWII vet and double amputee, Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Like that film, she doesn’t get all that much screen time here, especially in comparison to Granger. She would have a relatively short career, her last film being Ben-Hur (1959).

Of the other co-stars, Edmund Ryan is well cast as the conniving attorney Victor Backett. He is always interesting when he’s on screen. The other actors are good, whether they’re playing cops, Paul Kelly as Capt. Walter Anderson, or villains, like James Craig as George Garsell, they're good, but not outstanding.

One surprise is Jean Hagen, who plays the singer Harriette Sinton. The only other film I’d seen her in was Singin’ In the Rain (1952), in which she has a fairly significant though one-dimensional role. Here her acting is more on display.

While Side Street looks good, it is still a flawed film. It is the kind of film noir that I don’t really like. It relies on the protagonist seeing two options and choosing the one that only makes his problem worse. I won’t get into the issue of stealing, we all know it’s wrong, but that’s not where the story loses me. The temptation was too great for him to resist, but it’s after his unexpected bounty that his decision making goes out the window. The film’s plot is based on one bad decision leading to another and to another.

First, Joe should never have gone back in person to see Backett. Having been a postal deliveryman, you’d think the first thought would be to mail the money back. And he only makes things worse when he gives Backett all of his vitals. So much for anonymity. Then when his wife offers him the option to go to the police, Joe decides to run. And then Joe decides to go after the bad guy by himself and nearly gets killed. Only in Hollywood would this situation have a happy ending.

Side Street is not a great film noir, but it is far from the worst one made. Perhaps with a better script, it might have fared better both when it was released and now, nearly 67 years later. If you’re new to Film noir, then there are many others worth watching before you get to this one. And if you’ve been a fan of the genre, then you will be disappointed at what could have been.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.