Saturday, September 24, 2016

Stubs – Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise (1991) Starring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Callie Khouri. Produced by Ridley Scott and Mimi Polk Gitlin. Runtime 129 minutes. US. Color. Action, Adventure

Sometimes you have to see a film because you’ve heard so much about it or that it’s considered part of the popular culture to the point it is referenced in other films, TV shows, and stories. Such is the case with Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s 1991 homage to bad decisions.

Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is married to a controlling man, Darryl (Christopher McDonald). Thelma seems to be genuinely afraid of him, because when Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) calls about the plans they have to go away for the weekend, Thelma still hasn’t asked permission to go. And she doesn’t, stealing away, with pretty much all of her clothes and a gun her husband had given her. Rather than confronting Darryl, she leaves a note. The two head out in Louise's 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible for a two-day vacation in the mountain cabin of Louise’s boss. Out on the road, they make their first bad call.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) set out for two-day vacation.

Thelma has lived a sheltered life and wants to have some fun right away. They stop for a drink at a cowboy bar, The Silver Bullet, where the women are hit on by Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart). Thelma is naïve and lets Harlan buy her drinks and dance her dizzy. Louise is more controlled and while she dances with a man, she doesn’t lose her wits. She knows they should leave, but Harlan takes Thelma outside into the parking lot to get some air.

Harlan Puckett (Timoth Carhart) takes a naive Thelma out to the parking lot with the intent to rape her.

While they’re outside, Harlan gets fresh, but when Thelma rejects his advances, saying she’s married, Harlan loses control. He hits her and starts to rape her over the hood of a car when Louise shows up with Thelma’s gun. Harlan stops at gunpoint, but as the women walk away, he yells sexual profanities after them. Louise loses her temper and fires, killing him with a shot through his black heart; bad decision number two for our “heroes”. Thelma and Louise flee the scene, narrowly escaping multiple accidents as they do.

Louise comes to Thelma's aid with a loaded gun.

Thelma wants to go to the police, but Louise says that because Thelma was seen drinking and dancing with Harlan, no one will believe he tried to rape her. Afraid that she will be prosecuted, Louise decides to run away and Thelma decides to accompany her (bad decision number three).

Louise contacts her boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox (Michael Madsen), and asks him to send her money, equivalent to her life savings via Western Union to Oklahoma City. Jimmy agrees. On the way, Thelma and Louise come across a young hitchhiker, who claims to be a student, named J.D. (Brad Pitt). Thelma is attracted to him and convinces Louise to let him ride with them.

Michael Madsen plays Louise's boyfriend, Jimmy Lennox.

By now the police have started their investigation into Harlan’s murder and have narrowed their search to Thelma and Louse.

For reasons Louise won’t reveal, she wants to find a way to get to Mexico without going through Texas, which Thelma points out is the state between Oklahoma and Mexico.

When Louise goes to pick up the money, she discovers that Jimmy has come to see her. He wants to know what’s going on and to spend some time with her. He gets two rooms at the motel and Louise deposits Thelma in one, leaving the money with her. J.D., who had been chased off by Louise, comes back and talks Thelma into letting him in. This is bad decision number four.

A young Brad Pitt provides eye-candy as J.D.

While Louise and Jimmy talk about their relationship in one room, with Jimmy asking her to marry him and her politely refusing, J.D. tells Thelma about his past as a robber. He even demonstrates his technique to her.
In the morning, after Jimmy leaves, Thelma tells Louise about her night of passion with J.D. When Louise asks about the money, Thelma tells her that it’s still in the motel room, where she has left J.D. alone. Returning to the motel room, they find that J.D. has taken Louise's money and left.

For the first time, Louise is distraught and frozen with indecision, so a guilty Thelma rises to take charge. Using the same techniques J.D. had shown her, Louise robs a convenience store while Thelma waits in the car. (Can you say bad decision number five?)

Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) expresses sympathy for Thelma and Louise's plight.

Meanwhile, the FBI is getting closer to catching the fugitives. They question J.D. and Jimmy and are wiretapping the phone line at Darryl's house. Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) discovers the event that Louise experienced in Texas and, during a couple of brief phone conversations, expresses sympathy for her predicament and pledges to protect her, but he is unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade her to surrender.

On the road, Thelma and Louise run across a truck driver (Marco St. John) who makes obscene gestures at them as they drive by. He doesn’t realize who he is messing with.

The next morning, when a state trooper (Jason Beghe) stops them, he is about to find out who they are on the police radio when Thelma holds him at gunpoint and locks him in the trunk of the cruiser. Louise takes his gun and ammunition and they leave.

State Trooper (Jason Beghe) worries for his life after stopping Thelma and Louise.

Later, they encounter the same truck driver again. They pull him over and demand an apology, but when he refuses, they fire at the tanker the truck is towing, causing it to explode.

Thelma and Louise teach a trucker driver (Marco St. John) a lesson he won't soon forget.

By now, time is starting to run out on Thelma and Louise. They manage to elude a police pursuit but are finally cornered by the police officers only 100 yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Detective Slocumb arrives on the scene, but he is refused the chance to make one last attempt to talk the women into surrendering themselves.

Thelma and Louise decide not to surrender.

Rather than be captured and spend the rest of their lives in jail, Thelma proposes that they keep going. After a kiss, Louise steps on the accelerator and the car flies out over the canyon. The final still frame of the film leaves little doubt about the outcome. This is not a happy ending by a long shot unless you consider that the women are deciding for themselves how things will end. This self-determined, though fatal ending has become iconic, quickly becoming a part of American culture and even parodied in Wayne’s World 2 (1993).

The film ends with one of most iconic shots from a 1990s film.

Thelma & Louise has many of the same characteristics as film noirs do. Over and over in many of those films, the plots get underway when someone decides that they can’t go to the police because their story won’t be believed. Maybe they have a shady past or a general distrust of authority, but the protagonist does the opposite of what makes sense. And like a lie, one bad decision gets followed by another as they get themselves into further trouble and eventually find themselves in real peril.

Bad decisions are made by everyone in this film. While the women’s drive the film storylines, men make them to. Am I the only one that doesn’t smart ass someone holding a gun on them? What’s the best outcome Harlan could have hoped for by telling an angry woman holding a gun to blow him? Or the truck driver for not apologizing? Like the bad choices, Thelma & Louise make the men ones that go against common sense.

And what is a film noir without a femme fatale, which in this film is provided by beefcake J.D. While the film is best known for its iconic ending, it is also remembered for making Brad Pitt a household name. He had been acting in films since 1987, but Thelma & Louise put him on the map, so to speak. The film features him as eye-candy for the ladies. And like a good femme fatale, the protagonist's trust in him is punished as he runs off with their money. He did say he was a robber.

Of the two female leads, Susan Sarandon is the more accomplished of the two. She got her start in films with Joe (1970) and has worked steadily since then. Before Thelma & Louise, she had already appeared in such films as Lady Liberty (1971), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Pretty Baby (1978), King of the Gypsies (1978), The Hunger (1983), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Bull Durham (1988).

Geena Davis was a model before being cast in Tootsie (1982). Her first big break came when she was cast in the quirky sitcom Buffalo Bill (1983), starring Dabney Coleman. She had a major role in the remake of The Fly (1986) and Beetlejuice (1988). She would receive an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Accident Tourist (1988).

Both characters are interesting and flawed. At the beginning of the film, Louise is the stronger of the two. She is portrayed as an independent woman who has a boyfriend that she can manage without. She is the decision-maker for the first part of the movie: she organized this weekend getaway, she picked the bar to stop at, she decided to shoot to kill Harlan, she decides to run, etc. Thelma at this point is a naïve sheltered housewife who doesn’t seem to have a lick of sense when it comes to the world. She is the one who invites J.D. into her room and she is the one who loses their nest egg.

When Louise becomes frozen with worry, after J.D. takes off, Thelma suddenly grows a backbone. She is the one who decides to commit armed robbery. She is the one who pulls the gun on the Highway Patrolman. During that incident, Thelma is giving orders and Louise is struggling to follow, as an example, shooting the AM/FM radio instead of the police radio.

By the end of the film, the women are equals, so to speak, and jointly make the decision to commit suicide rather than face the uncertainty of being judged by the legal system.

However, I almost find it difficult to believe these women would be friends at all. They don’t seem to have much in common. There is no hint that these are childhood friends who have stuck together through thick and thin. The incident in Texas seems to be what drove Louise to Arkansas and the story suggests this is where they became friends, but they seem to be such polar opposites that you wonder where and why a friendship would bloom. Even in male buddy films, there has to be a reason for the men to be thrown together, whether planned or accidental. In this film, the women plan to do something together, but I don’t think the film lays down any foundation as to why.

A lot has already been written about the feminist qualities of the film. Presenting women as strong characters is overdue and the depiction of men is at times, spot on. Are there men like that truck driver who think women like overt sexual gestures? Sorry to say, but yes there are. Are there men, like Harlan, who think they can take advantage of a drunken woman? Again, regrettably yes. And are there husbands, like Darryl, who run their homes like their own little fiefdoms and dominate their wives? You betcha. Men come in all types, like women; many of which are flawed and damaged people, so the depiction of men is not out of line, though not representative of the entire gender.

Jimmy, Louise’s boyfriend, is depicted as a decent guy, but there is a backstory of neglect that the film hints at. A traveling musician, Jimmy apparently is away a lot of the time and doesn’t really appreciate the woman Louise is until it’s almost too late. He proposes marriage, which she declines because she doesn’t want to drag her down with him. But he also gives her up to authorities, as they refer to information they got from him helping to track them down, even though he told Louise he wouldn’t tell anyone about her.

Harvey Keitel’s Slocumb is depicted as the only truly decent man in the film; it needed to have at least one to rescue the gender from the trash bin. He seems to care about the women’s well-being, but for reasons that aren’t revealed in the film. He treats them with dignity, but his good intentions cannot stop the trajectory that they’re already on. This character is not really developed as much as it could be and there are apparently some deleted scenes that might have done that. But we are left to review the film as presented not as what it could have been.

While Thelma & Louise deals with some very serious subjects: rape, murder, and robbery; the film does have its moments of humor. When the police stake out Darryl’s house waiting for Thelma to call, they’re shown getting wrapped up in a movie on television to the point they groan when Darryl changes the channel to some sporting event. And there is the ganja smoking bicyclist who comes across the state trooper locked in his trunk. Rather than helping release him, the cyclist blows smoke into one of the air holes Thelma had shot in the lid. But these moments seem to take away from the film, padding its length, without really adding anything to the story.

The film was a success, though not a runaway hit, making $45 million on a budget of $16.5 million. On the critical side, the film received many accolades, including six Academy nominations, including two for Best Actress (Davis and Sarandon), Best Cinematography, Best Director and Film Editing and winning for Best Original Screenplay. But more than that, Thelma & Louise led to more films featuring women, you know how Hollywood loves a trend. Some of them were a success, A League of Their Own (1992), which starred Davis in a leading role, while others, like Cutthroat Island (1995), which also featured Davis in a gender-bending swashbuckler, would leave its studio, Carolco Pictures, bankrupt, though there are many more issues with the film than the female lead.

While Thelma & Louise is flawed, it is still worth watching, especially if you have never seen it. If nothing else, there are references in other films that will make sense after viewing. For me, the film shows that even strong women can make bad decisions. If you’re looking for a great film about women and their issues, then you might find it here as well. But as with beauty, any message is in the eyes of the beholder.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Mark Monroe. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Scott Pascucci, and Nigel Sinclair. Black and White and Color. UK/USA Runtime: 138 minutes (95 minutes + Additional footage of the Beatles at Shea Stadium). Documentary

During the 1960s, The Beatles were the biggest act on the planet, so big in fact that Variety magazine named them the top entertainment icons of the 20th century. Pretty good considering they were only recording and releasing music for a little less than 9 years; from late 1962 to early 1970.

While many today don’t think of The Beatles as a live act, since their most celebrated work came after they stopped touring in 1966, seeing them live was a memorable experience for those who were able to afford the $2 to $4 for a ticket to see them and who had a ride to the concert, since many were too young to drive. Trying to capture that magical moment is the idea behind Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years which had a short theatrical release before ending up on Hulu and eventually on DVD and Blu-Ray.

In the early 2000s, a film archivist company, One Voice, One World, approached Apple Corps., the Beatles’ company, looking for a commission to gather fan-made footage of the group performing. During the rise of Beatlemania, there was also an increase in the home use of movie cameras (think of your cell phone but much larger and with film reels). The project stalled for a few years, until Jeff Jones, the head of Apple Corps., brought in the producer of the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home" and the George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World,” Nigel Sinclair.

Sinclair was working with director Ron Howard on the film Rush (2013) and asked him if he would be interested in working on the project. Howard, in turn, brought in his long-time producing partner, Brian Glazer. In addition to Howard, Glazer, and Sinclair, Scott Pascucci, the CEO of Bicycle Music, also serves as producer.

To enhance the sound quality, Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ music producer, George Martin, was brought in. Giles had worked on the music for the Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil Vegas show Love. Some of the sounds were originally recorded by the Beatles but never previously released.

While part of the hook for the film is that it includes crowd-sourced footage, a lot of the footage is really from pre-existing news sources, like press conferences and previously released footage from the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan, their Budokan concert in Tokyo and their Shea Stadium concert, though there is some fan footage involved as well. A lot of it is hand-held, sometimes out of focus and sometimes blurry, but it was certainly as heartfelt as selfies are supposed to be. There was a shared experience for those who saw them live and it is their telling of that experience that can be very interesting and they get screen time as long as they are celebrities.

The Beatles perform in England when America was just a goal.

Sigourney Weaver, who saw them at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964, recounts her own adolescent fantasy of being noticed out in the crowd.

Whoopi Goldberg was someone I would never have associated with the Beatles, but apparently, their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show had a real impact on her and her getting to see them at Shea Stadium was a true highlight for her. Her telling of that story is very moving. Surprisingly, the footage of the show looks really horrible on the big screen. Not sure why, but that has no impact on Goldberg’s story.

Elvis Costello, a fellow Liverpudlian and a musician, can speak of them on two levels, fan and contemporary. His insights as a fan growing up provide some great commentary about how fans reacted to their musical maturation.

Larry Kane, a Miami-based journalist who accompanied them on their 1964 tour, provides some very insightful recollections of his time with the group. It is from him that we see that they made an effort to be kind to their opening acts, that were largely ignored by the crowds. It is also through him that we learn the Beatles refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, which forced the Gator Bowl to allow blacks and whites to buy tickets and sit together.

Also interesting, but really unrelated to their live performance was the comments of Howard Goodall, a composer, some of whose work you might or not be familiar with. He speaks in wonderment of the Beatles’ accomplishment with melodies in terms of the work of Mozart.

The film loosely chronicles the Beatles' rise from their roots in the Cavern Club in Liverpool to super-stardom, occasionally stepping back from the progress to delve into other details, like their songwriting skills and their relationship with manager Brian Epstein, who doesn’t get mentioned until the Shea Stadium concert footage when he’s shown watching like a protective father from the sidelines. While Epstein may have failed to make them all the money they could have, he certainly succeeded in making them famous.

The Beatles perform in Washington D.C. during their first visit to the U.S.

Some time is also given over to their accomplishments in the studio, both in having number one albums, but also the maturation of their songs and the complexities that they couldn’t perform live on stage. George Martin, their producer and the most likely candidate for Fifth Beatle determination, helped shepherd them through this process and gets some of the credit he deserves.

The Beatles are also interviewed, providing the kind of insight that only one of them could provide. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were interviewed specifically for the film, while file footage of the late George Harrison and John Lennon were scoured for their insights.

The Beatles sound didn't come together until Ringo Starr joined the band.

The film hits certain highlights of the Beatles’ tours, though overall it seems a little American-centric. We see them in certain cities, but the predominant amount seems to be in the States, not England. That is not to say there aren’t performances in the UK, Japan, and Denmark, but their residence in Paris at the beginning of 1964 is shown in only as it relates to their coming to America.

Candlestick Park was the last concert The Beatles would play in front of a paying crowd.

One of my sons had a Popular Culture class in college and the professor made the asinine observation that A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was made to show audiences how they should react when they saw the Beatles. That declaration overlooked the fact that audiences were screaming for them long before United Artists had the bright idea to try and capitalize on what they thought was a fast-moving trend that would have worn itself out by mid-1964. This film is a testament that predominantly female audiences were screaming for them when they were still playing the Cavern Club and did not need to be instructed to do so.

It didn't take more than a couple of years before the Beatles tired of the "freak show" they were becoming. After the breakthrough year of 1964, 1965 seemed like a repeat. They toured and recorded extensively and made another film, Help! 1966 promised more of the same, but touring was getting to be too much of a grind and all four decided after Candlestick Park to stop touring altogether.

The film ends with the Beatles final performance on the rooftop of Apple Corp. in London. Even though the group was on the verge of breaking up in 1969, they were still a tight band and it really appears they still enjoyed playing with each other. Seeing this footage, in particular, is a reminder that there is still a viable Beatles documentary waiting for a new public release. Let It Be (1970) has not been seen for years and would be a welcomed release should the Beatles’ Apple Corps. decide to finally release it for consumption again.

The Beatles perform at Shea Stadium.

In the theaters, the film is accompanied by 30 minutes of a 50-minute concert film of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium show. Among their firsts were stadium shows. While not the first, Shea was the most famous. Originally shot by Ed Sullivan’s production company, this shorter version eliminates the opening acts but contains all of their performance. Remastered in 4K, the show doesn’t really look all that enhanced.

One of the predominant questions the Beatles were asked during their 1964 tour is what were they going to do when the bubble burst. The applause at the end of the film during the showing I attended proves that the bubble never did. The Beatles may have broken up but their legacy lives on as their songs, and the screaming fans still resonate in our ears.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stubs – Witness to Murder

Witness to Murder (1954) Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill. Directed by Roy Rowland. Produced by Chester Erskine. Screenplay by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson (uncredited). Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Suspense

This film has B-Movie written all over it. While the cast is good: Barbara Stanwyck (the femme fatale from Double Indemnity (1944)) with George Sanders and Gary Merrill (both known for their work in All About Eve (1950)) and the premise, a single woman witnesses the brutal strangulation of another woman, is intriguing, it is the execution that holds this film back from being really good.

Stanwyck, who had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, was watching that career transition. At 47, she was a little old to be playing some of the roles that she had once been associated with, such as the Burlesque queen in Ball of Fire (1941) and seductress as she played in the aforementioned Double Indemnity. An Academy bridesmaid, Stanwyck had been nominated four times as Best Actress for her work in Stella Dallas (1937); Ball of Fire; Double Indemnity and Sorry Wrong Number (1948), but never won the award. By 1954, her best roles were behind her, though she was far from done in films or on television. She might be best remembered by a certain generation for her four-year turn as Victoria Barkley on TV’s The Big Valley (1965-1969).

Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) is awakened in the middle
 of the night and  happens to look out her window.

In Witness to Murder, Stanwyck plays Cheryl Draper, a single woman who works as an interior designer at Sloane in Beverly Hills (W & J Sloane would get a credit for supplying furniture for the movie. Can anyone say product placement?). A trick of the light awakes Cheryl and as she gets out of bed to close her drapes, she looks out the window. What she sees will change her life forever.

Albert Richter (George Sanders) disposes of Joyce Stewart (Lyn Thomas).

Across the street, through the open window, she sees Albert Richter (George Sanders) strangling a woman. In the struggle, the woman rips the curtains, but can’t fight Richter off. When the killing is over, Cheryl calls the police. Richter sees the police cars arrive and, taking his time, hides the woman’s body in the conveniently unlocked and unoccupied apartment down the hall. Police Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Sgt. Eddie Vincent (Jesse White) arrive and speak to Cheryl before going across the street.

Detective Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Eddie Vincent
 (Jesse White) interview Cheryl about what she saw.

At Richter’s apartment, the police do what at best could be considered a cursory investigation. They don’t notice the ripped curtain or the woman’s earring that Richter clumsily conceals. Satisfied that it is nothing, the police go back across the street to speak to Cheryl. Richter can see the apartment they’re going to. Mathews is very dismissive of what Cheryl claims to have seen, trying to convince her it was only a dream.

The next day, Cheryl notices Richter doing something suspicious.

But the next morning, Cheryl watches as Richter loads a large crate into the back of his car as she leaves for work, which is slap-you-in-the-face suspicious. At work, Cheryl can’t concentrate, so after a run out to far away Van Nuys to meet with a client, she goes over to Richter’s apartment building. The manager (Dick Elliott) is only too eager to show her a vacant apartment, which happens to be the same one that Richter had temporarily hidden the dead body in. She notices drag marks on the floor. When she says she would need to see an apartment that’s furnished, he takes her, without permission, into Richter’s apartment.

There she sees a pair of earrings on his desk, which she pockets. Richter though happens to be in the hallway when she leaves and notices that the earrings are missing. Cheryl beelines it down to police headquarters and straight to Lt. Mathews, but Richter has already reported the theft of the evidence. Richter also comes down unannounced. He apparently already knows Cheryl’s name, though they’ve never been formally introduced. He refuses to press charges and Cheryl is set free.

Cheryl thinks she's found evidence, but she is almost charged with theft.

Mathews takes more than a professional interest in Cheryl. He comes over to see her and talks her into letting him take her out to dinner. We learn from Mathews that he knows Richter’s past as a former Nazi, which is shorthand in anyone’s book for evil. Currently, he claims to be an author, though his books don’t sell, and historian. Richter is currently engaged to the widow of a rich banker, who lives in Pasadena.

Cheryl, who has bought a copy of Richter’s book, reads a passage from it that reveals a Nazi elitism in his views for the role of violence in society. Mathews also reveals what he knows about Cheryl’s backstory; former architecture student, she was once engaged to a boy who died in the war, which she doesn’t seem to have completely gotten over. Mathews, whose sole purpose at this point is exposition, tells Cheryl that he’s going to law school at night, is six months from his degree and hopes one day to be a respected judge. We can tell that Cheryl is somewhat attracted to Mathews, but their fledgling relationship gets off to a rocky start when Richter posts a letter to himself as if written by Cheryl. He even goes so far as to confront her with his own letter in her apartment. He tells her he won’t press charges and balls up the letter in front of her.

Richter confronts Cheryl over letters he accuses her of writing.

But the confrontation is only a ruse to get inside her apartment so that he can jimmy with her door lock. Upset by his intrusion and allegation, Cheryl hurries out to look for Mathews, but, of course, doesn’t check to see if the front door to her apartment is locked. Richter sneaks back in and types more blackmailing letters to himself on her conveniently obvious typewriter. He even retypes the first letter he’d sent himself.

Well, Richter goes so far as to complain to Mathews’ superior, Captain Donnelly (Harry Shannon), about the multiple letters he’s received. Mathews tries to let his Captain let him handle the situation, but it’s already too late. Cheryl has been called down to the station, where Donnelly accuses her of writing the letters and produces, as evidence, the typewriter from her office (can anyone say illegal search and seizure?). He brow beats her into conceding that it looks bad and commits her to a psychiatric ward for observation. Richter is trying and succeeding at ruining her reputation as a witness. But Mathews gets her out.

Cheryl ends up in a psychiatric ward before Mathews gets her out.

Meanwhile, a naked woman’s body has been found in Griffith Park and has been identified based on her fingerprints. Mathews cajoles his partner into doing a little moonlighting on someone else’s case. They go to the woman’s apartment with the Richter’s book jacket photo and ask around if anyone had ever seen him around. But no one has. They go into her apartment, which is being babysat by a policeman (Claude Akins). There they find, in the possessions of a woman described as a dancer/hooker, a copy of Richter’s book. That is enough evidence for Mathews to draw a connection between the dead woman and Richter. They hurry to Cheryl’s apartment.

But Richter is already inside Cheryl’s apartment (did she never lock her front door again?). He reveals to her his master plan, using his thinking and his fiancée’s money he can rule the world, so to speak. But the blonde was in his way and now so is Cheryl. He decides that it’s time for her to commit suicide and has even conveniently typed out her suicide note. But Cheryl fights him off. When a policewoman Mathews has sent over to check on her arrives, she, of course, misreads the situation and assumes Cheryl is crazy. A foot chase takes place with Cheryl gathering a posse of Richter, the policewoman, bystanders and eventually Mathews and Vincent.

Things get heavy for Cheryl before she manages an escape.

Cheryl runs to a building site and runs up the scaffolding to the top of the building, (Why do women in distress run up buildings rather than stay on the ground?) Richter pursues her and manages to toss her over the side before Mathews can make it up the stairs. We’re shown that quite a crowd has miraculously assembled below with police holding back the lines of spectators (How did they organize so fast?). But Cheryl falls only a few feet to a conveniently-placed scaffold. Mathews and Richter struggle, with Mathews managing to pitch Richter down a multi-story shaft to his assumed death.

A conveniently placed scaffold saves Cheryl's life.

But in one more suspense scene, Mathews has to get Cheryl off the scaffolding before it collapses. And wouldn’t you know it he does, grabbing her wrist just as the scaffolding falls. Cheryl becomes so much “dead” weight that the policemen have to pull her up and into Mathews’ waiting arms. And off they walk to a presumed happy ever after.

Cheryl has to be hauled up like so much dead weight.

In my review of Double Indemnity, I had referred to Witness to Murder, in discussing Stanwyck’s career, as “highly under-rated.” Having seen it more recently I need to adjust my proclamation. This is really just an okay movie with problems that keep it from being better. Some of those problems have to do with the writing. Chester Erskine is a bit of a mystery as a writer. His best-known film was The Egg and I (1947), a comedy which paired Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert about a woman who finds out her new husband wants to be a chicken farmer (a precursor of sorts to the Green Acres TV Series). But the film is perhaps best remembered for introducing the Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) Kettle characters that would go on to have their own series of films. Hardly the resume for writing suspense. On the other hand, Erskine wrote and produced the excellent film noir, All My Sons (1948), which is far superior to the effort here.

The script seems to rely on exposition rather than showing and there are far too many conveniences and shortcuts. Why would an empty apartment be unlocked? Why didn’t Richter just walk away from Cheryl after it was shown she was thought to be unreliable? Why was there a scaffold just right where it needed to be when there didn’t seem to be any purpose for it? Making Richter a former Nazi is too easy a way to make him a villain. I could go on and on with problems with the story. And try as hard as Cheryl does, she never really gets anything on Richter until he confesses to her, which again was just dumb on his part.

This is far from Stanwyck’s best performance. Merrill is, I’m afraid, not that great of an actor, but his Mathews is a little too one-note good cop. His fight with Richter seems to be a little out of left field since up until now his character has been milquetoast. Jesse White seems clearly on his way to being the lonely Maytag repairman, a part he played in TV commercials from 1967 to 1988, as he seems to spend most of the film at a desk waiting for the phone to ring.

Witness to Murder is an example of a concept that gets handled better by a better director. The premise of seeing a murder from your window and then having to convince the police it really happened was also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), which came out later the same year as this film. Rear Window is considered a classic and Witness for Murder is not. If the premise intrigues you, I’d recommend Rear Window.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Second Look - Duke Nukem Forever + The Doctor Who Cloned Me

If there’s one game that’s managed to remain a running joke for its constant delays throughout half the industry’s life cycle at the time, that would be Duke Nukem Forever. Originally announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever was meant to act as the sequel to the ever-popular Duke Nukem 3D, with the intent that it would be out the door shortly. However, the release date kept getting pushed back until it eventually became the infamous and oft-mocked “When It’s Done,” making one lose hope in the game ever being made a reality. The extensive development history of this particular title has been well-documented, especially in regards to the various changes in content and even graphics engine; the game took so long to develop that there’s an entire website dedicated to documenting major things that happened while Duke Nukem Forever was still in development, and several outlets such as the Penny Arcade webcomic have made a number of jokes about it on par with the “When Hell freezes over” or “When pigs fly” metaphors.

The famous pre-order receipt from a "patient, patient man."

In 2010, things seemed to have finally come to a halt when 3D Realms finally had to abandon development of Duke Nukem Forever, having been forced into bankruptcy by their own game. However, all was not lost as Borderlands developer Gearbox picked up the Duke Nukem IP in order to finish off development of Duke Nukem Forever, resulting in its long-awaited release in 2011, 14 years after the original announcement. Owners of Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition also got a code granting membership to the Duke Nukem Forever First Access Club, which included special content exclusive to Club members, as well as a free copy of the Hail to the Icons Parody Pack DLC.

And if, like me, you bought the Balls of Steel Edition of the game,
you also got a bunch of extra cool stuff.

Five years later, I finally decided to get around to actually playing the game, which I had been meaning to do for the sake of its historical significance (although I wasn't actually among those waiting for the game during its entire 15-year development cycle). While it initially released to no shortage of controversy for a number of reasons (chief among them being some long-time Duke Nukem fans over-hyping the game for themselves), enough time has passed for the dust to have settled and to finally look at this title more objectively. While normally this would be a Second Opinion due to having had a Duke Nukem Forever review already, there’s been so much of a time gap since the original review that this will be labeled a Second Look to determine how well this game has held up after five years since its initial release.

Taking place 12 years after Duke Nukem 3D, the world has been at peace. Duke Nukem has become a celebrity, having an appearance scheduled on a talk show when the aliens invade once again for seemingly personal reasons. Duke seems to not think much of this, though things become personal for him once the aliens kidnap two of his babes, twins, and vows to take the aliens down. Despite Duke’s eagerness however, the President orders him not to go after the aliens; Duke does anyway.

The game starts off with a rematch against the Cycloid Emperor from
the end of Duke Nukem 3D.

This story serves as merely an excuse for the plot to get rolling, which is actually rather typical for a Duke Nukem game. Rather, the gameplay takes center stage while whatever story there is becomes more or less relegated to the background. The core gameplay is similar to Duke Nukem 3D in that it’s a fairly linear first-person shooter with a variety of weaponry and gadgets. However, there is some variety in that there are some elements of platforming and puzzle-solving, as well as a good number of driving sections. The driving sections are a good way to break up gameplay that can otherwise become monotonous, with fairly decent controls and physics to allow traversal across a vast area to reach the next destination.

There’s also the ability to interact with a number of objects within the world, most of which are there to provide a humorous distraction from the main game during a quiet moment. Their main purpose, however, is to provide a boost to Duke’s Ego, the health system introduced in the spin-off game Land of the Babes and improved upon in Manhattan Project, the first time they are interacted with. Such activities include, among others, throwing a paper airplane, admiring yourself, and getting a high score in pinball (though the pinball physics themselves leave something to be desired). Ego regenerates over time when you are not taking damage, though performing an execution on an enemy will fill it back up completely.

You can even sign a copy of Duke's book, Why I'm So Great,
from Duke Nukem II.

Likely a byproduct of the game’s rather lengthy development time, the graphics are a little sub-par, as though mildly unfinished, not helped by the presence of texture loading that usually takes a couple seconds. The loading times themselves between each level can also take a couple minutes, so it can take a while to get back into the action if you die at any time before reaching a checkpoint. There’s also the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time (unless you play the PC port, which I did not), although I was able to get by with only two by playing on Easy/Piece of Cake (you also earn a Trophy/Achievement for carrying the starting golden pistol with you the whole time).

The game contains a plethora of pop culture and internet references, many of which are evident of the game’s development cycle. Pop culture references include jabs at the games Dead Space, Halo and Half-Life among others, as well as references to movies such as Robocop, while an example of nodding to internet culture would be to memes such as Leroy Jenkins and one that stemmed from a misquote of South Park. References of the sort are not new to Duke Nukem, though at least unlike Duke Nukem 3D these are not required knowledge to advance the game; on that note, Keycards are no longer necessary to get to the next area, which helps everything go more smoothly.

While the game can be easy to get through if you know what you’re doing, the Boss fights at the end of some stages are actually rather difficult, particularly if it is a multi-stage fight; dying once means you have to start the entire battle over again, and multi-stage fights are no exception. The most difficult of them is the Octaking, especially since it can spawn Octabrains to attack you, forcing you to have to either multi-task or try to take the Boss down as quickly as possible before being overrun by Octabrains. Though the Bosses can be difficult, the Ego boost you get for defeating one is worth it in the end.

A positive about the game is the music, consisting mostly of the main theme “Grabbag” and numerous remixes, since it worked well with whatever was going on, though there are moments where it worked not to have ambient music. Some bits I particularly liked were the music that played during puzzle sections, as well as the sound that plays when an enemy encounter is over. The voice acting is pretty decent all around, but the best performance comes from Jon St. John as Duke Nukem himself, his experience voicing the character shining through as his delivery helps pull off the one-liners and pop culture references Duke spouts.

A few months after the release of Duke Nukem Forever, a new bit of single-player DLC was released expanding on the game’s story, called The Doctor Who Cloned Me. This DLC brings back Dr. Proton, the villain of the original Duke Nukem game, who plans to use an army of Duke Nukem clones to try and defeat the alien menace on the moon. Notably, The Doctor Who Cloned Me feels more story-driven than the base game, though what probably helps is that it didn’t take 15 years to make, thus feeling generally more focused.

The music in this add-on content is still good, though I noticed that some of whatever was in the main game had either been cut or altered; for example, the puzzle music is absent in what seemed like a puzzle section and the sound that plays during an Ego boost is a little different. I can only speculate that it may have had to do with original DNF developer 3D Realms in some way, but I can’t say anything for certain. The voice acting is still great, with Jon St. John still providing an excellent performance for Duke Nukem. This is also the first time I’ve heard Dr. Proton speak (I gather he was also voiced in Duke Nukem: Critical Mass for the Nintendo DS), though unfortunately it’s impossible for me to find out who exactly voiced him in this game.

Behold, the return of Dr. Proton.

The graphics quality is similar to that of Duke Nukem Forever, though that’s likely a result of recycling the same engine; there’s even the same issue with loading screens and texture loading, though at least the loading screens contain new messages. The add-on also introduces some new enemies and Ego boosts, plus there’s now a mechanic where you can just let the aliens and Dr. Proton’s forces fight each other, provided you don’t get caught in the crossfire.

I was going to make a quip here about how much longer we’d have to wait before getting another Duke Nukem game, but coincidentally enough a new one was formally announced within the span of my Duke Nukem Forever playthrough, Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour, an HD remake of Duke Nukem 3D. The remake is set to include new music from the original composer, a brand new level designed by the original level designers and new voice recordings and one-liners for Duke Nukem by none other than Jon St. John. This seems like a great way to celebrate the legacy of the franchise, though it appears we’ll still have to wait a bit longer for a proper Duke Nukem 5 (that hopefully won’t take 15 years to develop).

Let's just hope this is good until then.

As a whole, Duke Nukem Forever is an okay game. When you know that it took 15 years to develop, it kind of shows in the end product, though on its own the game is actually pretty enjoyable to varying degrees. It doesn’t really stand apart that much from other games in its genre, but the charisma of the Duke Nukem character and the historical significance of the game are enough to give it a shot.

As for The Doctor Who Cloned Me, it takes many of the better aspects of Duke Nukem Forever and concentrates them into an enjoyable extra campaign that is arguably better than the game itself. I would still recommend playing Duke Nukem Forever first, mainly for historical and story purposes, but generally fans of the original Duke Nukem will find great entertainment in seeing a classic villain return to take center stage in this DLC.

Remember, always bet on Duke.