Monday, May 28, 2012

Stubs - Mildred Pierce



MILDRED PIERCE (1945) Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Produced by Jerry Wald. Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall (with uncredited help from William Faulkner and Catherine Turney). Based on the novel by James M. Cain. Run Time: 111 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Drama, Mystery

It is interesting to note that at the time the film was released, Variety pointed out in their review that "At first reading James M. Cain's novel of the same title might not suggest screenable material…” And if you saw the dreadful HBO miniseries based on the book that is painfully clear. That 2011 production, which starred Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, was a faithful page by page adaptation of Cain’s 1941 novel. As a result, it plodded along for five hours and was deadly dull.

Such is not the case with this 1945 adaptation. You might even say that this is loosely based on the novel, but it is a definite cinematic improvement. In less than two hours, the book is transformed from a psychological study of a middle class mother and daughter into a taught thriller and classic film noir. This is one of those cases where the movie is better than the book, which is not to take away from the original work of fiction.

The film opens with, what else, a murder. We see a well-dressed and dapper man get shot several times and collapse to the floor. And just before dying, his last word is the name Mildred. What a great way to start a movie. There is so much left for the film to complete. Using the voice over narration of Mildred, we learn that the man is Monte Berganon (Zachary Scott) and that the police have a suspect, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), the first husband of the man Berganon was married to, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), a restaurateur in Los Angeles.

While Bert confesses to the crime while being interrogated, that is too simple a story. Mildred, whose interview with the police frames the story, is brought down to talk to Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) about the crime. The meat of the story is Mildred recounting the events that led to Monte’s murder.

Told in a chronological order, the story opens with Mildred baking a cake for a neighbor while her husband, the recently unemployed Bert, mows and waters the lawn. We learn that the couple has two daughters, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), a tomboy and Veda (Ann Blyth) who wants to live the good life. Things quickly fall apart when Bert is leaving the house. Mildred knows he’s going to see Mrs. Biederhof, a widow he is apparently doing more than playing gin rummy with. Mildred kicks him out of the house.

Suddenly, Mildred finds herself having to tend not only for herself, but for her two daughters. But first, Mildred has to fend off Wally Fay (Jack Carson), former partner of Bert’s in a real estate venture. Hearing the two are getting a divorce Wally swoops in hoping to bed Mildred. This is the age of the Production Code in Hollywood, so none of that is allowed to happen.

Needing to support and wanting to lavish her daughters, Mildred goes out looking for work. She is unfortunately unqualified for most jobs. When she stumbles into a restaurant, head waitress Ida (Eve Arden) gives Mildred a job. But Mildred hides the fact from Veda. Mildred is able to subsidize her income by baking pies for the restaurant. The pies turn into quite a side-business and she brings on Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) in to help bake and to take care of the house. When Veda discovers her mother’s waitress uniform, she makes Lottie dress in it.

Mildred confessed to Veda that she is a waitress, but while Veda wants the things the money can buy, new dresses and piano lessons, she is ashamed for her mother for doing such lowly work. But Mildred knows a good thing when she sees it and has plans to open her own restaurant. And it is while she’s putting the finishing touches on it that she first meets Monte, who used to own the site. He whisks her away to his beach house for an afternoon of sun and surf. This is something that Mildred deserves, but her having fun is repaid with tragedy, when Kay contracts and dies of pneumonia and at all places Mrs. Bierderhof’s (Lee Patrick) house.

Throwing herself into her restaurant it turns out to be a big success. And with the help of Ida’s know how and Wally’s financial support, the restaurant turns into a chain throughout Southern California. But along the way, Mildred loses Veda. When Veda’s short marriage to wealthy Ted Forrester (John Compton) is annulled, Veda pretends she might be pregnant in order to bilk the Forresters for $10,000. Veda wants to use the money to get away from her mother and a lifestyle she thinks is below her. Mildred is appalled by her daughter’s actions, rips up the check and kicks her daughter out. Veda turns out to get a singing job at a shabby nightclub that Wally owns.

Looking for a way of winning Veda’s approval, Mildred enters into a loveless marriage with Monte, who in exchange for a third of her business provides Mildred with a higher social status. That is enough to woe Veda back but she stays for Monte. The two of them share the same contempt for working and therefore the same contempt for Mildred, who provides for both. Monte meanwhile bleeds Mildred and her restaurant chain dry. 

Facing creditors and with Monte trying to sell his third interest, Wally forces Mildred out of her own business. And that’s not all. Veda has forced Mildred out of her marriage, replacing her as Monte’s love interest. At a final confrontation at the beach house, Mildred leaves Veda to Monte. But Monte doesn’t want her and tells her so. Her feelings hurt, Veda kills Monte. Mildred, who is still outside, runs back into the house. Veda begs for her help and Mildred gives it. She lets Veda flee and then tries to rope Wally into taking the fall for the murder. But when that fails, Mildred goes to the police to confess.

But Inspector Peterson doesn’t believe her. The police already have evidence that Veda killed him and they caught her before she could escape town. Veda is suddenly resigned to her new future and tells her mother “I’ll get by” just as they haul her off to jail. And as Mildred leaves the police station at dawn, Bert is there waiting for her. Now that they are both back at zero they can rebuild their lives together. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to hope will happen.

MILDRED PIERCE does seem to have a bit of a forced happy ending, but that is in line with filmmaking of the day. Hollywood liked a happy-ending and despite everything else, still does.

One of the things that makes MILDRED PIERCE such a great movie is its leading lady, Joan Crawford. Once the reigning queen of the movies, Crawford enjoyed great success with MGM; appearing in eight films with Clark Gable and in such classics as GRAND HOTEL (1932). But in 1943, after 18 years with the studio, her contract was terminated by mutual consent. Two days later, she signed a three picture deal with Warner Bros. When she wanted to play Mildred in this movie, Michael Curtiz balked. He thought of her as a has-been and made her do a screen test for the part. But afterwards, he agreed to cast her in the part. Crawford would go on to win an Academy Award for her portrayal. She would go onto be a top actress at the box office for several more years to come.

But there is more to love about the film than just Crawford’s performance. Equally deserving of praise is Ann Blyth for her turn as Veda, the daughter from hell. She is the epitome of not judging a book by its cover. Sweet and pretty on the outside, Veda is dark, snobbish, and evil on the inside and Blyth is responsible for bringing that out on the screen. She would receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in this film.

I want to personally point out the great work Eve Arden does in the role of Ida. She provides the comic relief the film needs to avoid becoming too melodramatic. Some of the best lines from the film were written for and delivered by Arden. While she is probably best remembered for the lead in Our Miss Brooks, a radio and then TV comedy about a high school teacher, her work in MILDRED PIERCE is a stand out. Like Blyth, Arden also received a nomination for MILDRED PIERCE as Best Supporting Actress.

Not to be left out, director Michael Curtiz deserves a lot of credit as well. In a career that spanned from 1912’s THE LAST BOHEMIAN to 1961’s THE COMANCHEROS, Curtiz’s career hit a high in the mid-1930’s to mid-1940’s with such films as CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), THE SEA HAWK (1940), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), CASABLANCA (1942), PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), and THE UNSUSPECTED (1947). He would also direct such films as JIM THORPE – ALL-AMERICAN (1951), WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) and WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955). He is one of the many unsung heroes of the studio system, taking on a wide range of topics and genres and making classic films in nearly every one. There’s no doubt he wouldn’t also make a classic film noir.

Mildred Pierce is available at the WB Shop:

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Stubs – Summer Of Darkness ─ A Look At Five Film Noir Classics


Okay, I’m borrowing the tag from Turner Classic Movies, which aired a two-month long look at film noir in the summer of 1999, which was an excellent survey of this “subgenre”. Since it doesn’t look like TCM will be repeating this anytime soon, I thought I would co-opt their tag and re-use it to discuss five film noir classics that have not already been reviewed on this blog. Five films that I enjoy and think anyone interested in film noir should be sure to check out.

Now, since film noir is not a standard genre, say like westerns, gangster, romance and drama, it gets applied sometimes haphazardly to gangster films like LITTLE CAESAR (1931) and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), Westerns like STAGECOACH (1939) and WINCHESTER ’73 (1950) and even comedies like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948). While these are all good films and display some of the characteristics that a film noir has, they would not be considered film noir for the purposes of this blog.

For me the genre or subgenre falls under a certain time period. It is definitely the 1940s and 50s and usually post World War II, since it was this era that brought about such ideals as the American Dream. Film Noir is about exploiting the underside of that dream and not necessarily as a nightmare either. The films are dark and usually black and white, which only emphasizes the darkness. Film Noir literally translates to mean dark or black film. 

While there may be gangster or underworld figures involved these aren’t gangster movies. They are really about one or two people working to find a way out of a bleak situation they find themselves in. They are not necessarily blameless for their circumstance, but they will do whatever it takes to get out of it, lie, cheat and even murder.

The five films I would like to review as part of this summer of darkness are:








Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jak X: Combat Racing


As part of this blog's coverage of the Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank franchises to build up to Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, it has been my duty to cover all of Jak and Daxter. After having already covered the three main entries, I remembered that I still needed to go through another trio of games, two of which are spin offs and another which is developed by a completely different company. The first of these, Jak X: Combat Racing, was released in 2005, merely a year after Jak 3, presumably due to the popularity of the franchise. Of course, this game is also from a time where if a successful franchise went on long enough a kart racer would inevitably be developed for it. I didn't care about that when I first got this game at the age of 12 however, and I don't really care about that years later now that I've played it again after so long. This second playthrough has reminded of that initial point in my youth when I was very obsessed over it, even though I couldn't take it online. I found it to be fun back then, but as an adult I've started to notice more of the rough patches contained within. While the game was still fun to play, I don't feel that it's design completely holds up after seven years.

Before I officially begin my review, allow me to share a personal horror story I have regarding this game. My first exposure was through a PS2 demo disk. I played it for a while and was instantly hooked, which led to me playing. After what felt like an eternity, my parents finally bought me a copy from a Best Buy. Excitedly, I popped the disk into my system and it turned out that there was a demo disk of the game within a retail copy that was valued at full price. Needless to say, I wasn't very happy about this, especially since it meant that an entire shipment at the store came that way (oops). Thankfully, we were able to exchange it for the full version and I was able to get plenty of mileage out of it.

Now onto the actual review. Jak X begins with the news that Krew, from Jak II, is dead and the duo, along with some other familiar faces, are gathered for the reading of his will. The group is introduced to his daughter, Rayne, who pours them all a drink to toast with as a video will is played. As Krew speaks out through the video about his will, he reveals that everyone's drink has been poisoned and the only way to obtain the antidote is to compete, and win, in a race known as the Kras City Grand Championship. While this does spark a frenzy amongst the group initially, they all agree to work together to stay alive. Stories for racing games are usually more of an excuse plot, hence why a player shouldn't expect such a well-written story in that genre. Jak X, however, manages to get this aspect right.

Seeing as how this is still, after all, a Jak and Daxter game, it comes as no shock to me that they would try to make this game more story driven. From beginning to end, I couldn't help but find myself intrigued by the personalities of each character, both old and new, as they interact in the various cutscenes, helped by the ongoing mystery connecting them together that ends in a surprising twist that ties everything together rather neatly. At times however, I still couldn't help but feel as though the story was there only to introduce nearly every character form the entire franchise, while introducing more, just to remind the audience that some of them, like Kleiver, exist. Thankfully, some of the newer characters, at least the ones that mattered, are pretty memorable. Two of them are revealed right off the bat to be racers gunning for Jak, the robot mercenary UR-86 and the villainous Razer, who comes out of retirement specifically to kill our hero on the track. Admittedly however, they feel a little more like cardboard most of the time, having almost no personality except that they are criminals that want the duo to lose.

One character in particular that I found very entertaining was the racing announcer G.T. Blitz, named as a nod to Sony's Gran Turismo series of games, especially when he shares the screen with Pecker, who makes a reappearance from Jak II and 3. The cutscenes involving them bring a lot of humor to an otherwise serious story and I appreciated the balance, since it also shows that the game isn't taking itself completely seriously. The two of them also occasionally add fuel to the mystery surrounding a mysterious crime boss named Mizo, who wants nothing more than to win the competition. Towards the end when the player finally gets to see who Mizo is, the final confrontation feels a little dissatisfying, though it does show just how deep his goals were and puts certain statements made in the game in a darker context.

Of course, I can't talk about a racing game without mentioning the gameplay. It should be noted that racing was a concept introduced in Jak 3 and is greatly expanded upon here. Players take control of a variety of characters piloting one of several vehicles as they fight with an array of power-ups while driving, standard fare for a game like this. What's unique about the idea however is the way that Eco, a powerful magic within the Jak and Daxter universe, is integrated into the gameplay. Yellow Eco is what contains the forward weapons, ranging from missiles to grenades, while Red Eco houses the rear weapons, like landmines and gun turrets. Green Eco, obviously, is health and Blue Eco can be used to make the car go at turbo speed. Dark Eco is the real game changer here, represented by a meter that builds when you inflict or receive damage. When the meter is full, the car returns to full health and every weapon you pick up becomes more powerful, potentially killing opposing drivers in a single shot.

While the various weapons on a fully crowded track is chaotic enough, there is actually a deeper strategy at times, involving such ideas as using the jump button at the right times, whether or not to use a rear weapon to dodge a missile, what power-ups to grab and when (or why), and plenty more. The frantic gameplay is both fun and sometimes frustrating, a delicate balance on the player's feelings that is tested heavily during the campaign. As the game goes on, there is a sudden difficulty spike in both level design and enemy AI, which makes trying to get into the last cup race more infuriating than necessary.

Allow me to briefly talk about the different events in the game. Quite a few of them involve going down the actual track, including the regular Circuit Races and Freeze Rallies, which are akin to a time trial mode where you have to get under a specific time to get a higher level medal. Modes that feel more unique to this game are Death Race and Rush Hour modes, which both involve destroying unmanned cars going in a specific direction to rack up a large combo to score more and more points. Then of course are modes that involve killing enemy drivers in Twisted Metal style events, like Death Match, which operates as the name implies, or a Sport Hunt mode where opponents try to kill as many of a specific thing as possible across the arena. The large amount of events creates a lot of different variety for the game, which helps to keep the single player campaign fresh enough to warrant more playtime without feeling completely overwhelming, a factor that thankfully helped me enjoy things a bit more.

Then there's the actual level design. For the most part, the design team seemed very capable at creating interesting environments that bring forth different personalities representing the different worlds that the franchise inhabits. However, the more complicated race tracks have some elements that make it a bit more frustrating at times, admittedly due in part to me somehow not being as good at the game as I was many years ago, but also due to many cosmetic elements that throw you for a loop. However, my only real complaints stem from the stages that are more designed for close encounters, especially when there isn't much open space. In bigger areas, I found myself able to plan out my strategies much easier and tactically place items and specific weapons. Smaller arenas however were a bit too hard to navigate and the design prevented me from having solid footing for more than a few seconds, but I'm ready to admit again that my way of handling the events wasn't exactly perfect. In any case, these levels were a bit too crowded to do anything straight and I just ended up getting very lucky a few times to advance with enough medal points to unlock the next challenge. I won't name any specific levels, since there are at least two to three times as many levels than game modes, a staggering number to say the least.

Jak X is also notably the first game in the Jak and Daxter franchise to have an online multiplayer component. This seems rather appropriate for the genre, and I would gladly have tried if I had a connection at the ready for the PS2 earlier on. However I am in the year 2012, so I'm pretty sure that the servers would have been cut off by now. Therefore I can only talk about the split-screen multiplayer available in the exhibition mode. When you know what modes can't be played this way, this mode can actually be pretty fun, though it is helpful to have some bots in the action so that matches don't become too stale. An optional LAN mode is also good for being able to play with friends, provided they still own PS2's or even copies of this game.

If there's one thing I will praise, it would be the car customization. Playing through the campaign and getting gold medals in certain events, some of which are easier said than done, will earn you one of plenty of different car parts. When you've unlocked enough parts though, there's a deep sense of customization, as you can swap out parts and set a wide array of colors down to give the car a custom paint job. In the end, you can make the car look practically any way you wish within the provided parts and the cars each have unique designs for each part between them, so it's also fun just to see how certain things look on other vehicles. The unlockables are also fun to obtain, making spending your winnings on them seem worthwhile, more so when it's a video or other way to play.

On a final note, I'd like to say that the graphics are very good for the game at that point in time. They retain the same feel as a Jak and Daxter game, with the darker color palette of Jak II and 3 used suitably. The music is also very well done, with Dean Menta from Faith No More and Billy Howerdel from A Perfect Circle collaborating to form a very memorable score that suits the tone of every race perfectly.

As a whole, Jak X: Combat Racing is a very well done racing game, especially for coming out only a year after the last major installment in the franchise. With some well-designed courses and game modes, the experience is fun, though a bit rough around the edges, and it manages to stand out as a worthy PS2 era title to play. While it may not hold up as well now as it did when I was a kid, it still proves to be a decent game to me as an adult and I would recommend playing this game for a pretty enjoyable time. Next time I get to this franchise, it will be with its first handheld title, Daxter.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stubs - Taxi



TAXI (1932) Starring: James Cagney, Loretta Young, George E. Stone, Guy Kibbee Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Run Time: 69. Black and White. U.S. Drama, Romance

James Cagney stars in this “swiftie” made the year after his explosive turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. Cagney plays Matt Nolan, an independent cabbie in New York City, though he appears to drive for Gramercy, based on the name on the door. Independents like him are being put out of business by Consolidated, a rival cab company that uses mobster tactics to get their way.

The first victim we see is Pops Riley (Guy Kibbee). Pops is warned by Buck Gerard (David Landau) that Consolidated is moving in and taking over his location, which is front of a fish restaurant where his daughter Sue (Loretta Young) works as a waitress. She witnesses her father being hassled and encourages him to fight back. And he does. Then Buck has one of his boys, Bull Martin (Nat Pendleton), drive a truck in Pops’ cab, destroying it. When Pops confronts him, Bull pushes Pops down to the ground, but when he starts to leave, Pops caps him.

In a swift courtroom scene, Pops has already been convicted and is sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. In the audience are Sue and another waitress from the fish joint Ruby (Leila Bennett). The next time we see Sue is back in the restaurant where she waits on Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone) and Matt’s younger brother Danny (Ray Cooke). Sue has just returned from seeing her father, who has already died in prison. (This movie does not let grass grow under its feet). Matt invites Sue to speak at a rally of the indie cab drivers, but when she does, Sue speaks of finding a peaceful solution to the rivalry with Consolidated, as she has seen what violence did to her father.

The next day, the paper’s headline pronounces the end of the taxi wars. But Matt is still sore about Sue upstaging him and he along with Skeets and another cabbie confront her outside the fish joint when she gets off work. But Sue doesn’t care that Matt is still mad and doesn’t confront him. While she climbs the stairs to the Elevated train, Skeets admires her pins (legs), but Matt says he’s through with her.

That is until the very next shot, when Matt and Sue are seen in line for a movie with Skeets and Ruby. What? Wasn’t Matt just mad at her a second ago? The film spends no time showing us any character development or change of minds; just like a shark it has to keep moving forward or die. Matt and Sue go to the movies and then go dancing, where they almost win a foxtrot contest, but lose out to a couple which includes William Kenny (George Raft), who Matt naturally gets into a fist fight with when he loses. This is one of the many times we see Matt lose his temper and either hit someone or start to hit someone. Even his loving gesture to Sue is a raised hand like he’s going to slap her if “I think you really mean that.”

It is not surprising that Matt has a quick temper, since this movie has no time for anything that’s not fast. Their whirlwind romance is often put off course by Matt’s quick temper. Even when he’s trying to keep it under control, say on the way to get the marriage license, Matt nearly gets into it with a fat, pre-occupied man on the elevator (Sam Rice), who steps on Matt’s feet and nudges him with his arms. The man on the elevator turns out to be the marriage license clerk.

At about this point in the film you might forget this film is called Taxi, as there hasn’t been mention of one for several scenes. But I digress.

We know Matt and Sue get married, because next we see them they are at a party with Skeets, Ruby, Danny and Danny’s date Polly (Polly Walters) celebrating the nuptials. Seated not too far away is Buck and Marie (Dorothy Burgess). Marie gets Sue’s attention and the two of them meet up in the ladies’ room. Marie convinces Sue to get Matt out of the club before he and Buck get into it. But Sue doesn’t move fast enough and Matt and Buck do get into it. But when Buck comes at Matt with his switchblade, Danny comes between them and he gets murdered. Buck manages to escape, but Matt wants revenge.

We see Sue and Matt at home one night. Matt is working extra hard to raise money for Danny’s tombstone and when he leaves to “check the tires” on the cab, Marie comes to visit Sue. In a case of twisted logic, she convinces Sue to help Buck get the money to escape. Her logic is that if Matt finds Buck he’ll kill him and become a murderer, too. Now Sue goes along with this and gives her Danny’s tombstone money if you can believe it.

Matt, as you might have guessed it, tested the tires by going out to purchase Danny’s tombstone, which will cost the $100 Sue has just given away.

Before Marie can leave the apartment, Skeets and Ruby show up. Skeets takes particular notice of Marie and goes to tell Matt that Buck’s girl has been in his apartment. He catches up to Matt just as he’s leaving the monument makers. He tells him that Consolidated has offered both of them jobs and to buy their hacks (Oh, yeah this is a movie about cabdrivers). It is an offer Matt does refuse. Skeets also tells Matt that he just saw Marie in his apartment.

Matt rushes (what else would he do?) back to his apartment and confronts Sue, who tells him that she lent the money to Ruby so she can attend secretarial school, which is a lie and one of many she’ll tell Matt, the guy with the quick temper. Marie naturally ruins the lie by asking Matt for a ride to school with a stop on the way at the bank so she can get the money for the school. Just then, Skeets shows up. He has been tipped off as to the address where Buck is and tells Matt.

But Sue manages to lock Matt in their apartment and gets Skeets to take her to Buck’s hideout ahead of Matt. (Does nobody think to call the police?) Of course, Ruby is in tow and the three of them drive to Marie’s apartment building. Matt is not deterred and escapes down the fire escape and takes his own cab over to kill Buck.

Sue, leaving Ruby and Skeets in the hall, goes in and warns Buck that Matt is on his way. Buck who has already been seen packing, tells Marie to pack him a bag. (Hey, this movie has no time for continuity.) While Matt doesn’t know which apartment Marie is in, even though he scans the mailboxes, finding Skeets and Ruby standing outside one on the second floor is a dead giveaway. Matt busts down the door as Buck hides in the closet. Sue again lies to Matt and tells him that Buck is gone, but a packed bag on the bedroom floor is a giveaway that that is not the case. Matt knows Buck is hiding in the closet.

Now, you would not expect such a quickie film to contain such a famous line, but this one does. For anyone old enough to have seen someone do a James Cagney impression and impersonators doing Cagney impressions used to be very common on TV, they always do one line in particular: “MMMmmm, you dirty rat.” While that is not what Cagney’s character actually says, that famous line was bastardized from one he actually delivers in this movie in this scene: “Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door.”

But before Matt can make good on his threat, the police (yes, someone must have called them), show up. Sue suddenly cannot tell a lie and tells the cops that Matt is there to kill Buck and that he has a gun. But in true fashion, Matt pushes the police aside and empties the gun into the door of the closet. But when they break in, Buck is not there. Instead, he has fallen to his death climbing out the window in the closet. (Windows in closets were very common as light sources, so it is not just a plot convenience for there to be one.) We learn from a story in the newspaper that Buck fell to his death when he lost his balance.

In the last scene of the movie, Sue, now calling herself by her maiden surname, is packing up and moving away, her brief marriage to Matt apparently over. But before the moving men can get the last trunk, Matt shows up and kisses Sue. Marriage, at least for now, saved. And as Ruby yells out to the moving men, the love birds are going to again feather their nest.

And our quick taxi ride comes to an abrupt, but happy end.

There are really some things to like about this movie. Cagney of course, has charisma and star presence to burn. Like many early films, this one showcases Cagney’s energetic and forceful acting style at the time. The downside is that there is little for him to work with. His character, even though a lead, is pretty much one note throughout. We do get to see Cagney dance, but there is little of the humor that he was capable of bringing to a character.

Loretta Young is so pretty she is almost worth the price of admission. She actually gets to show some internal struggle, even though I can’t say I follow the logic of helping the man who killed your husband’s brother escape justice.

And that brings me to what is my biggest complaint about this movie, the screenplay. If the screenplay is good, you really don’t notice it. But this one must have been written in a speeding cab on the way to the set; it is so full of holes and illogic. The romance between Matt and Sue develops like a jump cut. While it is not uncommon for a couple to move from I can’t stand him/her to I love him/her, I’ve never seen one in which that movement is excised totally until this film.

I know that sound had only been around for a few years, but the novelty had worn off by then, The script though would make you think they just wanted to have people say things, no matter if they made sense or not. The best example of this is Ruby, who despite being a secondary character never seems to shut up. Throughout the film she is constantly talking, even if no other character is listening or engaged. She blathers on so much in a fairly monotone voice that you start to dread to see her show up on screen. Again, it comes down to the script.

And much of the drama in this film comes out of people doing stupid things. Why doesn’t anyone call the police and say the guy that you’re looking for is at this address? No, let’s tell Matt the hothead where Buck is. Or let’s go warn Buck that Matt is on to him, rather than call the police with Buck’s whereabouts. When the police do show up, you really have to wonder why. They are totally a convenience to bring the story to conclusion.

While I’ve read that this film was a big success for Cagney at the time, if you want to see Cagney at his best, there are other ones you should see and you might want to miss this Taxi.

Taxi is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

www.warnerarchive.com

And on the Warner Archive Instant:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Men In Black 3 - Time Has Helped The MIB


After overcoming another multiple of five years, 10 after Men in Black II as opposed to five after the original film, the Men in Black movies return to theaters with Men in Black 3, which just like another franchise covered here has switched from a Roman numeral to an Arabic one. I decided I wanted to see this installment, as I had already seen the others, and after an opening day matinee screening, I don't regret it like I thought I would. I admit that while I did end up liking it better than the second one, there are some things that keep it from having the same charm as the first.

The plot this time (pun intended) involves time travel. More specifically, an alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from Lunar Max prison, aka space jail, in a quest for vengeance against Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). To accomplish this, he uses a device to travel back in time to assassinate him before he, Boris, can be arrested for his past criminal activity. Agent J (Will Smith) feels the effects that this event has on his timeline, in fact being the only person alive who knows that there is a difference. After his situation is understood by Agent O (Emma Thompson), he too travels back in time in order to prevent Agent K's death, while also trying to learn about his partner's past.

Time travel is a premise that I have usually associated with the point when a franchise runs out of ideas, save of course for franchises like Back to the Future that are explicitly about time travel. Initially of course I did associate Men in Black with this when I heard about this plot's involvement. As I watched however, I forgot all about that and just tried to appreciate this film's take on it, and it actually does it nicely. Elements of it did seem to be reused form other plots, but it adds somewhat of a different spin on this by requiring a time jump on top of another physical action, breaking a tiny laser beam on a small item, as well as the visual representation of going across time. I found the characterizations of characters in the past to be interesting, especially Past K (Josh Brolin), as well as new characters like Griffin, who can see all possible paths in time, a power which he humorously describes as a "huge pain in the ass". The performances from the actors were fun to watch and really helped to sell the world that they inhabit. There was also plenty of humor in the movie, mainly from Will Smith, which helped the presentation out a bit; an example of this would be a scene that involves a specific side effect of experiencing a time fracture: a craving for chocolate milk.

If there's one thing to comment on, it would be the special effects. It's not necessarily the quality of the effects, but the way they were pulled off. A little research told me that the aliens in the present were rendered in modern CGI, whereas the ones in the past were created with the more traditional methods of makeup and animatronics to give the movie more of a retro feel to suit the time period. This is a pretty clever way of marking the time periods and, although I admittedly didn't really pay attention for that, it's a commendable effort that shows just how well a traditional alien can look. On the subject of the CGI though, there is a master quality to it that make all the technology seem that much more cool to look at, also making some aliens like Boris appear all the more gross (though there is a distinct lack of slime this time around, not that I missed it).

While I do like some things about this movie, there is one really big issue about MIB headquarters that bugged me the whole time, specifically the changes made to the layout. To clarify, I don't hate the new look of the HQ, I actually kind of liked it and I understood that plenty can change over the course of ten years. What did bother me about it though was the effect that time travel had on it, specifically none. Even 40 years in the past the MIB had a sleek design in their building, resembling a combination of Apple and Vector's home in Despicable Me, rather than the rougher look already established in the previous two movies. It's a glaring continuity error like this that made it odd to look at their HQ while watching, briefly making me wonder if the crew even watched their own movies. Another, more minor, issue is the fact that just like the other two movies, the MacGuffin once again involves jewelry of some sort.

All in all, Men in Black 3 is a very solid entry into the franchise. The performances and humor work hand-in-hand with a somewhat memorable score to help create a rather enjoyable time travel movie that I would actually recommend those curious enough to watch at least once. If you can ignore the glaring continuity error present during the visit to the past, then perhaps you'll enjoy it even more.

Now let's hope that if they end up making a Men in Black 4, we won't have to wait 15 years to see it.

Men In Black II


It appears that not even a decade on the shelf can keep a franchise down, since today brings us a new, third installment in the Men In Black movie series, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name. As such, I have recently re-watched the first movie in preparation for it, followed by the second one, which I will be talking about here. While I liked the first movie better than I thought I did after another viewing, I'm not sure I share the same sentiment for this movie.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge that in the five year gap between these two films, there was a Men In Black animated television series that ran for a total of 5 seasons. I remember seeing advertisements for this show as a kid, although I never actually watched a single episode. Fortunately, based on what I have read, this cartoon is not required viewing in order to fully understand what happens in MIBII, though it doesn't seem too far off that the second movie was made to ride off the series' popularity, and fans of it may notice a few shout outs. If you are indeed a fan of the series, you may be happy to know that, likely as a way to promote MIB3, you can now obtain the first season on DVD.

The movie begins with footage of an episode belonging to a fictional TV show called Mysteries of History, where the host, in this episode, talks about the myth behind the Men In Black, mentioning them as a mysterious organization dedicated to protecting the Earth from aliens. Following this is a hilariously low-budget reenactment of a nonexistent case file from the organization, detailing a visit to Earth from Laurana, Queen of the Zarthans, to hide an artifact called the "Light of Zartha" with the MIB. Laurana is closely followed by another alien named Serleena, Queen of the Kylothians, who wants the Light for herself. The MIB however launch the Light into space, causing Serleena to chase after it and the Earth saved in the process. Cut to 5 years after the events of the first Men In Black, Agent J (Will Smith) neuralyzes his partner Agent T (Patrick Warburton) after an encounter with an alien worm in a subway. Meanwhile the villainous Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) returns to Earth to retrieve the Light of Zartha, and the only to stop her is with the assistance of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). The problem is, K had already been neuralyzed 5 years ago and J must bring him back into the fold.

The plot of the movie is easy to follow, what with a run time about 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor, though a few plot elements seem to have been rehashed from the first movie as well. For instance, both movies involve an alien from another world disguising themselves as a human being, albeit in different fashions, in an attempt to retrieve an alien artifact disguised as a piece of jewelry in an attempt for conquest. Granted, the Light of Zartha is revealed to be a person by the end and not an artifact, but the comparison remains.

However, despite these rehashes, the boss battle at the end of the movie is a bit anticlimactic compared to the first. Whereas The Bug at the end of the first Men In Black put up somewhat of a fight and there was a discovered way to weaken/distract him, the battle with Serleena seemed quick and easy by comparison and she didn't seem to do much to actually fight back. At least there was a final conflict, I guess.

The humor of MIB is retained here, leading to some really funny bits throughout the film, though all the best lines seem to come from Will Smith. A few times there were some bits of sexual humor that the movie could've done without, such as a tiny alien city in a locker room having a XXX theater and Zed (Rip Torn), mentioning the Kama Sutra. At least J reacts appropriately to these moments, pointing out how wrong/disgusting they are. Despite this, the movie can be a laugh riot when Mr. Smith is on screen.

Product placement is abundant in this movie, although it pops up in a place that doesn't really make any sense. Where is this place? MIB Headquarters. Yes, apparently the Men In Black have decided that a Duty-Free Liquor store, a Sprint Store, and a Burger King were great things to have in a top-secret facility. One could argue that these things exist in this particular locale because there are shops in airport terminals, but it seems odd for a private facility that's trying to stay hidden to have public shops in it and only really seems to serve as blatant advertising to the viewer.

Speaking of things that don't make sense, there's one error present in the movie that I honestly didn't notice in any of the times I've seen it for the past 10 years until now, and even then I had to have it pointed out to me by someone else watching with me. In the first MIB, they establish that the headquarters has a lift that you need to take to the floor of the main lobby whenever you exit the elevator. This continues throughout the sequel until a scene near the end where, for convenience to the plot, the lift magically disappears in favor of taking K and J straight to the floor and a hailstorm of bullets is fired by a robot disguised as a trash can. I'm sure there are plenty of other errors I could have pointed out here, had I noticed them, but this one really stands out.

Despite all the things I've just said, Men In Black II isn't a bad follow-up to the first movie, in fact it's a fairly decent flick, but after seeing it close to its predecessor, I can't say I like it as much I remember. It has some funny moments and most of the visual effects hold up after a decade, though as you see the movie more you may notice a few things that are off, such as the thing with the elevator. Still, MIBII is enjoyable in its own way and works as good preparation for the third film.

Now it's time to see how good MIB3 is.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Stubs - Men In Black


File:Men in Black Poster.jpg

MEN IN BLACK (1997) Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn and Tony Shaloub. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenplay by Ed Solomon. Based on the Men in Black Marvel comic series by Lowell Cunningham. Produced by Walter F. Parkes and Laurie McDonald. Run Time: 98. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Comedy.

It’s summer, which means Hollywood will be coming out with its big blockbusters, several of which will be sequels. So far this summer, it is business as usual. The first big mega film of the year has been Marvel's The Avengers, which is in essence either the ultimate sequel or a film with five prequels depending how you want to look at it. This summer, we’re supposed to line up for Madagascar 3, Batman (the reboot) 3, Ice Age 4, Bourne 4 and Men in Black 3. Lots of new ideas in tinsel town.

Leading up to MIB3, I’ve started to watch its prequels, beginning with the original Men in Black. This was back before Will Smith and family became an entertainment entity all to themselves. He was still the kid from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fresh off his previous summer hit, Independence Day. Tommy Lee Jones’ career had started in the early 70’s playing a Harvard student in Love Story. He had worked pretty steady since then, perhaps the highlight of his career coming with an Academy Award for The Fugitive in 1993.

Teaming Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith together for a big blockbuster must have seemed like not much of a gamble. The film would go on to reap $589 million, which believe me used to be a lot of money, and it would spawn a sequel five years after that and a second sequel ten years after that.

In Men In Black, Jones and Smith play agents K and J respectively, this probably has more to do with their locker assignment at MIB headquarters than anything else. Men In Black is a secret agency without ties to any one government, but manned primarily by Americans and all of the action takes place, true to its Marvel Comic roots, in and around New York City, which is apparently space alien central. The first time, though, we meet K and his then partner Agent D working along the Mexican border. Interrupting a Border Patrol stop, K and D are looking for a particular type of illegal alien. Not one from south of the border but from outer space. In the back of a smuggler’s truck, they find a man who doesn’t speak or understand Spanish.

When one of the border patrol agents gets too close, K has to blast the alien which sends blue gloop everywhere. This is only the first time someone gets glooped; there is more slime in this movie than a Nickelodeon Awards show. Since the border patrol agents know too much, K has to use a neuralyzer to wipe out the memories of the agents and then next to his partner D, who isn’t up to the job any longer.

As a replacement, K convinces Chief Zed (Rip Torn) into letting him pick James Darrell Edwards III (Smith), a New York policeman who singlehandedly runs down an alien criminal on top of the Guggenheim museum after a long chase through the streets of Manhattan. He is trained on the job as they are confronted with the invasion by Edgar the Bug (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has come to Earth to steal the “Galaxy”. In doing so, he kills not only Edgar, a Mid-west farmer whose skin he wears over his own cockroach body, but two Arquillians who are protecting it. Along the way, they pick up Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), who despite being zapped a couple of times by the neuralyzer, is still helpful to the agents. It is in her morgue that one of the Arquillians, barely still alive in his robot human body, tells the agents that the Galaxy is on Orion’s belt.

The agents and the Bug both figure out that the Orion in question is a cat once owned by the Arquillian and the belt is actually Orion’s collar. But the Bug beats the agents back to the morgue and takes Dr. Weaver along as a snack for the trip back to his home planet.

When the Arquillians learn of what is happening they dispatch a fleet to destroy Earth, rather than let the Galaxy fall into enemy hands. J and K have an hour to stop the Bug from leaving the planet and from stealing the Galaxy. Saving the girl is a secondary idea.

The ending takes place at the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, which was put on to hide the fact that aliens had landed there. The two Observatory Towers, one of a handful of buildings still standing, were actually alien ships, one of which the Bug is going to fly home now that the MIB have his original space ship.

In the end, K jumps inside the Bug to retrieve his weapon and while J distracts him, K blows the Bug up from inside with more slime to go around. But the Bug is not dead and while K tells J that he has trained him not to be his partner, but to be his replacement, the Bug creeps up behind them. They are only saved because Dr. Weaver picks up J’s weapon and blows the Bug away before he can attack.

J neuralyzes K, who returns to civilian life and to the woman he had to leave behind when he joined MIB. Dr. Weaver, now Agent L, is J’s new partner and all seems right with the world for the moment.

In MIB, Will Smith proves again that he can be funny and heroic, traits that would bode well for his career. His films were usually all box office hits, no matter how good they were, until he apparently stopped acting in 2008. He has become a producer (The Karate Kid) and promoter for his children’s movie ambitions. MIB3 will be his first film in front of the camera since that year’s Seven Pounds.

Tommy Lee Jones has continued to act and was in two films in 2011, including Captain America: The First Avenger, and will be in three films this year.

Linda Fiorentino’s career has slowed to a crawl. Her biggest splash had come in 1994’s The Last Seduction, in which she played a sexy femme fatale opposite Bill Pullman and Battleship director, then actor, Peter Berg. She hasn’t appeared on film since 2009’s Once More With Feeling.

The aliens are nightmare fuel if you are the least bit squeamish about insects, as they all seem to be some form or another of that species. But the teaming of Smith and Jones paid off. As mentioned before, the film was a big success at the time.

The film is fun, but not always a laugh riot, to watch, unless you find bug guts funny. There are some funny lines, mostly spoken by Smith, but it is a sort of gross out comedy, having more in common with Ghostbusters than the work of Woody Allen. Still it was smart summer fare at the time and it does hold up very well.

When you watch the film, knowing that there is a sequel or two to follow, you can’t help but wonder why it took so long to put them together. We’ll take a closer look at MIBII next week on this same blog.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus


After concluding Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank series, it's time for the main event in the anticipation for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. In 1999, Sucker Punch Productions produced their first game, Rocket: Robot on Wheels, for the Nintendo 64. Later in 2002, Sucker Punch would create the character Sly Cooper, leading to an acclaimed trilogy of games on the PS2. The first game, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, is an excellent start to the trilogy and delivers a memorable platforming experience.

Sly Cooper is the last of the Cooper family, a raccoon family long known for thievery, namely stealing from other thieves. Sly was to inherit the Thievius Raccoonus, a book passed down in the Cooper family for generations that details the thieving techniques from each previous owner, when his father was attacked by a group known as the Fiendish Five, led by an owl named Clockwerk. Each member of the Fiendish Five has taken a section of the Thievius Raccoonus while disposing of Sly's father, leaving him in an orphanage where he meets his friends Bentley and Murray. The three of them have become a master thieving trio over the years, all the while looking for hints as to where the Fiendish Five may be. After breaking into a police station in Paris, France, Sly finds what he is looking for and sets off to not only recover his family heirloom, but also defeat the Fiendish Five, including the villainous Clockwerk, once and for all.

While the story isn't very deep, it doesn't need to be in order for you to want to keep going. The events of the game play out with a tone not unlike a Saturday morning cartoon, helped by the stylized and colorful graphics, which isn't exactly a bad thing. In fact, one of the bonuses by the end is the introductory clip done in a style more akin to Japanese anime, and I must say it looks rather amazing. If there was an animated series based on Sly Cooper done in that fashion, I would totally watch it.

Getting back on track, the main characters are pretty likable and you don't need much in order to support them. The villains are actually given fair reasoning for wanting to turn to a life of crime, though Clockwerk's motivation went unexplained. Regardless, the game does a good job with whatever characterization there is and it makes me want to see what happens to the heroes next. The music is also nice to listen to, setting up an appropriate tone with repeating sounds made not annoying. One bit of music stood out in particular while I was playing, during the boss fight with Mz. Ruby that functions like a rhythm game. It can take a while to get the beat down, but to me it seemed like something that could easily be sampled or mixed into its own song, and I would go so far as to call it one of my favorite bits of background music from the entire game.

The game is a platformer, but it has some interesting things in it. As you go through each stage you can learn new ways of getting past your enemies, such as rail walking, spire jumps, and turning invisible to name but a few, and by the end your skill are put to the test on your way to Clockwerk. To learn these skills you must either defeat a boss or break enough Clue Bottles hidden in the area to unlock a safe with a three-digit code. The regular platforming segments have some elements of espionage, such as sneaking around guards or avoiding lights and lasers, among other things. There is however some variety in the gameplay of each locale, with a few racing and shooting segments mixed in, along with timed levels involving a vehicle.

For a game that's roughly 10 years old, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus holds up surprisingly well. It's a fairly short game, but that time is entertaining nonetheless. If you want a good, simple platform game or wish to start your Sly Cooper experience, I would direct you towards this game. It is an experience you won't forget any time soon.

Asura's Wrath Lost Episode 2 (DLC)


With the release of Lost Episode 2, Capcom has reached the end of their announced DLC schedule for Asura's Wrath. While this may be a short review, as with Lost Episode 1, I'd still like to share my thoughts on this well done piece of content.

The episode picks up immediately where the previous episode left off, with Asura and Ryu on the moon and the arrival of a new challenger. The challenger displays his strength by punching Ryu so hard that he gets sent back to the Street Fighter universe, as well as sending Asura against a wall. He then reveals himself as Akuma after acknowledging Asura's strength, challenging the god of wrath to satisfy his hunger for battle. While the first half uses the Street Fighter IV engine, it's still awesome and satisfying to play against an opponent like Akuma, who provides an even greater challenge than Ryu. While this isn't as evident in this portion of the fight, the transition to fighting in the third dimension, which is also when Akuma transforms into his dark counterpart Oni, has him prove to be a most worthy opponent for Asura indeed. Admittedly though, there were times when the battle felt a little too close to the battle with Augus in the vanilla game, like having Asura perform a barehanded blade block (or arm in the case of Oni) and then throwing the attack to the side to cause part of the moon to rise up. In addition, certain attack patterns and strategies felt very close to the Augus fight, which almost made me feel as though they almost made a copy of the fight at times. Thankfully however a lot of creativity is displayed in mixing in Oni's own attacks and tactics (seen in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition) to make the fight feel much more unique and challenging in its own right, as well as placing in an epic amount of concentrated awesome as the episode draws to a close.

As with before, I praise how they managed to create a genuine combination of the two universes beyond the inclusion of the SFIV engine. For example, the opening hit on Ryu is made much more satisfying by also using Street Fighter's sound effects. The dialogue only being in Japanese also wasn't much of an issue either, since it felt like quite a bit of effort was put into this DLC. The inclusion of the Mission Mode again also increases the replay value, though I'll admit that some of the missions can get a little frustrating in their difficulty, especially the Perfect K.O. challenge.

At only $2 for at least 15 minutes of gameplay, Asura's Wrath Lost Episode 2 is a great piece of content worth downloading. The amount of work that must have been put into its creation is amazing and the end result is, again, incredibly awesome to fans like me. Even if all you want is more content for a game like Asura's Wrath, you're still going to have a very good time.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Second Opinion - Marvel's The Avengers



Previously, this blog called The Avengers “the best comic book movie ever.” This week, I was asked to write a second opinion after seeing the movie a second time, but in 3-D IMAX. And in the case of The Avengers, bigger does mean better.

Prior to seeing the Avengers, I considered Spider-Man 2 to be the best comic book movie I had seen. But a second viewing of The Avengers only confirms that it is hands above and beyond that film. And a lot of credit has to go to Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed The Avengers. Whedon not only builds upon the foundation laid down in the five prequels, but the writing is smart and balances humor along with a lot of action. Humor is not something I would have associated with the Incredible Hulk or Thor, but Whedon makes it work very well.

While a lot of credit should go to Whedon, the actors deserve a fair share of the praise as well. Many of them are reprising roles they had previously played. Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) have all have played their parts before, but they are not delegated to sketches of their former selves. In some cases, as with Hawkeye and Black Widow, their parts are expanded from prior appearances. Everyone is significant in this film.

The only major part that is not a reprise for the actor is Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk. Previously played on the screen by Eric Bana (Hulk) and Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk), the Hulk was never much of a character. Humorless and one-dimensional in previous screen appearances, Ruffalo manages to round out the character, making him funny and likeable. Where was Ruffalo when those other films were made?

The Avengers definitely delivers and delivers big. If you haven’t seen The Avengers, then you need to see it. And if you’ve seen it in 2-D, then make an effort to see it in 3-D and IMAX while you can. It is one of the few summer movies that is well worth a second viewing.

Stubs - The Killer That Stalked New York




THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950) Starring: Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, William Bishop.  Directed by Earl McEvoy. Screenplay by Harry Essex. Based on a story by Milton Lehman. Produced by Robert Cohn. Run Time: 79. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Crime, Drama.

I am an avid fan of the film noir and one of the things that I’ve learned is that the film doesn’t have to be well-known or even well-made to be a gem. Sometimes the rougher the production values, the better. But that is unfortunately not the case with The Killer That Stalked New York. While the film has many of characteristics of the semi-genre, including a femme fatale, Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes); a voice over narrator (Reed Hadley) and it takes place mostly at night and it in the shadows, it sometimes feels more like a public advert for getting an immunization than a suspense-filled mystery.

Sheila Bennet arrives in New York from Cuba with a T-man or Treasury agent on her tail. She is smuggling $50,000 worth of diamonds and the agent has been tailing her the whole way home. But while she mailed the diamonds home to her husband, Matt Krane (Charles Korvin) she is still carrying something more sinister with her, small pox. Based on true events surrounding the 1946 small pox outbreak, the movie seems to be more about the search for the source of the outbreak than it is about the diamonds.

Matt tells Sheila to stay away from home for a couple of days and she checks into the Hotel America. But she is feeling ill and with a team of Treasury agents on her trail, she escapes with the help of the bell hop. While she is supposedly on her way to seek medical help, she stops herself. It is only when she nearly faints on the street that a policeman takes her into the clinic. It is there that Sheila meets and infects six-year old Walda Kowalski (Beverly Washburn) and the outbreak is officially on. The head of the clinic, Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) misdiagnoses Sheila and gives her some medicine to take.

While Sheila has been away, Matt has been carrying on with her sister, Francie (Lola Albright), but he is planning to leave when the diamonds arrive without either one of the Bennet sisters. But his plans are thwarted when his fence tells him to wait ten days to let things cool before selling the hot diamonds. Matt then goes into hiding. Distressed about her betrayal of her sister and Matt’s betrayal of her, Francie takes her own life.

Sooner or later, everyone Sheila comes in contact with seems to develop the disease and authorities seem to be at a loss to find her. Similarly, Customs agents have lost Sheila, but neither side knows for a while that they are both looking for the same person. Sheila for her part is unaware that she is carrying small pox and it is only the search for Matt that keeps her going. She knows that her husband has betrayed her and she is out to kill him.

Meanwhile, Customs and Health authorities finally put the pieces together and realize they are looking for the same person and they combine their efforts. They close in on her at the flop house her brother Sid (Whit Bissell) runs, but he delays them long enough for Sheila to escape. Perhaps ominously, she must go through a cemetery to do so.

Sheila though is getting sicker and sicker as the days go by. Having left her medicine when she fled authorities, she goes back to the clinic for more. There, Dr. Wood tells her that she is gravely ill, but she resists his attempts to subdue her. Instead, she shoots him in the arm as she makes her escape. She is now driven by revenge.

When she finally catches up to Matt, he falls to his death from a ledge while trying to elude police. She considers going over the edge herself, but Dr. Wood, who has been part of the search, tells her that Walda died. Suddenly remorseful, Sheila turns herself in and before dying herself, tells authorities who she has contacted since returning to New York. It’s a win-win for both Health and Customs agents.

Now the movie isn’t all bad, but I’m not a fan of pandemic film noirs. For some reason, 1950 seemed to be the year for such films. Panic in the Streets, directed by Elia Kazan came out the same year. Panic in the Streets combines a waterfront murder investigation with preventing the pneumonic plague from spreading in New Orleans.  While the public’s concern for pandemics is nothing new, it really isn’t the subplot that gets me going. I guess I’m more of the murder, blackmail, robbery kind of film noir fan.

There is a lot of realism in the film, which was shot on location in New York City. And there is always the threat that this could happen to you, remember recent bird-flu and whooping cough concerns. However, I don’t really like my entertainment to come with a message, especially one that is so obviously delivered. I prefer a little mystery and suspense stirred into the mix. That may be what this film is lacking for me. The film is rather predictable and that’s where it loses the fun factor. It’s not a film noir I would feel compelled to watch again.

The Killer That Stalked New York is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

www.warnerarchive.com

Friday, May 11, 2012

Asura's Wrath Lost Episode 1 (DLC)


With Capcom nearing the end of their announced DLC schedule for Asura's Wrath, they've now released Lost Episode 1, which I'll of course be covering here. As with my other DLC reviews, I probably won't have very much to say given the amount of content. However, I would still like to throw my thoughts on it out there anyway to give you an idea of what it's like.

This episode isn't meant to explain anything, since it doesn't appear to take place at any point within the canon of the game, save for going to the moon post-Augus battle. That's not a bad thing at all really, since the player gets to play out a battle between Asura himself and Ryu from the Street Fighter franchise. Personally I found this to be incredibly awesome, mostly because the first half of their struggle uses the Street Fighter IV (SFIV) fighting engine to have them duke it out. I also liked it when in the second half they fight on a fully three-dimensional plane, since it allows the player for the first time to see what Ryu's attacks look like in this realm (perhaps a preview of what's to come with the upcoming Tekken X Street Fighter?).

On that note, it's really cool how they managed to inject SFIV into the Asura's Wrath formula anyway. While using the former's fighting engine, Asura's controls are adapted to suit the controls of a fighting game, minus blocking it appears, while still using his very simplistic controls and for the first time allowing him to combo heavily against an opponent and even perform air juggles while against a wall. The Ultra gauge is instead his own gauges conformed to the required shape, which made it even more fun to fire off a round of Burst. What really helps also is not only making the button prompts match specific moves from SFIV (specifically the Shoryuken and Raging Demon), but also keeping Ryu's character model from his native series on top of the graphics original to Asura's Wrath, giving it a unique crossover blend that's appealing to the eyes, especially since there's no shortage of over-the-top action scenes (including Evil Ryu being strong enough to fix the moon!). I think I should also point out that the episode explicitly states that the dialogue is only in Japanese, something I didn't really mind anyway as I felt it contributed to the non-canon vibe of the whole thing.

As a fan of both Asura's Wrath and Street Fighter, I think that this offering is really awesome. Fanboyism aside though, I think that Lost Episode 1 had a very solid presentation that felt unique and exciting with some crossing elements to help keep things fresh and fun at a bargain price of only $2. If paying that much for about 10 minutes of content doesn't seem worth it to you, especially for a cool crossover like this, then hopefully the extended replay value that comes from the SFIV-like Mission Mode will suffice, since it kept me busy for a good hour longer. Overall, this is a fun offering I can recommend and now I really can't wait for them to put out Lost Episode 2.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers - The Best Comic Book Movie Ever


At last, the event that the previous five movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building up to for four years has finally been released. After watching every single Marvel Studios movie again, I began to anticipate The Avengers even more with growing excitement. Having finally seen it opening weekend, and managing to avoid major spoilers over the last week, I'm proud to say that the end result does not disappoint in the slightest.

I wish I could describe the plot in great detail, since a lot happens, but sadly the only things I can say about it directly without spoilers would be basic premise. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at a S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility during an evacuation. While he is there, the Tessaract gives off an unknown energy, opening up a portal to Asgardian space, allowing the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to arrive on Earth. Loki takes the Tessaract, using its power to enslave several agents, including Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). After Nick Fury fails to stop the theft, he is left only with the option to gather the Avengers together to bring back the Tessaract and prevent it from unleashing its full power.

Before discussing any more about that however, I'd like to get my casting praise out of the way, since I believed every choice and performance out of them to be absolutely perfect. Robert Downey Jr. continues to show that he's the best Tony Stark in history, Chris Hemsworth outdoes his previous bout as Thor and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers is still a very excellent decision. Mark Ruffalo is an interesting choice for Bruce Banner, since he replaces Edward Norton in the role. However, his acting skills as both Banner and the Hulk help to finally make a proper cinematic Hulk come to life and now he appears to have been the perfect candidate. Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow I believe was performed rather well, a sentiment I share about Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye acting. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulsen, also make their characters as enjoyable as ever.

What really makes acting interesting regarding Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Banner however is the fact that their personalities all seem to bounce off each other remarkably well. Whether its a tense or humorous moment, the performances compliment each other to a degree that you can really believe the dynamics each of them have. This is aided by the instant friendships made and what specific characters have in common with each other despite their initial bickering, which only makes the relationships go even deeper. It is this that creates character growth and development throughout the film, something that I really enjoyed watching play out and expand. The ability for the Avengers to work as a team is tested to great degree and it was nice to be able to see them overcome it all and work as a single powerhouse of a unit.

That said, this movie is filled with action like you wouldn't even believe, even from the first few minutes alone. The two biggest setpieces however would be those of the vast helicarrier and New York City, the target of Loki's plans. In the first, the heroes haven't yet started to work together yet and have some infighting, though at least a couple of them are still trying to solve the task at hand despite enemy advance and the immediate scenes following this demonstrate just what could happen if they don't work closer as a team. Until they get to the second major setpiece, they grow to trust on another better and show just what they can do as a team, defending Earth in some of the most spectacular ways possible.

There are some times where you get to see each hero's individual skills at full capacity. For Hawkeye, that would be seeing his amazing trick arrow arsenal at work as he willingly selects what head is at the end for differing results, as well as his uncanny precision with an arrow, including one moment when he fires an arrow behind his back and still hits, dealing a major blow to his target. In the case of Iron Man, it would be the awesome technology at his disposal, including the introductory sequence of his Mark VII armor. Captain America and Thor both have the same strategy of throwing their weapon at their enemy and having it return, but their own plans of attack beyond this are fun to watch and show off their tactical strengths. Finally for Hulk, it's exciting to see him smash in ways that are more creative than other Hulks before him. When the characters team up is also cool, like when Iron Man is fighting alongside Captain America and he is able to use Cap's shield to redirect his laser fire.

But even when there are some very serious or action-packed sequences, I was very happily surprised by the fact that the movie is a major laugh riot. Some clever writing and witty dialogue, no doubt a product of Joss Whedon's screenplay, help create a more engaging atmosphere that forms audience-wide laughter at all the right times as some jokes either take off once or actually continue throughout, thanks in part as well to the performances. It is when the humor goes hand-in-hand with the action (Hulk vs Loki, anyone?) that is especially thrilling and helps make the movie all the more memorable.

I must say as well that I also appreciated the various nods made throughout the movie to the Marvel Universe and the individual heroes. Some are more subtle like Tony Stark wearing a Black Sabbath shirt, which was a pretty nice touch, to the more obvious references to the previous movies like Steve Rogers' familiarity with the Tessaract. It is enough to satisfy the comic book nerd in everyone, like myself, as well as the more casual reader or filmgoer. All in all though, it is the most rewarding for those who have seen every Marvel Studios movie beforehand.

The special effects were very impressive, and there is a lot of them. Tony Stark still has the most wondrous tech on the planet, which includes being able to manipulate an image in three-dimensional space or his new tower being able to pull the suit apart as he walks. Effects used to create the Hulk are also more impressive and realistic than ever before, helped by the fact that the transformation resembles Mark Ruffalo to create a singular identity and make the beast more lifelike in motion by his own acting. These are of course only samples of what can be expected and every instance of amazing effects would be too numerous to list here.

I also liked the individual character designs. Captain America's costume for instance is a good combination of a new design with some old-fashioned elements used in a way that it doesn't look silly or goofy, a look I would be happy to see onscreen again. I didn't mind Thor's sleeveless look, partly because it allows the audience to see his raw strength, or the return to the circle design on Iron Man's awesome armor. Loki has some interesting elements as well, with shoulder pads that don't look unwieldy and in fact more representative of the kind of being he is now. Hawkeye and Black Widow also have cool designs, all-black of course, that give them a certain personality to help them stand out too.

Finally, I also liked the music. The major contributing factor to this is the fact that Alan Silvestri, known for scoring such movies as Predator and Back to the Future, has composed something that brings the best emotion out of any given scene. His work here shows just how talented he is, as it increased my enjoyment of the film much further. The credits also have a good selection of rock, though it might have been better if it had a bit more kick to it to close it out with stronger pulse-pounding excitement.

As the first major event in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers is a very spectacular and awesome movie, setting a new bar for the comic book movie in the process. While it would still be considered a summer blockbuster, the writing is much more witty and clever than others of its ilk and the well-written characters help make it a more well-rounded movie that doesn't depend entirely on special effects to pull it through. If this hasn't helped me recommend the movie to you already, then let me say that I guarantee you'll want to see it again. Just make sure you stay for the extra credits sequences, of which there are two; you will not be disappointed.