Monday, May 22, 2017

Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island

The genre of 3D Platformers has certainly evolved over time, however there have been recent efforts to bring back the type of game you’d see more from the PS2/N64 era, such as Ratchet & Clank (2016), Yooka-Laylee and the recently-released Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island. When I first heard about this game, the premise of a game of this type intrigued me, as did the art direction and the Ratchet & Clank vibes I got from promotional material. During the first week of release (currently as of this writing), the game was actually discounted from $15 to ~$10, and so I bought it for PS4 via PSN (as there is no physical release of the game as of this writing). The game turned out to be a bit shorter than I was expecting it to be, though in the end I was satisfied with the outcome in spite of its setbacks.

The game opens with Skylar Lynxe held captive by CTR, an evil computer seeking to turn her into a living weapon while in the process of erasing her memories. Though she cannot speak, a robotic arm installed in place of her right arm acts as a living computer, and so turns against its master, CTR, to help Skylar escape. After escaping in a pod, Skylar crash-lands on Clover Island, an island shaped exactly like a 3-leaf clover, where she meets an owl named Plux Owlsley, who has been waiting for his father to come back to him. With the inhabitants of Clover Island in danger from CTR, Plux uses his knowledge of the island to aid Skylar in stopping CTR’s takeover.

Skylar (left) and Plux (right).

The basic premise is not unique, however there is an evident effort made to give the story its own identity, even while acknowledging its own clichés. There is some humor here and there, though I have a feeling that a (somehow predictable) reference to Miley Cyrus’ infamous 2013 song “Wrecking Ball” might seem dated for those that don’t know what it is. Though the overall game has more of a Ratchet & Clank sort of vibe, the general relationship between Skylar and Plux can be more compared to Jak and Daxter (as per The Precursor Legacy), in that Skylar is mute while Plux offers some snarky commentary and puzzle hints (there’s even mention of something similar to the Precursors from said game, though that sort of thing is not unique to Jak and Daxter); there’s even a Trophy/Achievement you can get for listening to a specific dialogue exchange. The characterization of Plux is also admittedly a little inconsistent, in that he is said to have great knowledge of Clover Island and is partnered with Skylar for that reason, however this knowledge doesn’t come up very often and most of the time he simply fulfills the aforementioned “Daxter” role.

The gameplay itself is simple, yet effective. Like the games it is trying to emulate, the levels are linear, however there is also some incentive to explore the world to find hidden secrets, contributing to the overall Ratchet & Clank vibe. Throughout the game, gems can be collected within each of the levels, whether out in the open or hidden inside crates and pottery (and defeated enemies). The gems can restore your health over time upon being collected, otherwise they can be used to open cages holding Clover Island residents captive; there are plenty of gems to find within the game world, so you don’t really need to worry about running low. Skylar can also obtain special gadgets that offer different abilities (including the ability to slow down time), which actually gives the game a sort of interesting Metroidvania element to it. The game also has some well-constructed puzzles, which, while not that difficult, can still provide a good challenge.

Somehow I manage to keep playing games where it's difficult to find screenshots.

The graphics are actually decent, fitting in with the game’s art style and the cartoonish styles of the games inspiring it. The cutscenes are in a traditional style with limited animation, though it can be argued this is meant to emulate a comic book feel. The voice acting is also decent, especially given there are only three voice actors and each voice still sounds unique from each other. I’m not sure what I can say about the music, although I can say the sound design is otherwise handled well. There is, however, an occasional issue with the framerate, as it can slow down significantly when there are too many enemies on-screen. There’s also an issue with the camera, as the default settings in the middle of the slider were actually a bit too sensitive for me, resulting in me having to lower the settings to get it to a more manageable speed.

Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island is actually pretty well-made despite its faults, even for an indie title. Some elements of the game may seem familiar to those familiar with older 3D Platformers, however the game does a good job in emulating that style of game, delivering on what it set out to be. It’s not a perfect game and it may seem a bit short for some, however it’s worth giving a go, especially if you can get it at a good discount. While delving in genre clichés, it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into making it a solid new IP. Though I honestly have some doubt about the game warranting a sequel, since some past games with intriguing concepts never really made it far as a series (ex. Blinx the Time Sweeper, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy), I can actually see the potential for a future follow-up game to further improve and expand upon both the core characters and the general concept as a whole.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Stubs - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Mary Clare. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. Produced by Edward Black. Black and White. United Kingdom. Drama, Comedy, Mystery, Thriller.

There never seems to be enough time to watch everything you want to. Sometimes I record movies on my DVR with the thought of someday watching them. Such was the case with The Lady Vanishes, which was the oldest selection on my DVR, having been recorded a couple of years ago when it appeared on TCM’s Sundays with Hitch series a couple of years ago. Finally, with a free Saturday night we had a chance to watch it. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what took me so long.

By the mid-1930s there was no bigger filmmaker in England than Alfred Hitchcock. Already, American producers, most specifically David O. Selznick, had their eyes on him and it was only a matter of time before he came to Hollywood. But before he made the move, Hitchcock had a few films still to make for Gaumont British. The penultimate one was one of his better ones, The Lady Vanishes.

But Hitchcock was not the first British filmmaker to try to make a movie out of Ethel Line White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. Originally called The Lost Lady, a young filmmaker named Ray William Neill was assigned by producer Edward Block to make the movie. A crew was sent to Yugoslavia to do some background shots, but when authorities found out they weren’t portrayed well in the script, they were kicked out of the country. The film project was abandoned, but not for long.

Needing a project to fulfill his contract with Black, Hitchcock was given this project using the original screenplay, though some tightening was done on the beginning and ending. When casting the film, Hitchcock originally wanted Lilli Palmer, a German-born actress who would later marry Rex Harrison. Palmer had fled Germany when the Nazis took over and gone to Paris, where her cabaret act garnered the attention of Gaumont British, which signed her to a contract in 1935.

Instead of Palmer, Hitchcock went with Margaret Lockwood for the lead. Lockwood, who had been born in British controlled India, had been on stage since she was twelve and in films since 1934. Her big break came in The Beloved Vagabond (1936) starring Maurice Chevalier. Still, Lockwood was still relatively unknown when Hitchcock cast her.

Michael Redgrave, the patriarch for the acting family, was even more of an unknown in films. At the time, Redgrave had only been acting professionally since 1934 and had made his London debut in 1936, in Love’s Labours Lost at the Old Vic. The Lady Vanishes would be his first major role in cinema. The film would make Redgrave an international star, even though the actor and director did not get along very well. Redgrave wanted more rehearsals, while Hitchcock valued spontaneity.

The film was shot in England, but U.S. studio MGM was also involved. British Gaumont and the Hollywood studio had recently signed an agreement by which MGM would pay half of the production costs for a British Gaumont film they would release in the U.S. Even with this in place, 20th Century Fox would handle the film’s U.S. distribution.

The Lady Vanishes opens in the lobby of the "Gasthof Petrus" inn in the country of Bandrika, where English tourists are waiting for the next train out. Keen to get back to England are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), who want to return in time to see the last days of a cricket test match in Manchester. (A test match in cricket is a competition between two national teams that last up to four days, if not longer, and “test” the endurance and talents of the two teams.) But travel in and out has been stopped due to an avalanche that has blocked the only rail line.

Passengers waiting for the train out of Bandrika include Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne).

Stranded, the tourists are forced to scramble for rooms and food. Charters and Caldicott are late to the front desk and the only room available is the maid’s room. The two men are very shy around her, even though they are not too shy to share her single bed.

Another couple, a lawyer named Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and "Mrs. Todhunter" (Linden Travers), take separate rooms, much to Mrs. Todhunter’s chagrin.

But there is one guest who seems to have the run of the place, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood). She is there with her girlfriends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart). Iris is on her way home to marry a man described as a “blue-blooded cheque chaser” and is on what would be the equivalent to a girls’ weekend in Vegas prior to her wedding, only they’ve chosen Bandrika, "one of Europe's few undiscovered corners."

When Iris and her friends breeze into the hotel, the manager (Emile Boreo) is at her beck and call. Her room is already available and she orders room service. Upstairs in her room, her friends try and talk her out of getting married, but Iris is ready to settle down.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on a pre-wedding trip with a couple of her friends.

Meanwhile, Charters and Caldicott dress for dinner and force their way to the first open table only to find out that there is no more food. Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older Englishwoman with a fondness for tweed, offers to share her cheese with her tablemates. She tells them that she’s been in Bandrika as a governess and music teacher and is anxious to return to England.

Charters and Caldicott dress for a dinner they won't be eating.

Later, after Blanche and Julie have returned to their room, both Iris and Miss Froy are disturbed by the loud noise coming from the room upstairs. Not only is there loud music, but dancing as well. Iris calls the manager, who dutifully goes upstairs to confront the occupant.

Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is recording the movements of local folkdancers up in his room.

In the room, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is putting three locals through a folkdance so that he can sketch the various positions for a book he is writing. Unable to get Gilbert to shut up, the manager comes up with another plan and, fresh from another bribe from Iris, has the man kicked out of his room under a rouse that it was rented by someone else first.

But Gilbert does not go gently into the night and instead invades Iris’ room, threatening to share her bed unless she gets the manager to reverse his stance and get him back his room. Wanting to avoid a scandal, Iris acquiesces.

Gilbert bursts into Iris' room and creates enough of a nuisance that she recants her getting him evicted.

Meanwhile, Miss Froy enjoys the playing of a guitar playing man down in the garden. She doesn’t realize that the man is murdered in mid-song, as she throws down a tip to him.

The next morning, all the guests are at the station to catch the train out. When Iris goes to help Miss Froy with her bags when she is hit on the head by a flower pot. Her friends try to convince Iris to stay, but Miss Froy promises to look after her and helps the still stunned Iris onto the train. But once on board, Iris blacks out.

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) takes charge of Iris after a potted plant lands on her head.

By the time she wakes up, the train is already moving and Miss Froy is sitting across from her. But they are not the only ones in the compartment, though none of them appear to understand English.

Miss Froy takes Iris to get some tea in the diner car. On the way, the train bucks and Miss Froy is thrown into the compartment occupied by the Todhunters. He is particularly rude and closes the door and draws the blinds after she excuses herself. In the dining car, Froy insists on a special Mexican tea that her still living octogenarian parents swear by, so she does, too. She gives a packet to the waiter with specific instructions on how to make it. When they find they have no sugar, Miss Froy asks Charters and Caldicott, who are using the cubes in the discussion of cricket strategy, to give her theirs.

When they finally get around to properly introducing themselves, Iris can’t hear Miss Froy over the noise of the train. To help out, Miss Froy spells out her last name with her finger in the fog on the window next to their seat. After they have their tea, they return to the compartment, where Iris falls asleep.

Miss Froy spells out her name on the window when the two of them have tea.

But when she awakes, Miss Froy is gone and no one, not even the strangers in her compartment, seem to remember there ever being anyone with her. When Iris goes looking for her, even Todhunter acts like he has never seen the woman. When his “Mrs.” Questions him about why he lied, he says he doesn’t want to get involved. Neither do Charters and Caldicott, who mostly don’t want anything to distract them from their discussions on Cricket and worry involvement might delay them from the match they are so anxious to get home for.

Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver) and his wife Signora Doppo (Selma Vaz Dias) don't remember seeing Miss Froy.

Iris finds an unlikely ally in Gilbert, who is also on the train in second class. He offers to help. They run into Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), who is a noted brain surgeon whom Gilbert has heard about. Dr. Hartz believes that Iris is merely imagining Miss Froy due to the blow on her head. Dr. Hartz is on the train to pick up a patient who is in desperate need of an operation.

Another woman dressed like Miss Froy appears in the compartment.

Even though another woman appears in the compartment dressed similarly to Miss Froy, Iris and Gilbert continue to search. At the next stop, they watch both sides of the train to see if Miss Froy gets off. Gilbert watches as Dr. Hartz’s patient is wheeled on already on a gurney and bandaged.

Gilbert and Iris speak with Mrs. Todhunter (Linden Travers) while Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) looks on.

Iris and Gilbert start their search of the train in the luggage car. They find the effects of Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver), who they discover is a magician on tour. When they start going through his things, including a vanishing lady’s closet used in the show, they muse that he might be involved in Miss Froy’s disappearance. Their suspicions seem to be justified when the knife-wielding Doppo attacks them. Gilbert manages to hold him off and with Iris’ assistance they knock him out. But when they check on him, they find they’d locked him in a chest with a false back and he’s managed to escape.

They continue to search the train and decide to check on Dr. Hartz’s patient, thinking she might be Miss Froy. Suspicious that the nun (Catherine Lacy) sitting by her bedside is wearing high heels, they are about to uncover the bandages when the doctor returns to the room. He offers to help them and agrees to plan their search over a drink. Dr. Hartz insists on meeting them so he can check on his patient. Instead, once they're alone, he conspires with the nun to poison Iris and Gilbert’s drinks.

While the nun (Catherine Lacy) watches, Gilbert examines Dr. Hartz's patient.

Over drinks, Dr. Hartz renews his offer to help them search. They tell him that they suspect the nun because of her high heels, but he insists the patient isn’t Miss Froy. He accompanies them back to a vacant compartment next to his and, assured that they are poisoned, confesses to them his part in the conspiracy. He then goes off to pay off his co-conspirators leaving Gilbert and Iris incapacitated, but not dead.

Dr. Hartz admits his plan to Gilbert and Iris after he thinks they've been poisoned.

But it turns out they weren’t poisoned after all. The fake nun, a fellow British citizen, didn’t follow through with Dr. Hartz’s instructions out of loyalty to her fellow countrymen. Gilbert rouses Iris, who had passed out, and they go into the next compartment and free Miss Froy and hide her in the closet of their compartment. They replace her with Mrs. Doppo, who has found out about their plan.

When the train stops at the next station near the border, Dr. Hartz and the gurney get off the train. It is not until he gets on the ambulance that Dr. Hartz discovers the deception. He stops the Nun who is exiting the train and forces her back on, where she confesses what she’s done or in this case, not done.

Dr. Hartz has one of the railway men detach the last cars on the train and then has it diverted to a branch line where soldiers await. Thinking they have gone past the border, Gilbert and Iris free Miss Froy from her hiding place. But when they discover they’ve been fooled, they to rally the other British onboard to their cause. They are all reluctant at first, but when a soldier boards the train and requests that they accompany him to the British consulate, they instead attack him and take his gun. Another soldier fires, wounding Charters in the hand, and a shootout begins.

A soldier (Charles Oliver) boards the train and offers to take the passengers to the British consulate.

Mr. Todhunter announces that he has a gun, which he is reluctant to use, so they take the gun from him. Turns out Caldicott is quite a good shot.

Caldicott takes aim with Mr. Todhunter's gun.

During the gunfight, Miss Froy reveals to Gilbert and Iris that she is in fact a British agent who must deliver a message to the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The message is encoded in the tune that the folk singer was singing that night at the inn. She asks Gilbert to memorize it in case she doesn’t make it out. He agrees and learns the song before helping her out the window. While she is running through the forest, a shot is fired in her direction and neither Gilbert or Iris is sure if she was hit or not.

Miss Froy confesses to Gilbert and Iris that she is, in fact, a spy.

Todhunter thinks he’ll be okay if he surrenders and he leaves the train waving a white handkerchief. One of the soldiers with Dr. Hartz shoots him dead. Down to only one bullet, Gilbert and Caldicott then commandeer the locomotive with an empty gun. While the engineers get the train going, both are shot dead by soldiers. Gilbert then takes over the controls and the group races for the border. But the soldier who was knocked out regains consciousness and control of his gun. When the train stops at a switch he holds everyone at bay but the fake nun manages to slip out and throws the switch despite being shot by their pursuers. She gets shot, but only in the leg as she scrambles back aboard the engine. The other passengers manage to subdue the soldier and the group escapes across the border.

Dr. Hartz and his men shoot at the train, which still manages to get away.

Safely back in London, Charters and Caldicott discover the Test Match has been abandoned due to flooding. Iris who has been waiting for her fiancé suddenly jumps into a cab with Gilbert to avoid him. Gilbert kisses her and instructs the cab to take them to Whitehall. By the time they arrive at the Foreign Office, Gilbert and Iris are engaged, but when they are allowed to see the Minister, Gilbert is suddenly unable to remember the vital tune.

Just then they hear the melody being played on the piano and in the office are reunited with Miss Froy.

Like most films based on novels, The Lady Vanishes is not a strict retelling of the story. For example, Gilbert is called Max Hare in the book and is not a traveler documenting European folk dancing, but an engineer building a dam. Iris isn’t hit by a flower pot, but rather suffers from sunstroke. Also, the train never stops in the novel and there is no final shootout either. And finally, the characters of Charters and Caldicott were created for the film and do not appear in the novel.

The film is somewhat typical Hitchcock, putting his characters in a dangerous situation and with humor and cunning they manage to get free. You see it again in Foreign Correspondent (1940), his second film for Selznick, and again in Torn Curtain (1966). The fight onboard the train with Doppo reminded me of a similar one in Torn Curtain wherein Paul Newman’s character, Professor Michael Armstrong, and a farmer’s wife must subdue a Soviet agent who refuses to die until they hold his head in a gas oven.

Also typical is the thrusting together of a man and woman, who fight each other, but come together for the better good. The 39 Steps (1935) in which Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll must overcome their own distrust to thwart the conspiracy is one example, but we see it again in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959) to name a few. This makes for a happy ending, as the two seem to have overcome their differences and are on the road to happy-ever-after with each other.

While Hitchcock never shies away from being politically relevant, this one can be seen as a little more overt. With the real world moving ever closer to war, the film is a bit of a microcosm as it relates to the British, which was its presumed audience. When their little world of Cricket Test Matches, books on folk dancing and love affairs is threatened by an authoritative government, the British tourists must turn to each other for survival. The only one that decides to surrender, lawyer Todhunter who uses a white flag, is shot dead as soon as he steps off the train. While the war was still a year away, Hitchcock can be seen to be saying the only way to survive is to fight back.

Despite the seriousness of the story, there is still a lot of humor in the film, much of it provided by the dialogue. Charters and Caldicott are basically comic relief for most of the film, as they dissect the most mundane aspects of Cricket throughout. Add to that the fairly witty dialogue spoken throughout and you have a dark subject handled with a light touch, something else Hitchcock was able to do effectively throughout his career.

Like all of his films, Hitchcock seems to get the best from his actors, in this case Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who deliver their best early performances on film here. Both actors would go on to long careers on film and stage. Lockwood for a time was the most popular British actress of her day and commanded $112,000 a year in a contract she would sign in the 1952, making her the highest paid actress in British films. Though she would ply her talents in the U.S., she would return to England before World War II and would later find some success on stage in Noël Coward's Private Lives in 1949 and as Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie's play in 1949, 1950 and 1957 (the last with her daughter Julia Lockwood as Wendy). She would also appear in the films Night Train to Munich (1940), The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and The Stars Look Down (1940), the latter with Redgrave.

Redgrave would go onto a very successful career, appearing in such films as Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy; The Browning Version (1951); The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); Mr. Arkadin (1955); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); Alice in Wonderland (1966), a BBC production featuring music by Ravi Shankar; Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969); and The Go-Between (1971). In addition to appearing on stage and on TV, Redgrave is also the father of actresses Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and actor Corin Redgrave.

On a side note, while the characters of Charters and Caldicott were written for the film, they proved to be so popular that they would appear in other films, most notably Night Train to Munich; Millions Like Us (1943); Crook’s Tour (1941), which grew out of a BBC radio series; and in Secret Mission 609 (1942). The two actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford would also appear as similar characters in such films as The Next of Kin (1942) as Careless talkers on train; Dead of Night (1945) as Parratt and Potter; A Girl in a Million (1946) as Prendergast and Fotheringham; Quartet (1948) as Garnet and Leslie; It’s Not Cricket (1949) as Bright and Early; Passport to Pimlico (1949) as Gregg and Straker; Stop Press Girl (1949) as The Mechanical Types; and Helter Skelter (1949). There was even a TV Series in 1985 that ran for 6 episodes, starring Michael Aldridge as Caldicott and Robin Bailey as Charters.

So popular were Charters and Caldicott that they would appear in other movies.

The Lady Vanishes was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming the most successful British film to date and named the Best Picture 1938 by the New York Times. Hitchcock would receive his only honor for directing when he won that years’ New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.

Hitchcock once again showed himself to be one of the great directors, mixing wit and intrigue and producing a very entertaining thriller. His films are usually so good that it doesn’t matter where you start when starting to watch his oeuvre. If you have never seen his The Lady Vanishes, then I would highly recommend you see it as soon as possible. There is no reason to wait.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Stubs - Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage (1934) Starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Francis Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny. Directed by John Cromwell. Screenplay by Lester Cohen. Based on the novel Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (London, 1915). Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Run Time: 83 minutes. USA. Black and White. Drama

Bette Davis, like most Hollywood actresses, got her real start on the Broadway stage. She made her debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes, and followed it with Solid South. In 1930, she came out to Hollywood, with her mother, for a screen test at Universal. Though she failed a couple of screen tests and Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis' employment, cinematographer Karl Freund saved her. He told Laemmle that Davis had "lovely eyes” and she made her film debut in Bad Sister (1931).

Universal renewed her contract for six months and gave her a small role in Waterloo Bridge (1931) and then lent her out to Columbia for The Menace (1932) and to Capital Films for Hell's House (1932). After one year and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle elected not to renew her.

Davis was ready to return to New York, when actor George Arliss chose her for the female lead in The Man Who Played God (1932), his film at Warner Bros. This was the break she needed. Originally signed to a five year contract, she would remain at Warner Bros for the next eighteen years.

She would appear in about 30 films in the next few years before The Cabin in Cotton (1932) brought her to the attention of John Cromwell, who wanted her for his film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel, Of Human Bondage. Not only did Cromwell think she was right for the role of Mildred, but so did producer Pando S. Berman at RKO, who owned the film rights to the novel. Even Maugham was said to approve of her being cast in the role.

But Jack L. Warner objected at first, instead casting her in Fashions of 1934, The Big Shakedown (1934), Jimmy the Gent (1934) and Fog Over Frisco (1934). Warner felt playing the role of Mildred would damage her glamorous image and pointed to Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Ann Harding already having declined to play it for that reason. The only reason Warner relented was that producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted RKO contract actress Irene Dunne for Sweet Adeline, the screen adaptation of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical, and the two studios agreed to trade actresses.

To prepare for her role as Mildred, Davis hired an English housekeeper with a Cockney accent that she secretly studied for two months. But this did not impress Leslie Howard, who resented an American actress being cast as a British woman. Howard let it be known to Davis, who recalled the production in her memoirs, “The first few days on the set were not too heartwarming. Mr. Howard and his English colleagues, as a clique, were disturbed by the casting of an American girl in the part. I really couldn't blame them. There was lots of whispering in little Druid circles whenever I appeared. Mr. Howard would read a book offstage, all the while throwing me his lines during my close-ups.

Production began on February 19, 1934 and continued until April 7th. Retakes were done April 30, May 7 and June 1-2 1934. The film was released July 20, to fairly positive reviews, especially for Davis.

The film opens in Paris, where British-born wannabe artist, Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) has been studying painting for the past four years. When his art teacher tells him that his work lacks talent, Philip returns to England and attends Medical school. There he is humiliated by his professor, Dr. Jacobs (Desmond Roberts), who uses Philp’s club-foot as a teaching moment for other students when the club-foot on a young patient isn’t very interesting.

Philip (Leslie Howard) is taken by Cyril (Reginald Sheffield) to help
make an impression on tea room waitress Mildred (Bette Davis).

Philip is taken to a tea room by another medical student, Cyril Dunsford (Reginald Sheffield), hoping to make an impression on a waitress, Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis), that the other student sort of fancies. Mildred is anemic and pale-faced and more interested in another customer, Emil Miller (Alan Hale), a loud but well-to-do womanizer. While Cyril has had enough, Philip is infatuated by her and falls passionately in love with her.

Philip is infatuated with Mildred and goes back to ask her out.

He comes back the next day and asks her out to dinner, to which she tells him "I don't mind," an expression so uninterested that it infuriates him – which only causes her to use it all the more. They go out a few times, but she continues her cold, bored behavior and refuses Philip a goodnight kiss. She even stands him up for a theater date in order to see Emil.

Mildred skips out on Philip to keep a date with Emil Miller (Alan Hale).

That doesn’t keep him from daydreaming about her, even seeing her in one of his medical school anatomy books. Philip is so distracted by her that he fails his medical exams.

Philip finds himself fantasing about Mildred.

But Mildred doesn’t change her mind about him. When Philip finally proposes to her, Mildred declines, informing him that she will be marrying Emil instead. She even goes so far as to berate him with insults about being romantically interested in her in the first place.

To help him forget, Philip is introduced to Norah (Kay Johnson), an attractive romance writer, who falls in love with him. With Norah, it seems that Philip finally seems to be getting over Mildred. But just when he is finding true happiness, Mildred reappears in his life. She is pregnant, having been abandoned by an already married Miller, and turns to Philip for help.

In order to take care of Mildred, Philip breaks off his relationship with Norah (Kay Johnson).

Philip provides Mildred with a flat and arranges to take care of her financially. He then breaks off his relationship with Norah, who loves him very much. Norah and Philip admit how bondages exist between people linking Norah to Philip and Philip to Mildred and Mildred to Miller.

Mildred is an uninterested mother and gives the baby to a nurse to take care of.

After Mildred gives birth, Philip intends to marry Mildred, but she is an uninterested mother and gives the child to a nurse to take care of. Mildred is easily bored and to celebrate their engagement, Philip invites another medical school classmate, Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny). Griffiths is gregarious and flirts with Mildred and she reciprocates. After dinner, Philip makes a point to tell Harry to leave Mildred alone and Harry agrees, saying he has no interest in her at all.

Philip invites Harry (Reginald Denny) to dinner and he steals Mildred away.

But the next morning that has changed. Mildred delights in showing Philip a letter that Harry sent her, written overnight and delivered by special messenger, confessing his love for her. She informs Philip that she loves Harry too and the two run off to Paris.

Philip returns to his studies and makes a very positive impression on Thorpe Athelny (Reginald Owen), who takes a liking to the young doctor and invites him out to his house for Sunday dinner. Athelny has a large family with nine children. The eldest daughter, Sally (Frances Dee), serves them and Philip takes an interest in her. A romance blossoms as Philip returns over and over again as we’re shown a montage of Sally against the pages of a calendar.

Former patient Thorpe Athelny (Reginald Owen) invites Philip
to dinner, where he meets his daughter Sally (Frances Dee).

But like a bad penny, Mildred returns with her baby, expressing remorse for leaving Philip. He brings her and the baby into his apartment and lets her take his bedroom. Mildred objects to the paintings of nude models that Philip still has out as a reminder of his artistic past. She can’t believe that Philip isn’t interested in her and lashes out at him one night calling him a laughable, "gimpy-legged monster." He wants her out and she goes, but not before destroying everything in his place, including slashing his paintings and burning the bonds his Uncle had sent him to pay for his medical school.

Mildred does not take well to Philip's rejection.

Without money, Philip loses his apartment and is forced to drop out of medical school. But before he leaves, Dr. Jacobs insists that they take care of his club-foot first. Now Philip is able to walk normally, but has no job. The Athelnys take him in and Thorpe gets him a job working with him as a window dresser.

A note arrives from Mildred asking to see Philip, who reluctantly goes. Mildred has fallen on hard times. Now working as a prostitute, her baby now dead, Mildred is sickly and drawn. She asks Philip to examine her and he quickly diagnosis that she has tuberculosis. He leaves her what little money he has on him.

Philip gets dragged into Mildred's world and diagnoses her with tuberculosis.

The next letter Philip gets is a notification that his Uncle has died and has left him a small inheritance, which appears to be equal to the bonds that Mildred had destroyed. Philip returns to medical school and passes his tests. He signs up to be a doctor on a ship heading to Australia, much to the disappointment of Sally, who wants to marry him. He promises that he will if she still feels the same about him when he returns and she agrees as long as he still feels the same about her.

Now that he has his license, Philip tells Sally that he's going to Australia onboard a ship.

Meanwhile, Cyril and Harry are dispatched to retrieve a sick woman from a rundown flat, which turns out to be Mildred. Later, Philip hears about the interesting case, but Cyril and Harry won’t let him into the room. They inform him that it was Mildred and that she has died.

Mildred near death.

Her death frees Philip from his obsession and he decides not to go to sea after all, but Sally still needs some convincing but she agrees to marry him.

Freed from Mildred, Philip convinces Sally to marry him.

While this film is sometimes referred to as Pre-Code, make no mistake the film was affected by the Production Code Administration, which apparently had many misgivings about the story and did demand some changes. As an example of this, Mildred’s illness was changed from syphilis in Maugham’s novel to tuberculous. It is therefore still a little surprising to see Philip’s paintings of topless women getting such prominent display.

This film made a true star out of Davis. Maybe she sensed its importance as well, as she was able to convince the director to let her design her own makeup for the scenes depicting the final stages of Mildred's illness. Even though she was not one of the three actresses nominated by the Academy for Best Actress, Warner instructed all employees with voting rights to write her in. So while not officially nominated she did receive votes. She would lose out to Claudette Colbert, who starred in It Happened One Night (1934), another role that Davis wanted, but that Warner wouldn’t loan her out to Columbia to play. He didn’t like the idea of lending her out for two consecutive films. The Academy would also change their rules and no longer allow for write-ins. Davis would have to wait a whole year to be officially nominated and win her first Academy Award for Dangerous (1935). It was said at the time that award was really recognition for her work in Of Human Bondage.

While Davis is very convincing as a cruel and manipulative Mildred, she is not enough to save the film for me. The film, which is now in the public domain, has not aged well. It suffers from several maladies, including slow pacing through the first half, quick transitions and the character of Philip, played by Leslie Howard.

While Howard is a bit stiff as an actor, the trouble is really the character of Philip. It is hard to have much sympathy for such a milquetoast. He keeps going back to help Mildred who shows him no love, only derision. We’ve all had people who we can’t shake in life, but it is unfathomable that after she destroys everything he owns and wrecks him financially that he would go to see her again. He doesn’t even grow a pair until after she’s dead. He doesn’t overcome her as much as he outlasts her. That doesn’t speak well of his future with Sally, since she is obviously second choice.

There is very little in the way of development of characters. Philip’s relationship with Dr. Jacobs, as an example, seems to turn on a dime. The first time we see him Jacobs is making an example out of Philip’s club-foot, but only when Philip is forced to leave school does he offer to cure his deformity. Where does this compassion suddenly come from?

And why as an example, would Philip have anything to do with Harry after he stole away the woman that he loves? The next time we see them together after the incident, they are civil to one another. Where is the punch in the face that Harry so desperately deserves?

Most of the supporting actors don’t really get to do much. Frances Dee as Sally gets to do little more than smile pretty when she’s on screen. Even actors like Alan Hale, Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny are saddled with one-dimensional characters who are usually the most active off-screen. We hear more about their antics than actually see them performed.

The editing in the first half seems rather uneven. The individual scenes can be rather stagy and slow, but the story moves in time jumps which can make it a little hard to follow.

The character of Thorpe Athelny as portrayed by Reginald Owen is almost enough to pull the film out of its nose dive. Thorpe is a breath of fresh air and Owens enthuses him with wit, humor and passion. His performance helps make the second half of the film much more watchable than the first. Owen would later go on to portray Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1938).

Of Human Bondage was a film that I wanted to see for a long time, but sadly it is not one that I can truly recommend. Bette Davis’ performance might be enough for some, but the film does not really draw you in and the central character’s passivity doesn’t really give you someone to identify with in the film. If you feel compelled to watch, then be sure to watch Reginald Owen as Thorpe. Too bad there isn’t more of him in this film.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell. Directed by James Gunn. Screenplay by James Gunn. Based on Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Produced by Kevin Feige. Color. Runtime 136 minutes. U.S.A. Science Fiction, Fantasy, 3D.

One of the more pleasant surprises and there have been several from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) film that dropped onto the scene and was an enormous hit. Some would go so far as to claim that it was the best the MCU had offered so far. And as promised at the end of the first movie, the Guardians are back, as well as director James Gunn, and in the best Marvel sequel tradition, bigger than ever. Notice how I didn’t say better, just bigger. Not that the film is necessarily bad, just that it doesn’t quite reach the same level that the first one did.

Two months has passed since the last film ended and all of the main characters return: Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt); Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista); Baby Groot (Vin Diesel); Rocket (Bradley Cooper); Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker); and Nebula (Karen Gillan). They are supplemented by new characters, most importantly Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial who turns out to be Peter’s father. Along with Ego comes Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath. There are even a few cameos including Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord, a high-ranking Ravager with a history with Yondu and even David Hasselhoff playing, who else, himself. There are even smaller appearances by Ving Rhames and Michelle Yeoh, perhaps hinting at a future spin-off of sorts.

Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is cute.

As with most sequels, the story is not only a continuation of the storyline, but it also ramps up everything. Relationships are the glue that holds the Guardians together, whether it is friendship or love or some combination of the two. Those are further explored here as well, though for the most part the characters don’t change drastically from how they’re presented in the first film. But the biggest relationship in this film is between Peter Quill and Ego, though of all of them that get re-examined perhaps more interestingly is Yondu’s with just about everyone. There is more to him revealed in this film than just about anyone else.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meets his biological father, Ego (Kurt Russell).

In addition to the main story of Peter meeting his father, the Guardians do work for and betray the Sovereigns, a race of supposedly perfect people with golden skin and very, very high opinions of themselves. To cross them is punishable by death and guess what, the Guardians cross them. While their pursuit of the Guardians takes a somewhat back seat to the main action in the film, we’re not done with them as they promise to be back in Guardians 3, which no doubt we’ll see in a few years’ time.

Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the High Priestess of the Sovereigns.

Music plays a major role in the sequel as well as it did in the first film, though I would say not as effectively. While Vol. 1 had been mostly one-hit wonders, Vol. 2 represents much larger acts, including George Harrison, Cat Stevens, ELO and Sam Cooke. Sometimes the music makes the right impact, Stevens’ Father and Son off his Tea for The Tillerman album, but sometimes it misses the mark including the use of Harrison’s My Sweet Lord.

As with any Marvel sequel, the special effects are ratcheted up, too. Bigger and more impressive being the goal. But as with any film reliant on FX sometimes the story gets a little muddled along the way. It is clear that Quill must stop the goals of his father, but what’s not really clear is what or why his father feels compelled to carry out his evil plans. There are some also some, I’ll say, funky uses of special effects, like a series of tableaux’s we’re led to believe Ego has at the ready depicting his life and relationship with Peter’s mother. And, as with the Star Wars prequel, Rogue One and Tron Legacy, older actors have younger versions of themselves plastered over the faces of stand-in actors, in this case, Kurt Russell. Just as it didn’t work in Tron Legacy, it still looks less like a face and more like a plastic mask.

One of the hallmarks of the original film was the use of humor to keep the film from getting too grim or taking itself too seriously. That is present here as well, though it sometimes feels a little more forced and, as is the trend, the humor goes low. Rocket is still the foul-mouthed raccoon that he was in the first film and as such helps to carry the load of the put-down humor that dominates. But there is talk about poop and penises that I could have done without. And let it be known, I don’t ever need to see or hear another man take a whizz again on film. It never really makes things better or funnier.

A lot of the humor comes from Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).

The film has its good points. The actors seem very comfortable with their characters and Kurt Russell seems to have been a good choice to play Peter’s father. But it is the ensemble cast that seems to make these films enjoyable. Diverse characters from different worlds thrown together into a makeshift family of sorts. The adventure they go on is almost secondary to their interactions with each other as they may fight, but they join together when they have to. These are characters that you want to follow wherever they go. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax the Destroyer
(David Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) come to help Peter.

While the calculation was to make a film that you’d want to see again and right away, I can’t say that I’d be rushing back to see this one. As with most Marvel films of late, I will see it again, but maybe when it comes to home video (and yes, I still buy discs). That said, if you’re a fan of the Guardians or want to keep up with the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is worth seeing, but just don’t expect to like it quite as much as you did the first one.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Stubs - The Adventurer

The Adventurer (1917) Starring Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Marta Golden, May White. Directed by Charles Chaplin. Written by Charles Chaplin, Vincent Bryan, Maverick Terrell. Produced by John Jasper. Runtime 31 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Silent, Comedy

By the time his contract with Essanay ended, Charlie Chaplin knew his worth. Perhaps the most famous man on the planet and the first International star of Hollywood films, there was merchandise in the stores and Chaplin was celebrated in cartoons, comic strips, and songs. Chaplin wanted a $150,000 signing bonus and negotiated with several studios including Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph, before settling on Mutual, which provided him with a salary of $10,000 a week and carte blanche to make any movie he wanted. At the ripe old age of 26, Chaplin became one of the best-paid people in the world.

Beginning in 1916 he wrote, directed, produced and starred in 12 films, including The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and his final film at Mutual, The Adventurer.

Following the release of The Immigrant, Charlie and his brother Sydney went to San Francisco on vacation. Since the release of The Floorwalker on May 15, 1916, and the release of The Immigrant on June 17, 1917, Chaplin had released 11 films in 13 months. Chaplin took his time making this next one, releasing it four months later on October 22, 1917. It would up until then the longest time period between films in his short career.

The Convict (Charlie Chaplin) burrows out the sand next to
 one of the prison guards (Frank J. Coleman) chasing him.

The film opens with a manhunt for an escaped prisoner. In the mode of the Keystone Kops, the police are inept and lazy. The Convict (Charlie Chaplin) literally burrows out of the ground, ala Bugs Bunny, next to one of the prison guards (Frank J. Coleman), who decides to take a snooze. Soon the guards are chasing after Charlie over, under and through the rough seacoast. He manages to not only get the drop on them but manages to escape out to sea. When the prison guards take chase, their boat gets overturned by waves.

Charlie avoids capture by outmaneuvering the guards.

Not far away, at least according the geography of the film, The Girl (Edna Purviance) and her Suitor (Eric Campbell) are dining at a seaside café when they hear the cries of Mrs. Brown (Marta Golden), the girl’s mother, who has fallen into the ocean off the pier. Edna begs Eris to help her, but he refuses, instead, he stands on the end of the pier, yelling for help.

The Girl (Edna Purviance) and her Suitor (Eric Campbell) are dining at a seaside cafe.

Edna can’t wait for help and jumps in the water to save her mom. Turns out, Edna is not much of a swimmer and ends up treading water near her mom.

Meanwhile, Eric’s yells attract the attention of a heavy set seaman who stands next to him and yells along with him. In the process, they break through the railing and both men end up in the water and neither can swim.

Having just swum to shore, Charlie hears the cries for help and he swims out to help. He comes across Edna’s mother first and is about to save her when he hears and sees Edna. He saves the beautiful girl first before going back for her mom. The last one he helps out of the water is Eric, whom he tows to the pier by his beard. The heavyset sailor who went into the water with Eric must have made it out or drowned, as he is never again mentioned.

Back up on the boards of the pier, Charlie is aided by the women’s chauffer (Toraichi Kono) carrying them on a stretcher to their car. Charlie mentions that he heard their screams from his yacht before he dove in to save them.

Charlie saves the Girl's mother, Mrs. Brown (Marta Golden), from the ocean.

When it comes to Eric, Charlie is left alone to pull the stretcher and accidentally dumps the big man back into the water. Charlie dives back in to save him, but this time Eric foils the rescue, kicking Charlie off the ladder at the pier and back into the water.

It is only Edna who insists on finding their savior and sends their driver to look for him. Charlie is found lying unconscious on the beach. The chauffeur then picks him up and carries him back to the car. (Note: the “actor” playing the chauffeur probably had a lot of experience picking up after Chaplin, as he was the actor/director’s own man servant.)

Charlie is carried out of the water by the chauffeur (Toraichi
Kono), who happened to be Chaplin's own man servant.

Charlie wakes up in a strange bed with bars on the headboard and dressed in someone else’s striped pajamas, making him think that he’s back at the prison. That is until a butler enters the room carrying clothes for him.

Charlie wakes up at the Brown's thinking he's back in prison.

Downstairs in the house, a party is underway. Charlie enters and is hailed as a hero. He introduces himself as Commodore Slick. Edna introduces him to her father, Judge Brown (Henry Bergman), who looks suspiciously at their guest.

Judge Brown (Henry Bergman) gives Charlie the once over at a party at the Browns.

Charlie is equally enamored with Edna and the free drinks at the party. He gets into an open rivalry with Eric and it escalates into covert kicking and seltzer squirting. Then Eric finds Charlie’s photo in the paper and the article about his escape from prison. Before Eric can confront Judge Brown with the paper, Charlie manages to draw an elaborate beard on the photo, matching Eric’s own. But Eric isn’t through and calls the authorities to report Charlie.

Charlie draws an elaborate beard on his photo in the paper to make him look like Eric Campbell.

Meanwhile, Charlie enjoys himself as he dances with Edna and eats ice cream out on the veranda.  While he’s eating it, Charlie accidentally drops ice cream down his front and lets us know, through facial expressions, just exactly where the ice cream is. When it finally exits Charlie’s trousers, it falls down on the neck of a well-dressed woman at a table. She shrieks and dances about in reaction to the cold lump now on her.

Charlie accidentally knocks ice cream down a woman's dress.

When the prison guards arrive, another chase sequence starts, as a bookend to the movie. Charlie is chased upstairs and down and through a sliding door. One of the guards manages to catch Charlie just as he’s making his apologies to Edna for his earlier deception. But when the guard loosens his hold on Charlie to shake Edna’s hand, Charlie escapes and the picture ends.

As his follow-up to The Immigrant, The Adventurer is much more in the slapstick vein of Chaplin’s earlier Keystone films. The chase sequences are inspired and frantic, but it doesn’t have the heart that The Immigrant had. While we knew Edna and Charlie would end up together in that film, there is no promise of the same here, and in fact, it is doubtful the two will ever see each other again. Still, the film was popular, and reports say it was his most popular of the Lone Star/Mutual films.

Location filming took place in Malibu and Venice. If you’re familiar with the beach at Malibu, Chaplin comes out of the sand near Castle Rock and Haystack Rock. At the time of the filming, Malibu was privately owned by May Rindge, widow of wealthy ranch owner Frederick Rindge. The road that would eventually become the Pacific Coast Highway only went as far as Topanga Canyon before the public would be forced back inland. Contemporary stories state that during the filming, Chaplin rescued a seven-year-old girl from drowning after she had been swept into the waters from a rock as she watched.

Ms. Rindge fought California’s eminent domain in court for decades, ultimately going bankrupt in the process. In 1923 the US Supreme Court would uphold California’s eminent domain powers, and the Roosevelt Highway (later Pacific Coast Highway) opened in 1929.

The other location was the Abbot Kinney Pier in Venice. Chaplin had been filming in Venice since his second short, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), was shot there three years earlier. The Abbott Kinney Pier, originally built in 1904 and rebuilt in 1905, at one time or another contained a dance hall, a one and one-half mile scenic railroad, an aquarium, an auditorium, an ostrich farm, a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, aerial rides and various concessionaires. On December 20, 1920, the pier would disappear thanks to a fire that started when a gas heater in the dance hall burst into flames.

While the humor might seem ad-libbed, it really isn’t. Chaplin would play with ideas for long periods of time before he got them right. The outtakes of his Mutual films supplied the evidence of this in the BBC documentary, Unknown Chaplin, which is a fascinating series for anyone interested in the filmmaker’s genius.

Chaplin was also capable of analyzing his own work and wrote a detailed analysis of the ice cream scene in an article “What People Laugh At” published in American Magazine in November 1918. He wrote:

“One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine-tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.

“If I had dropped the ice cream, for example, on a scrub woman's neck, instead of getting laughs, sympathy would have been aroused for the woman. Also, because a scrub woman has no dignity to lose, that point would not have been funny. Dropping ice cream down a rich woman's neck, however, is, in the minds of the audience, just giving the rich what they deserve.”

Edna Purviance and Eric Campbell each play sort of archetypal characters of the type often seen in Chaplin’s films. She is the pretty girl, the one who catches Chaplin’s romantic eye and Campbell is the heavy that stands as the barrier between them even though he is more bluster than bark.

L to R, Eric Campbell, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer.

Chaplin, again, plays a version of his famous Tramp character. Proverbially the outsider; here he is an escaped prisoner mixing it up with the upper crust, or what Chaplin himself referred to as the wealthy ten percent. Who can’t help but laugh when the tables get turned on them and they get knocked down a peg or two along the way by our hero Charlie?

The Adventurer is a throwback of sorts for Chaplin. This is not necessarily a signpost towards his greater works, like City Lights (1931) or Modern Times (1936), which mixed in ethos and pathos with their comedy. But that wasn’t Chaplin’s aim every time out. He was a comedian who knew what his fans wanted. He is certainly funny in this film. It is easy to see why the film was so popular. If you’re a fan of Chaplin’s work or someone who enjoys laughing, then you should definitely see The Adventurer.

Be sure to check out other silent film reviews at our Silent Cinema Review Hub.