Saturday, September 27, 2014

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Rainbow Rocks

As I’ve expressed in my previous review, I’m not really much of a brony at this point, as I’d consider myself more of a collector of Friendship is Magic memorabilia. I’m still really selective, acquiring only specific toys and all of the comics (to stay in the loop), but I have more of a love/hate relationship with the fanbase. There are some good things that come out of it, like good art and sometimes music, but they can also be incredibly relentless about their passion to the point of almost being a complete turn-off; my audience at the screening of Equestria Girls didn’t really do much to help that at all.

Speaking of which, I found Equestria Girls to be an incredibly wasted concept, since the idea of creating a new world was squashed in favor of having the new universe be exactly the same as the original, but with people, and totally came off as the Monster High ripoff that it really is (this coming from someone who doesn’t care at all about Monster High). Furthermore, the plot was really thin, required a lot of contrivances and the new characters were especially bland and one-dimensional. Rainbow Rocks, the inevitable sequel, decided to take a different approach with its marketing by having a series of shorts on YouTube which serve as a lead-in to the film itself. This is a little problematic in itself because there may be some people who don’t regularly look for Rainbow Rocks updates (and for those who care I bet they’ll be on the home video release), but in any case they did give me an idea of what to expect. In the end my expectations were still pretty low, but I decided that, despite not really liking the previous movie, I should see this one in the theater to get a more complete opinion, as well as see a version that isn’t tainted by TV edits.

So now that I’ve seen Rainbow Rocks in the theater, did it manage to fare better than Equestria Girls? In my opinion it did, but only marginally so.

Here we go again.

Continuity Note: Due to the placement of Rainbow Rocks within Friendship is Magic continuity, there may be unmarked spoilers regarding the events of S4E26 Twilight’s Kingdom - Part 2.

The movie opens with the Dazzlings, three girls with otherworldly origins, talking in a café about being trapped in the human world. After they walk outside, they see the ending of Equestria Girls and their leader, Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans) (hence their collective name), realizes that the magic on display means that they have a chance of regaining their original forms and going back to their original dimension. Less than 30 moons (months) later, Canterlot High is going to host their first ever musical showcase. As Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) helps out her new friends, the human counterparts of the “Mane 6” sans Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), with their act, she laments the fact that no one in the school fully trusts her yet and still sees her as a villain. As her friends try to cheer her up, she is called on to show three new students, the Dazzlings, around the school. With their arrival, it’s also announced that the musical showcase is now a battle of the bands, where only one musical act can win it all. Once the Dazzlings show off their magic, Sunset’s party realizes that in order to fully defeat them, they’ll need Princess Twilight Sparkle to join them. After being contacted through a magic book that Sunset happened to have in her locker, Princess Twilight shows up to help. With her newly added to their band, the Rainbooms, the girls believe that they have the power to defeat the Dazzlings and save both of their worlds.

The Dazzlings (from left): Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, Sonata Dusk.

From a strictly narrative point of view, I don’t think it was necessary for Twilight Sparkle to be the main character. The beginning of the movie actually did a good job setting up Sunset Shimmer to be the lead and hinted heavily that she would be the one to handle the villains, but she seemed to drift into the background more once Twilight was re-introduced to the world. Speaking of which, the method for contacting Twilight, a magic book, comes right out of nowhere and is given a pretty poor explanation of why and how it got into her locker. She mentions something about having it on her in case she wanted to contact Celestia again (or some odd thing like that), despite the fact that in the official prequel story from the 2013 My Little Pony Annual comic, there is absolutely no evidence of Sunset taking anything with her to the human world, not even a book; to put it simply, the existence of the book introduces more questions than are answered. Furthermore, why did they even need Twilight anyway? I know they said that it’s because of her magic being compatible with the residual magic that the human versions of her friends have, but Sunset wore Twilight’s crown in the last movie, so that means she should have some of the residual magic as well and thus be compatible (none of this is headcanon; I am strictly following the logic of the movie’s narrative). On top of that, it felt like the movie was going to set up a very interesting plot twist for the ending that I started piecing together after a while, but unfortunately the potential was erased at the very last second by a line of dialogue. Also, Flash Sentry (Vincent Tong) is still as flat as a board, existing only to revive an unnecessary plot thread.

This really didn't need to happen for the plot to work.

At this point I should probably talk about the main villains, the Dazzlings, comprised of Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina) and Sonata Dusk (Marÿke Hendrikse). Their personalities are easy to identify, as Adagio, who gets the most lines, is the leader who keeps the other two in line, Aria is kind of prickly and Sonata is a ditz. I question the need to have an idiot in the ensemble, but nevertheless I liked that their personalities were at least better developed than Sunset Shimmer in the first movie, as this time it’s the opening conversation that gives us an idea of who they are. Their motivation is also better thought out and their plan is actually a bit more subtle. Plus, their final battle was more visually interesting, even if it touched on the same points, and I didn’t feel as annoyed by them as I did with Sunset from before.

Since music is actually more important to the plot this time, I’m going to start discussing it here instead of at the end like I normally would. This time around there are 12 songs crammed within the film’s 75-minute run time, which is a lot for any movie, and I’m not sure all of them were particularly good. There are a couple of them here and there that are a little catchy and the Dazzlings have admittedly great singing voices, especially in the finale (accompanied by a fantastic guitar solo). However, a couple of them were repetitive and the lyrics aren’t completely the best, plus it feels like every one of the songs from the Rainbooms had a ton of harmony in them and I found Rainbow Dash’s guitar playing to be just all right. Overall the soundtrack is kind of what I’d expect from Friendship is Magic, but also of a higher quality than Equestria Girls. However, I have one small nitpick: whenever the Dazzlings are singing, you can hear additional instruments being played, but none of them are visible. Is this just a shortcut for the animation or do they create an ambiance whenever they sing?

[Background music intensifies]

This time around the animation also seems to have improved, with smoother and more unique character animations despite having the same models. The instruments are also much more technically accurate this time around and it appears that they did actually take some time to make sure that the finger placement on a guitar actually looked like it matched with the music being played; this is a must for any animation related to music if it wants to be more believable. However, there are two background characters that stand out, as they have much more intense detail in their designs, as though they followed a non-standard model. It almost feels like these two were meant to resemble Monster High characters, but I don’t really know for sure. In any case, it shows what the animators are capable of if they try harder.

The two girls on the very far left look pretty non-standard.

As for the fandom nods, they were certainly there, but nowhere near as obnoxious as in the first movie, almost as though they scaled back a bit. Similarly, my theater experience this time was less annoying than before, despite having the exact same group of obnoxious bronies from last time (these guys seemed to embody every stereotype you can think of for the fanbase, which does nothing but give us an even worse reputation). Thankfully nobody shouted “Wingboner” or anything, but because they were in the back and sound travels forward, you could still hear their quiet commentary, which a much louder (male) child right behind me parroted at times. Someone was also visibly trying to record the movie, but fortunately that got nipped in the bud [NOTE: Trophy Unlocked does not condone piracy of any kind]. Apart from that, I enjoyed actually having surround sound this time around and no visible sign of the film being on DVD, but I may still watch it again on TV just to catch some things I might have missed.

Twilight just realized what movie she's in.

Since I mentioned the end of the credits last time, I think I should mention that you really need to stay this time, since it hints at something going forward (oh joy) and answers a question created by the first movie. Also, the credits sequence itself has some drawings of several of the characters from the movie and they look like they are better drawn than the actual animations (though this is just my opinion).

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks is just okay. The plot is a bit tighter and the villains are more developed, although there are a couple of missed opportunities that really bog down the experience. In addition the music and animation are a bit better and more attention was paid to instrument detail during the songs. Despite improvements however, the movie hasn’t completely gotten away from feeling like a Monster High ripoff (based on what little I know) and should there be a third movie, more effort should be put into distancing this sub-series from its rather cliché setting. If you’re a fan, then you’ve probably already seen this or are making plans to, but even then I’d say to err on the side of caution when trying to view this one. However, if you’re a nonfan, there’s nothing here that’ll really sway you. I may watch it again, but I’d be very hesitant to pay money again to do so.

Stubs – Shoulder Arms

Shoulder Arms (1918) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin.  Run Time: 46 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Silent, War, Comedy

World War I, which started 100 years ago in July 1914, lasted 4 years, 3 months and 1 week before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. In that span of time, the war to end all wars involved nearly 70 million military personnel, left 16 million people dead and millions more wounded in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts. As a result of the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires vanished, the Russian tsar was overthrown, new countries were formed in Europe and the Middle East and the seeds for World War II were planted.

The U.S. did not get involved until 1917, drawn in by the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and by the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman instructed the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, to approach the Mexican government and propose a military alliance, promising that Germany would fund an invasion to reconquer Texas and the Southwest U.S. Mexico ignored the request and after the U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, officially rejected it.

For about a year and a half, U.S. troops fought alongside other Allied Powers against the German-led Central Powers in Europe.

For the most part, Hollywood stayed on the sidelines. While the war would inspire such films as Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Hell’s Angels (1930), The African Queen (1951), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to name a few, only four films were made in the U.S. in 1918 dealing with the World War. (And one of those, The Heart of Humanity, came out after the Armistice.) As contrast, in 1939, two years before the U.S. entered World War II, Hollywood had made four films about the Nazi threat. 

Of the three other films in 1918, the first released was D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World, a wartime propaganda film made at the request of the British government to change the minds of neutral-minded Americans. Samuel Goldwyn produced The Service Star, a film about a woman pretending to be the fiancée of a famous flying ace. Both are dramas, which seemed to be the appropriate tone, given the gravity of the conflict.

But the most famous film made about the War during the War was a comedy, Shoulder Arms, starring, written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin. It was released on October 20, 1918 by First National about three weeks ahead of the Armistice.

Having finished his contract with Mutual in 1917, Chaplin had moved on to a more lucrative deal with First National, an association of independent theater owners which began to produce their own films in 1917. (The company would merge with Warner Bros. in 1928.) First National signed deals with Mary Pickford and Chaplin, each worth a million dollars.

With his First National contract, Chaplin was free to build his own studio, now the home of Jim Henson Productions, in Hollywood. His first film under his new deal was A Dog’s Life (1918), released in April. He followed that by going on the Third Liberty Bond campaign with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Al Jolson, promoting the idea that buying a Liberty Bond was the patriotic thing to do. Chaplin then produced, with his own money, a short film, The Bond (1918), designed to further promote the sale of Liberty Bonds. (In the British version of the film, Uncle Sam is replaced by John Bull.)

The Chaplin Studios built with money from his First National contract.

Perhaps the experience of selling Bonds for the War effort influenced Chaplin’s choice of subject matter for his next film. The idea of making a comedy about the War made a lot of people nervous in Hollywood, including First National. The War was not something to be made fun of. But Chaplin was excited by the idea and spent four months working on the film.

The film stars Chaplin as his famous Tramp character in the Army’s “awkward squad” at boot camp. He has trouble with the basics, which frustrates his sergeant (Sydney Chaplin). His large feet get in his way when he tries to make an about face and even when he marches. When dismissed, the Tramp, credited as the Doughboy, is exhausted and falls asleep almost instantly on his cot in his tent.

Doughboy (Charlie Chaplin) puts the awkward in the "awkward squad."

All too quickly, he is awakened and shipped overseas into the trenches where the first half of the film takes place. The newly arrived Doughboy finds that he has to share his cramped bunker with two other soldiers. The Tramp's first act is to find the right place to hang a cheese grater on the wall to use as a backscratcher; oh the little comforts of home. But most of the time in the trenches is spent on finding humor in the lousy conditions, the loneliness and the danger of living so close to the lines of battle.

A cheese grater serving as a backscratcher provides Charlie with some comfort.

The loneliness is played up when there is a mail call and everyone in the unit seems to receive mail but our Tramp. Showing there is more than humor to the Tramp, we see that he is melancholy, trying to act brave, but feeling very alone. He finds himself reading over the shoulder of a fellow soldier and mirroring that soldier’s reactions to what is contained in his letter, much to the annoyance of the recipient.

Lonely, Charlie reads another soldier's letter.

There is smoke all around which oftentimes fills the trenches, but we’re led to believe these are from smoke bombs and explosions and not from mustard gas. The Tramp does don a gas mask, but it’s to hide the smell of limburger cheese, which the Tramp is sent from someone back home, along with bread that is as hard as a rock. (Turns out, he does receive mail, but just after everyone else has gotten theirs.) The smell is so bad that the Tramp throws the soft cheese into the German trench, hitting their diminutive leader (Loyal Underwood) smack in the face.

When it rains in the trenches it pours as the Tramp finds out. After standing guard duty, he finds that his underground bunker is flooded, so high in fact that there are four soldiers sharing the rather dry conditions of the upper bunk and one roommate barely keeping his mouth and nose above the waterline while he manages to still sleep. There is always a little mischievousness in the Tramp, which he demonstrates by creating a little wave in the water, which momentarily causes the sleeping man to choke and wake up. He scolds the laughing Tramp, but when a floating candle passes by, the Tramp is sure to blow it so it passes under the sleeping man’s out of the water foot.

Charlie stands guard duty in the rain, but things are worse in his bunker.

The troops are roused from their bunks by a call to arms. They are going over the wall in 15 minutes. While they wait for their turn, the Tramp takes a surprisingly lead role, but when he climbs up the ladder to get out, the ladder falls back.

Charlie looking ready to lead the charge over the wall.

But once in battle, the Tramp is an amazingly good soldier, we’re told capturing 13 enemy soldiers. When the diminutive leader balks, he takes him over his lap and spanks him, much to the enjoyment of his former unit. When an officer asks the Tramp how he captured 13 soldiers, he says through title cards, “I surrounded them.”

Charlie captures German soldiers and their diminutive leader (Loyal Underwood).

Back in the trenches, the Tramp seems a little more at ease with the dangers of battle. While lunching with a fellow soldier, they need a bottle opened so he simply holds it up high enough so that an enemy soldier will shoot off the top. When he needs a cigarette lit, he does the same thing. He seems so much at ease that he volunteers for a mission, before learning that he might not return. Too late, he tries to let another soldier take the mission, but is turned down.

Behind enemy lines, the Tramp is disguised like a tree. This gives Chaplin an opportunity to show off his physical or slapstick sense of humor. When wandering German troops go looking for firewood, they try to chop him down. Using his limbs, he manages to knock each one out.

Behind enemy lines, Charlie is disguised as a tree.

A U.S. soldier (Sydney Chaplin) trying to get a message back to his company is taken prisoner and is about to be executed. The Tramp uses his tree branches again to knock out the soldiers and allows the soldier to escape. But a portly German solider takes chase and the Tramp runs into a nearby forest where he easily blends in with the foliage. But the solider shoots and bayonets trees surrounding the Tramp to the point where he flees before he’s next. He serpentines as he runs and avoids getting shot. Cornered, he escapes through a narrow drain pipe, shedding his disguise so he can get away.

Charlie uses his tree limbs to help free an American
soldier (Sydney Chaplin) who is about to be executed.

The Tramp takes refuge in a bombed out farm house. Even though the outer walls have been destroyed, he still opens the window to look out and draws the shade before he takes a nap in the upstairs bed. The house, it turns out, belongs to a French girl (Edna Purviance) who discovers the soldier. She starts to clean one of his wounds thinking the Tramp is still asleep. But he gives up the ruse and talks to her, convincing her through pantomime that he is an American soldier.

French Girl (Edna Purviance) discovers Charlie asleep in her bed.

More German troops arrive, but Edna tries to tell them that the little American soldier they are looking for is not there. But they don’t believe her and set up an ambush under the stairs. They trap the Tramp momentarily, but he quickly turns the machine gun on them. But he loses the upper hand when another German soldier arrives on the scene. But when the farm house finally crumbles, the Tramp is able to escape. The same is not true for the French girl.

German soldiers think they have Charlie right where they want him,
but he quickly turns the tables, make that machine gun, on them.

She’s taken to the local German military headquarters, where the officer in charge plans to ‘interrogate’ her in private. Luckily for her, the Tramp arrives. Not sure if he knew she was going to be there or not, but he manages to take the German officer captive and locks him up in the closet. When the Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin) and staff arrive on their tour of the front, they find Edna alone in the office. The Tramp emerges from the closet still dressing in the officer’s uniform. Thinking they’ve interrupted a tryst, they order the Tramp and Edna out, telling him they’ll deal with him later. Once alone the Kaiser and his two advisors work on battle plans.

The Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin) and two of his advisors work on battle plans.

Outside, the American soldier, who has been recaptured, is brought in escorted by troops. Still in his officer disguise, the Tramp orders the troops away and takes personal command of the prisoner. The Kaiser’s drivers keep a watchful eye, so the Tramp has to act like he’s throttling the prisoner, when in fact they are friends. 

Disguised as a German officer, Charlie has no choice but to act mean to the American soldier.

When the drivers get out one by one to investigate the shenanigans, the Tramp and the American soldier knock them out. Trading uniforms with the American soldier, Edna and the Tramp dress like the Kaiser’s drivers. The soldier, now dressed like a German officer, returns to his hiding place for his communications equipment and notifies his unit what’s going on.

Charlie and Edna dress up like the Kaiser's drivers in order to capture him.

When the Kaiser does come back to the car, they drive him back across the front lines and present him to his superiors. The Tramp and the French girl are heralded as heroes for bringing the War to an end. In the midst of the celebration, the Tramp is awoken from the dream by his fellow soldiers. He is back lying on his cot. It had all been a dream.

Despite First National’s fears, Shoulder Arms was a big success, both with the critics and at the box office. Even veterans returning from the front lines loved it. The film was so successful in fact that Chaplin requested more money, which First National refused.

Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality, and worried about rumors of a possible merger between First National and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin formed his own distribution company, United Artists, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, who replaced cowboy star William S. Hart in 1919. Each star received a 20% share in the joint venture with the other 20% being controlled by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo, a former California Senator and Secretary of the Treasury who served as general counsel for the company.

William Gibbs McAdoo, the partner in United Artists you never hear about.

Chaplin was eager to start with his new company and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined however and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them. Those six films took years to complete and Chaplin wouldn’t release a film through United Artists until the September 26, 1923 release of A Woman of Paris, an atypical drama starring Edna Purviance in the lead and Chaplin in a small cameo role.

Sydney Chaplin, who plays multiple roles in this film, is Charlie Chaplin’s elder half-brother by the same mother. A stage comedian in his own right, he was the first one to get a contract with Fred Karno and worked hard to have his brother brought into the troupe. In fact, it was Syd who was the bigger star on stage.

Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's brother.

When Charlie began his negotiations with Keystone, he suggested they bring in his brother as well. He appeared in a series of shorts and one feature at the studio, A Submarine Pirate (1915), which was the studio’s second most financially successful film, next to Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). Sydney would become not only an occasional actor in his brother’s films, but also his business manager, leaving acting to negotiate his brother’s deals with Mutual and First National. He would receive his own million dollar contract from Famous Players-Lasky, but that resulted in only one film, King, Queen, Joker (1921). After that, he would appear in his brother’s films Pay Day (1921) and The Pilgrim (1923). He would also appear with Colleen Moore in The Perfect Flapper (1924), a silent version of the play Charley’s Aunt (1925) and five films for Warner Bros., including The Better ‘Ole (1926), the third Warner Bros. film to have a Vitaphone soundtrack.

Sydney Chaplin was also active in aviation, founding the first privately owned American airlines in 1919, the Syd Chaplin Airline Company, based out of Santa Monica. The company only lasted a year and Chaplin got out of the airline business.

He returned to England and made his last film for British International Pictures, A Little Bit of Fluff (1928). His career was cut short due to allegations that he bit off the nipple of actress Molly Wright in a sexual assault. By 1930, he’d fled England and was declared bankrupt.

As with any Chaplin film of this time, the story was developed as the film-making continued. Originally conceived as five reels, rather than the three that were released, there were scenes of the Tramp’s domestic life before the Army that were cut from the film. Chaplin would never hesitate to work and refine an idea, but when it didn’t work he wasn’t afraid of excising it from the finished product.

Chaplin between takes still dressed in his tree costume.

Shoulder Arms has two main sections: the first part which takes place on the front lines in the trenches and the second which takes place behind enemy lines. The two sections are related, but really don’t have that much to do with one another. Both films are like separate shorts strung together by the common overarching storyline of World War I.

For all the concern about making a comedy about the War while it was still being fought, Chaplin proved his gamble to be a good one. Not only is there room for his physical/slapstick humor, but also for the actor to portray other emotions as well, including melancholy and love. The Tramp is both a mischievous man/boy, but he is also a sympathetic character. He not only manages to make fun of the enemy, in this case the German army, but also Army life during the war in general.

Shoulder Arms would also play a role in Chaplin’s banishment from the U.S. The film was cited for its political activism, which, along with Chaplin’s own espousals about left wing causes, like helping the Soviets, our allies, in World War II, would make some very powerful enemies. When the U.S. went Red Scare crazy during the McCarthy era, Chaplin, who had never become a U.S. citizen, was an easy target. When he left for the premiere of Limelight in London in 1952, he was not allowed back in the country.

But the film is the thing and this is one of Chaplin’s better silent film efforts. You can watch through his career as he becomes ever more the master of his craft. The seeds are planted in this film for The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931) and The Great Dictator (1940). Like the best Chaplin, as well as the best Buster Keaton and the best Harold Lloyd films, this one stands the test of time and should be seen not only for the historical value, but also for its humor. There are several laugh out loud moments and this is one film that should not be missed.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Frip and Froop's Logical Labyrinth

It’s not often that I review puzzle games, so this one is a little outside of my usual output. Frip and Froop’s Logical Labyrinth is the first game by Wayward Thoughts Interactive, a relative newcomer in the world of video games. Seeing as this is the independent studio’s first game, it’s a pretty admirable effort, though there are still a couple of shortcomings. But first:

Transparency Note: I am friends with the founder of Wayward Thoughts Interactive and have become at least acquainted with everyone on the development team before production of this game began. Thanks to this friendship, and the fact that the lead, Tyler Uslan, was a guest at least once on this blog, I was personally asked to write up a review of this game, which I didn’t object to doing. To prevent any unintentional influence on my opinion, I didn’t participate in any betas (in fact, I wasn’t allowed to anyway for the same reason) or directly support the game in any way apart from moral support (because friendship) [Update (11/5/14): I also voted for the game on Steam Greenlight, but had forgotten about it until later]. It was determined that despite the personal connection, I’d still be able to give an honest evaluation of the finished product. Below is my completely unbiased review of Frip and Froop’s Logical Labyrinth.

Frip runs Friptech Laboratories, a facility where the latest in cutting-edge technology is created. However, his latest experiments, Genetically Engineered SuperMice, have gone missing. To remedy this, Frip asks his nephew, Froop, to complete a series of courses within the facility.

This aspect of the game, the story, is the one place where the game feels unfinished, since the more I think about it, the less sense it makes from a narrative standpoint. Since the SuperMice are mentioned at the beginning, they feel like they’re going to be important to the rest of the story, but afterwards they are never seen or heard from again, so it feels like a very loose justification for going through a series of courses. In addition, there a twist in the third act that, despite some subtle foreshadowing, feels like it comes right out of nowhere. What adds to this feeling is the fact that it takes the introduction of two new characters and a really long exposition dump to properly explain. The story is clearly ambitious in its end goals, but I would have liked it if more time were given to properly set up the possibility of the end-game reveal, as well as a more consistent justification for why Froop has to go through the training courses in the first place (after mentioning the mice, Frip shifts to saying that he has no one to test his inventions).

One of the inventions looks like a Gameboy.

In some ways, the game also appears to have a heavy Portal influence in everything but gameplay (as the famous Portal Gun does not appear). Friptech is kind of like Aperture Science in that the facility is meant to be on the cutting edge of science and technology (although it’s unknown if Friptech will “throw science at the wall and see what sticks”). Frip sends Froop through a series of training courses, which is similar in concept to the testing chambers in Aperture Laboratories. Frip gives commentary in a similar fashion to GLaDOS, even making some similar statements, although in this case a couple of these similar quips seem to come out of the blue. Additionally, the twist is related in some way to the series (I’m not telling you how), although without a lot of the subtlety from the Portal series. This is just what I figured out in hindsight after playing the game, but I can’t help but wonder if the writer had Portal on the brain when he thought out the final plot.

As for the gameplay itself, this is where the experience is much more even. There’s actually a pretty nice pace to the game as it continually introduces new gadgets and obstacles to deal with on a regular basis, so the player is never really bored trying to anticipate new gameplay twists. It sort of feels like the game was very deliberately divided across its 100 levels, spread across 12 stages, though this works more in its favor. The six different gadgets are also pretty fun to use and have their own quirks about them that make each of the puzzles increasingly challenging.

One of the later stages of the game.

However, there are a couple of issues with the difficulty of the game, mostly with regards to the puzzle structure. I’ll just say right away that I’m pretty sure I managed to get through a couple of the puzzles, one of which is basically a fairly faithful recreation of the first stage in Pac-Man, by following an unintended solution, since the game hints at solving them one way while I got by with a different approach. As for the difficulty, it does gradually rise, as puzzle games should, but overall the experience felt pretty easy; I was able to beat the entire game in around four hours. When the game does get difficult, it’s usually for a couple of reasons: 1) The solution requires pixel-perfect precision and timing with almost no margin for error or 2) The game is programmed and animated so that pushable blocks go not only to the next space, but the area in between the spaces. With the latter point in mind, that means that if you accidentally push a block too far just when you had it perfectly positioned, it’s possible that you can no longer move it (since Froop’s hitbox takes up the entire space around him), forcing you to restart the entire puzzle. Sometimes the puzzle you happened to screw up in was particularly long, forcing you to die or hit the “Oops!” button and undo about five minutes of meticulously planned progress. So I was stumped on a few puzzles, occasionally for the wrong reason, but even then the game is still pretty easy and the final boss felt a little anticlimactic; that or I’ve just gotten good at puzzle games after spending countless hours in pursuit of Kongregate badges.

The art is a little bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the end result feels a little like an internet flash game with a decent art style. On the other, everything is very clearly defined and easy to understand, even when there several objects on the screen at once (once so much so that I felt lag while navigating a maze). In that case, the ability to clearly understand each situation is preferable, as I can think of plenty of internet games that I’ve enjoyed regardless of how they looked. Bonus points also for including the concept art in the Friptech Catalog (basically a bestiary of sorts (but with even more backstory on the game)) on the main menu; I’ve always found it fascinating to see how something, be it a movie or video game, translates the concept art to the end result (I even try to buy art books for this reason).

There are even image credits.

Sound-wise, the music and effects come off as being stock (in fact, the credits acknowledge that these are public domain and mention a website by name). The voice acting is decent, though a little dull-sounding, but the fact that I’ve met most of the voice actors in real life kind of prevents me from fully enjoying it, as it’s pretty uncanny to hear them coming out of my laptop speakers. Still, that’s just my own experience and I’m sure someone will feel differently (as they will likely have never met them before).

My overall feelings on Frip and Froop’s Logical Labyrinth are kind of mixed. It’s certainly ambitious and the puzzles escalate at a deliberate pace while giving the player just enough time to get used to each new gadget or obstacle so that they can adjust accordingly in later stages or figure out the proper combinations of gadgets to use. However, the story is disjointed, as it relies on a huge exposition dump toward the end, and the puzzles can sometimes be difficult for seemingly the wrong reasons. If this sounds like the kind of game you’d like to play, then feel free to spend full price, but if you’re not really sure that it’ll be worth it, then play it for free on Kongregate to see if it’s right for you. To give credit where credit is due though, it’s pretty amazing that Wayward Thoughts Interactive could create and release a full game on a shoestring budget and I hope that they learn from this game when trying their hand at future projects.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stubs – Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Starring: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Tom McGuire, Marion Bryon. Directed by Charles F. Reisner. Story and Screenplay by Carl Harbaugh. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Run Time: 70 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Silent, Comedy

Sometimes it takes age for a film to get the credit it deserves. Steamboat Bill, Jr., the last film from the independent Buster Keaton Studios, considered today to be a classic of the silent slapstick comedy, was not a financial success when first released.

The film was a culmination of a creative partnership between comedian Keaton and his brother-in-law and producer Joseph M. Schenck, which included such features as Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927) and College (1927), not to mention nineteen shorts including One Week (1920), The High Sign (1921), The Boat (1921) and The Balloonatic (1923). While ultimately Schenck would shut down the Buster Keaton Studio and convince the star to sign with his brother Nicholas Schenck’s MGM studios, the work they did together has stood the test of time. (Keaton had previously worked with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on a series of shorts from 1917 to 1920 that were also produced by Joseph Schenck, but these are really Arbuckle starring vehicles in which Keaton is a featured player.)

Joseph M. Schenck. Buster's brother-in-law (they both married Talmadge girls) and producer.

The relationship with Schenck allowed Keaton to make movies on his own schedule with his own group of writers/gagmen. If a scene wasn’t working out the way he wanted, the crew would play baseball until a better idea gelled. In this artist-friendly environment, Keaton flourished, producing some of the funniest movies ever made, as well as classics like The General, Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. When Schenck became more involved with United Artists, he removed his support and Keaton went to work for MGM, where his career would tailspin downward after one more classic, The Cameraman (1928).

The idea of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was brought to Keaton by director Charles F. Reisner, based on a popular song made famous by singer Arthur Collins from 1911, Steamboat Bill. The song would also appear in another 1928 film of note, the Disney short “Steamboat Willie”, which was a parody of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and helped to launch the career of animated character Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), a parody of Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Despite the writing credit of story and screenplay by Carl Harbaugh, Keaton and his gagmen did the bulk of the "writing" that made it on screen. Keaton would say that Harbaugh was useless. And while Reisner is credited as director, Keaton also had a hand in that as well.

The film opens with the text, Muddy Waters, which is not a reference to the legendary blues singer, but to the Mississippi River. Up to the pier in the small town of River Junction steams a new paddle-wheel, the King, named after John James “J.J.” King (Tom McGuire), who also owns the River Junction Bank and the Hotel King.

The newest steamboat in River Junction is King, the namesake of J.J. King.

King’s plan is to run William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) and his ship, steamboat Stonewall Jackson, out of business. Even Bill’s first (and last) mate, Tom Carter (Tom Lewis) practically concedes defeat. But Bill is not going to give up without a fight.

Returning to port, Bill is handed a vaguely worded telegram from his son in Boston, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby. Bill, Jr. has recently graduated from college and has been sent by his mother to visit his father. Bill and Tom imagine that Bill, Jr. must be like Bill, a strapping, muscular sort, perhaps, as Bill imagines, even bigger’n than he is.

 Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton) is not all what his father Bill, Sr.(Ernest Torrence)
was expecting. First mate Tom Carter (Tom Lewis) looks on from the left.

He is no doubt disappointed when he realizes that the meek-looking, fancy-dressed. beret-wearing man carrying a ukulele under his arm is his son, Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton). Bill tries to remake his son in his own image, first taking him to the Hotel King barber to get his pencil-thin mustache cut off. There Bill, Jr. is reunited with alumni, Kitty King (Marion Bryon), who has also just returned home. She can’t wait to introduce Bill, Jr. to her “loveable” father, unaware of the feud between their fathers (think Romeo and Juliet).

Kitty King (Marion Byron) Bill Jr.'s alumni also home from college. This was Marion's first film.

While she runs off looking for her dad, Bill, Jr.’s drags him to the hat shop to find a suitable replacement for the beret. In a bit of slapstick, we see the father and milliner try on a succession of hats, including, though only Bill, Jr. seems to notice, Buster Keaton’s iconic porkpie hat. After finally agreeing on a hit brimmed white hat, no sooner do they step outside than a gust of wind blows it off of Bill, Jr.’s head and back comes on the beret.

While trying on hats, Bill, Jr. is fitted with a porkpie hat synonymous with Keaton.

This time, Bill takes his son to get new clothes, more suitable replacements for the striped blazer, wide-legged pants and checkered bow tie he’s wearing. Bill leaves his son alone and Kitty runs to help. With her help, as the movie attests, Bill, Jr. reunites with his father dressed more like a yachtsman than a crew member aboard a steamboat. When he sees him swagger onto the docks, Tom hands Bill, Sr. a wrench saying “No jury would convict you.”

Bill, Jr. is nothing but clumsy. He knocks into a deckhand and sends a life preserver into the water (where it sinks). On board the ship, he hits his head as he ascends the stairs, runs into wires and nearly falls off the deck of the Stonewall Jackson. When he sees Kitty on the deck of the King, he poses for her benefit and even when he is upended when a deckhand pulls the rope out from under his feet, Bill, Jr. tries his best to impress her.

Bill, Jr. is not at ease on board his father's boat the Stonewall Jackson.

With the two boats docked so close together, Kitty jumps on board the Stonewall Jackson to be near Bill, Jr. When King tries to drag his daughter back to his boat, Bill, Jr. follows. Then Bill demands his son return to his boat. King ups the ante by having one of his uniformed officers throw Bill, Jr. off the King, but Kitty follows her man back to the Stonewall Jackson. Bill, Jr. talks her into returning to her father's boat. But that’s not good enough for King, who warns Bill that if his son returns to the King, he will personally wring his neck.

Bill prods his son to step back on board the King and Bill, Jr. is thrown back and forth between the two boats. Finally thrown back on the deck of the Stonewall Jackson, Bill, Jr. brings the King’s officer with him. The officer gets up and tries to fight Bill, Jr., who declines. But Bill doesn’t quit; he takes his son’s hand, balls it into a fist and knocks the officer back into the water.

Buster becomes a pawn between his father and his rival J.J. King (Tom McGuire).

Bill threatens King, by saying if any of his men board his ship, Bill, Jr. will take care of them. But before Bill, Jr. can feel too smug, his dad pulls him away and over another of the ship’s cables. King likewise pulls Kitty off in the opposite direction.

Bill tries to get a crewman to show Bill, Jr. how to run a steamship, but the curious boy pulls a chain which sends the boat forward, ramming the King repeatedly, eventually sending its namesake into the water. Bill is mad at his son until he sees his rival in the water. Trying to celebrate, he gives his son a plug of chewing tobacco. When he slaps his son on the back, Bill, Jr. swallows and faints to the floor.

That night, Bill, Jr. sneaks off the Stonewall Jackson to rendezvous with Kitty, who has left him a note saying that she’ll wait for him at the salon. But his father catches him and makes Bill, Jr. give up the uniform. Meanwhile, King admonishes his daughter for her interest in the Canfield boy. He tells her that he will pick the right man for her, while at the same time Bill tells his son that he’ll pick the right girl for him.

But undeterred, Bill, Jr. sneaks out. His clumsiness gets the best of him when his attempt to bridge the gap between the two decks with a plank fails and he ends up in the water. Bill watches as his drenched son climbs on board the King in defiance. Eventually, King, an officer and Bill, Jr. all end up back in the water again.

The next morning, Bill wakes his son with cold water and presents him with cash and a train ticket back to Boston.

Bill gives his son a ticket back to Boston.

Meanwhile, the Stonewall Jackson is condemned. Thinking King is behind the notice, Bill confronts him in public. Their confrontation escalates into a brawl and Bill is arrested for assaulting King.

Bill, Jr. has by now started for the train station. He pauses when he sees Kitty walking towards him, but she continues past him into a building. Not sure if he just imagined her or not, he continues towards the station. But Kitty has a change of heart and follows after him.

Kitty is only a few feet behind him when Bill, Jr. sees his father being taken to jail. Determined to get his father out of prison, he tears up his ticket and turns to return to the ship. Kitty turns at the same time and appears to be walking away from him, which gives him pause.

A box on the front page of the local paper declares that the weather will be wet and cloudy on the day Bill, Jr. goes to visit his father in jail. After sinking waist deep into a puddle, Bill, Jr.’s over-sized umbrella gets turned inside out. Once in the jail, Bill, Jr. unwraps the white bundle he’s been carrying to reveal a loaf of bread he’s brought for his father, who turns it down. Bill tells the jailer to throw him out, but Bill, Jr. decides to wait it out until his father gets hungry enough for the bread.

Bill shows the Sheriff the loaf of bread he's brought his father in jail.

While he waits for his father to come around, Bill, Jr. comes across the posted lyrics to ‘The Prisoner Song’, which he sings. Then he tries to pantomime to his father how a prisoner could escape, by sawing through the bars and knocking out the guards, but Bill does not understand the message.

Bill, Jr. tries a second strategy. He stages a rock being thrown through the glass of the jail and while a dim-witted sheriff sorts it out, Bill, Jr. opens the loaf of bread to show his father that it is filled with escape tools. But when he is escorted to his father’s cell, all the tools fall out on to the floor. He is also taken into custody, but manages to escape, setting off a chase which ends when the sheriff drops his keys, which Bill, Jr. hands back to him.

Unappreciative the sheriff throws him up against the bars. But Bill encourages his son to fight back and Bill, Jr. knocks out the sheriff with a blow to his stomach. Bill escapes outside to the bushes, but his son’s long coat gets caught in the jail door, but the keys, where his father dropped them, are a little out of reach. By the time he finally frees himself, deputies arrive and hold him. The revived sheriff whacks Bill, Jr. over the head with his gun.

Then Bill, upon seeing the blow and his son being taken to the “receiving” hospital, punches the sheriff and then walks back into his cell.

While Bill, Jr. is at the hospital, hurricane force winds start to destroy the town, ripping the sides off buildings if not completely off their foundations. There is chaos in the streets as men and women seek shelter from the destructive winds.

And it is at this time that the daredevil athleticism of Buster Keaton really takes over. It would be near impossible to describe all of his antics as he moves from one near-fatal stunt to another. But it is in this sequence that we do get perhaps the best-known bit from Buster Keaton’s film when the three-story front of a house falls and the great stone face escapes by standing precisely where a window is. There’s been a lot written about Keaton’s frame of mind at the time the film was made. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge was falling apart and knew his days as an independent filmmaker was coming to an end. Some say he was suicidal when he took such risks, but these were well-calculated stunts, if not grander versions of ones he’d already performed. (The house façade narrowly missing him was also done on a smaller scale in the short, One Week.)

Keaton couldn't move, literally. His shoes were nailed down.

The stunts, all done by Keaton, have to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated. This sequence truly rivals anything from a Harold Lloyd film, another silent comedian known for his dangerous comedy bits (see Safety Last (1923)). In addition to the falling house, Keaton is blown around by the high winds, electrocuted by downed power lines and even rides an uprooted tree. Towards the end of the sequence, Bill, Jr. climbs onto the paddle wheel of the Stonewall Jackson, which has broken free of its mooring and is floating down river.

Bill, Jr. quickly becomes a hero. When the house Kitty is trapped in floats by, he uses the ship’s anchor as a grappling hook to stabilize the house. He attempts to use a rope to save Kitty, but on returning to the ship the weight is too much and the rope breaks. Thrown into the water, Bill, Jr. swims Kitty back to the ship and gets her up on deck.

Next, he rescues his father from the jailhouse, which is now also floating by in the river, with Bill waist deep in water. Using an elaborate web of ropes and levers, Bill, Jr. crashes the Stonewall Jackson into the jailhouse and frees his father, pulling him from the river.

After that, Bill, Jr. steers the ship to rescue J.J. King from his floundering namesake. Diving nearly two stories into the river, Bill, Jr. rescues Kitty’s father and swims him back to safety. Kitty and Bill pull her father up onto the deck and the two fathers seem to reconcile during the tragedy.

And just when it seems everyone is safe, Bill, Jr. grabs a life preserver and jumps back into the river. Kitty is dismayed until she sees him swimming back with a minister (James T. Mack) in tow.

Bill rescues a minister (James T. Mack) so he can marry Kitty.

The cyclone/hurricane ending was not the original one they had in mind, but a devastating flood on the Mississippi River in 1927 caused a rewrite. The Mississippi flood, the worst in U.S. history, impacted 14 states, caused over $400 million in damages and killed 246 people in seven states. Feeling the events were too recent, the flood was changed to winds. The change also drove up the $200,000 budget, as on short notice $135,000 worth of breakaway sets were constructed and six powerful wind machines were deployed to knock them down.

Shot in Sacramento with a budget of over $400,000, the film, which opened to mixed reviews, actually lost money in its initial release. Despite its less than grand debut, the movie is now considered a classic and an essential Keaton film. The film combines the best elements of Keaton’s work, from the humor of human interaction to his death-defying slapstick stunts.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the first film for Marion Byron, who played Kitty King. She would appear in 44 films, but none would be as memorable as this one. After this movie, she would sign with Hal Roach and appear in several comedy shorts with the likes of Charley Chase and Edgar Kennedy. After the talkies became all the rage, she moved into musicals, now mostly forgotten. Her last film was Five of a Kind (1938).

Ernest Torrence was a Scottish born actor who came to America in 1911 and found work on the Broadway stage. His role in the musical The Night Boat (1920) got the attention of Hollywood. His first film role was Luke Hatburn in the enormously popular Tol'able David (1921), which was voted a Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor, a big pre-Academy honor. He would also appear in the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Like Byron, Torrence moved into talkies, making his last film I Cover the Waterfront (1933). Soon after that film was completed, he died suddenly from an acute attack of gall stones.

Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is considered one of the great silent film comedians. Up until the time Keaton joined MGM, all three had retained a certain independence from the major studios. Keaton’s films, like Chaplin’s, were made when inspiration struck. If one gag didn’t work, then re-do it until the desired effect was obtained. (The Unknown Chaplin TV series, from 1983, details Chaplin’s reworking of bits and shelving ideas that he couldn't get to work on film.) None of them could have been as creative in a studio environment which at the time prized speed over quality.

It is sad that for Keaton, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a last hurrah of sorts. His career and life would never be the same after this. But the film stands as a testament to his talent and must be/should be seen to be appreciated.