Saturday, March 31, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War Primer

Note: This article contains spoilers related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

April 27, 2018 marks the release of the highly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War. This release is not only significant in that the Avengers will finally fight Thanos, but also because it represents the culmination of a decade of continuity, going all the way back to Iron Man (2008), six of those being spent toward the actual buildup, beginning with The Avengers (2012).

However, the anticipation for Infinity War is tempered a bit by the fact that it will likely rely on the audience having seen a whopping 18 previous films. This includes the recently-released Black Panther (2018), which will likely still be in theaters by the time Infinity War drops (unless Disney rushes a home video release). This sort of buildup means that it can be time-consuming for someone to re-watch everything or for someone new to catch up. Watching every film is very beneficial for understanding all 60+ characters slated to appear in Infinity War, but even then, some of the details for the upcoming blockbuster may have been forgotten with time.

In preparation for Avengers: Infinity War, we at Trophy Unlocked have created this handy guide to finding many, if not all, of the smaller details which are the most beneficial for viewers going in. Below we will list the most relevant films alongside their most relevant moments, as well as a brief description of what happens in each scene and why it was chosen. For veteran viewers, this guide will be more of a refresher. For newcomers, this will venture into spoiler territory, but may help as a roadmap of sorts.

Note: For Black Panther, I’ve consulted descriptions on the internet since it's still in theaters.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Scene 1: Loki converses with the Other.

Partway through the movie, the Avengers are slowly coming together. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), meanwhile, uses the power of his staff to contact the Other (Alexis Denisof), a being who resides in Sanctuary in the middle of space. The Other needs Loki to lead the Chitauri in an invasion of Earth, though Loki, while confident, doubts their strength. The Other hints at a greater power who gave Loki the staff and tells him that his ambition pales in comparison to what this other being has planned. Loki points out that they do not yet have the Tesseract, which puts them in a worse position. In response, the Other threatens Loki with a fate worse than death should he fail to retrieve the Tesseract.

Significance: This scene is the first hint that throughout the entirety of The Avengers, there was always a threat greater than Loki lurking around the corner. Before this threat was first established, it also hinted that there was more to the Tesseract, which first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) as the Cosmic Cube, than anyone knew.

Scene 2: Mid-Credits

The buildup continues with the culmination of Phase One of the MCU. Partway through the credits, after the major names have gone by, we see Sanctuary once more. The camera pans on the Other while he speaks to a hidden figure about how the humans are not only more resilient than they had anticipated, but also unruly. The second figure stands up from a chair and the Other says, rather ominously, “To challenge them is to court death.” The second figure then turns to the camera with a smile, revealing their identity as Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Significance: This scene was the very first glimpse the audience would ever get at Thanos, creating the carrot-on-a-stick that kept moviegoers returning throughout Phase Two and Three in case any future film could tell them more. Though some would do this job better than others, re-watching this scene is a good reminder of where all of the buildup and hype for Infinity War began.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Scene: Mid-Credits

Throughout Thor: The Dark World, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who rules the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, has threatened both Earth and Asgard with the Aether. Once the major names have gone by in the credits, the Asgardians Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) are introduced to Taneleer Tivan, aka the Collector (Benicio del Toro), who already knows why they have come. He asks why they don’t store the Aether back on Asgard, to which Volstagg says that they already have the Tesseract and that it is unwise to keep two Infinity Stones so close together. Once the Asgardians entrust him with the Aether and leave, the Collector ominously states, “One down, five to go.”

Significance: This scene is the first to formally acknowledge the existence of the Infinity Stones within the MCU. At the same time, it suggests that the Tesseract (the Space Stone) and the Aether (the Reality Stone) are two of them. For a lead-in to Infinity War, this scene confirms that the Reality Stone is currently within the possession of the Collector.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Scene 1: Ronan meets Thanos

At this point, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin sent by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), has unsuccessfully attempted to steal The Orb from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and has landed in the Klyn, an interstellar prison. In this scene, the Other contacts Ronan and informs him that his partnership with Thanos is at risk since Gamora appears to have her own plans for The Orb. Ronan is summoned to Sanctuary, where he insists that he has nothing to do with Gamora’s supposed betrayal. When the Other tries to put Ronan in his place, Ronan kills him, which grabs the attention of Thanos. Thanos, who shows no remorse for the Other’s death, berates Ronan for his attitude and threatens him with death should he not retrieve The Orb as promised.

Significance: This scene establishes that the Other will not return within Infinity War, and why, and also gives us a look into Thanos’ personality. More specifically, Thanos is the type who cares not for the well-being of those who serve him. Later movies would fail to expand more on this, but it’s at least something.

Scene 2: The Guardians meet the Collector

After escaping from the Klyn, Star-Lord and company go to Knowhere to sell The Orb to the Collector. When they finally have an audience with him, the Collector explains the nature of The Orb. He explains that six singularities existed before creation, but after the universe exploded into existence, their remnants became six concentrated ingots known as Infinity Stones. The power of the stones is so destructive that only beings of great power are able to wield them without being destroyed. When the Collector goes to retrieve the payment for the Power Stone inside The Orb, one of his servants, Carina (Ophelia Lovibond), grabs the Stone as a power grab, but is erased from existence as the Stone’s power destroys most of the Collector’s collection. Once the dust settles, Gamora retrieves The Orb and suggests giving it to the Nova Corps.

Significance: The origin of the Infinity Stones is explained and the power of the Power Stone is destructively demonstrated. Background visuals related to the origin of the Infinity Stones also more firmly confirm the status of the Tesseract and Aether as two of the Stones.

Scene 3: Closing Montage

After the defeat of Ronan, the Nova Corps speaks with Star-Lord and drop hints for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. During a closing montage set to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, we see a shot of Nova Prime (Glenn Close) placing an orb containing the Power Stone into a vault.

Significance: At the risk of sounding redundant, this moment, though brief, confirms that the Power Stone is currently in the hands of the Nova Corps.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Scene 1: Thor has a hallucination

While the Avengers are trying to subdue Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, the latter uses her powers to cause most of the Avengers to see hallucinations. In Thor's hallucination, in which Heimdall calls him a destroyer, an image flashes of four of the six Infinity Stones as well as a close-up of Vision's face.

Significance: While not significant to Infinity War on its own, it does provide context for the next scene.

Scene 2: Thor travels to the Water of Sight

After the Avengers take refuge at Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner) abode, Thor takes off to find an answer to his hallucination. With the aid of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), he reaches the Water of Sight and states that he'll be able to return to his vision should the spirits of the water accept him, though Selvig is unsure it'll end well. As Thor struggles with the power of the water, he continues his vision, which shows him the Infinity Stones. He sees the Mind Stone come out of Loki's staff, followed by the Power Stone in the Orb, the Reality Stone form from the Aether and the Tesseract burst into the Space Stone. The four stones align within a cloud in space which resembles the Infinity Gauntlet.

Significance: Thor gains information about the Infinity Stones, which ties into his decision in the next scene. As for its context for the MCU, it confirms that Loki's staff contained one of the Stones and reconfirms that the Aether was another Stone.

Scene 3: Thor brings Vision to life

At this point in the film, the Avengers fight amongst themselves to prevent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from activating a synthetic body containing J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appears to activate the body, Vision, and, after a brief altercation, explains that the gem which powers Vision is the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones, which he had seen in his earlier vision.

Significance: This scene confirms both that Loki had wielded the Mind Stone throughout The Avengers and that the Stone currently resides within Vision’s forehead.

Scene 4: Mid-Credits

After the major names have gone by, we see light flood into an opening vault with a mysterious object, an empty Infinity Gauntlet, at the center. Thanos reaches into the vault and slips his hand into the Infinity Gauntlet. He states simply, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”

Significance: Simply put, Thanos has now gone from a passive observer and armchair general to active participant in his plan to collect and wield the six Infinity Stones.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Scene: The Whole Movie

Significance: Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pick out any specific scene or scenes in particular that are more important for Infinity War. It is highly recommended to watch the entire movie, since the events of Civil War establish the character relationships and alliances that will echo into the beginning of Infinity War (at least among the characters on Earth).

Doctor Strange (2016)

Scene: Doctor Strange learns about the Time Stone

After defeating Dormammu (Benedict Cumberbatch), Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) returns the Eye of Agamotto to Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Once the Eye is placed onto a special pedestal, Wong (Benedict Wong) appears and tells Strange that the Eye is actually an Infinity Stone. Strange expresses confusion and Wong tells him that in spite of his gift for the mystic arts, he still has much to learn, adding that death will spread through the Multiverse if the Earth does not have a Sorcerer Supreme to protect it. Strange assures Wong that they will be ready.

Significance: This scene establishes that the Time Stone currently resides in Kamar-Taj in Nepal.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Scene 1: Loki revives Surtur

During the climax of the movie, Loki goes to the Asgardian vault to retrieve Surtur's crown. On his way to the Eternal Flame, in order to revive Surtur to cause Ragnarok and defeat Hela, Loki passes by the Tesseract and briefly stops to look at it.

Significance: This scene implies that afterwards, Loki is in possession of the Space Stone.

Scene 2: Mid-Credits

At the end of the movie, Thor, the new king of Asgard, has chosen to take his people to Earth to rebuild their civilization. When this scene begins, Loki asks Thor whether or not it's a good idea for him to return to Earth. Thor says it probably isn't, but he's confident everything will work out fine. As soon as he says this, a much larger ship, Sanctuary II, appears before them.

Significance: This scene confirms the current location of Thor and Loki.

Black Panther (2018)

Scene: Post-Credits

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) wakes up in a tent in a Wakandan village and wanders out. He is met by Shuri (Letita Wright), who begins to help him with his recuperation.

Significance: This scene re-confirms that Bucky Barnes is currently within Wakanda and that he’s recovered in time for his appearance in Infinity War.

I hope this guide has been helpful. Have I left anything out or made a mistake in the descriptions? Any other scenes of note? Are you looking forward to Infinity War? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review Hub - Kingdom Hearts

Since the release of the original Kingdom Hearts game in 2002, the franchise has captured the minds of those who have played it due to its intriguing premise, compelling characters, exciting gameplay and an increasingly complex and engaging storyline about the light and darkness within people's hearts. Many of these fans would also grow up with the franchise and continue to invest in and enjoy each subsequent release on the long road to the finish. With the release of Kingdom Hearts III now finally within reach, we would like to present a Review Hub collecting our coverage of the series on this blog.

Below is a list of links to every Kingdom Hearts review on this blog, presented in order of release.

Update (3/2/2019): Added Kingdom Hearts III

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stubs - Lady Bird

Lady Bird (2017) Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith Directed by Greta Gerwig. Screenplay by Greta Gerwig. Produced by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Evelyn O'Neill. Runtime 94 minutes. USA Color Drama, Comedy, Coming-of-age

Growing up is never easy and practically every teenager thinks they’re somehow being held back from reaching their potential by location, by their school, by their parents and even by their friends. High school senior Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) feels trapped by all of those things.

While she has a love for Sacramento, California, where she has been raised, she yearns to go somewhere more inviting to her aspirations, which are never fully defined. She chafes at her Catholic high school to which her parents have sent her, despite not having all that much money, to save her from the dangers of public schools.

Much of the focus of Lady Bird is the relationship between mother (Laurie Metcalf) R and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) L.

Lady Bird, a name she calls herself as a way of being her own person, has an on-again-off-again relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a full-time nurse. Like many teenage daughters, there is a love-hate relationship between her and her mother. Her mother may want Lady Bird to be the best version of herself that she can be, but Lady Bird asks what if this is the best version of herself.

Her relationship with her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), is much easier as he never seems to deal with issues the way her mother does. Larry, who loses his job, tries too hard to be her friend rather than be her father. But he does encourage her in a different way than her mother, allowing Lady Bird to apply for out-of-state colleges, something her mother is vehemently against.

Real friends are hard to find and for awhile Lady Bird jettisons her best friend, Julianne "Julie" Steffans (Beanie Feldstein), for Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), a wealthier and more popular girl at school. There are also love interests, Danny O'Neill (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), neither of whom turn out to be all that rewarding though both are memorable. Eventually, Lady Bird realizes that true friendship means something to her and she smartly reconnects with Julianne. But when school is out, they end up going their separate ways.

Lady Bird has two love interests during the film, one of which is  Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet).

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, an actress turned director, and a native of Sacramento, you have to wonder how much of her life we’re actually seeing played out on the screen. You know the maxim is to write what you know. You feel a little like you’ve been placed in the middle of an on-going story. Lady Bird’s journey takes a while to get going and it feels like we’re leaving her just when it seems to be getting really interesting. There is nothing like waking up in a strange town in a strange bed to help readjust yourself.

While we learn a lot about Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) is never really dealt with. Is he adopted? Is he the child from a first marriage? While it’s not really very important to the plot, it does leave you with a lot of questions, since he is a constant presence through much of her senior year.

The acting, for the most part, is really good and three actors stood out for me. Saoirse Ronan never seems to be flat in any of her films, as recognized by her three acting nominations: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Atonement (2008) and Best Actress Nominations for Brooklyn (2016) and this film.

It's a battle of wills between mother and daughter.

Laurie Metcalf is truly a national treasure and seems to excel at whatever role she’s given, from Sheldon’s Mom in The Big Bang Theory, Rosanne’s sister in the Rosanne shows or playing a complex mother figure in this film. Strong-willed, she still loves her daughter and despite it all, makes a lasting impression on her. She always seems believable in her roles whether playing them for laughs or tears.

Tracy Letts has a much smaller role as Lady Bird’s father, but he’s really good in the role. He seems a little old for me in the part, but he comes across as a weak but loving man. His chief role in the family seems to be mitigatory between mother and daughter, something he does with a deft political touch.

I will say that the film was quite enjoyable to watch. Even the funny bits that I had already been exposed to were still funny and that’s sort of hard to do these days with previews and trailers being so readily available. I would also recommend this film to anyone of a certain age trying to figure out where they fit in the world. Lady Bird’s journey, while unique to her, does have some universal truths. You must always stay truthful to yourself being one of them.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie (Remastered)

Back in 2004, Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie (aka Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light), first released in the US as a critical and commercial failure, mainly because it was impenetrable for non-fans. However, when I first saw the movie as a kid, I didn’t really care and was able to enjoy it (although it did spoil the outcome of the Battle City Arc of the anime, which hadn’t finished airing yet in the US). Over the years I have found that, mainly out of nostalgia, I can’t find it within me to not like the original Yu-Gi-Oh!, but my opinion of this movie would wane over time. In a surprising move, 4K Media, the remnants of 4Kids Entertainment after Konami absorbed them, decided to remaster the movie and distribute it for a limited run through Fathom Events. When the opportunity struck, I bought a ticket to see the extent of the remaster and for a brief nostalgia trip. Now that I’ve seen it again, the remastered picture did little to distract from the inherent flaws of the movie.

5000 years ago, the Pharaoh had defeated and sealed away Anubis (Scottie Ray), the Egyptian lord of the dead. Five millennia later, Yugi Muto had completed the Millennium Puzzle at the same time that Anubis’ tomb was discovered in an archeological dig, releasing Anubis’ spirit, which seeks revenge on the Pharaoh. In the present, Yugi has just won the Battle City tournament and gained possession of the most powerful cards in all of Duel Monsters, the three Egyptian God Cards: Obelisk the Tormentor, Slifer the Sky Dragon and The Winged Dragon of Ra. At the same time that Yugi evades a horde of duelists attempting to claim the God Cards for themselves, Seto Kaiba (Eric Stuart) tries repeatedly to come up with a strategy to defeat Yugi, but to no avail. He decides to confront the game’s creator, Maximillion Pegasus (Darren Dunstan), about a possible card made to counteract the God Cards. However, Kaiba doesn’t know that his actions are only helping Anubis with gaining his revenge.

Anubis (Scottie Ray) wants his revenge on the Pharaoh.

The story and plot for the movie have a pretty rough execution. The idea of the Pyramid of Light as an eighth Millennium Item as well as the presence of another ancient evil can come off as fanfiction, which is never a compliment, and Anubis himself has almost no personality and is motivated entirely by an ancient grudge. The main bulk of the movie is a duel between Yami (Dan Green) and Kaiba, which goes on for quite a while. Once Kaiba activates Pyramid of Light, which unwittingly sets Anubis’ plan into motion, the spirits of Yugi, Joey Wheeler (Wayne Grayson) and Tristan Taylor (Greg Abbey) are sucked into the Millennium Puzzle, where they encounter the spirit of Anubis and his army of the undead. These scenes, interspersed within the Yugi vs Kaiba duel, can prove more interesting, if only because they provide the occasional break from the rest of the action.

That said, the dialogue is pretty decent and there are some occasional moments of laugh-out-loud humor. This includes some subtle moments, including Pegasus being served a red wine spritzer after swearing off white wine spritzers, and some of the jabs that characters take at each other. Other moments, like Joey making a couple movie references, are funny if only because of how cheesy/dumb they are.

One notable element of the dialogue is that when 4Kids had originally dubbed this movie, they had made the bold decision to keep any and all allusions and references to death and dying rather than change any instance to mentioning the Shadow Realm (as they had done in their dub of the anime). While this doesn’t mean much now, it was rather surprising back in 2004.

The quality of the animation is sort of hit and miss. It’s generally a higher quality than Studio Gallop used when animating the show, but after 14 years it also feels like a relic of the 2000s. Though the character models are good for the time, there are some moments where it went noticeably a little off-model. Nothing too jarring, but noticeable enough that it didn’t help the movie age that well over 14 years.

Something about this movie that’s particularly notable is that until 2017’s Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions, this was the only instance where cards depicted in the English version used translated English text instead of the altered format used in the anime. While this was rather surprising and impressive at the time, especially since they also tried to recreate card rarities, there are some noticeable errors with card layouts (such as flipped or mirrored cards). One that’s particularly noticeable is that when Yami activates the card Double Spell, the card shown instead is Diffusion Wave-Motion (fixed in the Japanese version; see below).

As for the remaster, it’s essentially the same movie but the picture has a much-needed touch-up for modern screens. The look of the remaster is generally very impressive, giving it crisper visuals which help the movie age a little better, though in some zoomed-in shots the quality dips somewhat. It would’ve been nice if they also took the opportunity to correct the errors in the English card text and art, though I understand that wasn’t really the point of the remaster.

The voice acting is pretty good for when it came out, especially Dan Green as Yugi/Yami and Eric Stuart as Seto Kaiba. Looking back on it now, though, it’s obvious that by the time The Dark Side of Dimensions had come out, the actors had greatly improved in their roles since.

As for the soundtrack, the actual score is fitting and has a similar style to the anime. One original song that plays during a scene of Kaiba flying the Blue-Eyes White Dragon Jet is a little cheesy, but still kinda works. However, a number of snippets of other songs play over the credits, which seemed to be for the sole purpose of promoting the soundtrack with the promise of original songs (including one performed by The Black-Eyed Peas for some reason).

At the time the movie first came out in the US, theaters gave away one of four special cards (in a unique one-card booster pack) with each ticket sold and retail stores sold an eight-card Exclusive Pack as a tie-in. DVD copies of the film also came with two cards from the theater-exclusive Movie Pack with the option to send in for the other two. As an additional bit of small trivia, Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon saw a TCG release through this pack two years before the card required to summon it, Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, would. Another tie-in was the Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie Ani-Manga (basically a screencap comic) which came bundled with Slifer the Sky Dragon’s original TCG printing; the screencaps in the Ani-Manga only highlight many of the animation errors.

Original theatrical release poster.

For this special re-release of the movie, viewers were also given an exclusive look at the first English dub episode of the new Yu-Gi-Oh! series, Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS. I’m not sure how much I can say except that, without having seen the Japanese version, it feels like 4K Media is giving more respect to the source material with great voice acting and good dialogue, including a funny reference to the idea that some people think a hotdog is a sandwich. I’ll note here that my screening of the movie had low attendance anyway, likely since it was a Monday night, but everyone else had left before and during the VRAINS preview, so I enjoyed what had become a private screening.

A Japanese poster for Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS. L-R (clockwise):
Yusaku Fujiki, Firewall Dragon, Decode Talker, Yusaku Fujiki (as Playmaker), Ai.

After 14 years, I can conclude that Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie hasn’t really aged well. The remastered visuals are impressive and I wouldn’t mind getting it on home video if they offered it. However, the story is still pretty rough and Anubis, though designed by Kazuki Takahashi himself, is a rather flat villain without much going for him. The climactic duel also goes for a large amount of the 89-minute runtime, so that’s something to keep in mind. It’s also very difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, since it requires the viewer to already be pretty familiar with the source material. While fun as a nostalgic trip back to the original series, it’s a pretty rough movie overall, though for some that may be part of its charm.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

God of War III Remastered - ...Or Does It?

Following the original release of God of War III on the PS3 in 2010, the game would later be ported and remastered for the PS4 in 2015 as God of War III Remastered, with all DLC costumes included on-disc. God of War Collection (collecting God of War I and II) had been released for PS Vita the previous year, however it does feel a little odd that said Collection would not have also been ported to PS4 alongside God of War III. Getting back on track, though I had gotten this port around the time it was released, with the intention to play it prior to God of War (2018) for PS4, it was only after a release date for the new game was officially announced that I finally started to play it as a primer, during whatever free time I had in my schedule. As I played it, I found it to have aged pretty well, even if the remaster generally felt a little unnecessary.

All of the content remains the same is with the original God of War III, just with a minor visual upgrade. I didn’t really notice any major difference in the visuals, however it looked really good nonetheless; this slight graphical upgrade makes the pre-rendered cutscenes slightly more noticeable against the real-time rendered ones, however it wasn't enough to be immersion-breaking. The music was just as good as ever (to the point where I had purchased a copy of the soundtrack beforehand), with the Gerard Marino track “Rage of Sparta” standing out the most. The voice acting was also still good and it was nice to hear Terrence C. Carson’s Kratos again, however I’m confident Christopher Judge will do a good job voicing the character in the new game. I didn’t really run into many technical issues while playing, save for one where I had some difficulty getting a double jump to work in places; I don’t know how much of it was me or some issue introduced in the port, as has been seen with some good remasters such as Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX.

As noted in the opening paragraph, all of the costume DLC for the game is included on the disc. This even includes the 7-Eleven-exclusive Morpheus skin (previously only available through a Slurpee promotion that included a special flavor) and the Deimos skin tying into God of War: Ghost of Sparta on PSP. I should mention that you are only required to beat the game once to unlock all of the costumes, which saves a lot of the effort that was originally required.

Overall, God of War III Remastered is a great port, save for whatever technical issues I faced while playing. When I initially (awkwardly) reviewed God of War III, I considered it “a perfect game”; my opinion has since mellowed out, since the idea of a “perfect game” is highly subjective, however I would still consider it one of the best God of War games and it reminded me why I thought it was worth attending the midnight release of the original PS3 version. Though it is a good entry, I would still highly recommend playing the previous entries in the series, at minimum the numbered games, prior to this one should you wish to play it, as this game serves as the chronological end to Kratos’ story prior to the upcoming new entry. Now that Kratos’ journey through Greek mythology is over, it will be interesting to see what he does in the realm of Norse mythology in God of War (2018).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stubs - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Screenplay by Martin McDonagh. Produced by Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, and Martin McDonagh.  Run Time: 115 minutes. The United Kingdom and the United States. Color. Drama

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a second act looking for a third. I feel like if I wrote this story it would be rejected because of the lousy ending, which leaves off what I would assume was the point of the film was setting up. Without resolution, you’re left dangling at the end wondering what happens next, though not wanting or expecting a sequel. Sad that this is what passes for storytelling these days as the film was both nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture by the Academy Awards.

Three Billboards is more a character study than a great film.

Three Billboards is more of a character study than a complete film. Frances McDormand, no stranger to good acting, plays Mildred Hayes whom, after seven months of no progress on the rape/murder of her daughter, puts up three billboards along a little-used road and gets a lot of attention from the police and the press. Her main target is the Chief of Police William 'Bill' Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), but the real anger comes from Sgt. James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop with a bad reputation and an even worse temper.

Central to the plot is the murder of Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton). The police have been stymied by a lack of matching DNA to the crime. No one seems to match what they found at the brutal crime scene. But that is not enough for Mildred as she wants the crime solved no matter how expensive it might be.

Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who also plays one of the love interests in Lady Bird, bears most of the brunt of his mother’s outlandish behavior from the other kids at school. He doesn’t seem as interested in finding the killer as his mother, though he is still somewhat haunted by the events.

But Mildred’s ex, Charlie (John Hawkes), has managed to move on, helped along by his 19-year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving). Charlie’s presence in the film is to chiefly remind Mildred to move on and to rub her nose, so to speak, in his relationship with Penelope. Mildred thinks Penelope literally smells like shit, though it's from her working with animals.

Bill Willoughby is an earnest man, dying of cancer, who feels bad that he can’t solve the murder. The film fleshes him out as a foul-mouthed but loving father and a devoted husband to Anne (Abbie Cornish). Though little is mentioned about Anne, she’s obviously Australian as the actress’ accent is never far away.

Everyone is angry with Mildred, who is always sullen if not vengeful throughout the film. You want to root for her, but she’s not very accessible as a character despite the great acting that McDormand does.

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is the central character in the film.

Without getting into too much of the actual story, there are some really big holes and coincidences that are never resolved. Chief amongst them is the appearance of a Crop-Haired Guy (Brendan Sexton) who not only threatens Mildred but later brags about committing a rape/murder that sounds very similar to Angela’s fate. But it's a dead end of sorts, as DNA that Dixon goes out of his way to collect is not enough to make him a suspect as he was out of the country at the time. His presence is a real head-scratcher as it really does nothing to move the plot to a conclusion but only unifies Mildred and Dixon as they turn into vigilantes and leave on a trip to Idaho to kill him because they think he deserves it. Hard to be sympathetic to anyone in that situation.

Also, Dixon is someone who should be in jail. Not even because he supposedly tortured a black suspect, something we don’t see in the film, but because of what we do see in the film. Upset, he takes out his rage on Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the man who owns the billboards, by destroying his property, beating him up and throwing him out a second story window. While Red isn’t killed, no charges seem to ever be brought against Dixon, even though it was witnessed by Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters). The worst thing that happens to him is that he’s thrown off the force when he should have been thrown in jail instead. I’m not sure what justification there could be as to why he would not have even been arrested for these actions, except that the story needs him. That’s sort of like painting yourself into a corner and then busting out the walls to avoid having to think of a better way.

In spite of its nominations for Picture and Screenplay, the film leaves a lot to be desired. The film does not follow a traditional three-act structure, which might draw praise in some circles but is ultimately unsatisfying when all is said and done.

Both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give great performances.

Despite the shortcomings of the story, the acting is really very good. All the main characters are well represented by some very good acting. As mentioned before McDormand gives a great performance as Mildred. Woody Harrelson continues to impress as Willoughby and Sam Rockwell is really very good as Dixon. McDormand and Rockwell were both awarded Oscars for their performances. One thing the script does well is to make sure we see all three as three-dimensional characters and the acting makes it worth watching.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Stubs - The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017) Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher. Directed by Michael Showalter. Screenplay by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani. Produced by Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel. Run Time: 117 minutes. USA Color Romantic Comedy

Probably best known for his work on the HBO series Silicon Valley, Kumail Nanjiani, like most actors/comedians, has a had a life and career before he became well-known. In this case, he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, both do and have written their story in screenplay form which was made into The Big Sick.

Kumail introduces himself to Emily (Zoe Kazan) after his show.

When the film opens, Kumail, who plays himself, is a stand-up comic in Chicago, who also works as an Uber driver to make ends meet. In the audience one night is Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan), who unwillingly heckles him when she was trying to be supportive. Emily is a college student studying to be a therapist. The two of them end up having a one-night stand that leads into a relationship.

Emily and Kumail become a couple.

Kumail’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman and his mom sets up a series of meet and greets with women willing to be part of an arranged marriage. They each give him photographs which he dutifully stores in a cigar box in the apartment he shares with another less-talented comedian, Chris (Kurt Braunohler). When Emily finds the photos, Kumail is forced to admit that he can’t bring himself to tell his parents about her, knowing that they would disown him if he did. As a result, she breaks it off with him. He decides to turn his attention towards his career and becomes a finalist for the Montreal Comedy Festival.

Kumail's parents, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) and Azmat
 (Anupam Kher), want him to marry a Pakistani girl.

But no sooner had they broken up, then Emily comes down with a fever and is hospitalized. When there is no one else available to stay with her, one of Emily’s friends calls Kumail. Emily is not happy to see him, but Kumail takes responsibility for her and even signs consent as her husband so that the hospital can put her into a medically induced coma.

After he calls them, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), arrive from North Carolina and initially take over the care of their daughter. Beth, who knows about their relationship, is cold at first, but they both take a liking to him. They end up attending one of his stand up shows and Beth even takes umbrage with a heckler in the audience and has to be expelled from the club.

Emily’s illness only gets worse and the doctors don’t seem to know what the problem is with her.  Fearing that Emily is near death, Kumail blows his audition for Montreal. He also finally comes clean with his parents about his love for Emily and they do, in fact, disown him.

Emily's parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano),
let Kumail take a part in Emily's treatment.

Emily’s parents come to think of Kumail as co-caregiver and respect his concern for their daughter. The doctors are finally able to diagnose her illness as Stills Disease and she recovers. When she recovers, Kumail is invited into her room but Emily asks him to leave. Kumail accepts her decision and accepts an offer from two fellow comedians, CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant), to move to New York.

Stand-ups CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant) invite Kumail to
come with them to New York.

Once Emily is home, her parents throw a party for her and invite Kumail to attend. He uses the opportunity to show his love for Emily, including showing her the ashes of all the photos of the women his mother tried to set him up with. But Emily is unmoved and asks him to leave.

Before leaving town, Kumail performs in his one-man show about Pakistan, its culture, and cricket. That night, Emily watches a YouTube presentation of Kumail’s failed stand-up audition. She makes a surprise trip out of her apartment and goes to Kumail’s show just after it has ended. He’s there talking with his only remaining link to his family, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar).

Emily seems on the verge of wanting to get back together with Kumail when he tells her that he’s leaving for New York.

As they are loading the car for New York, Kumail’s parents come to see him off, though his mother won’t get out of the car or look at him.

In New York, Kumail is once again doing his stand-up routine when he is again heckled by an audience member, Emily, who has come to see him. The film ends with actual photos of Kumail and Emily.

There are some obvious comparisons to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), another romantic comedy about a stand-up comedian, but while Allen’s film is only somewhat based on real life, The Big Sick is, for the most part, based on the events that brought Kumail and Emily together.

Though I am not an expert on their personal lives, there were some subtle changes made for the sake of the film, like Emily’s rejection of Kumail. One has to imagine though that if his family was as devoted Muslims as depicted in the film that there was some tension when he decided to marry a white American woman, rather than a woman of their choosing.

While Kumail plays himself, he does present a very likable man trying to find his way in a somewhat strange culture. He questions his religious beliefs and his place in Pakistani-American society.

The supporting cast is also very good. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both give strong performances as Emily’s parents. Hunter always seems to bring her “A” game and this is no exception. While I enjoyed Romano in his sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, he is sometimes uneven in other roles. Here he’s good. A lot of Zoe Kazan’s role as Emily is spent in a coma, which is too bad. For the most part, she’s an interesting actress. She’s someone I think I’ve seen before, but I honestly don’t know where I would have.

Kumail’s family, his parents Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), Azmat (Anupam Kher) and his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) are portrayed by some pretty good actors who may not get a lot of attention. That is not to say they are not accomplished actors, Kher as an example has appeared in 500 films, though only a handful have been in English. Akhtar has also recently appeared in Victoria & Abdul (2017) and is a regular on the TV series Ghosted.

Aidy Bryant (Mary), Bo Burnham (CJ) and Kurt Braunohler (Chris) play other stand-up comics and friends of Kumail. Obviously, all three rely on their own experiences on the stand-up circuit for their portrayals in The Big Sick. Bryant is perhaps the best known, considering she’s a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Some of the funniest dialogue comes from their sniping of other comedians.

As an example:

Kumail: [talking about Chris] He's like if a serial killer fucked an inspirational speaker.

CJ: He's like Daniel Day-Lewis except he sucks.

The Big Sick was released on June 23, 2017, and made over $55 million at the Box office and was a big success given its production budget of $5 million. Given its low budget there are certain aspects that have to be overlooked, like the fact all the cars that are supposed to be in Chicago have New York license plates and inspection stickers.

There is one mistake that seems like a real head-scratcher since it could so easily have been checked. It only jumped out at me because of my personal knowledge of the particular film library in question. Kumail sits Emily down to show her a B-rated horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, telling her that it was made in 1969 by MGM, which had fallen on hard times and had turned to its best box-office attraction, Vincent Price. While MGM now does own the film, through its acquisition of the Orion film library, it was made in 1971 by American International Pictures (AIP). Given Amazon’s involvement in the film, you wonder why they didn’t consult its own subsidiary IMDb to verify the facts. But this is nitpicking.

The Big Sick is a very funny, well-made romantic comedy. While the acting is good, the film’s strength seems to be its screenplay. That aspect of the film has been nominated for numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Very deserving of the attention, the screenplay gives a new twist to the standard Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back love story that is about as old as Hollywood.

Screenwriters and real-life husband and wife Emily V. Gordon and
Kumail Nanjiani.

I would highly recommend The Big Sick. A good date-night film, this is one that can be enjoyed over and over again. A real tour de force that makes one anxious to see what Kumail and Emily will come up with next.