Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Stubs - Justice League

Justice League (2017) Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon. Based on Justice League by Gardner Fox. Produced by: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns. Run Time: 120 minutes. USA. Color. Superhero.

While the MCU sometimes feel like school, there are films like Thor: Ragnarok that seem to refresh the franchise and make it fun again to watch. The DCEU, however, doesn't know a good thing when it has it. After the high of Wonder Woman (2017), the franchise has reverted back to its dyspotian ways with Justice League, which plopped into cinemas a few weeks ago.

While the MCU did a pretty good job with building the Avengers brick by brick, the Justice League feels rushed, since half of the characters are relatively new to the cinematic franchise. We all know, all too well, the origin stories for Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) already received her film but the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are sort of thrust upon us in this film. Not that all of them are necessarily worthy of their own stand alone film, but a little more background with them might have been nice. No doubt they'll do them someday, it just would have been better to have developed them a little more before making them part of a team.

The DCEU always seems to be in a rush to catch up. There was no Batman film this time around, but Batman did kill Superman, for reasons that escape me now, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). As has been pointed out by others, its hard to see how given Superman's powers, like a heat ray, that Batman would have stood a chance, but in what feels like the equivalent to a cinematic dive, it wasn't in the cards for Superman on that night.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck) and Flash (Ezra Miller).

Now, without the Man of Steel, Batman must hurriedly, though the film seems to move at a slow pace during this section, build a team to protect Earth from a horn-wearing villain with an Oedipal complex. Backed by large flying insect-like creatures, which remind me of the Flying Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) comes to, what else, destroy Earth with Mother Boxes that have been left here for apparently that purpose. (There seems to be a never-ending cinematic line of things buried on Earth just waiting to destroy it.) So once again, we need super heroes to keep the planet from an Apocalyptic event, so it can get back to its simple dyspotian ways.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) flank Wonder Woman.

But the missing ingredient in the league is Superman and they manage to bring him back from the dead so that he can save the day. In reality, he is really the only superhero they need in Justice League, in much the same way Dr. Manhattan was the all-powerful Watchman. The Comedian is nice, but you only really need Manhattan in a pinch.

While Cavill certainly looks the part of Superman, I'm not really sure what I think about Affleck as the Caped Crusader. He's never seemed quite right in the role, too big of a star in a way. As far as the others go, I would follow Gadot anywhere. She's sexy, smart and strong as Wonder Woman and hopefully there is a stand-alone sequel in her future. Momoa is certainly muscular with a James Dean demeanor, Miller provides much needed humor as the weakest superhero and Fisher is passable as Cyborg; his role is harder to judge seeing as he's half-man/half-machine.

Speaking of sequels, this one makes sure to set one up. I'm not a big fan of the casting of the villains in this franchise. Jared Leto was an awful choice for The Joker in Suicide Squad (2016). I hope if there is ever a crossover with Batman that the character is played by someone else. I would say the same for Lex Luthor, but that die has been cast. Jesse Eisenberg, if you stayed for the post-credits scene, is returning in the role. Despite how disappointed you might feel at the end of the film, the Justice League will return.

I would recommend the film only if you're a real die-hard fan of the DCEU. For the casual viewer, this is not the best film in the franchise. Instead, I would recommend watching Wonder Woman if you haven't seen it already and again if you have.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Stubs - Running Scared

Running Scared (1986) Starring: Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal, Jimmy Smits, Dan Hedaya, Joe Pantoliano. Directed by Peter Hyams. Screenplay by Gary DeVore, Jimmy Huston. Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman Run Time: 107 USA Color. Action, Comedy, Christmas, Buddy Cop

In 1986, MGM, once the gold standard of the major Hollywood studios, was in the midst of another sale, this time the former owner Kirk Kerkorian was buying it back from the current owner, Turner Broadcasting. The studio was starting over this time unburdened by the actual studio lot, now Sony Pictures, and that pesky library of classic films including Gone With The Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). One of the first films produced by the “new” MGM was Running Scared, a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.

Hines, a dancer turned actor, and Crystal, a stand-up comedian turned actor, were paired together for the first and only time. Hines, whose first screen appearance was in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I (1981), had appeared in about a half-dozen films before Running Scared. Crystal, who had a BFA from NYU in film and television directing, had made a name for himself as a stand-up comic before his first film, Joan River’s Rabbit Test (1978) and as Jodie Dallas on Soap, a TV Series that ran from 1977 to 1981. His only other film prior to Running Scared had been a small part in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) as Morty the mime.

Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal) and Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines) are undercover
at the beginning of Running Scared.

It is winter in Chicago and Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are two police officers known for their wisecracking demeanors and unorthodox police methods. When the film opens, they are working undercover on the city's North Side, staking out Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits), a drug dealer who has only recently gotten out of prison but is still an up and comer in the Chicago underworld. Even though they are on a stakeout, Danny gets them involved in a pickup game of basketball as a couple of uninvited and unwelcomed additions. Danny is even punched by one of the other players. But before anything else can happen, they see Gonzales drive up.

When Gonzales sees them, he flees, leaving one of his associates, Snake (Joe Pantoliano), high and dry. Ray and Danny manage to catch up to him, gaining entrance to his apartment and looking through the briefcase he’s been clutching. Inside, they find $50,000 cash. While they don’t have anything on Snake, they make it difficult on him by announcing to a group of men playing basketball next door to his apartment that he has the money. In the end, he begs them to take him in. They stop on the way to attend Danny’s Aunt’s funeral.

With their prisoner, Snake (Joe Pantoliano), in tow, Ray and Danny are almost mugged.

Immediately following the funeral, as if to emphasize the dangerous streets of Chicago, Ray and Danny, with Snake still handcuffed to them, are held up by a pair of inept thugs. Ray hands him his wallet, telling them they can take the money, but they need to keep their badges. The two assailants then run away.

At the station, Danny is confronted by a lawyer (Don Calfa) and by his ex-wife Anna (Darlanne Fluegel), whom he still loves. Ray pretends to be Danny to draw the lawyer away and give him some time alone with Anna. But the news is not what Danny expects, as she informs him that she’s getting married again, this time to a dentist. Danny’s mood is somewhat lightened when Ray tells him that the lawyer was there to let him know he was inheriting $40,000 from his recently deceased Aunt.

Snake works with Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) to set Ray and Danny up.

They convince Snake to wear a wire to his rendezvous later that night with Gonzales. While they expect Snake to be buying drugs for Gonzales, when they approach the meeting place (a cargo ship), they discover that he’s buying a large store of Israeli Uzi submachine guns. When they hear what sounds like Snake in trouble, they walk into a trap that Snake and Gonzales have set for them.

Gonzales reveals his ambition to be the first Latino "godfather" of Chicago. Gonzales has Snake killed for bringing the detectives in the first place. It looks as though Ray and Danny will be killed before two undercover detectives in Julio’s gang, Anthony Montoya (Jon Gries) and Frank Sigliano (Steven Bauer), step in to make the arrest. In the ensuing gun battle, several of Gonzales’ gang members are killed or escape. While Montoya and Sigliano only manage to arrest a subordinate, Danny and Ray capture Gonzales.

Captain Logan (Dan Hedaya) encourages Ray and Danny to take a vacation.

Back at the station, Ray and Danny expect to be praised, but instead, their supervisor Captain Logan (Dan Hedaya) chastises them for their sloppy work (as revealed by Snake’s wire). He orders them to take a vacation and the boys are reluctant to go.

Ray and Danny find that they love Key West and plan to move there.

But down in Key West, Florida, the pair see a different side of life. A slower pace, taking time to watch sunsets, not to mention the beautiful women in bikinis with their flat stomachs and perky breasts. They begin to question their career choices and decide to retire and buy a bar using Danny’s inheritance along with their pension fund from the Chicago Police Department.

Gonzales gets away and leaves Ray and Danny pantsless.

Upon their return to Chicago, they inform Captain Logan of their intentions and also find out that Gonzales has been released and is free on bail. Incensed, they vow to capture Gonzales before retiring, but by being a little more careful in the process. They stake out Gonzales Mercedes and use yellow spray paint used to deface their unmarked police car to create a loading zone. As a result, they can get the car towed. They watch to see who will go to inform Gonzales and follow a small boy to the apartment, where Gonzales had been in bed with the boy’s mother. After subduing his crew, they chase after Gonzales, who is pantsless. He takes a hostage and demands Ray and Harry give him one of their pants. Ray is very reluctant but ends up giving up his, when Harry’s pants fall out of Gonzales’ reach. With the pants, Gonzales gets away, stealing their car in the process.

Captain Logan wants Ray and Danny to train Anthony Montoya (Jon Gries)
and Frank Sigliano (Steven Bauer) before they retire to Florida.

When they get back to the station, not only are they the butt of jokes, but Captain Logan adds insult to injury by assigning them to train their replacements, detectives Montoya and Sigliano, none other than the two undercover officers that saved them from being killed in the Gonzales bust. Logan wants the replacements to be "the best of the worst" and orders them never to let him catch them doing anything Ray and Danny teach them. Ray and Danny do their best to avoid actually working with the two detectives.

Gonzales uses a priest and a nun as drug mules.

Gonzales manages to outsmart much of the Chicago PD by staging a fake smuggling operation but bringing the coke in using other mules. While everyone else is fooled by the tactic, Ray and Danny intercept the mules, a priest and a nun, and confiscate a large amount of Gonzales’ cocaine.

In order to get it back, Gonzales kidnaps Anna and will trade her for the cocaine. He sets the location as the James R. Thompson Center, a tall glass state government building with a large open atrium. He warns that Danny comes alone. First, they have to get the cocaine out of the evidence locker, which takes Danny imitating Captain Lewis to the sergeant in charge.

The climactic scene of Running Scared takes place in the lobby of the James
R. Thompson Center. Note the large Christmas tree in the atrium.

Ray, of course, backs up his partner, taking an alternative way into the building. He discovers that all of the state troopers on duty have been taken hostage and replaced by Gonzales’ men. The only way which Ray can get in unobserved involves hoisting himself the way a window cleaner would. During the ensuing gunfight, Montoya and Sigliano, not wanting to be left out of the bust, follow Ray and Danny, but get pinned down in the crossfire. Danny and Ray ironically rescue their would-be protégés in a way similar to their own rescuing at the beginning of the film. All of Gonzales’ men are killed and after more gunfighting, so is Gonzales. Anna and Danny reconcile and he and Ray decide not to retire after all. The city needs them.

Released June 27, 1986, the film would do well at the box-office, bringing in a less than spectacular $38.5 million domestically.

The comedic approach differentiates Running Scared from these other films. Not only are Ray and Danny friends off-duty, but the actors who play them seem to have a very good screen rapport.

Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal are both quite watchable together and I would have watched them in other films had that ever materialized. Not only does Crystal have good comedic-timing, but so does Hines, which is a pleasant surprise for someone who did not come up through the stand-up ranks. These two carry the film, they have to, but they make it look like they’re having a good time while they do.

There are several elements that seem to link Running Scared to other similar-themed films during the 1980s, including Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). For one, all three are set around Christmastime (note the Christmas Tree and fake presents in the James R. Thompson Center atrium). The holiday takes a backseat here and is never called out like it is the other two films, but it’s still part of the environment.

Something else that links the three films is the appearance by Al Leong as a henchman. Not that I mean to call out this actor in particular, but I find it interesting he is always seen in the background holding an automatic weapon in all three.

The supporting actors are rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Dan Hedaya and Jimmy Smits are both very capable actors and could have done more with better-drawn characters. Instead, Hedaya’s Captain Logan is exactly what you’d expect of a policeman in his position. He’s tough but fair and little else. Smits’ Gonzales is a typical ruthless gangster who is no subtler than the machine gun he’s holding.

The love interests are fine. Tracy Reed plays Maryann, a woman that Ray is involved with, but superfluous to the plot. Again, not much else for her to do. Darlanne Fluegel as Anna Costanzo, Danny’s ex, is more important to the story, but she is still a bit of a cardboard character.
There are other weaknesses to the film, beginning with its really bad opening theme song. It is everything that a theme song should not be, one that is immediately forgettable. For the most part, the soundtrack music is also quite vanilla.

The film seems to have a slightly long third act and ends in what is now a cliché, though considered necessary, big gun battle finish. While the damage is not as severe as say Die Hard, which pretty much obliterated the fictitious Nakatomi Plaza, the big shootout in Running Scared is quite deadly as the corpses seem to pile up. (It is interesting that another buddy cop film, Rush Hour (1998), also ends in a similar fashion, replacing James R. Thompson Center with the LA Convention Center.) Our heroes don’t seem to be affected by the body count, which is also par for the course of this genre of films.

For the most part, I liked the film. Hines and Crystal had the makings of a really good film team. It’s too bad that this one never repeated. If you’re looking for a fun two hours and can get past the obvious 80’s trappings, then Running Scared is not a bad way to spend your time.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Friday, December 8, 2017

TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue

Following the success of the original TY the Tasmanian Tiger, Krome Studios developed a sequel, released in 2004, known as TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue. Among other changes, this release sees a somewhat drastic change in general gameplay, as platformers of its kind were wont to do. Continuing our look at this series, let us take a look at TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue.

Following the events of the original game, Boss Cass’ subordinate, Fluffy, is attempting to break him out of prison, however TY tries (and fails) to stop her. Sometime after this, Boss Cass has formed his own sovereign nation, Cassopolis, solely as a means to gain diplomatic immunity and get away with whatever he wants. In response to this, a group known as Bush Rescue is formed, with TY put at the center, to help those in need within Southern Rivers and protect them from Boss Cass. Meanwhile, with the aid of an old koala named Karlos, Boss Cass has been developing an army of Uber Frills in order to take over Southern Rivers.

The primary gameplay is similar to the previous game, primarily TY’s moveset and the presence of platforming, except now the levels take place in a more open world. Outside the starting town of Burramudgee, you move around the various missions in Southern Rivers via driving the Bush Rescue jeep (a minimap, like in TY 1 and 3, is provided to help you find your way). These missions can vary in terms of design and objectives, and somewhere deeper in the map is an area big enough to almost be an entire other hubworld.

The Bush Rescue jeep in action. (Finding usable screenshots remains
somewhat difficult.)

Burramudgee also has shops where you can purchase new Rangs and other abilities and story items, using Opals and other collectibles as currency. When you get past a certain point in the game, a new shop opens up on the map where you can purchase more powerful Rangs from Sly, a former enemy thylacine, which more resemble the Rangs from TY 1 to override the Rangs you can purchase in Burramudgee. (Protip: The Doomerang is the one you want for most situations.)

Being a game from 2004, the graphics are an improvement over the original TY game, including those of the pre-rendered cutscenes. There’s also sort of a minor art style change compared to the previous game, though it doesn’t deviate too much to be jarring. As with the previous game, it’s possible to see Australian wildlife running about, which can make one wonder how they could do that without sacrificing too much processing power. Also like the previous game, there is some good sound design, especially in the background music (at least one track even had me thinking of Ratchet & Clank of all things); the voice actors, however, are different from those in the previous game, making it a little jarring after you’ve gotten used to the previous cast. In spite of this, you do get used to the new cast after a while and they do a decent job putting their own spin on the voices without overall straying too far from how they sounded previously. There’s still the issue of a lack of subtitles in cutscenes, so you’d have to make do when playing.

One addition to the game is the optional kart racing missions (because there was a point where kart racing games were all the rage), which can provide a fun distraction to increase replayability. These minigames can be accessed from within the open world, however you can also access them from the main menu if you so choose, thus turning it into a potential party game akin to Mario Kart.

You also get to pilot a Bunyip at certain points in the game.

TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue is a graphical improvement over the previous TY game, and the added gameplay variety and more open world gives something new for players to explore. The change in voice actors can be a bit jarring, however one can get used to it after several minutes of play. This is a game I would recommend to fans of the original TY game and its ilk, however I would still suggest newcomers start with TY 1 for the sake of the story. As with TY 1, this game can be purchased and played via Steam for those unable to acquire/play the game for sixth-generation home consoles.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Stubs - Lethal Weapon

Lethal Weapon (1987) Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey Director: Richard Donner. Screenplay by Shane Black. Produced by Richard Donner, Joel Silver. Run Time: 110. U.S. Action, Buddy Cop, Christmas

It may be hard to believe for some, but there was once a time when Mel Gibson was considered a popular and non-controversial figure in Hollywood. An American, Gibson had found fame in Australia, where his family had moved when he was a boy. He had become an International star following Mad Max (1979) directed by George Miller and would continue to appear in such films as Gallipoli (1981); Mad Max 2 (1981); The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and The Bounty (1984) before coming to Hollywood in 1984. While he would continue to live and make films in Australia like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), he would tend to become a fixture in American films.

A sex symbol as well as being perceived as a man’s man, Gibson would become a major star. One of those films that shows that is Lethal Weapon. His co-star was Danny Glover, an actor who had been in films since 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, but who had only starred in one movie, The Color Purple (1985), in his career. Based on a script by recent UCLA graduate Shane Black, Warner Bros. originally thought about giving the film to actor turned director Leonard Nimoy, but Nimoy was already working on a film, Three Men and a Baby (1987), and didn’t feel comfortable making an action film. Richard Donner was given the script. Bruce Willis was considered for what would become Gibson’s role, but he would make his own cop film the next year, Die Hard.

Donner wanted Gibson, having worked together on Ladyhawke (1985), and casting director Marion Dougherty suggested teaming him with Glover. Things were cemented in a script reading with the two actors and both signed on in early Spring of 1986. Added to the mix was Gary Busey, who had been a star since playing the lead in The Buddy Holly Story (1978). Busey had not had to audition for a role since but wanted the opportunity to play a villain.

Filming got underway in Los Angeles on August 6, 1986, with a budget of $15 million. Shooting would take place in and around the city, including Long Beach, Palos Verdes, Santa Monica, Studio City, West Hollywood, Inglewood, El Mirage, Victorville as well as the backlot facilities of Burbank studios. It would go into release on March 6, 1987.

Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) before she jumps to her death.

It is a few days before Christmas in Los Angeles when the story opens. Inside a highrise apartment, Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) lies half-dressed and in a stupor. After doing a couple of lines of coke, she crawls out on to the railing of the balcony and then throws herself over, landing dead on the roof of one of the cars down below.

After Amanda jumps.

The next morning, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), is taking a luxurious bath when it is interrupted by his wife and children who bring him a cake for his fiftieth birthday.

Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is surprised by his family to celebrate his 50th birthday.

At breakfast, Roger’s wife, Trish (Darlene Love), tells him that a man named Michael Hunsaker has been trying to reach him for several days. Roger recognizes the name but tells her it’s been twelve years since he has spoken to Hunsaker. They had both fought together in the Vietnam War.

On duty, Roger is called to the scene of Amanda’s suicide and is introduced to Dixie (Lycia Naff), a prostitute who witnessed Amanda’s jump. When Roger learns the victim’s name, he realizes she is Michael Hunsaker’s daughter.

Meanwhile, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is undercover at a Christmas Tree lot where he attempts to buy coke from the lot operator. When he reveals himself as an LAPD officer, a gunfight ensues. Martin shoots three of the four drug dealers before backup arrives. While they’re looking for the ringleader, Martin is taken hostage. Martin dares the man to shoot before disarming him.

Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) makes an undercover buy at a Christmas Tree lot.

That night, alone in his mobile home at the beach, Martin contemplates suicide. After staring at a picture of his deceased wife, he loads a single bullet into his gun and puts it into his mouth before stopping himself.

The next day, Roger learns from Boyette (Grand Bush) that Amanda’s case is now being investigated as a murder because the drugs she took were laced with toxic drain cleaner, and evidence shows that someone was in bed with her just before she died.

Roger is not happy to learn who his new partner is.

Roger also learns that he is getting a new partner, but before they are formally introduced, he sees Martin, who is sitting outside his office, holding a gun. Mistaking him for a criminal, Roger tries to tackle and disarm Martin, but an expert fighter, Martin overpowers him within seconds. Roger really feels too old for this shit now.
Later, as they leave the office, Martin explains that his superiors believe he is either insane or pretending to be insane in order to receive a pension, and therefore no one wants to work with him. Roger complains that he doesn’t want to work with him either.

Roger meets with the victim's father, Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins).

At a meeting the next day with Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins), Roger learns that Amanda had been involved in pornography. Hunsaker is distraught and asks Roger to kill the people responsible for her death. Hunsaker insists that Roger owes him one. Roger refuses but later tells Martin that Hunsaker saved his life in the Vietnam War.

That afternoon, Martin and Roger are called to the scene of a suicide attempt, where a man named McCleary (Michael Shaner) is standing on the ledge of a tall building. Even though neither is trained to handle such matters, Roger lets Martin go up to try to talk McCleary down.

Martin handcuffs himself to a possible suicide (Michael Shaner) and then they both jump.

Martin eventually handcuffs himself to McCleary, warning him that jumping would drag them both down and thus be a murder and a suicide. When McCleary refuses to leave the ledge, Martin pushes him and they both leap at the same time. However, by then, a large air cushion has been set up below and they fall into it safely.
Roger, however, is not happy and confronts Martin about his risky behavior. Martin reveals that he is suicidal, but that his love for police work has prevented him from killing himself.

Next, the two go to the home of Amanda’s “sugar daddy,” who is also a suspect in her murder. But they are met with gunfire and while Roger doesn’t want to kill the suspect, Martin has to do so to save Roger from being shot.

That night, Martin joins Roger’s family for dinner and tells Roger that he doubts the sugar daddy was the killer. The two spend time together on Roger’s fishing boat. After a few beers, Martin leaves, but not before he reveals that he was a sniper in the Vietnam War and believes that shooting was his only great skill.

Roger later finds an evidence package addressed to him containing Amanda’s high school yearbook and a pornographic videotape she made with other women.

The next morning, Roger is awakened by Martin who proposes that Dixie, the prostitute who witnessed Amanda’s fall, was also her killer.

Martin and Roger stop at a shooting range for no real reason.

But before they go, they stop at a firing range and both men try to show their prowess with a gun. This is a continuation of sorts of the conversation they had the night before. While Roger is good, Martin is far better, shooting rings around his partner.

When they arrive at a suspect's house, it explodes.

When they finally arrive at Dixie’s house to interview her, the building explodes. Martin finds a trigger device amongst the wreckage, which he recognizes as the same kind used by mercenaries during the Vietnam War. Neighborhood kids who witnessed the explosion tell the detectives that they saw a man at the gas meter outside Dixie’s house earlier that day, and he had a tattoo that matches the one on Martin’s arm. Martin explains that the tattoo means their suspect was in the Special Forces.

They next go to Hunsaker’s home, where Roger proposes to Hunsaker that his involvement in criminal activity is what got his daughter killed and that her murderer was Dixie, who was paid to poison her. Hunsaker admits to being part of a heroin smuggling operation with several other veterans who were part of Shadow Company, a special unit of mercenaries and assassins formed during the Vietnam War.

Just then, a helicopter flies past the house, and Hunsaker is shot and killed by Joshua (Gary Busey), one of the mercenaries from Hunsaker’s drug ring. That night, while Martin and Roger seek out Dixie on the streets, Joshua drives past and shoots, seemingly killing Martin. But when Roger goes to investigate, he finds that Martin is wearing a bulletproof vest that saves his life.

Only moments later, Roger gets word that there has been a killing near his house and rushes home to find that his oldest daughter, Rianne (Traci Wolfe), has been kidnapped. Mercenaries from the drug ring call, ordering him to go to Dry Lake in Victorville, California, at sunrise, saying they only want the information that Hunsaker gave him.

Roger and Martin develop a plan to retrieve Rianne safely, knowing that Joshua believes Martin is dead. The next morning, Roger drops Martin off on the outskirts of the dry lakebed, then confronts the mercenaries, who arrive with a limousine, a truck, and a helicopter full of armed men.

Mercenaries overwhelm Roger and Martin on a dry lakebed.

Roger threatens the mercenaries with a smoke grenade, and the distraction allows Martin to begin sniping from across the lakebed. Just as Martin is getting aim on Joshua, he is stopped by the ringleader of the drug cartel, General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan), which leads to Martin and Roger being captured.

Joshua (Gary Busey) enjoys torturing Martin.

In the back of a nightclub, the mercenaries torture Martin and Roger in separate rooms, trying to find out what Hunsaker revealed about the details of an upcoming heroin deal. Even though he’s strapped and hanging from the wall, Martin kills his torturer, Endo (Al Leong). Afterward, he shoots his way through the building, saving both Roger and Rianne in the process.

Martin takes after Joshua on foot through the streets of Hollywood.

Joshua hijacks a car and flees the scene. Martin gives chase on foot but loses him on the freeway. Meanwhile, Roger shoots the driver of a car containing the mercenaries' leader, General McAllister, causing the car to run into a bus and explode.

Martin and Joshua settle things with a fistfight in front of Roger's house while other cops watch.

Roger figures out that Joshua is headed to his house and the two hurry to thwart him. Joshua breaks in, but there is no one home. That is until Roger and Martin drive their car into the house. They manage to disarm Joshua. But before arresting him, Martin challenges Joshua to a fistfight. While police surround the area, the two men go at it. After an extensive fight, Martin beats Joshua, but Joshua doesn’t give up, instead he steals a police officer’s gun. But before he can shoot anyone, both Martin and Roger shoot him dead.

On Christmas Eve, Martin delivers flowers to his dead wife's grave and then stops by Roger’s house. Rianne, who has a crush on Martin, answers the door. He gives her the bullet which he almost used to kill himself to give her father, signifying that he is no longer suicidal.

But before he can leave, Roger hurries out and insists that Martin stay for Christmas dinner.

The film opened on March 6, 1987 and went on to make $120.2 million at the box office. A very good return on the $15 million-dollar budget. So good in fact, that it would spawn not just one sequel, but three: Lethal Weapon 2 (1989); Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) as well as a TV series, cleverly enough also called Lethal Weapon. The critical response at the time was fair, if not overly, positive and the film even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound.

On the surface, the film has a lot in common with Die Hard, the least of which is that Bruce Willis was almost in it. Both films deal with cops in trouble, families threatened, violent money-hungry gangs, big fight scenes that close the movie as well as a blonde-haired antagonist that refuses to give up, even after losing the penultimate conflict, and is shot dead to end the threat. In Die Hard, it was Alexander Godunov as Karl; here it is Gary Busey as Joshua. In addition, both films exude an 80’s feel, especially when it comes to the technology of the day. When Roger talks on a portable phone in Lethal Weapon, it is more akin to the field radios they used in World War Two to that mobile device in your pocket. To top it off, there are two actors in this film that also appear in Die Hard: Grand Bush, who here plays Boyette and is FBI Agent Little Johnson in Die Hard; and Al Leong, here Endo and in Die Hard, he played one of the terrorists, Uli.

Al Leong (Endo) plays a similar role in Die Hard.

Also, like Die Hard, the heroes never have a moment to take a breath and seem to recover from their wounds with great speed. Martin goes literally from being tortured while strung up to running full speed down the middle of the street after Joshua, who is driving a speeding car. This is just one example of how once the film gets going it never stops as plot points reveal themselves one after another.

At the heart of the buddy cop film is the cliché partnering a by-the-books cop, Roger, with a cop who plays by his own rules, Martin. You see this over and over again, one of the more recent examples is Zootopia (2016), an animated take on the genre. It is no accident that Roger is also a happily-married family man and Martin is a tinderbox ready to explode. Don’t fault the film for going there, since it is one of the hallmarks of these kinds of films. How dull would it be if both followed the rules, or how chaotic if they both played things by the seat of their pants? For their roles, Glover and Gibson seem to be well cast.

Gibson does have one very dramatic scene, the one in which he contemplates suicide one night in his trailer by the ocean. It is a very powerful scene for this kind of movie and shows what Gibson was capable of providing as an actor. Not really sure if he had the credentials to be a really great dramatic actor. His turn as Hamlet (1991) and the only $20 million it made at the box-office might be evidence that the world wasn’t looking for him to play those kinds of roles.

There are some parts of the movie that get somewhat tiresome, especially the rather long fight scene at the end of the film between Martin and Joshua. Not only does this scene have no real point, other than to show how macho the two men are, but it goes on far too long. At some point, one of the other would have either passed out or given up, but not these two. No matter how much punishment they each dish out, they are both ready for more. It finally takes bullets, not fists or kicks, to stop Joshua, the Energizer Bunny of villains.

Not everything in Lethal Weapon is believable. To begin with, the murder/suicide that starts the film. No one coaxes her to go out on the ledge and her suicide seems more akin to a bad acid trip than a cocaine high (or so I’ve heard). But you get the sense we see it because it’s a way to be more over the top and to throw in a little gratuitous nudity. So much cooler for her to die on top of a car than on the couch. I also get the sense that we have the big showdown in a dry lake bed for the same reason. You can almost hear that as part of the pitch, “It’ll be so cool…” Ditto blowing up the house. How exactly would Joshua know the exact time Roger and Martin were going to show up? But isn’t it cool…

Overall though, I would have to recommend this film. For the most part, it is very entertaining. Fast-paced and never really slows down, Lethal Weapon still gives the audience a real sense of who our main characters, Roger and Martin, are. This is something oftentimes overlooked in many summer films. Knowing them makes you more empathetic to them, which is something missing from a lot of films these days.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Friday, December 1, 2017

TY the Tasmanian Tiger

In 2002, Australian developer Krome Studios released the first in the TY the Tasmanian Tiger series, a late entry in the “mascot with attitude” craze and heavily inspired by Australian wildlife (and also named “TY” to avoid legal trouble with Ty Inc., the toy company responsible for the Beanie Babies fad during the ‘90s). The series proved to be successful enough to last a trilogy in its original release, followed by a fourth game several years later. Though I had been aware of the games when they first released, it wasn’t until recently that I had suddenly become interested in playing them, managing to acquire the first two at a used-game/movie store in Texas, receiving the third as a birthday present, and buying the fourth during the most recent Steam Summer Sale (as of this writing). The first three were also a personal excuse to dust off the original Xbox, while the fourth was only released digitally. With any further ado, let us start from the beginning with the original TY the Tasmanian Tiger.

As TY (a Tasmanian tiger) is exploring a forest, he stumbles upon a story of how the rest of the thylacines (aka Tasmanian tigers) were banished to the Dreamtime by Boss Cass, an evil cassowary who wants to rule over Southern Rivers. With the help of Maurie (a cockatoo) and Julius (a koala scientist), TY has to search for Thunder Eggs to help locate five talismans that will create a portal to the Dreamtime and rescue the other thylacines and defeat Boss Cass.

The core gameplay involves TY being able to throw various types of Boomerangs, or Rangs, that have varying effects on enemies he encounters and the environment, among them fire, ice, explosions, and seeing invisible objects. Rangs can be acquired either by advancing the plot or collecting enough Golden Cogs in each level. Aside from this, TY can also glide across gaps and use a bite attack in combat, the latter of which seems generally faithful to how big an actual thylacine’s open mouth can get.

TY's bite attack. (Finding screenshots for this game is difficult.)

Levels are accessed via a large hub world, which groups them by theme between a few locations on the map. Each level has their own set of objectives that need to be completed, such as going through specific events or collecting enough of certain collectibles, all to obtain enough Thunder Eggs between them to fight bosses to advance the story.

Though not quite the same, the general design feels somewhat reminiscent of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, including the fact that Opals, one of the staple collectibles required for getting Thunder Eggs, are essentially the equivalent to that game’s Precursor Orbs. There is also the presence of a Lives system, with Health represented by a pawprint and refillable via consuming pie (slices). Extra lives can be gained by finding representations of TY’s head (Protip: There’s one that regenerates in the hub world every time you load it) and losing a life gets you revived in the nearest outhouse that you have passed.

Though a game from 2002, the graphics hold up surprisingly well. Each set of levels also feels unique with its varying settings, and the overall design of the game is generally good. An interesting feature is the inclusion of random Australian wildlife, which adds to the world and helps it feel more alive. The named characters are also often based on more obscure Australian animals, such as the cassowary, lyrebird and Tasmanian devil; I should note here that, while TY himself is based on an obscure animal, the Tasmanian tiger, thylacines are officially classified as extinct in the real world. However, the immersion of the world can be broken temporarily when you discover the limits of the game’s skybox (particularly in snow levels) and there are no subtitles in pre-rendered cutscenes even when the option is on.

TY against the first boss, Bull.

The sound design for the game is actually one highlight, as the music creates what feels like an authentic Australian atmosphere. The characters also sport non-annoying Australian accents, plus the game has led me to learn some Australian slang I had not previously been familiar with. Though one should not get too attached to the voice actors when playing the games back-to-back, they do an overall good job in portraying their respective characters, giving them a distinct voice that future replacements have attempted to emulate.

Overall, TY the Tasmanian Tiger is a good start to the current tetralogy of games. Being an Australian developer, Krome Studios was able to deliver a very Australian experience that helps it stand out from the types of games it is attempting to emulate. I would suggest newcomers to the franchise begin with this game, as it sets up the major characters and world-building featured in later installments. For those who wish to revisit the game and/or do not have a sixth-generation console, TY 1 is currently available for purchase on Steam as of this writing.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review Hub - Alice in Wonderland

Since its original publication in 1865, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by author Lewis Carroll has gone on to be considered a beloved classic. Its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There", has achieved a similar status, to the point where the two books are usually reprinted together in some form. These stories, both in the public domain, have since provided the basis for countless adaptations and re-imaginings, including its two most well-known versions: a classic (animated) Disney movie and a darker take on the story by game developer American McGee. While there is simply a lot to offer when it comes to Alice, we at this blog will provide reviews of whatever Alice media we can cover, assuming we feel it's deemed worth our time and/or our opinion is worth sharing.

Below is a list of every Alice-related review on this blog, organized into categories and by order of release.

Non-Disney Films

Disney Films

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice Through the Looking Glass

American McGee Games

American McGee's Alice
Alice: Madness Returns

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stubs - 36 Hours

36 Hours (1965) Starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor, Werner Peters, John Banner, Russell Thorson, Alan Napier Directed by George Seaton. Screenplay by George Seaton.  Based on the short story "Beware of the Dog" by Roald Dahl in Harper's (Oct 1944). Produced by William Perlberg. Runtime: 115 minutes. USA War, Drama, World War II, Suspense

Roald Dahl is not a name you usually associate with war and suspense, but World War II affected everyone, Dahl included. His short story “Beware of the Dog”, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1944, tells the story of an RAF pilot, Peter Williamson, who gets shot down over Vichy France, but wakes up in a hospital bed in Brighton, or so he thinks. He becomes suspicious of his surroundings, finally figuring out that he is still in Vichy France and that his English caregivers are actually Germans in disguise.

Dahl is best known for his children’s books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and James and the Giant Peach, all of which were also made into successful movies, some more than once. But he was actually in the RAF during the war. After he was injured on duty, he was transferred to Washington D.C. in 1942, where he worked as an Air attaché and began his writing career recounting his War experiences.

James Garner was a television star first. After leaving the US Army in 1952, he began acting. He played a non-speaking role in the Broadway stage version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, letting him observe Henry Fonda on a daily basis. After that, he moved to television. According to his autobiography, Garner claims that he was almost the lead in the TV series Cheyenne, but when the casting director couldn’t reach him in time, the role went to Clint Walker.

After a couple of years, Garner landed his own starring role on TV in Maverick (1957-1960) but left after three seasons. He appeared in the film Darby’s Rangers (1958) after Charlton Heston turned down the lead. He was subsequently hired by Warner Bros. to appear in such films as Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960). After leaving Warner Bros. he starred in such films as The Children’s Hour (1962) opposite Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine; Boy’s Night Out (1962) with Kim Novak and Tony Randall; and Move Over Darling (1963) a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940), playing the role created by Cary Grant, an actor to which Garner is often compared. Other roles in such films as The Great Escape (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964) followed.

By 1965, Garner had formed his own production company, Cherokee Productions, and one of the movies that company made was the adaptation of the Dahl short story, now called 36 Hours. With George Seaton writing the screenplay and directing, the film was shot on location in Portugal, Germany and Yosemite National Park, where most of the film was shot. Exterior shots were filmed at the Wawona Hotel near the entrance of Yosemite.

The Wawona Hotel in Yosemite doubles for the U.S. Army hospital in 36 Hours.

A few days before D-Day, with the plans finalized for the invasion at Normandy, Allied troops are concerned that the Germans might be onto their plan, even though Nazi troops are currently concentrated at Pas de Calais, where they anticipate the invasion will take place.

In order to check that out, his commanding officer, General Allison (Russell Thorson), and British Colonel Peter MacLean (Alan Napier) decide to send U.S. Army Major Jeff Pike (James Garner) to Lisbon on June 1st, 1944 to meet with an informant in the German consulate there. This is a contact that Pike has developed over the years and one only he knows how to read. Pike has been in on General Eisenhower's final briefing on the landings, but has been trained to withstand torture. Before he leaves, he suffers a papercut when he touches the edge of one of the maps hanging on the wall.

Pike is sent over on the midnight flight, which has been delayed an hour so that Pike can be on it. His departure is witnessed by an informant, who notifies another agent, an elderly British woman, who goes into Pike’s apartment and steals some personal items as well as hair from his brush.

When he lands in Portugal, Pike makes sure that his presence is known and that the German informant is notified. But at the rendezvous, which takes place at a café, Pike is drugged and while making his way to the meeting, becomes disoriented and eventually passes out on the street. However, the Germans abduct him and, putting him in a coffin, manage to fly him back to Germany.

The Nazis under the supervision of Dr. Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) and with the help of nurse Anna
 Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) alter 
U.S. Army Major Jeff Pike's (James Garner) appearance.

While they keep Pike sedated, they “age” him, dying his hair with gray highlights and giving him drops to temporarily make his eyesight bad to the point where he needs to wear glasses to read. It is obvious that they know a lot about him.

Pike is helped back to bed by Dr. Gerber and nurse Hedler.

When Pike wakes up it is what looks like a U.S. Army hospital. He is told it is May 1950 and he is in post-war Occupied Germany. Psychiatrist Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) explains that Pike has been having episodes of memory loss ever since he was tortured by the Nazis in Lisbon. He advises Pike that his blocked memories have always resurfaced, helped along by a therapy of remembering events prior to Lisbon and then pushing forward into the blank period.

Dr. Gerber explains to Pike the issues he's having with amnesia and how he can help him.

Various props including captured U.S. Army jeeps and uniforms, soldiers playing baseball, fake letters from Pike’s father, made up newspapers and fake radio broadcasts, are used to carefully convince Pike that the year is 1950 and that he is among fellow Americans. He is cared for by Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint), a nurse the Nazis have temporarily saved from a concentration camp.

Pike comes to believe that Anna is not only his nurse, but is also his wife.

Pike is completely taken in by the deception, even believing that Anna is his wife. She’s wearing an engagement ring that is, in fact, a family heirloom. Gerber, who pretends to be a close friend, even introduces Pike to SS agent Schack (Werner Peters), who he’s told runs a restaurant in a nearby village that Pike and Anna frequent. Pike apologies for not knowing him. As part of his "therapy", he recounts the critical details of the invasion plans, including the location and the date, June 5, to his eager listeners.

Pike starts to figure out the ruse when he realizes he has a paper cut he suffered a few days before.

While cleaning up from dinner, Pike gets salt in a nearly invisible paper cut he got the day he left for Lisbon. He realizes then that it is all a hoax. He tries to escape by riding a bicycle out the front gate. When the guard stops him, Pike confirms it by tricking him into reflexively snapping to attention in the German manner. He violently confronts Anna, who admits, with her neck in his grip, that the date is indeed June 2, 1944. She was recruited from a concentration camp because she was a nurse and spoke English. When pushed, she promises to help him.

Pike instructs Anna to run and tell Gerber that he was onto the plot, while he makes a feeble attempt to escape to sell it. Quickly recaptured, he states that he realized what was going soon after waking up due to his paper cut. Gerber does not believe him. After two days of interrogation, however, Pike and Anna convince SS agent Schack, who never believed the hoax would work. Pike pretends that the invasion will be at Pas de Calais and provides detailed plans, including code names. This information confirms what Schack and German high command believe, which is corroborated by counter-intelligence misinformation that has been fed to Nazi undercover agents by the British.

Pike is interrogated for two days by a German SS officer.

Gerber, however, sets the clock forward in Pike and Anna's room so when they wake, they think it is the morning of June 5. Gerber tells them that the Germans have been surprised at Normandy. Pike lets his guard down and confirms that the plan worked. Gerber comes clean about what he’s done and then tells Pike that there has been no invasion, most likely because of the rain that is taking place all over Europe. Gerber then tells Pike what he has to do and sends an emergency dispatch to Wehrmacht authorities, but since that doesn’t agree with the high command, Pike’s message is discarded. By midday June 5, Gerber has been discredited and Schack orders his arrest.

Gerber knows that when the Allies land at Normandy, Schack will kill them to cover his own blunder. Gerber, who feels like he knows Pike from his research, decides to help them escape. But he asks Pike to take his groundbreaking research on amnesiacs with him, hoping that he will live on through his work. When the Normandy landings begin on the morning of June 6, he laughs at Schack when he arrives, revealing that he has taken poison and pointing out that Schack will likely be liquidated.

Gerber helps Pike escape by giving him the key to his door.

Meanwhile, Pike and Anna make their escape, killing a guard on the way out. They find a place to hide nearby and after the location is searched, Anna tells Pike about how she doesn’t like being touched. She recounts her repeated rapes at the concentration camps and that she is cried out. Pike tells her that there is no love without tears.

Pike breaks the neck of one of the German guards so he and Anna can escape.

They take Gerber’s advice and head for a village on the border with Switzerland where they know a minister helps people to cross. The problem is that Schack knows that, too and pursues the escapees on his own, no time to wait for backup.

The minister's housekeeper, Elsa (Celia Lovsky), puts Pike and Anna in touch with Sgt. Ernst
(John Banner), who will sneak them over the border to Switzerland.

When Pike and Anna arrive, they are greeted by the minister’s housekeeper, Elsa (Celia Lovsky), who agrees to hide them. She introduces them to a jovially corrupt German border guard, Sgt. Ernst (John Banner). Ernst, who has been learning English since the war began, believes that the Nazis are eventually doomed. While he’s willing to help Pike and Anna, he requires payment. Ernst is only interested in gold, which is one thing the Nazis have taken away for the war effort. Anna, who is still wearing Pike’s engagement ring and another wedding band, has to give them to Ernst and Pike gives him his watch. Elsa is infatuated with the engagement ring and Ernst gives it to her.

Ernst demands gold jewelry to aid in their escape.

Schack shows up at the minister's after Ernst and the couple have left for the border, but he recognizes Anna's ring on Elsa’s finger and forces her to reveal their planned escape. Schack catches up at the border and has the drop on Pike and Anna, but before he can kill them Ernst shoots and kills him. He then, with Pike’s help, arranges Schack’s body to make it look as if he had been killed while trying to escape.

Pike and Anna head off to freedom in Switzerland.

Safely in Switzerland, Pike is to go to the U.S. Embassy and Anna to a refugee camp. Pike promises to look in on her before he returns to London. When they are placed in cars next to one another, Anna cries her first display of emotion in years.

Released in January 1965, in New York on January 28, the film went on to make $2.2 million in domestic box office and was enough of a success to cement Garner as a movie star. Clearly the star, Garner is a likable actor and his character is also likable. You find yourself rooting for him and Anna as well. Pike is such a good man that when he accidentally drops Gerber’s research as they’re trying to escape, that even though it might make them miss the rendezvous, he goes back to retrieve it. Truly a man of his word.

Eva Marie Saint began her career in television as an NBC page. She did get in front of the camera as early as 1946, appearing in Campus Hoopla on that network. She made her film debut in On The Waterfront (1954), which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Saint would appear in Raintree County (1957), Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Exodus (1960) and All Fall Down (1962) before appearing in 36 Hours. An accomplished actress, Saint gives a believable performance as a concentration camp survivor who will do anything, even help the Nazis, to avoid that fate.

Rod Taylor had a very two-dimensional supporting role in this film. He is as likable as a Nazi has been depicted on film, but there is always the loyal soldier in the background. He might like who Pike is, but Pike is still the enemy. Even if no one will believe him, his Gerber character has to try until there is no hope. Gerber is as much of a realist as SS Agent Schack claims to be.

One of the added values of watching the film is to see future television stars who seem to be everywhere in this film. Not only had Garner been a TV star before getting into films, he will eventually go back to that medium and star in the long-running Private Investigator series, The Rockford Files (1974–1980). Alan Napier would go on to portray Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in TV’s Batman (1966-1968), a role he would be known for to the Baby-Boomer generation. James Doohan who would go on to play Scott “Scotty” Montgomery on the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) as well as the films that would follow.

But of all of these actors, the one who went on to play a very similar character on TV was John Banner. Here he provides some comic relief as Sgt. Ernst, an out for himself German border guard. In some ways, this is a blueprint for his role as Sgt. Schultz on TV’s World War II inspired comedy, Hogan Heroes (1965-1971).

The film takes an interesting approach, letting the audience know what is happening to Pike when he doesn’t know. We see the Nazis’ scheming and planning and have to wait for him to catch on. It’s always the little things that come into play. If he hadn’t cut his finger on a map, then they may have well gotten away with their ruse. We wait for him to figure it out and how he can try to correct his mistake. It helps him that the Nazis don’t trust one another while trying to stay loyal to their mistaken high command. By this point in the war, the Nazi regime’s days were numbered, but they didn’t really know it quite yet, though some like Ernst were just waiting for the day to come. The film reminded me of the television series Mission Impossible (1966-1973), when the team led by Jim Phelps regularly pulled off the kind of ruse the Nazi’s are trying to do here.

One problem I have with the film, and it is only through analyzing it that I caught this, the hero doesn’t solve his own dilemma. When Pike and Anna are caught dead to rights by Schack, it is Ernst who saves them, rather than Pike or Anna figuring a way out of the life or death situation they find themselves in. Ernst kills Schack to save his own hide, figuring Schack would put an end to his smuggling operation and to Ernst himself. Pike and Anna are the beneficiaries of Ernst’s actions, but they don’t take action themselves.

That said, overall I liked the film and would recommend it. No film is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch them. 36 Hours may not have you on the edge of your seat, but it is well-acted and with a well thought out and unique storyline for the time it was made.