Saturday, March 17, 2018

Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie (Remastered)

Back in 2004, Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie (aka Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light), first released in the US as a critical and commercial failure, mainly because it was impenetrable for non-fans. However, when I first saw the movie as a kid, I didn’t really care and was able to enjoy it (although it did spoil the outcome of the Battle City Arc of the anime, which hadn’t finished airing yet in the US). Over the years I have found that, mainly out of nostalgia, I can’t find it within me to not like the original Yu-Gi-Oh!, but my opinion of this movie would wane over time. In a surprising move, 4K Media, the remnants of 4Kids Entertainment after Konami absorbed them, decided to remaster the movie and distribute it for a limited run through Fathom Events. When the opportunity struck, I bought a ticket to see the extent of the remaster and for a brief nostalgia trip. Now that I’ve seen it again, the remastered picture did little to distract from the inherent flaws of the movie.

5000 years ago, the Pharaoh had defeated and sealed away Anubis (Scottie Ray), the Egyptian lord of the dead. Five millennia later, Yugi Muto had completed the Millennium Puzzle at the same time that Anubis’ tomb was discovered in an archeological dig, releasing Anubis’ spirit, which seeks revenge on the Pharaoh. In the present, Yugi has just won the Battle City tournament and gained possession of the most powerful cards in all of Duel Monsters, the three Egyptian God Cards: Obelisk the Tormentor, Slifer the Sky Dragon and The Winged Dragon of Ra. At the same time that Yugi evades a horde of duelists attempting to claim the God Cards for themselves, Seto Kaiba (Eric Stuart) tries repeatedly to come up with a strategy to defeat Yugi, but to no avail. He decides to confront the game’s creator, Maximillion Pegasus (Darren Dunstan), about a possible card made to counteract the God Cards. However, Kaiba doesn’t know that his actions are only helping Anubis with gaining his revenge.

Anubis (Scottie Ray) wants his revenge on the Pharaoh.

The story and plot for the movie have a pretty rough execution. The idea of the Pyramid of Light as an eighth Millennium Item as well as the presence of another ancient evil can come off as fanfiction, which is never a compliment, and Anubis himself has almost no personality and is motivated entirely by an ancient grudge. The main bulk of the movie is a duel between Yami (Dan Green) and Kaiba, which goes on for quite a while. Once Kaiba activates Pyramid of Light, which unwittingly sets Anubis’ plan into motion, the spirits of Yugi, Joey Wheeler (Wayne Grayson) and Tristan Taylor (Greg Abbey) are sucked into the Millennium Puzzle, where they encounter the spirit of Anubis and his army of the undead. These scenes, interspersed within the Yugi vs Kaiba duel, can prove more interesting, if only because they provide the occasional break from the rest of the action.

That said, the dialogue is pretty decent and there are some occasional moments of laugh-out-loud humor. This includes some subtle moments, including Pegasus being served a red wine spritzer after swearing off white wine spritzers, and some of the jabs that characters take at each other. Other moments, like Joey making a couple movie references, are funny if only because of how cheesy/dumb they are.

One notable element of the dialogue is that when 4Kids had originally dubbed this movie, they had made the bold decision to keep any and all allusions and references to death and dying rather than change any instance to mentioning the Shadow Realm (as they had done in their dub of the anime). While this doesn’t mean much now, it was rather surprising back in 2004.

The quality of the animation is sort of hit and miss. It’s generally a higher quality than Studio Gallop used when animating the show, but after 14 years it also feels like a relic of the 2000s. Though the character models are good for the time, there are some moments where it went noticeably a little off-model. Nothing too jarring, but noticeable enough that it didn’t help the movie age that well over 14 years.

Something about this movie that’s particularly notable is that until 2017’s Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions, this was the only instance where cards depicted in the English version used translated English text instead of the altered format used in the anime. While this was rather surprising and impressive at the time, especially since they also tried to recreate card rarities, there are some noticeable errors with card layouts (such as flipped or mirrored cards). One that’s particularly noticeable is that when Yami activates the card Double Spell, the card shown instead is Diffusion Wave-Motion (fixed in the Japanese version; see below).

As for the remaster, it’s essentially the same movie but the picture has a much-needed touch-up for modern screens. The look of the remaster is generally very impressive, giving it crisper visuals which help the movie age a little better, though in some zoomed-in shots the quality dips somewhat. It would’ve been nice if they also took the opportunity to correct the errors in the English card text and art, though I understand that wasn’t really the point of the remaster.

The voice acting is pretty good for when it came out, especially Dan Green as Yugi/Yami and Eric Stuart as Seto Kaiba. Looking back on it now, though, it’s obvious that by the time The Dark Side of Dimensions had come out, the actors had greatly improved in their roles since.

As for the soundtrack, the actual score is fitting and has a similar style to the anime. One original song that plays during a scene of Kaiba flying the Blue-Eyes White Dragon Jet is a little cheesy, but still kinda works. However, a number of snippets of other songs play over the credits, which seemed to be for the sole purpose of promoting the soundtrack with the promise of original songs (including one performed by The Black-Eyed Peas for some reason).

At the time the movie first came out in the US, theaters gave away one of four special cards (in a unique one-card booster pack) with each ticket sold and retail stores sold an eight-card Exclusive Pack as a tie-in. DVD copies of the film also came with two cards from the theater-exclusive Movie Pack with the option to send in for the other two. As an additional bit of small trivia, Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon saw a TCG release through this pack two years before the card required to summon it, Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, would. Another tie-in was the Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie Ani-Manga (basically a screencap comic) which came bundled with Slifer the Sky Dragon’s original TCG printing; the screencaps in the Ani-Manga only highlight many of the animation errors.

Original theatrical release poster.

For this special re-release of the movie, viewers were also given an exclusive look at the first English dub episode of the new Yu-Gi-Oh! series, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS. I’m not sure how much I can say except that, without having seen the Japanese version, it feels like 4K Media is giving more respect to the source material with great voice acting and good dialogue, including a funny reference to the idea that some people think a hotdog is a sandwich. I’ll note here that my screening of the movie had low attendance anyway, likely since it was a Monday night, but everyone else had left before and during the VRAINS preview, so I enjoyed what had become a private screening.

A Japanese poster for Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS. L-R (clockwise):
Yusaku Fujiki, Firewall Dragon, Decode Talker, Yusaku Fujiki (as Playmaker), Ai.

After 14 years, I can conclude that Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie hasn’t really aged well. The remastered visuals are impressive and I wouldn’t mind getting it on home video if they offered it. However, the story is still pretty rough and Anubis, though designed by Kazuki Takahashi himself, is a rather flat villain without much going for him. The climactic duel also goes for a large amount of the 89-minute runtime, so that’s something to keep in mind. It’s also very difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, since it requires the viewer to already be pretty familiar with the source material. While fun as a nostalgic trip back to the original series, it’s a pretty rough movie overall, though for some that may be part of its charm.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

God of War III Remastered - ...Or Does It?

Following the original release of God of War III on the PS3 in 2010, the game would later be ported and remastered for the PS4 in 2015 as God of War III Remastered, with all DLC costumes included on-disc. God of War Collection (collecting God of War I and II) had been released for PS Vita the previous year, however it does feel a little odd that said Collection would not have also been ported to PS4 alongside God of War III. Getting back on track, though I had gotten this port around the time it was released, with the intention to play it prior to God of War (2018) for PS4, it was only after a release date for the new game was officially announced that I finally started to play it as a primer, during whatever free time I had in my schedule. As I played it, I found it to have aged pretty well, even if the remaster generally felt a little unnecessary.

All of the content remains the same is with the original God of War III, just with a minor visual upgrade. I didn’t really notice any major difference in the visuals, however it looked really good nonetheless; this slight graphical upgrade makes the pre-rendered cutscenes slightly more noticeable against the real-time rendered ones, however it wasn't enough to be immersion-breaking. The music was just as good as ever (to the point where I had purchased a copy of the soundtrack beforehand), with the Gerard Marino track “Rage of Sparta” standing out the most. The voice acting was also still good and it was nice to hear Terrence C. Carson’s Kratos again, however I’m confident Christopher Judge will do a good job voicing the character in the new game. I didn’t really run into many technical issues while playing, save for one where I had some difficulty getting a double jump to work in places; I don’t know how much of it was me or some issue introduced in the port, as has been seen with some good remasters such as Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX.

As noted in the opening paragraph, all of the costume DLC for the game is included on the disc. This even includes the 7-Eleven-exclusive Morpheus skin (previously only available through a Slurpee promotion that included a special flavor) and the Deimos skin tying into God of War: Ghost of Sparta on PSP. I should mention that you are only required to beat the game once to unlock all of the costumes, which saves a lot of the effort that was originally required.

Overall, God of War III Remastered is a great port, save for whatever technical issues I faced while playing. When I initially (awkwardly) reviewed God of War III, I considered it “a perfect game”; my opinion has since mellowed out, since the idea of a “perfect game” is highly subjective, however I would still consider it one of the best God of War games and it reminded me why I thought it was worth attending the midnight release of the original PS3 version. Though it is a good entry, I would still highly recommend playing the previous entries in the series, at minimum the numbered games, prior to this one should you wish to play it, as this game serves as the chronological end to Kratos’ story prior to the upcoming new entry. Now that Kratos’ journey through Greek mythology is over, it will be interesting to see what he does in the realm of Norse mythology in God of War (2018).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stubs - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Screenplay by Martin McDonagh. Produced by Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, and Martin McDonagh.  Run Time: 115 minutes. The United Kingdom and the United States. Color. Drama

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a second act looking for a third. I feel like if I wrote this story it would be rejected because of the lousy ending, which leaves off what I would assume was the point of the film was setting up. Without resolution, you’re left dangling at the end wondering what happens next, though not wanting or expecting a sequel. Sad that this is what passes for storytelling these days as the film was both nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture by the Academy Awards.

Three Billboards is more a character study than a great film.

Three Billboards is more of a character study than a complete film. Frances McDormand, no stranger to good acting, plays Mildred Hayes whom, after seven months of no progress on the rape/murder of her daughter, puts up three billboards along a little-used road and gets a lot of attention from the police and the press. Her main target is the Chief of Police William 'Bill' Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), but the real anger comes from Sgt. James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop with a bad reputation and an even worse temper.

Central to the plot is the murder of Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton). The police have been stymied by a lack of matching DNA to the crime. No one seems to match what they found at the brutal crime scene. But that is not enough for Mildred as she wants the crime solved no matter how expensive it might be.

Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who also plays one of the love interests in Lady Bird, bears most of the brunt of his mother’s outlandish behavior from the other kids at school. He doesn’t seem as interested in finding the killer as his mother, though he is still somewhat haunted by the events.

But Mildred’s ex, Charlie (John Hawkes), has managed to move on, helped along by his 19-year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving). Charlie’s presence in the film is to chiefly remind Mildred to move on and to rub her nose, so to speak, in his relationship with Penelope. Mildred thinks Penelope literally smells like shit, though it's from her working with animals.

Bill Willoughby is an earnest man, dying of cancer, who feels bad that he can’t solve the murder. The film fleshes him out as a foul-mouthed but loving father and a devoted husband to Anne (Abbie Cornish). Though little is mentioned about Anne, she’s obviously Australian as the actress’ accent is never far away.

Everyone is angry with Mildred, who is always sullen if not vengeful throughout the film. You want to root for her, but she’s not very accessible as a character despite the great acting that McDormand does.

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is the central character in the film.

Without getting into too much of the actual story, there are some really big holes and coincidences that are never resolved. Chief amongst them is the appearance of a Crop-Haired Guy (Brendan Sexton) who not only threatens Mildred but later brags about committing a rape/murder that sounds very similar to Angela’s fate. But it's a dead end of sorts, as DNA that Dixon goes out of his way to collect is not enough to make him a suspect as he was out of the country at the time. His presence is a real head-scratcher as it really does nothing to move the plot to a conclusion but only unifies Mildred and Dixon as they turn into vigilantes and leave on a trip to Idaho to kill him because they think he deserves it. Hard to be sympathetic to anyone in that situation.

Also, Dixon is someone who should be in jail. Not even because he supposedly tortured a black suspect, something we don’t see in the film, but because of what we do see in the film. Upset, he takes out his rage on Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the man who owns the billboards, by destroying his property, beating him up and throwing him out a second story window. While Red isn’t killed, no charges seem to ever be brought against Dixon, even though it was witnessed by Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters). The worst thing that happens to him is that he’s thrown off the force when he should have been thrown in jail instead. I’m not sure what justification there could be as to why he would not have even been arrested for these actions, except that the story needs him. That’s sort of like painting yourself into a corner and then busting out the walls to avoid having to think of a better way.

In spite of its nominations for Picture and Screenplay, the film leaves a lot to be desired. The film does not follow a traditional three-act structure, which might draw praise in some circles but is ultimately unsatisfying when all is said and done.

Both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give great performances.

Despite the shortcomings of the story, the acting is really very good. All the main characters are well represented by some very good acting. As mentioned before McDormand gives a great performance as Mildred. Woody Harrelson continues to impress as Willoughby and Sam Rockwell is really very good as Dixon. McDormand and Rockwell were both awarded Oscars for their performances. One thing the script does well is to make sure we see all three as three-dimensional characters and the acting makes it worth watching.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Stubs - The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017) Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher. Directed by Michael Showalter. Screenplay by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani. Produced by Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel. Run Time: 117 minutes. USA Color Romantic Comedy

Probably best known for his work on the HBO series Silicon Valley, Kumail Nanjiani, like most actors/comedians, has a had a life and career before he became well-known. In this case, he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, both do and have written their story in screenplay form which was made into The Big Sick.

Kumail introduces himself to Emily (Zoe Kazan) after his show.

When the film opens, Kumail, who plays himself, is a stand-up comic in Chicago, who also works as an Uber driver to make ends meet. In the audience one night is Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan), who unwillingly heckles him when she was trying to be supportive. Emily is a college student studying to be a therapist. The two of them end up having a one-night stand that leads into a relationship.

Emily and Kumail become a couple.

Kumail’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman and his mom sets up a series of meet and greets with women willing to be part of an arranged marriage. They each give him photographs which he dutifully stores in a cigar box in the apartment he shares with another less-talented comedian, Chris (Kurt Braunohler). When Emily finds the photos, Kumail is forced to admit that he can’t bring himself to tell his parents about her, knowing that they would disown him if he did. As a result, she breaks it off with him. He decides to turn his attention towards his career and becomes a finalist for the Montreal Comedy Festival.

Kumail's parents, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and Azmat
 (Anupam Kher), want him to marry a Pakistani girl.

But no sooner had they broken up, then Emily comes down with a fever and is hospitalized. When there is no one else available to stay with her, one of Emily’s friends calls Kumail. Emily is not happy to see him, but Kumail takes responsibility for her and even signs consent as her husband so that the hospital can put her into a medically induced coma.

After he calls them, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), arrive from North Carolina and initially take over the care of their daughter. Beth, who knows about their relationship, is cold at first, but they both take a liking to him. They end up attending one of his stand up shows and Beth even takes umbrage with a heckler in the audience and has to be expelled from the club.

Emily’s illness only gets worse and the doctors don’t seem to know what the problem is with her.  Fearing that Emily is near death, Kumail blows his audition for Montreal. He also finally comes clean with his parents about his love for Emily and they do, in fact, disown him.

Emily's parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano),
let Kumail take a part in Emily's treatment.

Emily’s parents come to think of Kumail as co-caregiver and respect his concern for their daughter. The doctors are finally able to diagnose her illness as Stills Disease and she recovers. When she recovers, Kumail is invited into her room but Emily asks him to leave. Kumail accepts her decision and accepts an offer from two fellow comedians, CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant), to move to New York.

Stand-ups CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant) invite Kumail to
come with them to New York.

Once Emily is home, her parents throw a party for her and invite Kumail to attend. He uses the opportunity to show his love for Emily, including showing her the ashes of all the photos of the women his mother tried to set him up with. But Emily is unmoved and asks him to leave.

Before leaving town, Kumail performs in his one-man show about Pakistan, its culture, and cricket. That night, Emily watches a YouTube presentation of Kumail’s failed stand-up audition. She makes a surprise trip out of her apartment and goes to Kumail’s show just after it has ended. He’s there talking with his only remaining link to his family, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar).

Emily seems on the verge of wanting to get back together with Kumail when he tells her that he’s leaving for New York.

As they are loading the car for New York, Kumail’s parents come to see him off, though his mother won’t get out of the car or look at him.

In New York, Kumail is once again doing his stand-up routine when he is again heckled by an audience member, Emily, who has come to see him. The film ends with actual photos of Kumail and Emily.

There are some obvious comparisons to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), another romantic comedy about a stand-up comedian, but while Allen’s film is only somewhat based on real life, The Big Sick is, for the most part, based on the events that brought Kumail and Emily together.

Though I am not an expert on their personal lives, there were some subtle changes made for the sake of the film, like Emily’s rejection of Kumail. One has to imagine though that if his family was as devoted Muslims as depicted in the film that there was some tension when he decided to marry a white American woman, rather than a woman of their choosing.

While Kumail plays himself, he does present a very likable man trying to find his way in a somewhat strange culture. He questions his religious beliefs and his place in Pakistani-American society.

The supporting cast is also very good. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both give strong performances as Emily’s parents. Hunter always seems to bring her “A” game and this is no exception. While I enjoyed Romano in his sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, he is sometimes uneven in other roles. Here he’s good. A lot of Zoe Kazan’s role as Emily is spent in a coma, which is too bad. For the most part, she’s an interesting actress. She’s someone I think I’ve seen before, but I honestly don’t know where I would have.

Kumail’s family, his parents Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), Azmat (Anupam Kher) and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) are portrayed by some pretty good actors who may not get a lot of attention. That is not to say they are not accomplished actors, Kher as an example has appeared in 500 films, though only a handful have been in English. Akhtar has also recently appeared in Victoria & Abdul (2017) and is a regular on the TV series Ghosted.

Aidy Bryant (Mary), Bo Burnham (CJ) and Kurt Braunohler (Chris) play other stand-up comics and friends of Kumail. Obviously, all three rely on their own experiences on the stand-up circuit for their portrayals in The Big Sick. Bryant is perhaps the best known, considering she’s a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Some of the funniest dialogue comes from their sniping of other comedians.

As an example:

Kumail: [talking about Chris] He's like if a serial killer fucked an inspirational speaker.

CJ: He's like Daniel Day-Lewis except he sucks.

The Big Sick was released on June 23, 2017, and made over $55 million at the Box office and was a big success given its production budget of $5 million. Given its low budget there are certain aspects that have to be overlooked, like the fact all the cars that are supposed to be in Chicago have New York license plates and inspection stickers.

There is one mistake that seems like a real head-scratcher since it could so easily have been checked. It only jumped out at me because of my personal knowledge of the particular film library in question. Kumail sits Emily down to show her a B-rated horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, telling her that it was made in 1969 by MGM, which had fallen on hard times and had turned to its best box-office attraction, Vincent Price. While MGM now does own the film, through its acquisition of the Orion film library, it was made in 1971 by American International Pictures (AIP). Given Amazon’s involvement in the film, you wonder why they didn’t consult its own subsidiary IMDb to verify the facts. But this is nitpicking.

The Big Sick is a very funny, well-made romantic comedy. While the acting is good, the film’s strength seems to be its screenplay. That aspect of the film has been nominated for numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Very deserving of the attention, the screenplay gives a new twist to the standard Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back love story that is about as old as Hollywood.

Screenwriters and real-life husband and wife Emily V. Gordon and
Kumail Nanjiani.

I would highly recommend The Big Sick. A good date-night film, this is one that can be enjoyed over and over again. A real tour de force that makes one anxious to see what Kumail and Emily will come up with next.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Stubs - Runaway Brain

Runaway Brain (1995) Starring the voices of: Wayne Allwine, Russi Taylor, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Cummings, Bill Farmer Directed by Chris Bailey. Story by Tim Hauser. Produced by Ron Tippe. Runtime: 7 minutes. U.S. Color. Animated, Comedy, Horror.

Mickey Mouse is the face of the Walt Disney Company, and prominent at attractions like Disneyland, but he hasn’t been so prominent in Disney animated works. In 2013, he appeared in Get A Horse, a 3D animated short that recalled his past glories on the silver screen. But prior to that, he hadn’t appeared in a theatrical animated short since Runaway Brain (1995), a period of 18 years.

Mickey made his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), a Disney homage of sorts to Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). He would go on to be featured in 130 films including Plane Crazy (1929), The Band Concert (1935), and Fantasia (1940). But things came to a stop after The Simple Things (1953). For whatever reason, it would be thirty years before his next animated short, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). The Prince and the Pauper (1990) would follow and it would be 5 more years before Runaway Brain.

It’s not that Mickey needs any sort of introduction, despite his time away from theaters. He is iconic in that way.

The film opens on a rainy night. Mickey (Wayne Allwine), with his dog Pluto (Bill Farmer) by his side, is doing what a lot of guys might be doing, playing a video game. This one appears to be based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with the wicked witch throwing apples on the Dwarfs. His gameplay is interrupted when Minnie (Russi Taylor) comes home.

Mickey (Wayne Allwine) is shown to be a video game addict.

She figures, correctly as it turns out, that Mickey has forgotten the anniversary of their first date. Pretending he hasn’t, he shows her a newspaper ad for Miniature Golf, but Minnie only sees the ad below that one, a trip to Hawaii. Happy to know he has planned something special, Minnie leaves. It is only then that Mickey realizes that the trip will cost $999.99, which is obviously more than he has.

Minnie (Russi Taylor) is disappointed that Mickey has forgotten the anniversary of their first date.

Pluto comes to the rescue by finding a want ad that promises to pay $999.99 for one day’s mindless work. Thinking he’s hit a home run, Mickey goes to apply. But when he arrives at the address at 1313 Lobotomy Lane, he falls through a trap door and into a science lab where he is strapped down in a chair, unable to move.

Pluto (Bill Farmer) shows Mickey a help wanted ad that promises the money he needs.

He is interviewed by the primate-like Dr. Frankenollie (Kelsey Grammer) who decides Mickey will do and introduces him to his co-worker, Julius (Jim Cummings), a twenty-foot tall creature. Dr. Frankenollie wants Mickey’s brain, which we see extends into his ears, for Julius. So in what has become a cliché of sorts, he throws a switch to move Mickey’s thoughts and memories into Julius.

Dr. Frankenollie (Kelsey Grammer) decides Mickey is perfect for his needs.

There is an explosion, which we find out burns the doctor into a crisp. Mickey discovers this when now in Julius’ body he tells the doctor to change him back and the doctor’s body falls away like so much ash on the end of a cigarette.

The doctor sets off the transference with a click of a button.

With Julius’ brain in it, Mickey’s body turns feral. When Mickey tries to explain that he needs to change back, he tries to get Julius to look at the photos in Mickey’s wallet, one of which is him as Steamboat Willie. But when Julius sees Minnie’s photo, he is smitten by her. Seeing her on the street entering a bikini shop, he runs down to get her. Minnie, of course, doesn’t see any difference in Mickey and hides the scanty bikini to save it for their vacation. But when Mickey in Julius’ body tries to save her, she thinks he is the monster.

With Julius' brain in his body, Mickey turns feral and even scares himself.

Quickly, however, she realizes that he is her Mickey. In a King Kong-like move, he places her on a tall building where she will be safe and goes back to battle Julius. For a moment, Julius outsmarts Mickey and the two of them are sent falling towards the ground, but they land on electrical lines and the resulting charge sends their brains back to the right bodies.

Julius, back in his own body, clutches Mickey and Minnie even though they're sticking through a billboard.

But the bounce back up from the wires sends them to the top of the building and thrusts all three through a large billboard advertising Hawaii. Mickey realizes he’s back into his own body, but he’s in Julius’ grasp. Minnie is in the other hand. Mickey manages to escape and tries to fight Julius with window cleaner gear before rescuing Minnie when she is dropped by Julius by swinging on a rope to catch her. Mickey uses the same rope to tie Julius to the hand of the hula dancer on the billboard. Julius is trapped like a yo-yo.

Minnie falls before Mickey rescues her.

In the final scene, Mickey and Minnie are together on their way to Hawaii on a raft being pulled through the ocean by Julius with a photo of Minnie being used as the carrot on the stick to keep him swimming.

Mickey does manage to take Minnie to Hawaii aboard a raft.

Produced by Walt Disney Animation France, the film was originally released in North America on August 11, 1995, accompanying A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, a live-action family-friendly retelling of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and a remake of Disney’s own Unidentified Flying Oddball (1978).

After having been off the screen for five years, Mickey’s appearance in Runaway Brain didn’t meet with universal praise. Many otherwise Disney fans were turned off by the macabre nature of the short, especially when compared to the light tone of his previous shorts.

The short was re-released with 101 Dalmatians (1996), their live-action remake of the animated classic. But Disney asked theater owners to cut the short off all film prints and replace it with trailers for then-upcoming Disney films. Runaway Brain would later be released attached to George of the Jungle (1997), yet another live-action remake. The short would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 68th Academy Awards, ending up losing to A Close Shave (1995) from Aardman Animations and director Nick Park.

Watching the short, I wasn’t really bothered by its horror film undertones. I will admit that it is not something you’d expect from a Mickey Mouse animated short. But there is nothing in this short that you haven’t seen in other animated films, even when Dr. Frankenollie turning to ash is nothing new.

While most of the early animated shorts from the studios, including Disney, were never rated, they did include violence that feature films couldn’t have gotten away with because of the interpretation of the Production Code by the Hays Office.

The film’s use of imagery from movies like Frankenstein (1931) and King Kong (1933) seems to presume that its audience is already aware of these films. They’re a visual short-hand for science fiction and horror that allow the filmmakers, who only have seven minutes, to sort of cheat on their storytelling.

However, the film overall feels sort of disjointed to me. A derivative of other films, there is nothing really unique about it, that is there is nothing you haven’t seen before, with the possible difference seeing Mickey Mouse in this sort of film.

Kelsey Grammer, who was in the middle of his 20-year plus run playing Dr. Fraiser Crane on TV shows Cheers and Fraiser, has a rather small role considering his celebrity at the time. Dr. Frankenollie may instigate the action, but he disappears rather quickly in the story. You wonder why the stunt casting if the role was so small.

The other actors, while perhaps not as well-known to mainstream audiences, are still gifted voice actors. Wayne Allwine had played Mickey Mouse for 32 years and his wife Russi Taylor has voiced Minnie since 1986, not to mention Martin Prince, Sherri and Terri, and Üter on the animated series The Simpsons. Jim Cummings, whose voice has appeared in over 400 films, is perhaps known for another Disney project he worked on, the title role in the TV series Darkwing Duck. Bill Farmer has been playing another Disney dog, Goofy, since 1987, as well as voicing Pluto. If you ever have a chance to attend a panel for voice actors at a comic-convention, I would recommend you attend as they are very entertaining to watch and listen to.

It is the fact that Disney has made the film sort of hard to find that makes it compelling to watch. What are they trying to hide? We’re disc people at my house, and proud of it, but this short was not available on disc, rather it was a digital extra for the digital version of Walt Disney Short Film Collection from 2015. The character of Julius, however, would make one more appearance as an optional secret boss in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance in Traverse Town.

For the die-hard Mickey Mouse fan, this is worth seeking out. If you’re a casual fan of Disney animation, then Runaway Brain is sort of fun to watch and makes for a pleasant diversion.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stubs - Black Panther

Black Panther (2018) Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Screenplay by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole. Based on Black Panther created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Runtime: 134 minutes. USA. Superhero, Fantasy

Few films have arrived at theaters with more hype and buzz than Black Panther, the latest film from Disney’s Marvel Studios. This hype has turned into a box-office megahit, making about $200 million in its first few days in US theaters. Now hype and box-office success don’t necessarily mean that the film is any good. Fortunately, that is not the case with Black Panther.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). The first black superhero in American mainstream comics, he is the king of Wakanda, a very rich and electronically advanced nation, thanks to the amount of Vibranium that a meteorite deposited there 10,000 years ago. Vibranium, a fictional metal, absorbs sound waves and other vibrations, including kinetic energy, making it the strongest metal on Earth. (Captain America’s Shield is made out of Vibranium and originally thought to have used the entire world’s supply.)

Vibranium is the source of the wealth and advanced technology that separates Wakanda from every other nation in Africa, if not the world. But somehow, despite being wealthy, Wakanda has remained secretive and has, until Civil War, tried to stay out of the league of nations. The country doesn’t trade with other nations and is considered by the rest of the world as an impoverished third-world nation.

This film picks up pretty much where Captain America: Civil War (2016) ends. That film, which brought together most but not all of the Avengers, also introduced Black Panther to the MCU. In that film, after his father, T'Chaka, King of Wakanda (John Kani) is killed, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Black Panther, but according to this film, he doesn’t become King until after that story was wrapped.

One thing Wakanda tries to do is keep their supply of Vibranium from leaving the country, though some has left. In addition to Captain America’s Shield, there is an artifact in a London museum. Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), with the help of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), steals it, but when they try to sell it, T’Challa, his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general in charge of the all-female special forces, are there to stop Klaue. This is all a pretext for Stevens, also known as Killmonger, who has his own connections to the throne of Wakanda and challenges T’Challa for its rule. Also helping T’Challa is Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent also introduced to the MCU in Civil War.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is challenged by Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) for leadership in Wakanda.

The Black Panther is presented as a cross between Batman and James Bond. He’s well trained and well-financed and has a vast menagerie of weapons and devices to choose from. T'Challa's 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is an inventor of new technologies and serves as this film’s Q when she walks him through her lab offering him enhancements to weapons and uniforms.

Wakanda is a mixture of great technology and ancient rituals. Here, T’Challa is flanked by
 his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general in
charge of the all-female special forces who wear more traditional garb.

The culture of Wakanda seems to be a mixture of ultra-modern with ties to the past in the rituals they go through, including a challenge period before the king is crowned. While it is fascinating, it doesn’t always ring true. This is not unique to this film, as many times comic book worlds don’t always work when placed in even their own environments. The possession of an object of great wealth is only valuable when someone else buys it. If Wakanda doesn’t sell Vibranium then it wouldn’t have the great wealth necessary for the Black Panther to function. Think if Saudi Arabia didn’t sell the oil it rests on, their way of life would not be what it is today.

For the most part, the film looks good and the action moves along fairly well. There are times when I sort of lose track of who is who in the fight scenes, but that is nothing unique to this film. The acting is also fairly good, with Boseman, Jordan, Serkis, Nyong’o, Gurira, and Wright all distinguishing themselves. While I generally like Freeman, he’s a British actor and I’m a little surprised that they couldn’t find an American one available to play the part. That is nothing against his performance, only a comment.

While it does help to have seen Captain America: Civil War beforehand, which we did, it does bring up a bit of a plot hole. In Black Panther, it’s suggested that the King is the Black Panther by virtue of being King. And T’Challa is not coronated as King until after he’s gone through a ritual in the film. But he’s already the Black Panther before the film starts, so how did that work? If he became the Black Panther by virtue of his father dying, then when did he ingest what he has to in order to become the Black Panther?

Some of the hype is a little overstated; this is not the first film to feature a black superhero from comics. That honor goes to Steel (1997), a rather forgettable film starring Shaquille O’Neal. While Steel was from DC, Blade is a Marvel comic superhero and was portayed by Wesley Snipes (remember him?) in three films: Blade (1998), Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004). But it makes for better copy to say Black Panther is the first, even if only in the MCU.

There are a few odd political moments in the film. At one point, even though he is an invited guest of the King, Ross is greeted as “Colonizer”, an overt reference to his white European background, even though he is not a European character and Wakanda was never colonized. There is another reference made towards the end of the film to the slave ships that brought Black Africans to the New World in chains. While this is not without factual background, it seems a little misplaced when it is spoken. These references seem to come a little out of left field considering the story has nothing to do with either.

All that said, the film is quite good, involving and for the most part a lot of fun to watch. There are some serious moments dealing with black youth in America, though it is certainly not the focus of the film, though they do help to shape the story.

It seems that Marvel films are now less like homework, as Doctor Strange (2016) seemed to be when it was released. After Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and now Black Panther, they seem to be enjoyable fare again. I would not consider this to be one of the best films of the MCU, but it is still in the top half. I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who has been following the MCU or is looking for an entry point to it. Even if you’re not a Marvel fan, you may still find yourself enjoying the film.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Stubs - County Hospital

County Hospital (1932) Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert Directed by James Parrott. Screenplay by H.M. Walker. Produced by Hal Roach. Runtime 19 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Comedy Short

Sometimes its hard to top yourself and in 1932, the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had released what maybe their gold standard, The Music Box, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Comedy). Knowing that, there maybe nowhere but down for the duo.

While not the follow up short, that would go to The Chimp, County Hospital was another short for the two. Written and filmed in February 1932, the film would be released on June 25, 1932. Like The Music Box, County Hospital has a pretty basic premise, one friend visits a sick friend in the hospital but in this case, the friends are two of the most talented comics to ever live.

Stan arrives at the County Hospital.

Stan is shown driving on his way to the hospital. For whatever reason, when he sees the typical Quiet Hospital Zone sign, his car rears up on its front wheels.

Despite his broken leg, Oliver looks content lying in his hospital bed.

Inside, Oliver is in bed with a broken leg in traction. He seems surprisingly happy for someone who is bedridden. When Laurel enters the room, he’s carrying a paper bag. When Oliver inquires about its contents, Stan tells him “hard-boiled eggs and nuts.”

What else do you bring to someone in a hospital bed but hard-boiled eggs and nuts?

But Oliver would rather have had candy, but Stan tells him that he can’t afford candy; Oliver never paid him from the last time. Even though Oliver doesn’t want an egg, Stan has one. Now you might imagine watching a man eat a hard-boiled egg wouldn’t be funny but, somehow, the way Stan eats it, without a care in the world, makes it funny.

Stan eats his egg like he doesn't have a care in the world.

When he’s done with one, even Oliver is surprised when Stan takes out a second one. But this time, the egg rolls off the night stand into Oliver’s water pitcher. He stops Stan from reaching his hand into the water to retrieve the egg. It takes two tries, but eventually, Stan is able to pluck the egg without putting his hand in the water. But the egg is wet and when Stan uses the towel draped over the table, he spills the water pitcher into Oliver’s bed.

Stan about to spill a pitcher of water into Oliver's bed.

Next, The Doctor (Billy Gilbert) enters to check on his patient. Oliver is happy to hear that he might have to stay in the hospital for a couple of months. While doctor and patient are talking, Stan decides to have a nut. When he sees the weight being used to hold up Oliver’s leg, he gets an idea what to use to crack the nut.

The Doctor (Billy Gilbert) arrives to check on his patient.

Picking up the weight, he tries to use it on the window sill. This sends Oliver up in the air, being held up by his broken leg. When the Doctor tries to pull the weight off the sill, he goes out the window, pulling the weight with him and Oliver further into the air.

The Doctor goes out the window.

Meanwhile, Nurse Smith (Estelle Etterre) is given a sedative for one of the patients. But hearing the commotion in Oliver’s room, she comes running into the room, putting the syringe down on a chair.
The doctor hangs on for dear life, while Stan feebly tries to pull him back inside all the time, Oliver is a human yo-yo. But dragging the rope back and forth over the edge of the sill eventually breaks it, sending Oliver crashing down, breaking his bed in the process. It takes Stan a while longer to finally pull the Doctor back into the room.

A publicity still showing getting Oliver back in his bed.

By the time the Doctor is pulled back into the room, the nurses and orderlies have gotten his bed back together. But the Doctor is mad and orders everyone to leave the room. When they’re alone, The Doctor orders Oliver to leave the hospital. Stan, though, doesn’t seem to react to the news with any haste.

Stan cuts the wrong trouser leg on the wrong pair of trousers.

When Oliver asks Stan to help him get dressed, Stan struggles with the pants leg, which is too small to fit over Oliver’s cast.  Oliver tells him to use a pair of scissors, so Stan cuts off one of the legs of a pair of trousers he takes out of the closet. But it turns out to be the wrong leg, so Oliver cuts off the right leg.

Just then, Oliver’s roommate (William Austin) returns with news that he’s too is going home, though most likely because he’s cured. But the roommate soon realizes that he’s trying to put on Oliver Hardy’s pants, whose names are even in the pants. Stan takes a seat in the chair and gets stuck by the hypodermic needle.

Into the room comes Nurse Smith looking for her syringe.  She finds it sticking out of Stan’s backside. She laughs at his predicament. She takes the syringe back to Miss Wallace (May Wallace), the head nurse, to get it refilled. Laughingly, she tells Nurse Wallace that Stan is going to sleep for a week.

Stan helps Oliver out to the car.

Stan, already starting to show the effects, helps Oliver out to the car. Oliver, despite the cast on his leg, insists on driving, but when they try to get his cast over the car’s windshield, he ends up in the backseat of the car. He insists Stan drive.

Stan is half-asleep while driving Oliver home from the hospital.

The rest of the movie is Stan, half-asleep, driving through what is possibly the streets of Culver City, with Oliver in the backseat all too aware of the danger they’re in. Finally, they end up getting squashed between two street cars, leaving their car bent in a semi-circle and driving in circles.

Publicity still showing the car after it's been squashed between two street cars.

While there are funny moments, the film suffers from poor production values. Its reliance on rear projection is undermined at just how bad those shots look. The last several minutes, which don’t look good at all, just drive the point home. I can’t underline how poor the final sequence looks, as it is so obviously rear projection footage that isn’t always to scale and doesn’t look the least bit believable.

Rather than a coherent story, like The Music Box, County Hospital seems to be a series of set piece sketches that don’t exactly work together to form a whole: hard-boiled eggs and nuts, the nut smashing with the weight, the cutting of the pants and the drive home, each sadly a little less funny than the sketch before.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play pretty much the same characters they always do, which is not to take away from them. Most great movie comedians play a particular role or type of role through most of their films. Chaplin had his Little Tramp, Lloyd had the Glass Characters, the Marx Brothers had their own stock characters and so do Laurel and Hardy. Funnier together than separately, they play like a well-oiled machine. Too bad sometimes the material they’re working with isn’t always up to snuff.

The supporting cast is almost superfluous. With the exception of Billy Gilbert, none of them are all that memorable and in some cases, like Hardy’s roommate, don’t even have role names.

After climbing to the heights in The Music Box released earlier in 1932, the pair comes back down to Earth in County Hospital. If you can just watch the first half of the film, then it is very funny, but like a bad SNL sketch, it goes on too long.