Saturday, June 16, 2018

Stubs - Seven Chances

Seven Chances (1925) Starring: Buster Keaton, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards, Ruth Dwyer, Frankie Raymond, Jules Cowles, Erwin Connelly, Jean Arthur. Directed by: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline. Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell. Based on the play Seven Chances by Roi Cooper Megrue. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck, Buster Keaton. Runtime: 56 minutes. USA Black and White with Technicolor insert, Comedy, Silent

Sometimes films are made with the lowest of expectations. Consider Seven Chances, the 1925 silent comedy directed by and starring Buster Keaton. Originally a rather unsuccessful stage play of the same name by Roi Cooper Megrue, Joseph M. Schenck bought the film rights for $25,000 as a vehicle for either Keaton or one of the acting Talmadge sisters, Norma, Constance or Natalie. 

The play opened August 8, 1916, at the George M. Cohan's Theatre and closed in December after 151 performances. Buster Keaton, who saw the play during its original run, considered it a creaky, overly contrived farce. However, he owed Schenck money and had no choice but to make the film.  He turned the play over to his writers, Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell to take the static, stage-bound play and make something out of it.

Production got underway on September 16, 1924, with Jack McDermott directing. However, two weeks into the production McDermott left amicably, leaving Buster to direct the film. There was a short delay when he took over but production was completed on November 30, 1924. Seven Chances was shot at the Buster Keaton Studio located at 1025 Lillian Way as well as in and around Los Angeles, utilizing the streets around Greater Page Temple Church of God in Christ; Jefferson Boulevard & Arlington Avenue; and Chatsworth including Beale’s Cut, a natural formation once used as a stagecoach route and used in the films of John Ford, and D.W. Griffith. Keaton had also used the gap in his 1922 short, The Paleface.

Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton) and Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer)
 at the beginning of their relationship. (Note: the small dog).

This film opens with an early technicolor insert (275 feet), showing the long courtship between Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton) and his girlfriend, Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer). As the seasons pass and her dog grows, Jimmy cannot bring himself to tell her he loves her.

Seven Chances reverts to standard black and white as we see Jimmy with his partner, Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) facing the financial ruin of their brokerage firm, Meekin and Shannon, as well as legal consequences. When a lawyer (Snitz Edwards) shows up at their firm, with news of a large inheritance for Jimmy, they initially try to dodge him, thinking that he is there to give Jimmy a subpoena or other court order. Even though he can see them in their office, he’s told by their secretary he’s not in. Determined to wait for them, the lawyer doesn’t leave.

Jimmy and his partner  Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) listen to a lawyer
 (Snitz Edwards) as he reads Jimmy's grandfather's will.

They take solace at their Country Club and that is where the lawyer’s persistence finally pays off. Through the window of the dining room, he shows them the clause about the inheritance. They run after him, stopping the guards from walking him off the property. In the office at the club, the three finally sit down to review the document. It seems that Jimmy will inherit $7,000,000 from his grandfather if he’s married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday, which turns out to be that same day. Jimmy, of course, thinks of Mary and leaves to ask her.

This is one of the cases where the film gets inventive, using a technique from the brilliant Sherlock Jr. (1924). We see Jimmy get into the driver’s seat in the driveway of the Country Club and then the background changes and he is getting out in front of Mary’s home. The audience knows, without having to watch, that Jimmy has driven to her house.

Jimmy practices his proposal to Mary, who overhears and at first accepts.

After speaking with her mother, Frances Raymond, Jimmy goes to wait for her in the backyard. There he practices his proposal, which unbeknownst to him, Mary overhears and accepts. But, of course, the film can’t stop there and when Jimmy tries to explain why they have to get married that day, he makes her feel like it has less to do with love and more to do with convenience, saying things along the lines of any girl would do. Feeling less than special, Mary turns him down.

Jimmy returns to the Country Club and tells his partner and lawyer the bad news. Meanwhile, Mary and her mother discuss the proposal and her mother suggests Mary let Jimmy explain. She calls the Country Club and the receptionist, Miss Smith (Jean Arthur) puts the call through to the office, but the men don’t answer, assuming it is not for them.

Mary writes a note to Jimmy telling him not to marry anyone else and gives the note to their black Hired Hand (Jules Cowles in blackface) to deliver. Despite her plea to hurry, the Hired Hand’s horse plods along to make the delivery.

They make a list of names or Seven Chances and tick them off as they turn Jimmy down.

Meanwhile, The three go to the dining room of the Country Club to see if there are any suitable candidates for Jimmy to marry. Billy asks Jimmy if he knows any of the women and he writes down all seven chances. The list includes Eugenia Gilbert, Doris Deane, Judy King, Hazel Deane, Bartine Burkett, Connie Evans, and Pauline Toller the real names of the actresses who appear, and in the order, they do, in the film.

Jimmy's proposal to Second Chance (Doris Deane) gathers a crowd. 

First Chance (Eugenia Gilbert) laughs in Jimmy’s face, so loud in fact that the entire room can’t help but notice. Jimmy follows Second Chance (Doris Deane) outside to the edge of the golf course, where he gets down on one knee, only to be embarrassed by the crowd that gathers to watch. For his Third Chance (Judy King) he tries writing a note “Will You Marry Me” that he tosses to her in a mezzanine seat. She shreds the notes and the pieces fall down on Jimmy.

Jimmy tries to propose to his Third Chance (Judy King) by tossing a note up to her. She turns him down.
Billy takes it upon himself to handle the next proposal to Fourth Chance (Hazel Deane), who initially thinks it is Billy who is proposing. But when Billy insists its for a friend and points to where Jimmy had been standing and had walked away when he saw how chummy they were, she only sees the lawyer and refuses.

Billy asks Jimmy's Fourth Chance (Hazel Deane) who thinks he's proposing for the lawyer.
Jimmy fails with his Fifth Chance (Bartine Burkett), and Sixth Chance (Connie Evans) on the stairs, one on the way up and one going down. He follows Seventh Chance (Pauline Toller) into a telephone booth to get his final rejection from those women he knew. 

Following her rejection, Billy comes up with a plan and tells Jimmy to meet him at the Broad Street Church at five o’clock and he’ll provide the bride. On their way out, the lawyer turns to Jimmy and tells him to keep trying in case Billy fails and offers if there are two brides to marry the other one.

Thinking it might be his appearance, Jimmy goes to check out himself in a mirror. He looks at his reflection and then at himself. Meanwhile, a Black Man comes through the door, momentarily surprising Jimmy and he runs away.

Jimmy gets turned down by the Country Club's receptionist (Jean Arthur).
He next proposes to the Country Club receptionist, who shows him her own wedding ring before going back to her reading. On his way out, Jimmy draws a line through the Miss on her nameplate.

On his way out, Jimmy asks the hatcheck girl (Rosalind Byrne)
Next up, Jimmy goes to get his hat but the Hatcheck girl (Rosalind Byrne) waits for a tip before giving him his skimmer. When Jimmy sees one more candidate, he leaves the hat and takes back the tip. He starts into his spiel before realizing that the woman has a baby with her that she doesn’t want to part with to marry him. Back to hat check and before he can ask her his question she shakes her head no.

On his way out of the club, Jimmy stops again by the door with the mirror and out pops a girl who asks if anyone would want to marry her.  After fainting, Jimmy gets up and escorts her out. The seven chances are waiting for him outside and laugh at his misfortune. Their posture changes when Jimmy’s bride-to-be emerges and takes his arm.

But on the way to the car, the woman’s mother (Lori Bara) reveals that Jimmy’s bride to be is really just a child playing dress up. Embarrassed, Jimmy drives away as the Seven Chances laugh at him.

At a railroad crossing, the hired hand catches up to Jimmy. Holding up what he thinks is a stop sign, he is surprised Jimmy just keeps driving, narrowly missing a charging train. Turns out one side of the sign read STOP and the other side he was holding out toward Jimmy, read GO. 

Meanwhile, the man’s horse has taken off and he has to track it down.

On the road, an ever-desperate Jimmy pulls up to a woman in a car (Marion Harlan) but before he can get too far, he runs the car up a tree which is growing in the road.

Meanwhile, Billy and the lawyer go to The Daily News, an afternoon paper to place an ad, looking for a wife for Jimmy who will inherit $7 million.

Jimmy, now walking to the church, stops when he sees a woman reading a paper at a bus stop. He proposes but she doesn’t understand, since she apparently only know Hebrew, judging by her newspaper. Passed on the sidewalk by a woman, Jimmy is about to propose until he sees that she’s, in fact, Black and he backs off.

On his way to the church, Jimmy stops at a beauty parlor
where he mistakes a woman's head for a mannequin's.
Passing a beauty shop, Jimmy stops to watch the male beautician and is probably thinking of proposing to the customer when he sees that she is a mannequin and her head gets removed. He enters the shop and sees another woman in a chair and thinking she, too, is a mannequin tries to remove her head before realizing his mistake and running off.

Jimmy mistakes a female impersonator for a real woman.

Next, he passes a stage and sees the image of a woman on the advertisement. Tipping the stagehand, he goes into propose. While he’s inside, someone moves some boxes that cover up the name of the performer (Julian El Tinge), who at the time was a well-known female impersonator. When Jimmy emerges, his skimmer has been purposefully pulled down over his head so that the brim is around his neck. Jimmy takes back his bribe and walks away.

The church is empty when he arrives.

By the time Jimmy arrives at the Church, in top hat and tails and carrying flowers, he is exhausted. 
He settles into the front row pews and falls asleep. Meanwhile, women answering the ads, come to the church walking, driving cars, bikes, and train. And not only fill the pews but back out into the street. By the time, Jimmy wakes up, he is surrounded by bridesmaids wearing makeshift and real wedding dresses.

After a short nap, he's surrounded by potential brides.

When the minister (Erwin Connelly) sees all the gathered women he tells them that they’ve been pranked and to go home. This does not sit well with the mob of brides and they decide to take it out on Jimmy.

Under the church, Mary's Hired Hand (Jules Cowles
 in blackface) catches up to him with Mary's note.

He ends up taking shelter under the church where Mary’s Hired Hand finally catches up to him. 

Trying to learn the time isn't easy for Jimmy.

Seeing the note, he decides to go to her. Jimmy manages to get away but when he pulls out his pocket watch to read the time, it breaks from its chain and falls down the sewer drain. Trying to find the correct time proves difficult. The first person he asks the time, a bootblack, doesn’t have a watch on the end of his chain but rather a bottle opener. The woman whose shoes he’s shining has a watch on an anklet but when Jimmy tries to look she thinks he’s being fresh. Next stop, a clock shop but each one in the window is set to a different time. When he goes into the shop, the watch repairman’s own seems to have stopped as well. It is not until a drunk trying to sleep one off throws his alarm clock out the window, which hits Jimmy in the head, does he know that it is 6:15.

He tries to catch the trolley but it passes him by. Jimmy starts to walk down the center of the street towards Mary’s when he is spotted by some of the jilted brides, who are angry at the deception. They are joined by more and more brides and are almost upon him before he notices and starts running.

Jimmy runs for his life just ahead of angry mob of jilted brides.

When the mob passes a bricklayer building a wall, they pick the bricks clean and continue the chase.
Billy and the lawyer come upon Jimmy and the two run together for a spell. Jimmy tells him to have the ministers at Mary’s house and that he’ll meet them there. As they’re running, they run into another group of brides that take chase after Jimmy, leaving Billy and the lawyer to get trampled on by the rest of the pack.

Like a stampeding herd, nothing seems to stop the brides as they chase Jimmy through a football game leaving injured players in their wake.

Jimmy thinking he’s gotten ahead of them slows down, only having to accelerate when he see’s another group coming towards him from a side street. The women commandeer a street car, throwing the driver and conductor off, as they continue their chase.

Jimmy tries to take refuge in a Turkish Bath but it turns out to be Ladies Day.

Jimmy manages to grab the spare tire on a car and rides that until it gets involved with a trolley driven by brides. He tries to take refuge in a Turkish Bath but it turns out to be ladies day so the chase continues.

Jimmy makes a run for it down LaSalle.

He tries to blend in with a police regiment that is marching down the street picking up and depositing beat cops. But when they see the approaching wave of brides, they run away, leaving Jimmy marching alone.

Jimmy tries to grab a cab but there is a bride in there as well. She grabs ahold of him and only lets go when she falls into a ditch. Jimmy doesn’t know what to do but runs as the workmen from the ditch jump out and seek shelter.

Jimmy escapes a mob of angry would-be brides by grabbiing onto a crane.

When he finds an iron works, Jimmy runs inside only to be chased inside by the mob. A crane pulls him to safety but a bride commandeers it from the operator. She can’t figure out the controls and instead of lowering him back down, she swings him over the fence next to the railroad tracks.  When the crane lowers he jumps to safety, but the women inside think he’s been killed when a train comes roaring by. They’re all sad and crying until he walks by. Anger returns and they take chase again.

Meanwhile, at Mary’s house, Billy, the lawyer, Mary, her mother and the minister are waiting.

Now out in the country, the brides chase Jimmy through a cornfield, demolishing it as they run through. Jimmy runs through a barbed wire fence and into an apiary where a beekeeper is tending to the hives. But Jimmy and the brides knock most of them over, making the bees angry. When he stops to free himself from the barbed wire, a bull chases him back through the apiary. The bees chase him to the water’s edge, where Jimmy commandeers a boat.

Jimmy is in an awkward position when he spies a bull watching him.

But the water doesn’t impede the chase and eventually, Jimmy has to make a swim for it. On the other side of the river, he discovers that he’s picked up a turtle on his tie. When he stops to pull that off, he’s in the sightline of duck hunters who fire their guns in his direction.

Jimmy makes a leap while on the run.

Finally, he’s chased to the edge of the wilderness and when he runs up the side of a hill, the leader of the brides takes them another way to cut him off.  He jumps over the Beal Cut, rides a tree that is cut down from a cliff to the ground. Throws himself down a sandy hillside before he ends up dislodging some rocks.

Jimmy throws himself down a sandy hillside.

Small rocks cause larger ones to move and pretty soon there is an avalanche of rocks chasing Jimmy down a long and steep hillside. This is perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film. The rocks scatter the brides who have taken their shortcut, finally freeing Jimmy for a last-gasp run to Mary’s house, over one car and under another. When he gets to Mary’s house, his coat gets caught in the gate. Unable to free himself, he breaks the gate off from the fence and drags into the house.

A snippet of the sequence of Jimmy being chased by rocks of all sizes.

When Jimmy arrives, Billy checks his watch. Jimmy appears to be too late as it is now a few minutes past seven. But when the church clock shows there are few minutes to spare, Jimmy runs back in and the wedding ends just as the clock strikes seven.

Jimmy has until 7 to get married.

Everyone but Jimmy kisses the bride so he takes her outside. But before he can kiss her, the dog, now even bigger gets in between them.

Jimmy wants to kiss his bride but the dog gets in the way.

The film had its New York premiere on March 15, 1925, and went into general released the next day on March 16, 1925. The would be another success for Keaton, making $598,288 domestically.

While many may not consider this to be one of Buster Keaton’s masterpieces, compared to Sherlock Jr or The General (1926), this is still very funny and inventive especially considering that the director and star were not fond of the story, to begin with.

Like his contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd there is a sense of improvisation. That they seemed to take every opportunity to make the film better, whether taking advantage of locale or situation. Did someone see the potential for a crane at the metal works or was that part of the script? 

As the viewer, you’re not sure because it seems natural in its way.

One scene that was added to after the film was finished was the boulder scene.  Keaton told his biographer, Rudi Blesh, that they had decided to end Seven Chances with a fade-out on the chase, not being able to think of anything to top it. However, at a preview screening, Keaton noticed that during the fade out, the few laughs the chase had gotten turned into a real belly laugh.

Running the film slowly back at the studio, they noticed that the laughs coincided when Keaton accidentally dislodged a rock that dislodged three other rocks, all of which were chasing Keaton down the hill. They decided to milk the gag for bigger laughs, building about 150 papier-mache rocks on chicken wire, ranging in size from a baseball to eight-feet in diameter. Using a longer ridge and kicking them off in a sequence they created a four-minute sequence that sort of saves the film and one of the greatest sight gags in cinematic history.

For some reason, there is nothing more fascinating to watch than Keaton running, which he does throughout the film. I’m not sure how much of it is due to hand cranking and how much of it is his pure speed. He just seems to move faster than anyone has a right to.

There are other actors in the film but the only one that really counts is Keaton. The role played by T. Roy Barnes could have been played by practically anyone. A British actor, Barnes had appeared in over 50 films in a career that lasted from 1920 to 1935. While he appeared mostly in comedies, here he’s pretty much the straight man.

Snitz Edwards, born Edward Neumann in Budapest, Hungary, emigrated to the US where he had a successful career on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood. Never a star, Edwards was a character actor, appearing in such films as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), College (1927) and The Public Enemy (1931).

Ruth Dwyer, the love interest in the film, had a 20-year plus career in films, but never really received immortality. She is all right but nothing spectacular. However, the same cannot be said for Jean Arthur, who has an uncredited role as the Country Club receptionist in this film. Arthur was very near the start of a film career that would include such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), A Foreign Affair (1948) and Shane (1953).  Here her part as the receptionist is like that of T. Roy Barnes, anyone could have played it.

The story, unsurprisingly, has been remade though not to the same success as this film. Clyde Bruckman would rework the story for The Three Stooges twice, once as Brideless Groom (1947) and Husbands Beware (1956), the latter of which cannibalized the former. The French made their own version, The Suitor (1962) Directed by and starring Pierre Étaix. Hollywood would come back to the story with The Bachelor (1999) with Chris O'Donnell and Renée Zellweger, which turned out to be a minor hit.

Seven Chances received mixed reviews when it was first released but is one of those films that has grown in stature as the years have passed. It is funny, innovative and smart, which never gets old. If you haven’t seen Seven Chances, then you should see it. If you’re a fan of Buster Keaton, and you should be, it is worth watching again. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Stubs - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer Directed by Luc Besson. Screenplay by Luc Besson. Based on Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Produced by Luc Besson and Virginie Besson-Silla Run Time: 137 Minutes. France Drama, Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Few films have been more of a disappointment at the box-office than Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a big-budget space opera from the filmmaker that brought you another such film, The Fifth Element (1997). While The Fifth Element was, at the time, the highest grossing French film at the foreign box-office, it was not universally loved by audiences and critics. Valerian did not fare nearly as well, tanking at the box office with only $225.9 million worldwide on a budget of between $177 and 205 million.

A sample of the artwork from the comic book Valérian and Laureline.

Based on the long-running French science fiction comic book series Valérian and Laureline (1967 to 2010), the film did not fare well with fanboys and general audiences combined. There were those who were not happy with the casting that didn’t seem to fit with the heroes in the comic book and there were those, like myself, with no prior knowledge that found the film to be a disappointment, though, by the time I saw it, I wasn't expecting much.

Unnamed aliens come aboard the space station while it still orbits Earth.

The film starts out in the not too distant future aboard the International Space Station. After welcoming all the countries on Earth, the space station began welcoming aliens from other planets.  With each new wave, the space station grew larger, so that by the 28th century, with its size and mass threating Earth, the station is sent out into deep space. Now called Alpha (for lack of something better), the city, as it is called, becomes inhabited by millions of creatures from thousands of planets.

The President of the World (Rutger Hauer) announces that Alpha is being sent out into space.

Cut to the idyllic world of Mül, sort of like a space version of a tropical island. The inhabitants live a peaceful life, fishing for pearls that possess a great amount of energy and using specialized creatures, called converters, to replicate them. They live in balance with their planet, making a point to give some of their bounty back to the planet. They are lead by a King whose daughter, Princess Lihö-Minaa (Sasha Luss), seems to the apple of everyone’s eye. But their world is crushed when debris starts falling from the sky, the remnants of a space battle of which their planet is collateral damage. When it starts to explode, many, including the Princess, are killed, while others escape in one of the fallen spaceships.

The idyllic world of Mül is destroyed by falling space debris.

Before she dies, the Princess lets out a telepathic message which finds its way to Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a member of the United Human Federation, a special force designed to keep peace in the galaxy. His side-kick and love interest, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is also there.

They are in a spaceship about to land, but they are stretched out on a virtual beach, you know, space travel has advanced.

Space travel has certainly advanced. Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) out of uniform.

Valerian is bothered by the vision and analysis reveals that he might have received a signal from across time and space. That’s when he learns that the two are on a mission to retrieve a Mül converter, which is supposedly the last of its kind and currently in the hands of black market dealer Igon Siruss (voiced by John Goodman), the galaxy's most-wanted criminal. Before they set out, Valerian asks Laureline to marry him. It has the sound like he’d done so before and once again Laureline turns him down, telling him that she doesn’t want to be one more in his long line of conquests.

Laureline helps Valerian (Dane DeHaan) with his secret mission.

Igon Siruss operates out of an extra-dimensional bazaar called Big Market, which is also a major tourist attraction. Valerian and Laureline are joined by a special forces team that help smuggle Valerian into the other dimension with a gun. Valerian manages to stay invisible in this extra-dimension and walks into a meeting between Igon and two hooded figures who are also after the converter. Valerian recognizes the animal as having been in his vision.

Valerian manages to grab the converter, as well as a pearl, and make his escape, only he can’t get the gun off his arm and that makes him a target. Igon tries to get the converter back, unleashing a monster-like animal after Valerian. With the help of the special forces, who end up giving up their lives, Valerian and Laureline manage to call for their ship and make an escape.

On the journey to Alpha, Valerian tries to access information about Mül, which was destroyed 30 years ago but finds all information about the planet has been blocked and marked as classified.

Laureline and Valerian are assigned to guard Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen).

On Alpha, they’re informed by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) that the center of the station has been infected by an unknown force and rendered it highly toxic. Troops sent into the area have not returned, and the infection is growing. Laureline and Valerian are assigned to protect the commander during an interstation summit to discuss the crisis. Against the Commander's wishes, Laureline maintains possession of the converter.

During the summit, the attendees are attacked by the humanoids, who manage to incapacitate everyone before kidnapping Filitt. Valerian manages to hide a cutter and frees himself before Laureline. Valerian takes chase but Laureline finds herself under arrest for insubordination. A couple of bumbling guards take her away without placing handcuffs on her. When she suggests they do, she cleans their clocks and escapes.

Laureline turns to duck-like aliens, shingouz, for help tracking Valerian.

Laureline enlists the help of three shingouz, duck-like aliens, to track Valerian. With their help, she ends up on a submarine which takes her through the water part of Alpha. She manages to find Valerian unconscious at the edge of the contaminated zone. But after waking him, Laureline is captured by a primitive imperial tribe for the planet Goara, known as Boulan Bathors; Jar Jar Binks with a weight problem. Valerian takes chase but loses her.

Rihanna plays a shape-shifting alien who is more of a diversion than anything else.

He ends up getting roped into a brothel by Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) where he is entertained by a shape-shifting alien called Bubble (Rihanna). With her help, they manage to fit in with other Boulan Bathors. Meanwhile, Laureline is dressed and prepped as food for the Emperor. She’s wearing a large brimmed hat, with a hole over her head, as well as a couple of large slices of lemon. Before the Emperor can slice into her head, Valerian and Bubbles save her. The Boulan Bathors don’t go down without a fight and are killed. However, Bubbles is mortally wounded and dies.

Laureline, Valerian, and Bubbles have to fight and defeat the Boulan Bathors.

Valerian and Laureline quickly realize as they venture into the “infected” area that it is not actually toxic at all, but does contain wreckage from an antique spacecraft. They find the humanoids from Mül, known as Pearls, with an unconscious Filitt. The leader of the Pearls, Emperor Haban Limaï (voice by Elizabeth Debicki) explains to Valerian and Laureline about how peaceful their planet was until it was ruined by a battle in space to which they were not involved.

He relates that the battle involved the human government fleet and that belonging to another species. Filitt, the human commander, ordered the use of a powerful missile that destroyed the enemy ship and caused it to crash into the planet. Filitt apparently knew what would happen to Mül and that it was populated.

He further explains that upon dying, his daughter, Princess Lihö-Minaa, transferred her soul into Valerian's body. He then relates that a small group of survivors took shelter in a crashed human spaceship. Over time, they managed to repair it and learned all about human technology and history. Eventually, they came to Alpha, where they assimilated more knowledge and built a ship of their own.

The only thing they needed was the converter and the pearl to launch the ship so they could find a planet to use their technology and recreate their homeworld.

When confronted, Filitt admits his role in the genocide but argues that it was necessary to end the war. The cover-up, which he orchestrated, was to prevent the humans from being expelled from Alpha. Valerian and Laureline disagree with him, stating that the commander has only been trying to save himself from the consequences of his actions. Then Valerian knocks him out again.

Valerian hands over the pearl he stole and, at Laureline's persistence, returns to them the converter, ignoring procedures.

As the Pearls' spacecraft prepares for takeoff, Filitt's pre-programmed robot K-Tron soldiers attack the Pearls, the government soldiers who were sent to assist Valerian, and their support staff, but are ultimately defeated. After the Pearls' spacecraft departs, Filitt is arrested.

Valerian and Laureline are left adrift onboard a still working Apollo Command/Service Module, which is identified by radio technicians as "Destiny 2005". Laureline finally answers Valerian's marriage proposal with a "maybe" as they wait for rescue.

There are so many things wrong with the film that has probably been spelled out before, but this is a review, so bear with me.

To begin with, so much of the film has nothing to do with the plot. As an example, the whole extended scene with Rhianna as Bubble has no real purpose in advancing the story, except to showcase her talents. They could have shown her to be a shapeshifter without the song and dance.

And what story there is rarely makes sense. Why a Major and a Sergeant would be on patrol together seems rather odd, since there are a multitude of ranks between them. Also, I believe Laureline mentions that she graduated from an Ivy League college, which means that she would most likely be an officer, not an enlisted grade.

The whole caper to steal back the converter from a multi-dimensional market simply smacks of an excuse to use special effects rather than any attempt to tell a coherent story. And when the rest of their crew is killed, there isn’t even a moment’s thought given to them, sort of like they were disposable.

And while there are a lot of special effects, sometimes they’re almost laughable, like the bus the special forces use to transport Valerian and Laureline to the market. That was not someone’s finest hour.

There is a Mos Eisley Cantina feel to Alpha being nothing more than an attempt to outdo Star Wars with an ever-expanding universe of unpronounceable alien creatures. You also have to wonder why Alpha would allow species living there to eat other inhabitants, which seems to go on with a certain regularity.

While I’ve never read the comic book that the film is based on, I’m not in a position to criticize the casting. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are a cute couple, but I would hate to think the future of the universe was dependent on the slightly built and narcissistic DeHaan’s Valerian. Delevingne’s Laureline seems to be more of a heroic character.

You have to wonder what attracted Clive Owen to the role of Filitt or Ethan Hawke to the role of Jolly the Pimp. DeHaan and Delevingne might still be building their careers and there are always ups and downs along the way, but you have to wonder why Owen and Hawke wouldn’t know better than to steer clear of this misstep.

It is hard to predict the future, as films fail time and again to nail it, but this future seems to be nostalgic for the 1970s. I’ve heard criticism about the values in the film, that even after 8 centuries old white men are still in charge and that sort of thing, but what I find ridiculous are the uniforms, like those we see The Commander wearing. They seem to be over the top not to mention silly-looking. You would expect that space travel would have made fabrics that were more streamlined.

Now I came into Valerian expecting the worst and sadly I was not disappointed. It's sad that so much effort, time and money was misspent on this effort. If you haven’t seen the film, all the stories you’ve heard about it are true. This is definitely one to miss.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Epic Mickey

In 1928, Walt Disney’s creation Mickey Mouse (designed by Ub Iwerks) made a big splash in his debut short “Steamboat Willie” and has since become arguably the largest media juggernaut the world has ever known. The same could not be said for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney and Iwerks’ 1927 precursor to Mickey that was owned wholesale by Universal following his creation and debut in the short “Trolley Troubles”. With Oswald forgotten and Mickey’s own reputation declining at the time, director Warren Spector sought to fix both with the 2010 game Epic Mickey, which would only be possible once Disney traded sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC/Universal in exchange for ownership of Oswald in 2006. Alongside Oswald making a (sort of) comeback through Disney merch, the game Epic Mickey proved successful, spawning a sequel and spin-off game before the series ended completely. Having only been able to play the game recently after acquiring a Nintendo Wii, I found the game to be enjoyable despite its flaws while also leaving with the impression that Disney hasn’t done Oswald any real justice outside the game series.

Reminiscent of the Mickey short “Thru the Mirror”, a then-unknown Mickey Mouse enters a magical mirror, accidentally spilling paint thinner on a book overseen by the wizard Yen Sid. As Mickey becomes famous, a monster known as the Shadow Blot infects the world held inside the book. Eventually the Shadow Blot drags Mickey into the book through the magic mirror, with Mickey only grabbing a paint brush on Yen Sid’s desk before being completely sucked in.

The story is rather intriguing, particularly in the way it handles the relationship between Mickey and Oswald in a way that also works on a meta level. On his journey, Mickey also interacts with various side characters, some forgotten and some lesser-knowns that are still present in popular media. The interactions these characters have (both with Mickey and each other) can also be interesting, some of which even tell you some actual Mickey Mouse shorts they appeared in. Aside from the Shadow Blot, there’s a running side plot involving the Mad Doctor (from the Mickey short “The Mad Doctor”), who tries to take over Wasteland (the game’s setting) with evil contraptions. Overall the plot was balanced pretty well and may make you want to see more Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

The gameplay is interesting in the way it involves the Wii’s motion controls. Aside from a spin attack that can be performed with the flick of a wrist, you will primarily be using Paint (B on the Wiimote) or Thinner (Z on the Nunchuck) to deal with enemies and explore the environment. Paint can be used to restore parts of the environment and reveal hidden items, while Thinner can reveal hidden areas and alter parts of the environment. These can also be used on various Wasteland enemies and bosses; the way you approach these enemies (as well as some side quests) can alter the experience, including what sort of ending you receive (for the more important moments I tried to follow what was canon to Epic Mickey 2, though in some cases I lucked out when going this route). You can also acquire various Sketches to summon useful items, among them a TV that distracts enemies with “Steamboat Willie” and a Watch that temporarily slows down time. The camera is manipulated with the Nunchuck while aiming is done with the Wiimote, however there were times where the camera seemed to actively work against me and block my view with foreground objects or environments.

Mickey (Bret Iwan) using Paint to restore the environment.
(It is surprisingly difficult to find gameplay screencaps for this game.)

The graphics are good for a 2010 Wii game, though in general they feel a little unfinished; apparently the game was rushed a little to meet its release date, which would explain both this and the camera problems. Despite this, the visuals do a good job of capturing the cartoonish nature of the characters as well as the horrific nature of many Wasteland environments and enemies, essentially twisted versions of many Disneyland attractions. A highlight is Oswald’s post-Blot residence, Mickeyjunk Mountain, a mountain and monument to mockery built entirely out of accumulated (and real) Mickey Mouse memorabilia that fell into Wasteland; the atmosphere is a bit haunting, to say the least, and (along with various hints in some levels) summarizes how Oswald feels about Mickey and his popularity prior to their first interaction. Transitioning between levels is done through film projectors, featuring small platforming stages based largely on numerous Mickey Mouse shorts, displaying that  a lot of clear passion was put into making this game.

I would comment on the voice acting if the dialogue wasn’t basically a series of grunts and other noises, or what Warren Spector calls “bark-talk”. The one character with a full voice, however, is Yen Sid, voiced by Corey Burton and heard in both the opening and ending cutscenes. Though the character originates from the movie Fantasia, he is better known among gamers for his recurring role in the Kingdom Hearts series, where his also voiced by Burton, and his voice acting in Epic Mickey is as good as ever. The music by James Dooley is also good, some tracks being more memorable than others. A stand-out for me is the Clock Tower boss (the first boss of the game), whose theme sounds like a more twisted take on the (in)famous song “It’s a Small World (After All)” from the similarly-named ride, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the game.

While the game did manage to give Oswald a boost in popularity (myself included), it’s evident that he hasn’t reached the same level of recognition as the already-famous Mickey, as evidenced by the character lacking any major roles in Disney-produced media outside the Epic Mickey universe. While he has made cameos in various media, physical cameos including the 2013 Mickey short “Get a Horse!” and the Mickey Mouse Shorts short “Canned”, the only time he (and his wife Ortensia) had a starring role in a Disney production outside the games was in a Norwegian comic with the English title “Just Like Magic!”, collected in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #726. Many of the surviving Oswald shorts have also been collected as part of Wave Seven of the Walt Disney Treasure collection, although one of them, the 1928 short “Oh, What A Knight”, is unlockable for viewing in-game, as is the 1933 Mickey Mouse short “The Mad Doctor”.

Oswald (Frank Welker) as he appears in the game

As for Mickey, as mentioned earlier, his popularity had been sort of declining around the time of Epic Mickey’s release due to his image becoming increasingly squeaky-clean, contrasting the more mischievous character he started out as in his earlier shorts. Though an attempt was made to bring Mickey back to his roots with the 2005 short “Runaway Brain”, this short was apparently so scary that the Walt Disney Company tried to bury it, only releasing it later on home media after the risk with Epic Mickey proved successful. Mickey has since returned to his original characterization in various media, primarily in the new Mickey Mouse TV series, although his personality in media such as the long-running Kingdom Hearts franchise remains consistent.

Epic Mickey is a game that Disney and Mickey Mouse fans should not miss. Aside from some minor hiccups, the game has actually aged pretty well, thanks to its graphical quality along with the sound design and story flow. The game also makes good use of the Wii’s motion controls, although the camera gets a little frustrating on occasion. As this is the big re-introduction of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his depiction in this game serves as a good introduction to the character and may even make you a fan yourself. Though this game is exclusive to the Wii, it should also be compatible with the Wii U console for those that didn’t throw theirs out when the new Super Smash Bros. game was announced.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Stubs - Sky High

Sky High (2005) Starring: Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano, Danielle Panabaker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kurt Russell. Directed by Mike Mitchell. Screenplay by Paul Hernandez, Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle. Produced by Andrew Gunn. Runtime: 100 minutes. USA. Color. Comedy, Superhero

Growing up is never easy, especially when you live in the shadow of your parent, and it’s even harder when your parents are The Commander and Jetstream, two of the greatest superheroes. That’s the premise of Sky High, a 2005 comedy from Disney. The film pokes fun at the type of superheroes that Disney is riding to great profits with its purchase of Marvel Studios in 2009 for $4 billion.

Originally conceived by screenwriter Paul Hernandez in the 1990s, Disney became attracted to the idea. The studio hired comedy writers Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley (creators of Kim Possible) to polish Hernandez's script, and they only wrote the beginning and ending sequences.

The film opens on Will Stronghold’s (Michael Angarano) first day of ninth grade at Sky High, a high school that exclusively teaches teenagers with superpowers. Will's parents are The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), two of the world's most famous superheroes. Their cover is as husband and wife real estate agents Steve Stronghold and Josie DeMarco-Stronghold. They have to balance showing houses with saving the world.

Will Stronghold’s (Michael Angarano) best friend, Layla (Danielle Panabaker), has a crush on him.

Will's best friend is Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who also happens to have superpowers, the ability to manipulate plant life, and a secret crush on him. Will thinks of her only as a friend.

The school in Sky High is floating above the Earth.

Will is anxious because, unlike everyone else, it seems, his power has not manifested itself. He pretends to have super strength, by faking to lift heavy weights, and his parents are none the wiser. But all of his friends appear to have powers that are presenting. The big question at the high school is whether or not they’ll be classified as a “Hero” or a “Sidekick”.

Ron Wilson, Bus Driver (Kevin Heffernan) loves his job.

Sky High is located on a floating campus and is reached by a flying school bus, driven by Ron Wilson, Bus Driver (Kevin Heffernan). Like the students, both of his parents were heroes but, as we learn later, Ron didn’t inherit powers.

Lynda Carter plays Principal Powers.

After an introduction by the school’s principal, Principal Powers (Lynda Carter), the freshmen are taken to be divided between heroes and sidekicks aka "Hero Support" by Coach Tommy “Boomer” Boomowski, also known as Sonic Boom (Bruce Campbell).

The new Sidekicks class.

Since Will has no powers, he’s labeled a sidekick. Layla, who finds the whole thing pointless, doesn’t participate and ends up with him in the sidekick curriculum. His other classmates include Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels), who melts into a fluid; Zach (Nicholas Braun), who glows in the dark; and Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who transforms into a guinea pig. The class is taught by a former sidekick, “All American Boy” (David Foley), who used to work with Will’s father.

David Foley plays All American Boy, a former sidekick to The Commander.

Will learns from Nurse Spex (Cloris Leachman) that he might not ever get powers. But he doesn’t tell his father, who is proud of his son and shares with him his hidden trophy room, the Secret Sanctum, where he keeps trophies from his battles, including a mysterious weapon that even the Commander doesn’t know what it does, “The Pacifier”. He tells Will that he took it off a villain, years ago at Sky High, called Royal Pain, who was presumed dead.

The Commander (Kurt Russell) takes Will down to his Secret Sanctum.

Unbeknownst to them, they are being watched by Royal Pain and her minion through a camera in one of the Commander’s and Jetstream’s latest conquests.

Speed (Will Harris) and Lash (Jake Sandvig) are the bullies at the school.

The underclass students are constantly harassed by seniors Lash and Speed (Jake Sandvig and Will Harris). Lash is a thin boy with elasticity, while Speed is heavyset but can run at an extremely high speed. They hassle Will to the point that he inadvertently bothers Warren Peace (Steven Strait), pyrokinetic and the son of a supervillain known as Baron Battle, who is in jail with four life sentences thanks to the Commander. Warren wants to be left alone, though that proves harder and harder with time.

Warren Peace (Steven Strait) is pyrokinetic and hates Will.

Will does grab the attention of Gwendolyn "Gwen" Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a popular senior, a "technopath" who controls machines with her mind and the chairperson of the upcoming Homecoming Dance.

Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a popular senior at Sky High.

Gwen’s friends include Penny Lent (Malika Haqq and Khadijah Haqq), who can duplicate herself many times over. Gwen is pretty and smart and after Will finally shows his power, super strength helps tutor him in Professor Medulla’s (Kevin McDonald) science class.

Gwen helps Will catch up with Professor Medulla's (Kevin McDonald) science class.

Gwen visits the Stronghold's house and asks Will's parents to attend the Homecoming Dance to accept an award for Superhero of the Year. Flattered, they, of course, accept. Later, while walking to her home, Gwen asks Will to be her date to Homecoming and, to his delight, becomes his girlfriend.

Will, however, had made a date to meet Layla at her favorite Chinese restaurant and stands her up. Warren, who buses there, sits and talks to her. He can tell Layla is in love with Will and agrees to help her try to make him jealous.

While helping Will with his science homework, Gwen convinces him to let her have the Homecoming Dance committee over while his parents are out saving the world. This turns into a major party and Gwen asks Will to take her somewhere where they can be alone. Even though he’s been told never to take anyone there, he takes her to his father’s Secret Sanctum. While she keeps him preoccupied, Dash comes through and steals the Pacifier.

Will breaks up with Gwen after she chases Layla away.

During the party, Layla happens to come by to talk to Will but Gwen intercepts her. She tells her that Will has no interest in her and Layla storms off, not wanting to ever speak to Will again. Will is mad with Gwen and breaks up with her, just before his parents return and clear the house.

Jetstream (Kelly Preston) and The Commander break up the party.

Will decides that he doesn’t want to go to the Dance and his parents consider leaving but are spotted. Meanwhile, Will looks through one of his father’s old yearbooks and sees a student who resembles Gwen, Sue Tenny. He figures that Tenny was Royal Pain and that Gwen must be her daughter. He rushes to the dance. Needing a ride, he calls on Ron Wilson, Bus Driver for a ride.

Royal Pain turns her Pacifier on everyone at the Homecoming Dance.

Meanwhile, at the dance, Gwen has revealed herself to actually be Royal Pain. During her previous confrontation with the Commander, the Pacifier, which is meant to turn its target into an infant, had malfunctioned, turning her into a baby instead. Faking her death, she waited seventeen years to get her revenge.

After turning the Commander and Jetstream into babies, she turns her youth ray on the rest of the school. With Speed, Lash, and Penny, she takes over the school.

Penny Lent (Malika Haqq and Khadijah Haqq) helps Royal Pain take over the dance.

When he arrives at the school, Will apologizes to Layla and teams up with Warren, the sidekicks, and Ron Wilson to try to save the day. The sidekicks demonstrate their heroism after Royal Pain sabotages the school's anti-gravity drive and their powers come in handy restarting it, especially Magneta, who shapeshifts into a guinea pig and chews through the wires on Royal Pain’s device.

The Sidekicks come to the rescue when Royal Pain takes over the dance.

Meanwhile, Will discovers that he has Jetstream's powers of flight when he is thrown off the edge of the school grounds and prevents the campus from falling using his two abilities. Gwen and her henchmen are defeated and arrested and the faculty and students are returned to their proper ages thanks to baby Medulla’s ability to reverse the ray.

Even as a baby, Medulla is smart enough to reverse the Pacifier's effect.

Will and Layla finally kiss.

Voiceover narration by Will reveals that he and Layla become a couple, he and Warren became best friends, and Ron Wilson becomes a superhero after falling into a vat of toxic waste, which is one way some people gain them.

Having seen this film before, I had forgotten just how funny it is. The play on the whole superhero genre is played almost perfectly. All of the usual clichés of the genre at the time are covered. The film has a lot in common with The Incredibles (2004), in which we see husband and wife superheroes now raising a family. And like The Incredibles, Sky High is funny without giving in to juvenile or too much bathroom humor. I know it may sound cliché, but in this day and age, that is a pleasant surprise if you’re looking for a family-friendly film, which is what drew us to Sky High many years ago.

The acting is pretty good, considering the youth of the leading cast and their relative inexperience in front of a film camera. While Michael Angarano had been in films since his uncredited role as 1st Boy in Childhood’s End (1996), this was easily his biggest film to date. He plays a bit younger than his actual age at the time, but he’s quite enjoyable to watch, as are the other adolescent actors. A couple of them deserve extra praise. Sky High was Danielle Panabaker’s first film, though she had been acting on television since 2002. The film was also Steven Strait’s first film for the model turned actor.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Gwen a technopath in Sky High.

I don’t think I’ve seen Mary Elizabeth Winstead in any movie that I didn’t think she was good in. Perhaps best-known for her roles as Lucy Gennero-McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), she was also very good as Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Here she plays a pretty villain and she carries off the role.

Of the adult actors, the main one is Kurt Russell as The Commander. A talented actor, Russell is perhaps best known for early roles in Disney films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), playing Elvis Presley in the 1979 television movie Elvis and for his long-term relationship with actress Goldie Hawn. The son of Western actor Bing Russell, Kurt got his start in films acting opposite Elvis Presley in one scene in It Happened at the World's Fair (1963). While comedy seems to be his forte, he has appeared in a variety of films, including Escape From New York (1981), The Fox and The Hound (1981), The Thing (1982), Silkwood (1983), Swing Shift (1984), The Mean Season (1985), Overboard (1987), Tango & Cash (1989), Stargate (1994), Escape From L.A. (1996), Vanilla Sky (2001), and more recently The Hateful Eight (2015), Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).  Here he plays his role with just enough of a comic touch to make you feel that The Commander isn’t always in on the jokes.

Kelly Preston plays Jetstream in Sky High.

Kelly Preston has a smaller role as the mother of the Stronghold clan as the film concentrates more on Will’s relationship with his father. Preston, however, plays her role with a subtle comedic flare and makes for perhaps the sexiest female superhero since Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman on TV and until Gal Gadot’s turn as Wonder Woman (2017).

Lynda Carter gets to play the Principal of Sky High with a little tongue and cheek. She even gets to elude to her most famous role by claiming there is only so much she can do since she isn’t Wonder Woman.

There are several comedians with supporting roles like David Foley and Kevin McDonald, both from the Canadian sketch show, The Kids in the Hall. They both have good comedic timing and know how to play their parts for laughs. Cloris Leachman makes the most of her small role as Nurse Spex. Also noteworthy is Bruce Campbell, who goes easily from roles in horror films, like the Evil Dead series, to comedic supporting roles in the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films to playing the sidekick in the TV-series Burn Notice. While I’m not a fan of horror films, I do enjoy him in all the roles I’ve seen him in and he doesn’t disappoint here.

The story, which some have compared with the Japanese manga/anime series My Hero Academia, also seems to have some similarities with the Harry Potter series. Sky High is this universe’s Hogwarts Academy and the hero/sidekick categorization is not too dissimilar to the sorting hat sequence in the books and films, which determine which house the new student belongs. Luckily here, there is not a Hufflepuff equivalent.

The special effects, which a film like this has to have, are not necessarily the best, though I have to doubt that was the intention of the filmmakers, to begin with. There is a real over the top with purpose look to the flying bus’s engines as an example. All of that is fine as it seems to fit with the overall mood of the film, which isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.

Overall, I would suggest the film to anyone over the age of 12. There is a good mix of humor, action, and magic that will keep most people engaged and several laugh out loud moments, if our recent viewing is any indication. This film is to superhero films what Galaxy Quest was to the Star Trek franchise, a good-natured ribbing of the genre and well worth watching more than once.