Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stubs – Iron Man 2 (Second Opinion)

Iron Man 2 (2010) Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson. Screenplay by Justin Theroux. Based on characters created by Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Stan Lee. Directed by Jon Favreau. Produced by Kevin Feige. Run Time: 125 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action.

With the impending release of Iron Man 3 next week, Trophy Unlocked thought it would be a good idea to revisit the two films the new film is supposed to be a sequel to, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers (2012). It may seem unusual to have a simultaneous sequel to two films, but the Marvel Avengers franchise has been breaking some of the rules. The Avengers itself was either a sequel or a culmination of sequels.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) confers with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey).
Iron Man 3 will be the start of a new cycle of Marvel films culminating, in a few years, in The Avengers 2. One is always weary about going to the well one time too many, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves and with nothing more than a review in the trades and a few trailers to go from, a review of Iron Man 3 will have to wait for release.

While it’s always nice to re-watch a favorite film, sometimes you watch one again out of a sense of duty. We’ve fallen into a habit of watching the prequels to the sequels, as is the case with Iron Man 2.  Iron Man (2008), until the release of The Avengers, was what I considered to be one of the best comic-book inspired films ever made, on par with Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Jon Favreau, whose biggest film to that point had been Elf (2002), had been given the realms of a big budget film and had done himself and Marvel proud. Iron Man showed a lot of humor, told a rebooted, but believable origin story and delivered one of the bright spots of that summer. Whether or not it was part of the original master plan leading up to the Avengers or not, Iron Man 2 seemed inevitable, after the original’s success at the box office. And I remember settling down in my theater seat looking forward to the further adventures of Iron Man. And I remember leaving the theater a little disappointed.

Jon Favreau directs and reprises the role of  Happy Hogan, Stark's bodyguard, in Iron Man 2.
But that was three years ago and even though I’ve watched it since, I’m ready to sit down once again, this time at home to give Iron Man 2 a second spin, so to speak.

On what is probably a fifth impression (Yes I've seen the film that many times now), Iron Man 2 is not a bad film, but it suffers from sequelitis, the Hollywood disease that feels the sequel has to be bigger to be better, which fills me with some concern with how much bigger the threequel will have be.

Iron Man 2 suffers from flash over substance.
Accompanying the bigger is better theory are usually subtle changes in the cast. The most notable change was the replacement of Terence Howard with Don Cheadle as War Machine/L. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. I’m sure money was involved and Cheadle is more than an adequate replacement for Howard.

Don Cheadle as Rhodey and Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer.
Then there are the additional cast members. We pick up Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. These are necessary as they will both play major parts in The Avengers film. But there are some actors that are just sort of passing through: Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash and Garry Shandling (almost unrecognizable from his days as Larry Sanders) as U.S. Senator Stern. Unfortunately, even together, Hammer and Vanko don’t really match up to Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger. With Stane, the villain was someone Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) grew up with and trusted like a father, so the backstabbing is more powerful than the misguided revenge of Vanko or the greed of Hammer.  Shandling seems to be playing someone close to his own personality, but really few of the characters, including Stark, are all that likable.

Scarlett Johansson's Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff kicks ass.
And speaking of Stark, Robert Downey, Jr. returns as the cracking wise hero and Gwyneth Paltrow (before her Goop/ego overload) as his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts returns. Their relationship naturally moves to the next level as their professional fa├žade is dropped and they become romantically involved. While this part of their relationship was highlighted in The Avengers, Iron Man 3 will no doubt take it further.

Robert Downey. Jr. as Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.
Of the other returning cast members, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s part gets bigger and it is through following his character that we’re ushered into Thor (2011), the next Marvel Cinematic Universe film to be released. Gregg, who up until now had perhaps been best known for his part as the ex-husband, Richard, on The New Adventures of Old Christine television series, shows that he can be a versatile actor and make a small part memorable.

Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) helps tie the Avengers prequels together.
The bigger is better rule is also applied to the special effects, which one would only expect. Not only do we have War Machine in addition to an upgraded Iron Man flying around, we’re treated to a whole army of drones with like weaponry, not to mention Whiplash’s different variations. All this leads to the final climatic fight scene with more and bigger explosions than Iron Man, but bigger is sometimes just bigger. As stated above, the climactic scene of Iron Man brings with it more pathos than Iron Man 2 can handle.

Story wise, there are plot holes big enough to fly a Helicarrier through. Besides the franchise’s usual issues with time and space, the biggest one involves Vanko’s original revenge attempt against Stark. He somehow knows that Stark will be at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix and manages to infiltrate the raceway security brigade and gets onto the track to try and kill Stark as he races by. The only problem with the plan is that it wasn’t known that Stark would be driving, since he only replaced the car’s normal driver moments before the race began.

Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) awaits Tony Stark at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
The writing also seems to slip. Oh, Tony Stark is his usual snarky self, but the dialogue seems to be filled with terms that sound impressive, but are never explained. As an audience member it’s like being a child listening to your parents talk and not understanding what they’re talking about. But at the same time, I didn’t pay to be treated like a child. If you bring up some made up scientific term, then at least give it some sort of made up explanation. Also the humor goes low, so low as having Tony Stark tell partygoers that he’s going to the bathroom in his Iron Man suit and then discussing the filtration afterwards. I know we’re supposed to be seeing Tony Stark at his old Robert Downey, Jr. worst, but is having the character pee in his suit the best way to write about it? I would hope for Justin Theroux’s sake that this wasn’t his best writing.

Iron Man 2 tries hard to outdo its predecessor, but sometimes money, casting changes and special effects aren’t enough. Iron Man 2 is good, but it doesn’t quite rise to the same level of Iron Man, leading to the sequel truth that one is usually better than two. Soon we’ll find out if 3 is a magic number.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us - Doesn't Pull Any Punches

When you hear the name Midway Games, there's a chance you'll be thinking of the Mortal Kombat franchise, known for its extreme gore and single-handedly leading to the creation of the ESRB (that rating system that parents don't seem to pay attention to). In 2008, the franchise saw an installment known as Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, its purpose being self-explanatory, which was achieved by having Warner Bros. and DC partnering with Midway to license certain characters for use in the game. While the game had mixed reception, it would turn out to be the company's last project before going bankrupt. At this point in time, Mortal Kombat creator and director Ed Boon formed NetherRealm Studios and immediately began working on a Mortal Kombat reboot, simply titled Mortal Kombat, released in 2011 to universal acclaim. Now it seems that history has decided to repeat itself, with Warner Bros.' ownership of NetherRealm leading to the creation of the subject of this review, Injustice: Gods Among Us, a fighting game with a roster made entirely of DC characters. The idea intrigued me when I first heard about it and so I decided to give it a shot. The end result is something that could be considered a new high for NetherRealm.

Before I begin, I'd like to mention that I feel my review of the Mortal Kombat reboot is inadequate and didn't do the game any real justice (then again I wrote it in the fifth month of this blog's existence). Similarly, I feel my review of Marvel vs Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds to be poorly written. With this review of Injustice, I plan to make up for these earlier reviews in spades and cover it more completely with the style I have developed from writing reviews for over two years. So, without further delay, I'd like to present my review of Injustice: Gods Among Us.

This can't end well.

Just like Mortal Kombat, Injustice comes with a Story Mode featuring an actual plot, something that doesn't appear all that often in fighting games. The premise is thus: As the Justice League are fighting various DC villains for no discernible reason, Batman is close to stopping The Joker from completing his latest scheme. Joker's plan?: to blow up Metropolis with a nuke planted at the base of a Superman statue. When the caped crusader finally arrives, the clown prince of crime has already armed the device, detonation now a single button push away. With the presence of the Dark Knight, Joker alters his scheme to include two more in the body count and inches his finger closer to the trigger. As Batman jumps to stop him, the Justice League are all on their way to Joker's location and are a split second away from converging when balls of light suddenly appear around most everyone there. Within that same time frame, everyone taken by the light ends up in a dystopian version of Metropolis with a strange symbol visible everywhere; The Joker is annoyed by the fact that his detonator is now completely useless as it simply clicks with no reaction. Now in what appears to be a different dimension entirely, Batman and everyone else involved have to figure out what's going on, why they are there and how they can return safely home.

At first I was confused by the initial fight between the Justice League and various villains, but as the plot went on it felt surprisingly coherent and I think the end result was actually pretty good. The story switches off between playable characters within the narrative based on what's going on at the moment, which actually helps with the game giving the player an opportunity to play as roughly half the cast while still transitioning between events seamlessly. Characters are also pretty quick to figure out what's going on, which makes sense considering that the DC universe has had the characters visit alternate realities a few times, this being no exception, and everyone seems to react realistically to the situation they are in. I thought the pacing was pretty good and I was able to get more into it as it went along. Although the way the story ends is a little predictable, it's still handled well enough to feel like a well-written DC story anyway.

Superman, ruler of the Regime.

In a rather unique move, there would also sometimes be a brief mini-game between story segments. These usually consisted of throwing/firing something, like Batarangs or eye lasers, via button prompts in order to fulfill a specific condition. What I liked about these mini-games was that they were not only inserted in a way that didn't disrupt the flow of the story, but they could also be used as a way to determine starting health once the next battle began. This is a nice touch that makes a story mode for a fighting game more immersive and, along with the story treatment in general, raises the mere idea of a Story Mode in the genre to new heights that will be difficult to surpass.

Speaking of difficulty, I think it would be good to mention that the difficulty of Injustice's story is mercifully toned down compared to the Mortal Kombat reboot. In Mortal Kombat, the difficulty would naturally increase as it went along, but it would always get to the point where I'd actually have to lower the difficulty to even stand a chance against an AI that is more likely to cheat, reading controller inputs for instance, especially if I wanted a remote probability of taking down the final boss, Shao Khan. In Injustice, I was able to stay on the Normal difficulty for the whole game and while I did have to eventually attempt a fight multiple times, I was still able to overcome the enemy by employing the right strategy. That isn't to say the AI isn't above using dirty tactics however, as the AI is capable of stringing attacks together in a way that's too quick for a human to pull off in real life, even going so far as to string multiples of the same attack together in an impossibly small window (I'm looking at you, Green Lantern). Still, I like that NetherRealm lowered the difficulty and I hope they apply this to the next Mortal Kombat, should they decide to make one.

Next, I'd like to discuss one of the most important elements of a fighting game: the character roster. Before I get into any specifics however, I'd like you to look at the following image:

Before you ask, no, Bane is not voiced by Tom Hardy.

There are a total of 24 characters. I'd like to point out a certain ratio, which is that of Batman characters versus literally everyone else. Out of those 24 characters, seven of them, if we count Solomon Grundy, are from the Batman comics; that's about a third of the roster dedicated to Batman. I don't have a problem with this as a Batman fan, and I understand that the property is the best thing Warner Bros. has going for them right now, but at the same time I understand any complaints about how the other franchises are underrepresented.

As for how I feel about the roster itself, I think it perfectly highlights what DC is trying to push at the moment. The inclusion of everyone from the current Justice League as of the New 52 (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and Green Lantern) makes the most sense, as with the inclusion of major villains or arch enemies from their universes, like Doomsday or Sinestro. What's more interesting however are the second-tier characters they decided to include for roster depth and exposure. The presence of Raven and Deathstroke for instance provides some great fanservice for fans of the Teen Titans cartoon and they are welcome additions to the lineup. Shazam (directly under Aquaman in the above image) is a hero that DC has been pushing through the current run of Justice League, but due to him not really being in the public conscious, I have a feeling that not very many outside of those reading the book or watching the DC cartoons would know who he is, as with the villain Black Adam (to the left of Bane). The villain Ares (below Lex Luthor) is also a much lesser-known character and, due to my lack of knowledge on Wonder Woman lore, this is pretty much the first time I've seen him. There are two characters who I can't understand why they are there however, one being the character Hawkgirl, who I have sort of heard of and seen, but I'm sure that at this point only those paying attention to the cartoons would know who she is. As for the other one, I think I'll get some flak from Young Justice fans for asking this, but I feel it must be done:

Who the hell is Killer Frost (between Ares and Doomsday)? Thanks to my casual knowledge of the overall DC universe, this is literally the first time I have ever heard of the character, let alone as a villain, so I have no basis for her personality and will just have to assume that her portrayal here did her any justice. I'm betting that NetherRealm included her to fill in the "Ice Guy" slot they are used to having in their games (think Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat), but that doesn't make her inclusion any less questionable to me.

Pictured: literally everything I know about Killer Frost.

Another important fighting game aspect is its controls, which Injustice succeeds at very well. Its control scheme is very intuitive and easy to pick up and play. This probably has to do with it being lifted directly from Mortal Kombat, but that should show just how NetherRealm has nailed a great layout. While controlling the action is very fluid, I have a couple of complaints about the overall mapping. First of all, I actually dislike having to use a directional button to control my blocking. While I'm sure this is what most fighting game fans like, I've had it where I'm blocking a series of attacks and then I'm backed into a corner, which creates a situation where I'm totally screwed if I miss the timing, especially against an AI. If there was a dedicated button, then I'd be able to stay in one spot and remove the risk of self-cornering. The other thing is the timing window for nailing a three-four button combo. I think this window is a little too small, since I can't just tap the buttons in rapid succession to pull off what I want to or am prompted to. To give an example, one combo requires that (on PS3) I press Square and then Triangle before pressing two other buttons simultaneously. Rather than just tap Square and then Triangle, I have to swipe or roll my thumb across both buttons for it to actually count before pressing another two button combo. It got frustrating after a while and so I depended more on clever maneuvering and special move use to get by (it worked surprisingly well).

Pictured: Clever Maneuvering.

The move list for each character is also very well constructed. Everyone has the same basic combos, creating ease of use, as well as unique combo strings and special attacks that match their attack styles very closely. By not relying on long pre-determined combos, success is determined by how well the player can chain various combos and special moves together, which is a nice way of creating a bit of depth. On top of this, each character also seems suited for a different playstyle, such as long-range attacks or getting up close and personal to interrupt plans, which ensures that players will find a favorite in no time (for me, that would be Green Arrow, Deathstroke and Batman). What's rather unique for this game however is the ability to activate a character power with the press of a button. Character powers are different for each character, obviously, which can provide a power buff, shielding, or an alternative means of attack, such as firing an arrow or switching weapon stances. I enjoyed this feature, as it helped stay true to each character and provided an opportunity to mix things up.

The big draw for each character however would be their Super Moves. Just like the X-Ray moves in Mortal Kombat, pressing the two trigger buttons when a meter is full allows one to perform a Super Move, which most often activates after an animation connects from a certain range. Once it hits however, it deals a lot of damage while a cinematic plays to demonstrate just how powerful it is. This can range from Green Arrow firing arrows in a very controlled fashion to Superman taking his opponent into space and then punching them back down to Earth. These moves are all very awesome and I love it when I get the opportunity to properly pull one off. While one can also use the Super Meter to power up special attacks, I find it more satisfying to wait for the Super Move.

And then Aquaman gets totally badass.

But what good is it to have characters and special moves if you don't have a place for them to duke it out? Before I go into significant detail however, I need you to look at another picture:

It's pronounced "Theh-mih-skih-ruh". You're welcome.

There are 15 stages, six of which are Batman-related. Two of them are different permutations of two others, with one of those just being literally the same stage but at night. Since about half of the stages are Batman, it can give the impression that they were very strapped for a good level selection and decided to just repaint or relight a couple to fill in the blanks. Every stage does get visited in the story so it becomes a little more justified, but those who skip that mode, which sadly quite a few will in their impatience to get to multiplayer, won't really see much of a difference. In fact, the permutations are pretty much identical, so what I'll say next will mean that there are a couple of duplicates that operate in the same way.

The 15 stages of the game are all designed and detailed very well, with a very good illusion of depth and opportunity for secondary characters to show up in the background. There may not be as many visual distractions as in Mortal Kombat, but that didn't stop me from wanting a really good view of the area. The highlight however is that the stages are very interactive. There are objects that combatants can press, throw, plant explosives onto or jump off of, among so many others. Combos can actually be extended or set up with these interactions, which shows just how much thought the developers put into the environments. The best things about these stages however are their stage transitions. By hitting an opponent at the correct side of the map, an animation is triggered in which the combatants transition to another section of the stage while the one on the receiving end of the blow takes a good amount of damage. This makes fights bigger and potentially more jaw dropping, and it's very satisfying to pull one off...unless you pick Atlantis or Ferris Aircraft, since they don't have a transition to begin with (aww...).

Like a pie in the face.

For some additional replay value, there are a couple of different Single Player modes to check out. One is a mission mode where players complete S.T.A.R. Labs mission objectives to earn stars that will unlock more missions to try out for more characters. These missions are all tailor made for each character and encompass a sort of very loose story for each set, which can cause it to sometimes become unintentionally amusing. Missions are a great way to get a good grasp of each character's abilities as well as test out the player's skills. I looked and saw a total of 240 character-specific missions, which I know would take a very long time to get through. I suppose that means they did a good job then, right?

The other mode to explore is the Battle mode, which contains a traditional Arcade fighting format for those who don't want to do single fights. However, there are several different ways to go about the mode as well, with multiple versions of the mode available that provide a different rule set or condition for the battle. For instance, there's one mode where you fight the entire Injustice roster, one where you're poisoned and lose health over time, and one where the character you use is randomly chosen for each individual fight. Each version provides a new kind of challenge, preventing things from getting dull. Keep in mind however that the AI will eventually begin to mercilessly cheat if you play long enough.

Like a bazooka to the face.

The game also features a universal leveling system, where no matter what mode you play on, you can gain experience points and increase your level, which seems to cap at 100. Leveling up earns such rewards as ways to customize your Hero ID along with Access Cards and Armory Keys to unlock more stuff in the Archive, like concept art or alternate costumes and battle modes. You might spend more time unlocking things than fighting, but the sheer amount of replay value put into this game is phenomenal and is a great incentive to keep coming back for more.

Finally, I'd like to point out the game's technical abilities. The graphics look very good for a fighting game and there is an amazing amount of detail in the characters and environments. During the story, the difference between the cut scene and gameplay graphics is a little different, but otherwise unnoticable if you don't pay attention to the change in smoothness. Characters can be highly expressive and the battles can be pretty colorful, you know, as colorful as it can get with the dark color palette. The music for each stage is also good, but the best sounds come from the voice acting. Everyone sounds good in their roles and the lineup is very well selected, with returning voices like Kevin Conroy as Batman and Grey DeLisle as Catwoman. Sadly The Joker is no longer voiced by Mark Hamill, but Richard Epcar has a very good voice and maintains the spirit of the character very well. I have no real complaints about any of the voice actors.

Injustice is a great example of what fighting games should be like. Its controls are very easy to use, its input language is easy to understand and the combat has a lot of depth to it without sacrificing quality. While I do have some problems with the combo timing window, costumes and story resolution, I still had a great time and would enjoy playing the game further when I get the opportunity. Fighting game veterans have probably already begun playing this game, but newcomers will enjoy the ease of access and those on the fence should definitely give it a whirl. NetherRealm has managed to make one of the best games of this year so far and I hope they continue to make great fighting games in the years to come.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stubs – Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness aka Tell Your Children (1936) Starring: Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Thelma White, Warren McCollum, Carleton Young. Screenplay by Arthur Hoerl. Directed by Louis Gasnier. Produced by Dwain Esper. Run Time: 68 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Propoganda

420, 4:20 or 4/20 refers to, of course, the smoking of pot. 4:20 was the time of day to meet to indulge and, April 20th has evolved into a counterculture holiday of sorts. And while Trophy Unlocked does not condone the use of psychoactive drugs nor identify ourselves with the cannabis culture, we do want to keep in the spirit of the day. In celebration of 4/20, we have decided to review what is probably the best known film about marijuana, Reefer Madness. Intended as a morality story, Reefer Madness is not effective as the deterrent it was supposed to be.

Originally made by a church group to teach parents about the evils of cannabis use, it was almost immediately turned into an exploitation film by Dwain Esper who recut the film. Esper was credited as a director of such gone and forgotten films as Narcotic (1933), Maniac aka Sex Maniac (1934), Marihuana (1936), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and Sex Madness (1938). Films that were supposedly educational films were common place about this time as a way to get around the strict Production Code adopted by Hollywood in 1934.

The film opens with a series of newspaper headlines reporting about the police war on drugs and how the drug has infiltrated the schools. There is even an ad for a talk by high school Principal Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte), which the movie uses as a way of introducing our morality play as a warning to parents.

Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte)
Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young) are a couple living in sin (back in the day this meant they were living together and not married). They sell marijuana, Mae to customers her age, but Jack sells to young teenagers, which seems to bother Mae, who protests to Jack that at least her clients are old enough to know what they’re doing. In town, Jack runs into Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien), an older student whom he knows. Ralph introduces Jack to Mary Lane (Dorothy Short), a girl he fancies, who is with her boyfriend, Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) and Mary’s younger brother Jimmy (Warren McCollum). Ralph invites them to go to Joe’s soda shop, but Mary and Bill are on their way to play tennis, and Jimmy wants to come along. They meet Mae at the soda shop and reconvene at Mae and Jack’s apartment.

The piano player at Joe's takes a reefer break.
There they meet Blanche (Lillian Miles), who takes an interest in Bill and goads him into smoking one of her cigarettes. During the party, Jack runs out of reefer and Jimmy, who has borrowed Mary’s car, offers to drive him to get more at his boss’ headquarters. When Jimmy asks Jack for a cigarette, he gets a joint instead. After Jack comes back to the car, Jimmy drives erratically under the influence of the marijuana. On the way back to Jack’s apartment, Jimmy runs over a pedestrian and keeps going. The next morning at breakfast, Mary notices that Jimmy has changed, but he won’t tell her what’s happened. She also tells her mother that she hasn’t seen much of Bill lately.

Where there's  pot smoke there's madness.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carroll is talking with an FBI agent about the explosion in Marijuana use since 1930. The agent gives Dr. Carroll case histories, which Carroll thinks will help him educate his students about the evils of the drug. Back at school, the principal sits down with Jimmy about the decline in his grades. Jimmy denies allegations that he has developed an undesirable habit.

Mary is upset that Bill is blowing off his tennis lessons, but is even more shocked when police come to inquire about the hit and run. She lies and tells that she had her car with her on the day of the accident and the police seem to buy the alibi. (Even though the pedestrian dies from his injuries, Bill is never brought to trial or punished for this crime.) Mary goes looking for Jimmy at Joe’s, where the soda jerk gives Mary the address for Mae’s apartment. Bill, who begins an affair with Blanche, is in the bedroom with her when Mary comes to the apartment looking for Jimmy. Ralph is, of course, there and tells her that Jimmy will be back soon and invites her to wait. He offers Mary a joint, which she accepts thinking it’s a normal cigarette. Ralph comes on to Mary, who refuses his advances. But Ralph won’t take no for an answer and tries to rape her, pawing at her clothes. 

High on reefer, Ralph attempts to rape Mary.
Bill, who has been having sex with Blanche in the next room comes and hallucinates that Mary is stripping for Ralph. Bill attacks Ralph. Jack (who seems he’s always about to eat something in the movie) rushes from the kitchen and tries to break up the fight by hitting Bill on the head with the butt of a gun. But there is a fight for the gun and it goes off and Mary is killed. Jack puts the gun into unconscious Bill’s hand, wakes him and convinces Bill that he killed Mary. Jack tells Mae to call the cops after he leaves and Bill is arrested. During Bill’s trial, Ralph and Blanche lay low in Jack’s apartment. But Ralph becomes harder to control and threatens to tell the authorities who really killed Mary. Afraid that Ralph might go through with his threat, Jack’s boss tells him to kill Ralph.

Jack (l) and Mae (r) convince Bill that he's killed Mary.
Back at Jack’s apartment, Mae offers to play piano for Ralph to keep his mind off things. They are both high and Ralph tells her to play faster and faster. It is one of the film’s most famous and over-the-top scenes. Jack shows up to kill Ralph, but Ralph is ready and instead beats Jack to death with a rod. A tenant in the building calls the police and they arrest Ralph, Mae and Blanche. Mae turns state’s evidence and the criminal gang is arrested. In the judge’s chamber Blanche confesses that she got Bill involved with Mae and the judge orders that Bill’s verdict be set aside and orders that Blanche be charges with fostering moral delinquency. As she is being slowly led to prison, Blanche has the time to recall all the events that have led to her current predicament. It is too much for her to face, so she breaks away from the matron and throws herself out a window, falling to her death.

Even though the Judge frees Bill, he makes him stay for Ralph’s trial so he’ll know from what he’s been saved. Since both the prosecution and defense have agreed to it, the judge consents to Ralph being placed in an asylum for the criminally insane.

Dave O'Brien as Ralph Wiley made insane by the reefer,
Following the conclusion of the story, we are once again treated to Dr. Carroll, who warns that the story he’s told is likely to be repeated. He tells the “parents” in the audience that the next tragedy could be “your daughter’s or your son’s or yours or yours” On the final “yours” he points to the camera and the words “TELL YOUR CHILDREN” appear on the screen. The film’s final warning.

Subtlety is not Reefer Madness' strong suit.
Since there was no after-market for films, especially those made outside of the studio system, neither Esper or the original filmmakers bothered to copyright the film, which by the 1970’s had lapsed into public domain. This lead to a rebirth for the film, which was distributed by NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) founder Keith Stroup, who found a print in the archives at the Library of Congress and bought a copy for $297. The film made the college circuit and became a popular midnight movie, where some viewers were no doubt already mad about reefer.

Odd and over-the-top rather than laugh out loud funny, Reefer Madness is no doubt funnier if you are celebrating 4/20. The moralistic approach to marijuana comes off as nearly forced as the acting, which comes off as wooden at best. Marijuana is not the hallucinogen the movie makes it out to be, nor the stimulant that drives people crazy. There are dangers associated with the drug as the hit-and-run traffic accident illustrates. But marijuana is more likely to mellow out its user, rather than hop them up into a frenzy to rape and murder.

Even though the film is only a little over an hour long, it is transparently preachy and, worse of all, boringly slow. There is not enough action in the film to make up for the lousy acting, absurd premise and stupid story. While Reefer Madness wouldn’t keep anyone from smoking pot, it would be good as a cure for insomnia.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stubs – The Thing From Another World

The Thing From Another World (1951) Starring: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer, Robert O. Conthwaite, James Arness. Directed by Christian Nyby. Screenplay by Charles Lederer. Based on the novella Who Goes There? By Don A. Stuart (aka John W. Campbell). Produced by Howard Hawks  Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S.  Black and White.  Science Fiction, Horror.

If you think the Men in Black series were the first films to deal with beings from other planets, then think again. Films have been fighting invading aliens since the days of Georges Melies. The Thing From Another World is just one example of the genre. A low budget outing, it is actually a solid little film. While it has a short run time, and there is some time-ticking travel, the film counters with dialogue that shows the camaraderie of the men involved.

The film revolves around the crash landing of a UFO (though that term is never used in the film) in the ice near a North Pole scientific outpost. Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the chief scientist at the outpost, asks the military for assistance in search and recovery of the object. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) who runs a regular supply mission to the outpost from Anchorage, Alaska is sent by General Fogerty (David McMahon) to check out the scene and report back.

Along with his crew, which includes crew member Lt. Ken “Mac” MacPherson (Robert Nichols) and Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer) a reporter looking for a story, who thinks he might have stumbled upon the biggest one of all time.

But there is more on Hendry’s mind that a crashed UFO when he gets off the plane at the outpost. His first interest is Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), who is not the only woman at the outpost, just the prettiest. Apparently there Hendry and Nicholson have a backstory, which we learn involves time spent together at the outpost and back in Anchorage, where she apparently drank him under the table and left a note on his person that other people read first about his legs. But we can tell that he won’t stay mad at her for long.

Capt. Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) has the hots for Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan)
Dr. Carrington briefs the servicemen about his find, enlisting help from Dr. Redding (George Fenneman) to explain the science behind their discovery. While the explanation is somewhat vague it is enough to get the expedition started. 48 miles away, they come across the crash site, which is now buried under the ice. It is a large flying saucer made from a metal, not of this world. (Sound familiar, like you’ve heard that line in every film about space invaders?)

Outlining the flying saucer crashed under the ice.

When the crew attempts to melt the ice, they actually set the spaceship on fire and it gets destroyed. But all is not a total loss. They discover the body of an alien frozen in the ice. With a storm approaching, they dig out a block of ice with the body in it and take it back to base.

When the crew tries to remove the ship, they set it on fire.

While Dr. Carrington wants to melt the ice and examine the body, Hendry puts the kibosh on that. He wants to get authorization from General Fogerty first. (Hendry won’t let Scotty file a story about the find for the same reason.) This sets into motion the conflict of scientists vs. military which will continue throughout the rest of the film. With the body in a block of ice, the servicemen take turns as guard. Corporal Barnes (William Self) takes the second watch and puts a plugged-in electric blanket over the ice so he doesn’t have to look at the alien within. They should call him Corporal Oblivious since Barnes never notices that the block of ice melts and the Thing (James Arness) emerges. Barnes shoots at the Thing, but it isn’t hurt by the bullets and escapes.

When the Thing goes outside, the sled dogs attack it and while it kills two dogs one of them bites of the Thing’s arm. When Carrington examines the arm, he finds that it is not meat but plant. They discover that the dog’s blood on the arm brings it back to life. Carrington starts to use blood plasma from the infirmary to incubate seed pods found on the arm.

Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) (far left) shows off the pods he's been cultivating.
Carrington is undeterred from his experiments even when two of his scientists, Olson and Auerbach (who are not seen) are found in the outpost’s greenhouse, killed and drained of blood. Dr. Stern (Eduard Franz) narrowly escapes. Carrington seems to be willing to concede to the will of the Thing, which he assumes to be over superior intellect.

Nicholson tips Hendry off to what Carrington is doing, Hendry leads a group to the greenhouse and are confronted by the Thing, which has regrown its severed arm. The Thing escapes through the exterior door and re-enters the compound through another door. This time Hendry and his men set the Thing ablaze using a flare-gun and buckets of kerosene, forcing it back outside into an Arctic storm.

The Thing doesn't let a little thing like fire stop him.
When the creature tampers with the heating fuel line, the temperature in the compound drops, forcing everyone to make a final stand near the generator room. The crew rigs an electric fly trap hoping to electrocute the Thing. But Dr. Carrington sabotages the effort by turning off the generator. He tries in vain to reason with the Thing, stopping short of promising to be the creature’s minion. But the Thing swats him away with the back of his hand, breaking the doctor’s collarbone and knocking him out.

Dr. Carrington tries in vain to reason with The Thing (James Arness)
With the Thing approaching, one of the servicemen throws an ax in his path to force him back onto the wire fence grid. Hendry throws the switch and the subsequent arc of electricity reduces the creature to a smoldering pile of ash.

The Thing being electrocuted.
The next day, Hendry and Nikki renew their romance. Scotty also gets to file his report, telling reporters on the other end of the line to “Keep watching the skies’; a warning meant for all of us in the audience. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Any science fiction film will have special effects and usually, when you’re watching a low budget film like this one, the worry is that the effects will come across as obvious and bad. While the special effects were added post-production, they are not jarring. Perhaps they are helped by the film being black and white, but they work well.

For a low budget film, the movie has a lot of A-list talent behind it. To begin with, Howard Hawks produced it. Hawks is one of those geniuses behind the camera that could do handle pretty much any genre. He worked easily with comedies: Bringing Up Baby (1938); His Girl Friday (1940); Ball of Fire (1941); I Was a Male War Bride (1949); and Monkey Business (1952); westerns: Red River (1948), The Big Sky (1952) and Rio Bravo (1959); gangster films: Scarface (1932); war: Sergeant York (1941); musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Hawks made two films with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, To Have and To Have Not (1944) based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway and The Big Sleep (1946) based on the private detective novel by Raymond Chandler.

Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby
Hawks, who produced The Thing, is rumored to have helped to direct the film as well, though the credit is given to Christian Nyby, For Nyby, who would have a long career in television, had not directed a movie, or anything for that matter, prior to this film. While both Hawks and Nyby deny Hawks’ involvement with directing the film, no doubt Nyby was greatly influenced by his mentor. For a low budget film this bears the stamp of one of the great directors.

Hawks is also rumored to have helped with the screenplay, credited to Charles Lederer. Unlike Nyby, Lederer was a veteran of Hollywood, having worked with Hawks on prior films, like His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business, I Was a Male War Bride. It would be easy to see that Hawks might have been involved in the screenplay though Lederer was an accomplished writer on his own.

The score was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, considered to be one of the giants of Hollywood movie music. He worked a lot with the likes of Frank Capra: Lost Horizon (1937); You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1947). Tiomkin wrote music for many westerns including Duel in the Sun (1946), High Noon (1952), Giant (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Rio Bravo and The Alamo (1960). He also wrote music for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Town Without Pity (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Four Alfred Hitchcock films also have a Tiomkin score: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers On A Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954).

Tiomkin had worked with Hawks on such films as Red River, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Big Sky and Rio Bravo. His score for The Thing employs the Theremin, an early electronic instrument which gives the music a modern and unworldly quality.

While none of the actors would ever win awards for their work, they are more than adequate for this movie. Hawks’ project Margaret Sheridan, who received top billing, never had much of a career and this is definitely her best-known movie role. Kenneth Tobey is perhaps best known for the starring role on The Whirlybirds which ran on CBS and in Syndication for 111 episodes.  He caught Hawk’s eye with a short comedy bit in I Was a Male War Bride which lead to his role in The Thing. After this film, he would land other roles in sci-fi films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1956).

Any mention of the actors would be incomplete without mentioning James Arness as the Thing. After this movie, Arness would star in Them! (1954), about giant ants invading Los Angeles, and Hondo (1954) with John Wayne. Arness is best known as Matt Dillon on the TV version of Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975 on CBS. Arness is also the older brother of Peter Graves best known for playing Jim Phelps on the TV series Mission: Impossible.

The Thing From Another World is a well-made piece of Cold War-era science fiction. It is one of those low-budget films that doesn’t look cheap. Since it was remade by John Carpenter in 1982, the original is worth seeing if for no other reason than that. But if you watch the film, you will be pleased to see a quality piece of filmmaking. While Hawks may not have written or directed the film, his presence is clearly seen by what is on the screen.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Stubs – The Iron Lady

With today's announcement that Margaret Thatcher had died, Trophy Unlocked decided to post a review for The Iron Lady, the 2012 Bio pic.

The Iron Lady (2012) Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Iain Glenn, Olivia Colman  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Produced by Damian Jones. Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Run Time: 105 minutes. U.K.  Color.  Biography

Biography is one genre that seems to get abused by filmmakers. Biographies can be made that make heroes where one didn’t exist. Some gloss over defects in their main characters and make them seem more upright than they are in real life. In the case with The Iron Lady, it appears that someone had an axe to grind.

I am not a big fan of Margaret Thatcher and I’m not here to defend her, but in The Iron Lady, too much time is spent on Thatcher as an older woman in ill health. While the real Thatcher is, as of this writing, alive and in failing health, this is not what she will be best remembered for. The first Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain, she ruled for 11 years from 1979 to 1990. This is her legacy and it is this period of her life that the film seems to gloss over.

Told through a series of disjointed flashbacks, Thatcher (Meryl Streep) spends most of the film talking to her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). There was obviously a great love between them. We’re shown that Denis knew what he was getting himself into when he proposes to the young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach).

Thatcher’s is a rag to riches story. The daughter of a politically active grocer, Alfred Roberts (Iain Glenn), Margaret attends Oxford and then spends her life in public service, a fancy word for politics. She runs for office and fails, but meets Denis, who marries her and they have twins, a boy, Mark, and a daughter, Carol. She is depicted, incorrectly, as the only woman in Parliament when she first joins in 1959 as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley. She would represent Finchley until 1992.

Thatcher rose through the ranks in Parliament as the Conservative from Finchley.
By 1975, she would decide to run for Head of the Conservative Party, a post she didn’t expect to win, but which supporters felt she would be good for. The film doesn’t really explain who her supporters are, but with some coaching and makeup, she becomes a viable candidate. In 1979, with the Conservatives winning control of Parliament, Thatcher would become PM.

To me, this rise would have been an interesting facet of her life to cover. But instead, this part is mostly glossed over. Being a mother and a politician is somewhat unique, but all we learn is that Margaret wasn’t really a great mother, as her interaction with her children is shown as her driving away from them, ignoring their pleas for her to stay, as she ventures to London to begin her service.

Because the film spends so much time with Margaret as a doddering Alzheimer patient, what would have been an interesting story is just background. You keep waiting for the film to depict her legacy moment, but that moment is never pointed out. Her rule is depicted as quick hits on the major events, but there is no background given to explain anything. Explanation and depth would get in the way of Margaret carrying on a conversation with the departed Denis.

A woman who was once considered an Iron Lady, Margaret is depicted as weak and doddering throughout the majority of the film. For someone who was obviously vital, if not universally loved, this in an unfair portrait of her. We all get old if we’re lucky, but few biographies concentrate on it as much as The Iron Lady does.

This was not a big success at the U.S. box office, grossing a little over $30 million. Biographies about foreign leaders are a hard sell. The King’s Speech, which came out the year before, was an exception, but it was an exceptionally well told film. The only reason you may have ever heard of this film is that Meryl Streep was nominated for and received the Academy Award for Best Actress. While the film isn’t very good, Streep is. She seems to really disappear into the role. Part of her emergence can be attributed to make up, but a lot of it has to do with Streep’s talent as an actress. Every year, it seems, Streep gets nominated for some award for some role, no matter how big or small the part may be. This is an example of a performance rising above the material and standing out when the film itself is lacking.

Meryl Streep was given accolades for her performance as Thatcher.
The other acting is good, too. Jim Broadbent never seems to give a bad performance. And again, you can’t blame the actor for the script and for the film. Denis would have to be a strong man to understand his wife’s ambitions and to stand behind her. We get a hint of marital unhappiness, but the couple manages, off screen, to make amends. His was a character that deserved more examination than an apparition of a man who had been dead for eight years.

And Alexandra Roach shows the spark that made the not so pretty shopkeeper’s daughter want to better herself and to serve her nation. There had to be something to her to attract young Denis (Harry Lloyd), whom must have seen her potential and understood it. The young Thatcher, who would go on to break barriers, who had to balance being a wife, mother and politician would have made for an interesting biography on its own. In The Iron Lady, this developmental part of her life is only given a cursory look.

Alexandra Roach as young Margaret Thatcher.
The film fails to tell what would appear to be a really good story. Having only seen bits and pieces of Thatcher on the TV news, I didn’t really know much about her, but the film glosses over the meat of her life to concentrate on the bones. We never see her really campaign or lead. There are the major events during her term as PM: recession, war, etc., but none of them are ever really gone into with any great depth. The battle for the Falkland Islands receives the most screen time of any the issues she must have dealt with, but is only sketchy at best. 

Since we know Britain wins in the end, perhaps the filmmakers don’t feel they have to dig any deeper. But it’s sort of like knowing the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the U.S. wins World War II. It’s that middle bit that deserves investigation.

Also, Thatcher was never portrayed as a popular leader, but somehow managed to hold power for 11 years. What was her secret? I’m sure it wasn’t correcting the report writing of her deputy, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), which is one of the few interactions we see of Thatcher and her Secretaries. She must have been a master politician to have kept herself and her party in power through all the downtimes. Too bad there is very little of that examined in the film.

Thatcher dealing with her Secretaries among them Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head).
There is a really good story that could be told about Margaret Thatcher, like her or not. It’s too bad that The Iron Lady fails to really tell it.