Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - The Highlights (EHeroFlareNeos)

2015 is just around the corner, which makes for a good opportunity to reflect back on what came out during the year. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see as many new movies or play as many new games as I’d have liked, partly due to going through my first semester of college, but I was still able to create a list for the end of 2014. Below are my selections for the top movies and games which came out this year, as well as the top disappointments. As always, they are in no particular order.

Top Movies of 2014

From initial previews, I wasn’t really sure what to make of The Lego Movie, but once I finally saw it I found myself pleasantly surprised. In fact, as soon as the movie was over, I wanted to play the tie-in game and spent months anticipating the next time I’d get to view it. Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything about The Lego Movie since saying anything about the story is a potential spoiler. In this case, you’ll just have to take my word that it’s good and see it yourself. You won’t regret it, especially if you’ve ever played with Legos.

Marvel Studios movies are generally good, but Guardians of the Galaxy easily became one of their best. It’s certainly one of their most fun movies and I haven’t gotten tired of watching it yet. Guardians of the Galaxy is humorous and witty, but its lighthearted atmosphere allows for the writers to sneak in very touching moments of pathos now and then which don’t feel out of place at all. The villain is admittedly a little flat, but the main characters are fleshed out very well (which could be the reason for said flatness in Ronan the Accuser) and I’m now a fan of both Rocket Raccoon and Groot. It’s simply amazing that Marvel was able to take such an obscure comic and turn it into a fun ride that simply shouldn’t be missed.

As I said, Marvel Studios movies are generally good, which can be said as well for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that came out only four months prior to Guardians of the Galaxy. Where Guardians of the Galaxy was a very fun experience, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is much more serious in tone and centers mainly on Captain America and his life in the 21st-century. The result is a movie that’s very well-written and action-packed as it explores both the identity of the titular Winter Soldier as well as the growing tensions between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. As a bonus, this movie also doubles as what is perhaps the best Metal Gear Solid movie we may ever get, with parallels between the two franchises that Metal Gear fans will very much appreciate.

I’m not the biggest Tom Cruise fan, but I wanted to see this movie mainly because I read the manga adaptation of the source material, All You Need Is Kill, as it was serialized in the US edition of Weekly Shonen Jump and became curious as to how the movie would handle the story. When I finally saw the film, I was pleasantly surprised as to how good it was. The plot moves along at a very good pace and Tom Cruise shows that he can actually act pretty well when he’s not a total action hero from the start. The Groundhog Day-style plot is also put to use to show great character development and any deviations from the original story still fit in well with the atmosphere. Fans of Tom Cruise and/or All You Need Is Kill are more likely to enjoy it, but I would definitely recommend people to check this one out anyway.

Top Video Games of 2014

Since my post about game demos at Wondercon 2014, I really wanted to play JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle, though I’m glad I waited to see the David Production anime through Crunchyroll before getting a copy at SDCC 2014. Though not perfect, and certainly not something entirely tournament worthy, this game is definitely fun due in part to its accuracy to the source material and variety of extraordinary abilities not seen in any other fighting game I’ve played. The accuracy to the source material is perhaps the most incredible feat, as every single animation and line of dialogue is a reference to the manga, plus the art style manages to reflect Hirohiko Araki’s evolving art style very closely without being unusual in three dimensions. This is a game by JoJo fans for JoJo fans, though I’d encourage fighting game fans looking for something original to give it a shot as well. It’s an experience that’s very hard to put down.

Though I didn’t get to play Infamous Second Son until a few months after launch, it was an experience I had been anticipating since my time with Infamous and Infamous 2. The story is a little short, but still written well and the gameplay is very much improved. With room for multiple powers and pretty creative uses for abilities one wouldn’t consider having, Delsin Rowe is a fun protagonist to play as and there is never really a dull moment within the beautifully rendered Seattle. This game is worth owning a PS4 to play, though the free Paper Trail DLC should only be attempted at one’s own risk and only if they have a lot of time on their hands.

Top Disappointments of 2014

Since I wasn’t really a fan of The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony’s attempt at rebooting the Spider-Man property in order to keep the rights, I had lowered expectations for Mark Webb’s second outing and unfortunately found those expectations to be accurate. The origin of Electro was far-fetched even for a comic book movie, Rhino hardly does anything and Harry Osborn shows up out of nowhere while the movie expects us to believe his supposedly pre-existing friendship with Peter Parker. Add in the hero’s really cocky attitude, though not in the fun way, and you get a movie that made me wish I had been watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 instead. I wouldn’t be surprised either way if Sony goes through with its plans for this incarnation of the webslinger or ends up rebooting the whole thing with a new actor.

After the huge disappointment that was My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, I had little hope for the sequel, Rainbow Rocks, though I watched anyway in order to have a more informed opinion. As I watched, I actually found myself more engaged with the movie in general, as though Hasbro actually tried this time. However, there was still some wasted potential, including a plot twist that would’ve actually made sense, and I still feel that Twilight Sparkle had no reason to get involved and that the plot should’ve focused more on Sunset Shimmer proving herself as a reformed character. Though the sequel is marginally better and the original music was generally improved, Hasbro will really need to pull out the big guns in the inevitable third installment if they want something worthy of praise.

Watch Dogs is a great example of a game that sounds good on paper, but is lackluster in its execution. The idea of hacking in an open world is a very fascinating idea and I looked forward to playing something with great potential, but in the end it feels more like a poor man’s Grand Theft Auto. Hacking comes off as pretty unrealistic and its potential is limited to screwing with traffic lights and blowing stuff up, plus the driving controls are sort of loose and riches are insanely easy to come by. The only real saving grace is the fun Digital Trips and the fact that Chicago is rendered rather nicely. If you must play this game, do so at a bargain price and be prepared to weed out the few good songs in the soundtrack for your listening pleasure.

2014 - The Highlights (Tetris_King)

As the New Year approaches, this is the perfect opportunity to look back on the ups and downs of the year. Below I have listed my favorites and disappointments of 2014 that was covered by this blog, with links provided where appropriate, with no specific order intended.

Top Movies of 2014

I don’t actually feel an obligation to include Transformers movies on my lists, but I really did enjoy this installment in the Live-Action Movie continuity. Yes, I’ll agree that it does seem to run a bit long, but what I liked were the improvements it made over previous films, mainly in regards to the human cast and how well it draws from the Transformers mythos (including the G1 cartoon continuity, Transformers Animated, and the IDW G1 continuity among others) to add to the experience. After having seen it multiple times, I find this installment to be the best so far in the live-action movies, as well as a worthy representative of 30 years of Transformers, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next one.

It is extremely hard for me to say anything about the plot of this movie without completely ruining it, but if you are/were in any way a fan of LEGO products, this is definitely a must-see.

During the gap between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel Studios decided to base a movie on Guardians of the Galaxy, one of Marvel’s more obscure comic lines to the point where even a die-hard fan might have to fact-check some things. Though I was skeptical at first, I was interested partially because James Gunn (writer of Lollipop Chainsaw) was the director and the end result turned out much better than I anticipated. Even though this movie introduces an entire team, I thought it managed to do that pretty well (I actually ended up a fan of both Groot and Rocket Raccoon) and the music choice was surprisingly good and created a unique atmosphere, to the point where I will probably forever associate those songs with this movie. To me, this was a surprising hit from Marvel Studios and I highly anticipate what they decide to do next with the characters.

Top Games of 2014

Even though I have only recently gotten into JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (I’m currently waiting for the anime of Part III: Stardust Crusaders to continue), this is a fighting game that I found myself having a hard time putting down. Not only is the fanservice amazing (the developers really did their research and it shows), it’s also a game I found to be fairly well-balanced, with each character offering a unique move set that matches their canon abilities and actions, some of which can actually be influenced by which character the opponent is using and, sometimes, even the chosen arena, just to name a couple of factors. If the anime grabbed my interest in the series, this game really helped to cement it.

Just as Age of Extinction ties into the 30th anniversary of Transformers, Tetris Ultimate is a new game made to correlate with the 30th anniversary of Tetris, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. While retaining what makes Tetris what it is, this game provides a huge swath of gameplay options to keep you interested for what may be a very long time. Top that off with great music and visuals and you have yourself a worthy Tetris game for the modern age.

Top Disappointments of 2014

While I wasn’t really enthralled by the first The Amazing Spider-Man, I went to see this movie anyway solely so I could stay somewhat in the loop regarding comic book superhero movies. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I wasn’t expecting much anyway, I ended up getting less than that, since the plot manages to be somewhat incoherent and the characters unlikeable, resulting in a complete mess of a movie (not even a costume change was enough to convince me that it was for the better). In the end, I found this installment to be a very lackluster example of a Spider-Man flick and I hope something about it improves in the next release, if there even is one.

I may be a fan of My Little Pony G4 (though not necessarily very high on the “brony” scale), but I’m not really much of a fan of the Equestria Girls spin-off. However, when this movie was announced, I decided to watch it anyway to see what direction the series would be taken in, plus the previews made it seem like there was some promise to it. This turned out to be more of an empty promise, since the re-introduction of Twilight Sparkle from the pony world into the human world ruined any potential this movie may have had with fleshing out Sunset Shimmer as a character, though the music is somewhat better and the villains were better written than Sunset Shimmer. To me though, this movie only presents a rather marginal improvement over the last feature and I really hope that Twilight Sparkle isn’t shoehorned into the plot again so that the spin-off can have its own identity, despite whatever potential for this hope not coming to pass the post-credits scene might present.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark

When I heard about the concept behind this game, that it was a crossover between the Movie and Aligned Transformers continuities, I was curious to see how well it would be pulled off, though I expected that it would not be able to top Fall of Cybertron. Not only did it meet this expectation, it also turned out to be worse than I thought it would be. The game does manage to somewhat fit itself into the Aligned continuity portions, which is more than I can say for the Age of Extinction half, but on top of this it isn’t that much fun, rather it feels like the game is just going through the motions. This also seems to carry over into the voice acting, since while it uses the same cast from Fall of Cybertron, save for a select few (Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime not withstanding), it sounded like the actors weren’t putting in their best effort. In short, this game felt like it had some really wasted potential with its premise and I hope more of an effort is put into any future Transformers games.

2014 - The Highlights (lionsroar)

Films watched for the first time and reviewed in 2014

Note: Since Trophy Unlocked has to pay for most of the movies we see in the theaters and for most of the films we watch at home, we don’t have the scope of a newspaper reviewer. We don’t see everything that’s out, so our ratings of films are based on what we decide to spend our money on.

Best Films of the year

In no particular order:

While this is not a film that will win Academy Awards, I really thought Michael Keaton showed a lot of range and bravery with his performance. The filmmaking was experimental with the attempt to make it appear to be one long continuing shot, something Hitchcock attempted with Rope (1948), but technology has improved so that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has more success. The soundtrack, which won’t be eligible for the Oscars, is interesting, but a little tiresome. Not a great film, but it has enough interesting pieces to make it a must see from the year.

Perhaps the most fun I had at the movies this year. While I had never read the comics it was based on and was somewhat doubtful of the project, I really liked the movie. So much in fact, that I actually bought the soundtrack as a audio-keepsake, even though it is filled with songs that when they were first played on the radio I would turn the dial so as to not listen to them.

There were a lot of very fine animated films this past year, but perhaps the best all around was Frozen. Released in 2013, this was reviewed on the blog at the beginning of 2014. The film features the voice acting and singing talents of Broadway standouts Idina Menzel and Josh Gad as well as Kristen Bell and songs such as Let It Go, In Summer and For the First Time in Forever.

Disappointments of the year

In no particular order:

Not sure why this film was made. While it does tell a story that is similar to what’s in the Bible, that story is augmented with supernatural elements. I don’t know much about Noah, but if he was anything like he was portrayed in this film, he was not a very likeable guy. As with most biblical films, this one is slow paced and uninvolving.

Not really a bad movie, but one that definitely could have been better. A similar set up as Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie based on a little known Marvel comic with a cast of heroes. But while Guardians managed to flesh out their cast into three-dimensional characters, most of the big six remain one-dimensional. I also had some problems with the timing of events. While I’m sure there’ll be a sequel, I hope they get it right the next time.

Since 2014 was the 75th Anniversary of Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939, Trophy Unlocked made an effort to highlight several films from that year. Not all films from 1939 are great however and some have aged poorly. I’m sorry to say Gunga Din falls into that category. As a Cary Grant fan, I have rarely seen a bad performance from him and for the most part the acting is okay from all the leads. The problem is the pacing, the story and the laughable special effects. I had wanted to watch this film with my family for about a decade, so imagine how disappointed I was when the only thing we talked about afterwards was the poorly done snake pit scene.

Anniversaries all around, this one goes back 100 years to the first feature length comedy shot in Hollywood. Like Grant, I am usually a fan of Charlie Chaplin’s work, but most of my exposure to him had been in films he wrote, directed and starred in. Here he is given third-billing behind Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand and is directed by Mack Sennett. This film, unfortunately, has not aged well.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Big Hero 6

Now that Disney has had ownership of Marvel since 2009, it’s no surprise that they would at some point create a film based on one of their properties that has yet to hit the big screen. Also not surprising is that they’d create one that has no ties to the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. Case in point, Big Hero 6, released this November. I’m not really too familiar with the original comic series, but the previews made the movie look promising and I gained an interest in seeing it. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up enjoying it, but I saw a couple flaws as well.

In the city of San Fransokyo, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) enters an illegal Bot Fighting bout and wins a large sum of cash. After his victory, he is nearly attacked by thugs led by the man he defeats before his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), saves him, only for Hiro to be spotted by the cops and briefly sent to jail. Hiro and Tadashi are bailed out by their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), who runs a coffee and bakery shop out of their home. At home, Hiro finds another Bot Fighting bout and is ready to leave, but Tadashi takes him to San Fransokyo Tech first to show him what his school is like. After witnessing technical marvels, including Tadashi’s personal healthcare robot, Baymax (Scott Adsit), Hiro wishes to enroll by coming up with an impressive invention: telepathically controlled microbots that are capable of taking on any shape and performing any task. As Hiro is about to leave, an accident occurs at the university, causing the destruction of the microbots and his brother Tadashi to die. For a few weeks afterwards, Hiro is depressed and physical pain awakens Baymax in his room. As Baymax tries to help him, Hiro notices the one remaining microbot in his jacket begin to move. He follows Baymax to where the microbot is trying to go, only to run into a villain named Yokai who is creating more of the microbots for his own use. Hiro and Baymax manage to escape, though the encounter motivates Hiro to confront the villain and stop him from using the microbots. To accomplish this, he decides to give Baymax a few upgrades and forms a team with four of Tadashi’s friends from San Fransokyo Tech: Fred (T.J. Miller), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez).

Though the story is enjoyable, there are a couple of flaws with it. Out of all the members of Big Hero 6, only Hiro and Baymax get the amount of character development they do in the movie. The other four members are either written with fewer dimensions or feel pushed to the side for a lot of the runtime. Additionally, some of the smaller details are a little confusing, including the lack of a real reason for the fire that occurs at San Fransokyo Tech during the first act. That said, it’s interesting that grieving serves as the prime motivator for Hiro during the movie and I thought that his relationships with Tadashi and Baymax were handled really well. You can easily feel the emotion come off the screen during the bonding moments between the characters, which helps create more of a connection to them. Big Hero 6 deserves credit then for being able to balance action and drama, though it’s not on the same level as, say, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The members of Big Hero 6 (from left): Wasabi, Honey Lemon,
Hiro Hamada, Baymax, GoGo Tomago, Fred

In fact, the story at times seemed to recall other Marvel movies. One scene which features Baymax and Hiro flying around San Fransokyo recalls the original Iron Man film with Tony Stark flying around in his iconic suit for the first time and the final battle has some similarities to the one in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 against Doctor Octopus. I’d chalk this up more to coincidence since there are a lot of stories out there, but seasoned Marvel viewers may still be able to notice a connection or two.

The action scenes in Big Hero 6 are quite a spectacle, helped by the superb animation and bright color palette. Characters move realistically, yet at times also feel inspired by anime (in a good way). The fight scenes flow smoothly and feel tense at the right moments, helped by the feeling of weight in each of the motions. Some things feel a little unrealistic, like Fred being able to move perfectly within a glorified mascot costume, but they can easily be overlooked in favor of enjoying the action. The animation of the microbots is especially impressive due to all of the small moving parts and how they collectively flow like water. Additionally, the character models feel close to standard Disney designs, yet retain some of the Japanese influence and feel more original as a result. The art style of the rest of the world is also very interesting to look at and there’s plenty of detail to get lost in.

Yokai using Hiro's microbots during their initial encounter.

As for the voice acting, I thought the cast did a pretty good job. Their emotions came across effectively and each character’s personality was evident by the way they spoke and interacted with each other. Baymax especially, despite having a lower range of emotion, is able to use his actions and choice of words to express a higher range. In this sense, his relationship with Hiro takes on a vibe similar to the one present between the main characters in The Iron Giant, though once again not quite the same. Henry Jackman’s score is also pretty good, since it never feels inappropriate to the moment and can subtly increase the emotional weight or tenseness where applicable.

Before I end this review, I feel I should also talk about the short presented before the movie. This short, Feast, is mainly about a Boston Terrier named Winston eating a lot of food, but also features a plot regarding a relationship his owner has. The short is nice and touching, but I didn’t feel any real conflict within it, since the owner’s relationship plays out in the background. In short, the plot is uneven and didn’t really seem to go in any determinate direction. Regardless, the short is beautifully animated, particularly the dog and the food he eats, so it’s worth watching for the visual elements. Keep in mind though that the dog’s diet is unrealistic, as it involves large portions and food items such as pizza and cupcakes, and shouldn’t be used as a guide.

Feast has fantastic animation.

Big Hero 6 isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s pretty entertaining. The story is engaging, but falls apart when you think about it later and though the main characters are fleshed out very well, the other members of the team, and even the main villain, don’t get as much development. By contrast, the animation is very good and certain scenes leave an emotional impact on the viewer. This is a great film for families to watch, but more hardcore Marvel fans shouldn’t expect anything like Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a sequel, in which case I hope Disney tries harder to deliver a more satisfying experience.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - And a Side of Fun

Like many others out there, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a book that I have read in my childhood, and though I haven’t really read it since, I remember enough about it to know the basic elements of the story. Because of this, I was a little surprised to hear about Sony Pictures Animation producing an animated adaptation of the book, as I wondered how exactly that could be pulled off without changing some things. When seeing it for the first time in a theater, I thought the end result was actually pretty good, and having watched it again recently, that opinion still holds true.

The island of Swallow Falls is very small (it’s located under the “A” in “Atlantic Ocean” on maps), with its main export being sardines, although times have caused the citizens of the island to be stuck with an unwanted surplus of sardines. Having tried to invent something in his youth that could benefit society (including, for some reason, rat-birds), resident Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) attempts to rectify the sardine problem by inventing a machine that takes water and converts it into food (he specifically tries to have it make a cheeseburger). However, the machine requires too much power, and meanwhile Flint’s dad (James Caan) tries to convince him to instead work at the family bait and tackle shop. While the mayor of Swallow Falls (Bruce Campbell) presents the grand opening of a new tourist attraction, Sardine Land, on national TV, Flint sneaks out of the tackle shop to get his invention to a larger power source, but he is nearly stopped by the very energetic Officer Earl (Mr. T). Just as Flint gets power to the machine, things go awry, resulting in destroying Sardine Land and the invention flying into the sky. As he sulks over this with Samantha Sparks (Anna Faris), a weather intern from the mainland reporting on Sardine Land, they and the rest of the island witness a miracle taking place: the sky begins to rain cheeseburgers. Once word gets out on how this happened, things begin to spiral out of control.

Just like you remember.

Adapting a book like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs would require a lot of changes and/or additions to be made to make it feature-length, and this movie does so while pulling off a good story. The character interactions and development are interesting, such the interactions Flint Lockwood has with his dad and Samantha Sparks, though some characters are more likeable than others (the movie does not shy away from showing how greedy and self-centered the mayor is). There is also a lot of humor present in the movie, though it misses the mark at least once or twice. While I could definitely get behind seeing Officer Earl get a little more screen time, since I think he had some of the most humorous dialogue, I think the movie could have done without delving into crude humor.

The animation is really well-done, having a more cartoonish art style that allows the characters to show a wide range of emotion (the stretchiness of this style lets you really believe the awe the island residents have at seeing a burger rain), aided by the movie having a bright color palette. I give props to the animators regarding particular physics, especially when it comes to cloth, hair, grass, and food (especially something like ice cream, candy, or gelatin), since they add something to the experience. On the subject of food, this is also rendered well, at times too well (in a good way), if only because sometimes the food looked really delicious (especially the opening cheeseburgers and the titular meatballs), and so I would advise not viewing this movie on an empty stomach.

The calm before the storm.
From left: Samantha Sparks, Officer Earl (center top), Flint Lockwood (center
bottom), the mayor

The voice acting is good as well, since the actors display a really good range of emotion with their characters, especially Bill Hader and Anna Faris as the central characters, but also including James Caan as Flint’s father, who evidently only wants for his son Flint to stay out of trouble. Bruce Campbell is an interesting choice to me, since I remember him from the Cartoon Network series Megas XLR, but I thought he made a good performance as Swallow Falls/Chewandswallow’s selfish mayor. Mr. T also showed a good range when playing Officer Earl, going from being critical of Flint to expressing how much he cares about his son Cal (Bobb’e J. Thompson). As for the music, Mark Mothersbaugh does an excellent job with the background score, though I didn’t find it to be as memorable as his later work on The LEGO Movie.

Though it differs from the source material significantly, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is still a movie I would recommend giving a shot, whether you are a fan of the book or not. Aside from the voice acting and the way the story was written, one of the strongest elements is the animation, particularly the animation of the food, which can be enough to make you want whatever Flint makes rain from the sky. It’s not a perfect flick, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Stubs - Holiday (1938)

Holiday (1938) Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman. Based on the play Holiday by Philip Barry (New York, November 26,1928). Produced by Everett Riskin. Run Time: 96 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy

Christmas might be over, but the holiday season is not with New Year’s Eve and Day only a few days away. It is in this week in between that most of Holiday (1938) occurs, which makes it an appropriate title to review on the last Saturday of 2014. And like It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), this film also takes place in a mansion on 5th Avenue in New York City, further making it a suitable follow-up to the review of that film.

And finally, it certainly doesn’t feel like the holidays at Trophy Unlocked if we don’t include at least one Cary Grant film in the mix. With the exception of our Bruce Willis Christmas salute. Grant has shown up whenever we’ve reviewed classic Christmas films.

By the time of this movie, Grant was a major star, but unlike so many, he was an independent, meaning he could move from studio to studio, picture to picture, with a freedom most others in Hollywood would envy. You never hear stories of Grant fighting with his studio boss, the way Bette Davis and James Cagney did at Warners. If he liked a film, he was free to make it, even if the film was at, the then, lowly Columbia Pictures.
Holiday had been made into a movie only seven years before by Pathé Exchange, Inc., a forerunner to RKO. Holiday (1930), which starred Ann Harding and Mary Astor, was well received at the time, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Ann Harding) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Horace Jackson, since it was based on a play by Phillip Barry.

We complain now that Hollywood remakes too many movies, but the practice has been around for some time. Columbia Pictures became interested in the property when they purchased a group of scripts from rival RKO, for $80,000, with Holiday’s included. The original idea was to use the film as a vehicle to reunite the stars of a recent Columbia success, The Awful Truth (1937), Grant and Irene Dunne. But when George Cukor came on board to direct, he chose to work with Katharine Hepburn, an actress he had worked with before on such films as A Bill of Divorcement (1932); Little Women (1933); and Sylvia Scarlett (1935), which also starred Grant.

While Rita Hayworth tried out for the part of Julia, the role went to Doris Nolan, a 21-year-old actress best known for her previous work on Broadway. She would bounce between New York and Hollywood throughout the mid-thirties and early forties.

Edward Everett Horton, who had been featured in the 1930 Holiday film as "Nick Potter", was hired to play basically the same role in the remake. Production got underway on February 24, 1938, concluded on April 22nd and the film was released in theaters on June 15th, 1938.

On Christmas day, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) returns to New York City after a ten day vacation in Lake Placid. His first stop is to visit with his dear friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan Potter (Hedda Hopper). He informs them that he is in love and engaged to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), a woman he met at the resort, but which he knows very little about.

He hurries off in a waiting cab to the address he has for her on Park Avenue, which turns out to be a large multi-storied mansion. Assuming she works there, Johnny goes around to the service door and asks for her. He is surprised to find out that she is the daughter of Edward Seton (Henry Kolker), a wealthy widowed banker.

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is overwhelmed by the size of the Seton mansion.

The house is enormous and Johnny is shown to the elevator by the butler (Thomas Braidon). On the way, he sees, but is not introduced to, Ned (Lew Ayers), Seton’s son and an alcoholic, who is on his way to church to join their father. Julia meets Johnny in the living room on the second floor, but she, too, is going to church, hoping to break the news of their engagement to her father in a place where he can’t talk back.

Johnny doesn't know that his fiancee Julia (Doris Nolan) is rich.

Johnny is told to return at 1 o’clock for lunch, and to change his tie, which Julia doesn’t like. Escorting her out, Johnny is introduced to Linda (Katharine Hepburn), Julia’s older sister and the self-proclaimed black sheep of the family. Linda gives Johnny a look over and approves of the marriage.

Linda (Katharine Hepburn) walks in on Johnny and Linda kissing.

At church, while the choir sings O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Julia is repeatedly shushed by her father when she starts to tell him about meeting Johnny. The payoff is when Mr. Seton raises his own voice when she tells him about the engagement.

At church, Ned (Lew Ayers) passes the collection plate to his father
(Henry Kolker), who has just learned of Julia's engagement.

Anxious, Johnny arrives back at the mansion early. Julia is not back yet, but Linda has left word for Johnny to be sent to the playroom on the fourth floor. This room is different than the rest of the house and had been set up that way by their now deceased mother. Still large, with a really high ceiling, the room is cozier than the rest of the house. There are the remnants of childhood there: toys, musical instruments which Ned we learn can play, art supplies and even a low hanging trapeze. This is the room Linda thinks of as home.

Linda charms Johnny in the playroom while waiting for Julia to return from church.

Linda and Johnny talk about themselves. Linda is a lost soul of sorts, never having found herself. Unlike Ned, who had wanted to be a musician, Linda is not part of the family banking business and spends most of her time doing little outside the mansion.

Johnny, who has been working since he was ten, wants to take a holiday, by which he means retire at 30 and learn what it’s all about, since there has to be more to life than making money to pay bills. He wants to knock off for awhile, while he’s still young and figure things out that you can’t while sitting behind a desk. When Linda asks if Julia knows, Johnny confesses that he hasn’t shared his plans with Julia.

Ned arrives back from church, and goes to the playroom looking for a bottle of scotch missing from his bedroom. He hasn’t been in the playroom for years, he says. Julia arrives back from church and is disappointed that Johnny hasn’t changed his tie. The children try to prepare Johnny for meeting their father and his expected disapproval. Johnny is about to show them his patented backflip when their father arrives downstairs. Julia and Linda go off to talk to their father while Ned hides Johnny until 1 o’clock, when he’s supposed to arrive for lunch.

On the way down, Linda makes Julia promise to let her throw them a party to celebrate their engagement. She wants to plan a small party in the playroom with just their close family and friends.

When the time is right, Johnny reappears, now wearing one of Mr. Seton’s own ties. The conversation is somewhat strained, but Johnny holds his own under interrogation by Mr. Seton. By the time they’re called for lunch, Mr. Seton’s opinion is changing and after learning from Johnny’s employer about a deal he had put together, Mr. Seton agrees to the marriage. He plans to throw a party on New Year’s Eve to announce the nuptials. Even though Julia had agreed to Linda’s party idea, she willingly bows to her father’s idea.

Wearing the right tie, Johnny finally meets Mr. Seton.

On New Year’s Eve, Linda goes through with her plans and refuses to attend the big party downstairs. The Potters arrive and immediately feel out of place. They are directed to take the elevator and end up on the floor with the playroom. Linda, who has been sulking by herself, welcomes the two and they hit it off. Even Ned shows up. The Potters, who are natural hams, start to put on a puppet show for Linda and Ned.

The Potters (Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton) arrive for the engagement party.

Embarrassed by Linda’s refusal to come down to the party, Julia sends Johnny up to the playroom. Johnny, who has apparently been changed in the last few days, agrees to bring Linda down. But when he finds out the Potters are there, Johnny reverts back to his fun-loving ways.

Julia and Linda’s snobbish cousin Seton Cram (Henry Daniell) and his wife Laura (Binnie Barnes) come into the playroom, interrupting the play and are greeted with Nazi salutes. But Seton is aware of the deal Johnny has put together and has bought into it, sealing its success and Johnny’s holiday plans.

To celebrate, Linda and Johnny demonstrate to everyone in the room a tumbling trick they have perfected. Johnny, who uses tumbling to relieve tension, has, off camera, apparently worked out a trick with Linda, in which she stands on his shoulders and they both tumble to the ground. They have just completed it, when Julia and Mr. Seton come into the playroom and insist Linda appear at the party.

Johnny and Linda entertain everyone in the playroom with their antics.

Mr. Seton offers Johnny a desk at the bank after the honeymoon, which forces Johnny to reveal his “early retirement” plan to both Julia and her father. To say the least, neither is thrilled with the plan.

Johnny looks to Julia for understanding, but she doesn't.

Rather than going down to the party, a dejected Johnny stays behind with Linda and sees the New Years in with her before going downstairs. Soon after Mr. Seton announces the coming wedding to everyone, Johnny leaves.

Days pass and Linda goes to the Potters searching for Johnny, hoping to reunite the lovers. Turns out Johnny has returned to Lake Placid. He plans to go with the Potters, who are going to Europe that night on an ocean liner. While she’s there, a telegram arrives from Johnny, saying that Julia has turned him down.

Johnny chooses to ring in the New Year with Linda rather than Julia.

Linda goes home to admonish Julia for turning Johnny down. But Mr. Seton takes Julia's side, even going so far as to call Johnny “un-American” for his views. Julia, for her part, is certain that Johnny will return to her and sure enough, he shows up at the mansion. He tells Mr. Seton that he’s reconsidered his offer of employment at the bank and is anxious to get started. He’s willing to try it Julia’s way for a couple of years.

Mr. Seton plans out the couple’s honeymoon, an itinerary which includes meeting several high powered friends of his and when they return, they’ll move into a house Mr. Seton owns. When Julia asks her father to help find them servants, Johnny snaps. He’s willing to try it Julia’s way for a couple of years, but knows if they get bogged down with too many material things, there is no way he can retire. He loves Julia, but he loves his freedom more and leaves for the docks.

Julia seems to be relieved by Johnny’s departure and admits that she no longer loves him. Linda uses Johnny’s leaving as a chance to declare her own independence. She tries to get Ned to come with her, but he feels trapped in his life, working for their father. Promising to come back for him, Linda hurries off.

Meanwhile, the Potters board the ship and are initially disappointed that Johnny isn’t coming. He surprises them by entering from the adjoining room. So overjoyed, Johnny does one of his patented happy tumbles when Linda arrives onboard the ship.

Johnny in mid-backflip. He'll be even happier when he sees Linda has arrived.

Despite the star-power of Grant and Hepburn, the film was not a financial success at the box office. This was just about the time Hepburn had been declared to be box office poison after a few duds. Further, Johnny’s concept that you can’t discover who you are unless you have money, no responsibilities and can travel probably didn’t sit well with a country still mired in the Great Depression, when any job was welcomed by many in the audience. Having not seen the 1930 version of the film, I don’t know if that film has the same issue or not.

While I don’t think this is Cary Grant’s best performance, he seems to be having a good time and even gets to do a little acrobatics. When Grant was still known as Archie Leach, his given name, he performed as a teenager in the Bob Pander Stage Troupe as a stilt walker back in England. It was this troupe’s tour of the U.S. in 1920 that brought the 16 year-old Leach to these shores. So acrobatics were in his blood and he appears to really enjoy the opportunity to show off this hidden talent.

My problem is not with the actor so much as the character. Johnny Case is a bit uneven, you might even say unstable. Hard-working, or at least we’re told, he enjoys his friends, the Potters, but he falls in love too quickly, too easily and too deeply with Julia. It seems odd that such a man who is such a free-spirit would not have shared his dreams with her. Their relationship doesn’t seem doomed from the start, but when Johnny confesses to Linda things he hasn’t yet shared with Julia, the writing is on the wall. Linda and Johnny seem to be kindred spirits, both are a little off, and a better match.

Linda has some issues of her own, perhaps even a mental breakdown in the recent past. The film doesn’t come out and say so, but there are hints and whispers that something had gone wrong with her. Linda’s passionate speech about the playroom being her only home adds to that perception. She comes off as a woman/child rather than a full-fledged adult with a child-like wonder of the world. The more I think about it, the better I like Hepburn’s performance.

I think Grant and Hepburn make a good onscreen pairing. They seem to be comfortable with each other and there must have been some real trust between them, since Hepburn does stand on Grant’s shoulders.

There was a lot of trust between Hepburn and Grant.

Julia, played by Doris Nolan, is a rich girl who likes being rich. The good-looking Johnny was a vacation fling that got too serious. The more she learns about him and his bohemian dreams, the less she loves him or even likes him. She’s a good actress with the thankless job of playing someone you’re not supposed to like.

Edward Everett Horton would, like Charles Ruggles from It Happened on 5th Avenue, go on to do voice work on the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV shows. You might remember him as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales. Before that he may best be remembered for his roles as Fred Astaire’s comedic sidekick in such films as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Shall We Dance (1937). Horton had actually played the Potter role in the 1930 version of the film. Perhaps that’s why he seems so at home with the role. The exact relationship between the Potters and Johnny may be somewhat vague but there is a real sense of love between them. Horton’s timing is perfect with some physical humor, but also with his witty comebacks and asides. This is an example where the writing and the actor match well together.

Horton and Dixon make a good pair in Holiday, with star Grant.

As good as he is, I must say I was also quite impressed by Jean Dixon, who played his wife. Too bad this would be her last film, as she soon retired from Hollywood after an eleven picture career, dating back to 1929’s The Lady Lies. She would, however, continue her career on Broadway until the 1959-60 season. She was a good compliment to Horton and fit in well with the controlled lunacy of their scenes together.

George Cukor is one of those directors that made films of many genres, including dramas, musicals and comedies. He directed such films as Dinner at Eight (1933), Little Women (1933), David Copperfield (1935), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Camille (1936) prior to this film, which shows his versatility. Following this film he would start shooting Gone With The Wind (1939) before being fired from the production. He would also direct such classics as Little Women (1939), Gaslight (1944), Adams’ Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), Pat and Mike (1952), A Star is Born (1954) and My Fair Lady (1964).

While I enjoyed this movie, I don’t think this is Cukor’s best as some reviews have suggested. The film is funny, but too much happens off screen. Sometime between his first meeting with Mr. Seton on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, Johnny finishes a major deal at work, becomes more serious about Julia, but also has time to teach Linda that acrobatic routine they demonstrate in the playroom. Quite a week and we see none of it.

Despite the story starting on the day, Holiday is not really a Christmas movie. (It might have fit in well with last year's drive-by Christmas salute.) In fact there is no mention of the holiday, save for a few wreaths up at the church, hymns sung in the background and some garland on the banister of the main staircase at the Seton mansion. There is no tree, no one says Merry Christmas and no gifts are exchanged. Perhaps the Setons have all they need, but the absence of the holiday just seems odd given the time frame of the film. 

If you're a fan of Hepburn and Grant, then you will want to watch this movie. If you're looking for a sentimental holiday movie, you might want to keep looking. But Holiday is worth watching, if not at Christmas, then at any other time of the year.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Team America: World Police

Note: The following review was written prior to Sony deciding to release The Interview in a limited theatrical run and on VOD. We decided that the reasons for posting this review of Team America: World Police were still valid.

On December 25, 2014, Sony Pictures planned to release a movie called The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, about two guys who are sent into North Korea for an interview with Kim Jong-un and are ordered by the CIA to assassinate him. When only previews were shown of this film however, North Korea launched a cyber attack on Sony Pictures, leaking over 100 TB of data in the process. This data included information on its past and present employees, internal emails and entire films that Sony had planned to release in the coming months. When North Korea, under the guise of the “Guardians of Peace”, threatened terrorist actions on theaters nationwide, several chains opted out of screening the film, ultimately resulting in Sony cancelling both the premiere and theatrical release of The Interview. In response to this, some theater outlets planned to show Team America: World Police, by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, but unfortunately Paramount Pictures, who originally released Team America in October, 2004, nixed those plans. This inspired us at Trophy Unlocked to finally watch and review Team America: World Police to take a stand against censorship. This is a movie that I had planned to see at some point anyway, which I couldn’t do at first due to my age when it first released, but the recent events regarding The Interview offered a golden opportunity to finally do so. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed.

Gary Johnston (Trey Parker) is a skilled Broadway actor who has just made his debut with the musical Lease. After his show ends, he exits into the alleyway and is approached by Spottswoode (Daran Norris), who manages to convince Gary to enter his limousine to offer him a job opening. As the two of them talk, Gary is taken to Mount Rushmore, the home base of Team America, a team of skilled professionals who police the entire world. After meeting the rest of the team, Gary is told that he was chosen for his college majors in Theater and World Languages, which qualifies him to become the ultimate spy. When he finally joins, he is sent with Team America into Cairo, Egypt to foil a terrorist plot which promises to be “9/11 times a hundred.” Unbeknownst to the team however, Kim Jong-il (Trey Parker) is using the terrorists to support a much larger plan which will throw the entire world into chaos.

Team America (left to right): Joe Smith (Trey Parker), Gary Johnston (Trey Parker),
Chris (Matt Stone), Lisa Jones (Kristen Miller), Sarah Wong (Masasa)

The story of Team America is actually pretty good as it takes every action movie cliché it can and lampoons it in a way that fits in line with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s style of humor. Gary is fleshed out pretty well as the audience comes to understand the sort of person he is through his ups and downs and the other members of Team America are given enough background to know who they are. However, a couple of them are pretty underdeveloped beyond clichés, though this was likely intentional, and Gary’s reason for not initially joining Team America ends up being so tragic that it’s funny. Also notable are the portrayals of several celebrities, especially those in the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G.). The members of F.A.G., which includes Alec Baldwin (Maurice LaMarche) and George Clooney (Matt Stone) among others, wish for world peace and dislike the approach of Team America, who they see as a reckless group that causes more damage than the terrorists they fight. Kim Jong-il’s portrayal also ends up being one of the funniest in the movie, as the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of him. Equally funny is when countries apart from America are depicted, with stereotypes that are applied to outlandish degrees and distance always given in relation to America.

While I did find the film to be very funny, there are a couple scenes which made me turn away, one of which was an extensive shot of Gary vomiting and the other being a sex scene between Gary and Lisa Jones (Kristen Miller). Both seemed a little unnecessary, since the former went into the realm of gross-out humor that I don’t enjoy anyway and the latter I understand was only in there to distract the censors from the rest of the film’s content.

As for pacing, I have to commend Team America for moving at a pretty comfortable pace. It moves by pretty quickly, faster than one would expect, yet still hits the notes that it needs to when it needs to in order to move along without wasting much time. The message that the film ultimately gives, that while violence isn’t always the answer, it sometimes is, is also executed well and feels pretty important. America being the world’s police isn’t a new concept, but the way this movie handles it is interesting anyway.

The voice acting is pretty good in that it provides most of the humor. Trey Parker and Matt Stone give some of the best work in the film while supporting talent from the likes of Maurice LaMarche and Daran Norris only add to the pool of talent at hand. I also found the score by Harry Gregson-Williams to be pretty good, though the original music is great as well, with hilarious songs such as “I’m So Ronery” and “America (F*** Yeah)” standing the test of time.

I also have to give props to the puppetry and sets. The sets are very detailed, with little things that help sell the stereotypical nature of certain countries and showing off the talent of the designers. Add to that a scene where Gary visits actual American monuments and you have great comedy to boot. The puppets are pretty cheap-looking, you can even see the strings, but the puppeteers did an excellent job with the purposefully terrible movements as well as the scenes that actually show off more of their real capabilities.

The sets in Team America can be elaborately detailed.

Lastly, I want to address the references this movie makes. Team America makes fun of Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay, the Iraq War, Kim Jong-il and many other targets. However, most of these references are firmly rooted in 2004, the year in which this film was released. As a result, watching Team America can be like looking into a time capsule of 2004, so viewing it with a lens of that time frame may help with understanding some of the humor on display. Thankfully, it is also possible to watch Team America for some of its other elements, though I can’t help but wonder if this movie will be less funny to audiences years down the line; I suppose only time will tell for that.

Though not the greatest movie, Team America: World Police is still very good. The plot is clichéd while managing to be fresh and moves along at a great pace, although a couple scenes could’ve been cut without really missing much. Both the music and voice acting are great and the puppetry at work is commendable. Most importantly, the political satire is excellent and is very much in line with what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have expressed through South Park. In fact, the movie feels a bit like South Park with puppets at times. If you’re looking for a comedy that has mostly stood the test of time, watch Team America. However, children definitely shouldn’t be watching this despite the use of puppets and those seeking a smarter comedy should look elsewhere.