Saturday, August 25, 2018

Stubs - The Blues Brothers (1980)

The Blues Brothers (1980) Starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, Aretha Franklin, Henry Gibson Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis. Produced by Robert K. Weiss. Runtime: 133 minutes. USA Color Musical, Comedy

It is not often that a Saturday Night Live skit has translated well to the silver screen, though it is something that has been tried more times than I would care to count. The fact that you can count them on one hand and have two fingers left is an example of how many misfires there have been. There is Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World 2 and The Blues Brothers.

John Belushi sings "I'm a King Bee" on Saturday Night Live. Dan Aykroyd plays the harmonica.

Born from an idea by Howard Shore, the original sketch on January 17, 1976, called "Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band" which featured the TV’s house band in the bee costumes worn in their earlier “The Killer Bees” sketches. The act featured John Belushi singing the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee” with Dan Aykroyd playing the harmonica.  Later that year, Belushi and Aykroyd would return as “Juliet” Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers as musical guests on the show airing April 22, 1978. On that show, they sang "Soul Man", and "Hey Bartender".

Elwood (Aykroyd) and Jake (Belushi) appear as the Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live.

After releasing a live album, Briefcase Full of Blues, which reached number 1 on the Billboard 200, it didn’t seem like a stretch to star the pair in their own movie. Belushi was already a film star thanks to the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). There was a bidding war between Paramount and Universal for the story, with the latter winning. However, there was still no script and no budget.

Dan Aykroyd took it upon himself to write one himself, something he had never done before. Not using a standard screenplay format, he wrote a 324-page draft that was more prose than anything else. Director John Landis was given the responsibility of turning it into a movie screenplay, something that took him two weeks to do.

Filming began in July 1979, still without a budget. The production went smoothly, though it was probably over the agreed-to a budget of $17.5 million that first month. After that things got worse, as Belushi started to party when not on the set and use cocaine. As a result, he would miss or delay shooting.

While cocaine was reportedly widely used and widely available, Aykroyd would claim it was even budgeted for, Belushi’s went above and beyond anyone else’s. It got so bad that Landis asked Carrie Fisher, then Aykroyd’s girlfriend and an actress on the film, to keep him away from the drug. It took an intervention of sorts involving Aykroyd and Belushi’s wife Judy to get things back on track.

Production returned to Los Angeles, from Chicago, and the final performance was shot at the Hollywood Palladium. However, Belushi would get injured in an accident on a borrowed skateboard and hurt his knee. It took Lou Wasserman, the head of Universal, to persuade an orthopedic surgeon to postpone his weekend plans to Belushi's knee so the scene could be filmed.

The story starts when Jake (John Belushi) Blues is released from prison after serving three years of a five-year sentence and is picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in the new Bluesmobile, a battered former police car. In Jake’s absence, Elwood had traded the old Bluesmobile for a microphone. Jake is skeptical of the new car but Elwood demonstrates its capabilities by jumping an open drawbridge.

Elwood (Aykroyd) and Jake (Belushi) go to their old orphanage to see the Penguin.

Elwood takes Jake to visit the Roman Catholic orphanage where they were raised, based on a promise made to the Penguin when Jake went away to prison. Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), for old-times sake, beats them with a yardstick before asking for a favor. They learn from her that the orphanage is in danger and will be closed unless they can raise the $5,000 in property taxes.

Sister Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) gives the boys a welcome home.

While at the orphanage, they go downstairs and visit with Curtis (Cab Calloway) who had been an early influence on them, playing for them the blues music he loved. He suggests they go to church. Despite Jake’s objections, they end up at the Triple Rock Baptist church. During a sermon by the Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown), Jake has an epiphany: they can re-form their band, the Blues Brothers, and raise the money to save the orphanage.

Cleophus James (James Brown) delivers a sermon which inspires Jake.

That night, Elwood gets pulled over and state troopers, Trooper Mount (Steven Williams) and Trooper Danie (Armand Cerami), attempt to arrest him for driving with a suspended license due to 116 parking tickets and 56 moving violations. But Elwood doesn’t surrender. Instead, he takes them on a high-speed chase which ends up driving through the Dixie Square Mall.

The car chase ends up going through a mall.

Afterward, the brothers escape. Arriving back at the flophouse where Elwood lives, the brothers are attacked by a mysterious woman with a rocket launcher. After surviving, the brothers go up to Elwood’s room and eventually sleep.

The next morning, as the police arrive at the flophouse, led by Burton Mercer (John Candy), the mysterious woman detonates a bomb that demolishes the building, but miraculously leaves Jake and Elwood unharmed, and saves them from being arrested.

Murph and the Magic Tones play at a Holiday Inn lounge.

Next, Jake and Elwood begin tracking down members of the band. Five of them, Donald "Duck" Dunn – bass guitar, Murphy Dunne ("Murph") – keyboards, Willie "Too Big" Hall – drums, ”Blue Lou" Marini – saxophone, and Matt "Guitar" Murphy – lead guitar, are playing a deserted Holiday Inn lounge as Murph and the Magic Tones. It doesn’t take much to convince them to rejoin.

But "Mr. Fabulous" Alan Rubin – trumpet initially turns them down as he is the maître d' at an expensive restaurant and doing quite well. But the brothers make such a nuisance and refuse to leave the restaurant until he finally relents.

On their way to meet the final two band members, the brothers find the road through Jackson Park blocked by an American Nazi Party led by Head Nazi (Henry Gibson) who are demonstrating on a bridge. Professing his hatred for Illinois Nazis, Elwood drives the Bluesmobile, around the barricades and runs the Nazis off the bridge into the East Lagoon.

The last two band members, Matt "Guitar" Murphy – lead guitar and Blue Lou" Marini – saxophone now run a soul food restaurant, with Matt’s wife (Aretha Franklin). Despite Franklin singing “Think” to Matt, he rejoins the band. Not wanting him to be left behind, Franklin tells Marini to follow.

Aretha Franklin sings "Think" but her husband Matt "Guitar" Murphy doesn't listen.

The reunited group obtains instruments and equipment from Ray's Music Exchange in Calumet City, and Ray (Ray Charles), as usual, takes an IOU.

Ray Charles makes an appearance as the owner of a music store.

As Jake attempts to book a gig, the mystery woman blows up the phone booth he is using; once again, he is miraculously unhurt.

Without a real gig, Jake has the group drive around until they come across a bar, Bob's Country Bunker, a local honky-tonk. There is a sign outside welcoming the Good Ol’ Boys. Jake tells the band it’s a mistake and then goes into the bar and pretends to be the leader of the country band they’re expecting.

The band plays behind chicken wire for their own protection at Bob's Country Bunker.

Of course, a blues band is not at first welcomed by the rowdy crowd at Bob's Country Bunker. However, they win them over by singing the "Theme from Rawhide". Even though they end up having a successful first show the band runs up a bar tab higher than their pay. When the night’s over, the real country band that was actually booked for the gig shows up. And they are for some reason as upset as the bar owner who is about to get stiffed. Of course, Jake and Elwood drive off without paying but the bar owner, in the Good Ol’ Boy’s RV, takes chase.

During the chase, they pass Trooper Mount and Trooper Danie, who join in. But the RV and the police collide, allowing the Blues Brothers to escape.

Still, they need one big show to raise the money for the orphanage. They manage to persuade their old agent, Maury Sline (Steve Lawrence), to book them in the Palace Hotel Ballroom, north of Chicago, for the next night.

To help promote the gig, they place a loudspeaker atop the Bluesmobile and drive around the area promoting the concert. While they’re at it, they are also alerting the police, the Nazis and the Good Ol' Boys of their whereabouts.

The Blues Brothers drive around making announcements for their gig that night.

That night, the ballroom is packed with blues fans, police officers, and the Good Ol' Boys. But after having driven around all day, the Bluesmobile runs out of gas. Jake pushes the car into a gas station only to discover that their tanks are empty. While they wait for the supply truck to arrive, Elwood tends to a customer, a chic lady (Twiggy) who is on her way to date but still weighs Elwood’s invitation to meet later after the show.

The police are lying in wait for Jake and Elwood to appear.

To keep the crowd from getting rowdy, Curtis performs "Minnie the Moocher" with the band transformed to an old-fashioned band complete with bandstands. Afterward, they transform back.

Cab Calloway sings his hit "Minnie the Moocher" to keep the crowd quiet.

Jake and Elwood get gas and manage, finally, to sneak into the ballroom. They perform two songs then sneak offstage, as the tax deadline is rapidly approaching. A record company executive, Clarion Records' President (Michael Klenfner), offers them a $10,000 cash advance on a recording contract—more than enough to pay off the orphanage's taxes and Ray's IOU with money left over for the band members. He then shows the brothers how to slip out of the building unnoticed.

Jake's vengeful ex- (Carrie Fisher) tries one more time to kill him.

As they make their escape via an underground service tunnel, they are confronted by the mystery woman: Jake's vengeful ex-fiancée (Carrie Fisher). After her volley of M16 rifle bullets leaves them miraculously unharmed, Jake offers every ridiculous excuse in the books that she, for some reason, accepts, allowing the brothers to escape to the Bluesmobile and leaving her alone again.

With dozens of state and local police, as well as the Good Ol’ Boys, in hot pursuit, Elwood and Jake drive through the night to Chicago, eluding their pursuers with a series of improbable maneuvers. 
But, hey, they are on a mission from God, as Elwood keeps repeating, to save the orphanage. They also manage a miraculous escape from the Nazis, finally making it to the Richard J. Daley Center. They rush inside the Chicago City Hall with troopers still in pursuit.

They take the elevator up to the Cook County Assessor’s office and then break the elevator. They also block the doors giving them just enough time to make good with Cook County Assessor (Steven Spielberg). No sooner is their receipt stamped, then they are arrested.

The film ends with the band, all in jail, playing “Jailhouse Rock” for their fellow inmates.

Released on June 20, 1980, the film, made on a budget of $30 million, would gross $115.2 million, pretty evenly divided between the U.S. and overseas, so it would be considered a hit. It also generally received favorable reviews, though some would criticize it for things like shortchanging viewers on more details about Jake and Elwood's affinity for African-American culture as well as being held up for positive symbolism and moral references that can be related to Catholicism.

Over the years, the film has found what is called a cult following, with some screenings apparently turning into an audience participation event. All in all, it is that rare SNL film, meaning memorable. A belated sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), would not be so well-received and would, in fact, lose money.

While the film is memorable, it is not to say there are no problems. To begin with, the premise of The Blues Brothers, paying off the tax bill for the orphanage they once lived at, is specious at best. Catholic orphanages, like other religious groups and other not-for-profit organizations, are typically exempt from federal or state taxes. This is what you get by making a one-note sketch into a full-length feature film written by someone who has never written a screenplay. You have to overlook this as a necessary evil, or otherwise, most of the plot, as it were, doesn’t make sense.

There is a certain amount of anarchy in this film and I don’t just mean the disruptive nature of Jake and Elwood on everyone and everything around them. So much of the story is either one miraculous escape or a huge coincidence followed by another miraculous escape or coincidence. How many times does the mysterious woman try to kill Jake and he walks away without a scratch? Or, the Bluesmobile manages to outrun every cop car in the state of Illinois? And the list goes on and on. This is not really great story-telling by that measure. Not to mention the over-reliance on car crashes for comedic effect. It should come as no surprise that the film once held the record for the most car wrecks.

That is not to say the film isn’t funny. There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout. John Belushi was a major talent with the ability to make people laugh with just a gesture. Dan Aykroyd is more of an acquired taste and not as outwardly funny as his cohort in comedy and crime.

Many of the cameos and there are many, are essentially one-note characters. Carrie Fisher is a little wasted as the mysterious woman. Frank Oz is given a rather lowbrow joke to pull off. Steven Spielberg has a rather blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as the County Assessor. And John Candy isn’t particularly funny as Burton Mercer.

Oh yeah, Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, plays a waiter in the film.

One of the great delights of the film is to see the performances of the guest artists, like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway. This film is to be congratulated for breathing new life into some artists’ careers, as an example, the film has been credited with helping Franklin turn her career around; and introduce some older acts, like Calloway, to a whole new audience.

At the root of the film is the music and there is lots of it throughout. The Blues Brothers are fun to watch when they play and their choice of music is very eclectic. Many of the songs they play are not strictly blues: “The Theme from Raw Hide”, “Jailhouse Rock” and "Peter Gunn Theme" come to mind. For real blues, see John Lee Hooker’s rendition of “Boom Boom” in what is essentially a throwaway scene in the movie.

Warts and all, The Blues Brothers film is worth at least one viewing. While there are some off-moments, for the most part, the film is pretty funny and enjoyable. And more than likely, it will spark your interest in at least one or more of the musical acts that it features. Come for the comedy stay for the blues.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Last Sharknado: It's About Time - History's Biggest Disaster Comes To An End

Note: This review contains spoilers for Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.

After six years and an equal number of installments, The Asylum’s Sharknado hexalogy has reached its conclusion with The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time. While the series was once able to attract an audience based on how over-the-top bad it was, successive installments would continue to lower the bar until it truly needed to be put out of its misery. Unfortunately, The Last Sharknado does nothing to fix the downward trend of the series, nor could it ever hope to recapture the glory of the first installment.

Following the ending of Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) is taken back in time to the period of the dinosaurs with the aid of his grown son, Gil (Dolph Lundgren), who is unable to join him because, as Gil (Brendan Petrizzo and M. Steven Felty) tells him, you can only travel back in time once. While there, Fin meets up with Nova Clarke (Cassandra Scerbo), Bryan (Judah Friedlander) and April Wexler (Tara Reid), all of whom were pulled backward in time by Gil before they could die in previous movies so that they could destroy the first Sharknado and return time back to normal. Killing the Sharknado in the past, however, creates a Timenado, a wormhole that Fin and crew must now continue to travel through in order to destroy various Sharknados throughout history before the sharks can cause irreparable damage to the timestream.

The story and plot are, naturally, almost hard to sit through. The various time periods usually contain some form of anachronism, most noticeably within the already non-existent Arthurian time period, in which Excalibur is a chainsaw and Morgana Le Fay (Alaska) speaks in a modern tongue. Additionally, the rules of time travel are rather inconsistent and difficult to figure out when placed within the context of the film. A few plot twists which pop up later in the movie are also so ridiculous that they feel out of left field and, as such, elicit more groans than they do laughs.

What doesn’t help the movie are the incredibly forced pop culture references, including, but not limited to, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Back to the Future (1985) and the works of Twisted Sister and The Offspring. Then there’s the traditionally terrible special effects, which have now gotten so bad that one sequence towards the end of the movie has incredibly obvious greenscreen due to bad chroma keying, something which even the worst Sharknado effects did a better job of covering up.

Lastly, we have the obligatory celebrity cameos, however it seems that they were truly scraping the bottom of the barrel this time, even picking up wood shavings. Here, we have appearances from such names as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Darrell Hammond, Dee Snider, Bo Derek, La Toya Jackson and RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Alaska, along with the return of Gary Busey, Gilbert Gottfried and Al Roker.

The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time is easily one of the worst Sharknado movies, if not the worst. A terrible story with an equally terrible plotline, more forced references, somehow even worse special effects than Sharknado 5: Global Swarming and a completely unsatisfying ending. Only those who have been keeping up with the series for this long should consider watching it, and even then, you may feel like you’ve wasted your time. In any case, I’m glad that we’re finally done with Sharknado movies, at least for now.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sharknado: The 4th Awakens - It Jumped the Shark

Note: This review contains spoilers related to Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (2015) and Sharknado: The 4th Awakens (2016).

In 2016, SYFY aired the fourth installment of the Sharknado film series by The Asylum. We somehow did not review the movie during that year, so we decided to review it close to the airing of the grand finale of the series, The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time, in order to finally fill in the unsightly gap in our Sharknado reviews.

Five years have passed since the ending of Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (2015) and the world has been Sharknado-free thanks to technology developed by Astro-X’s Astro Pods, developed by tech mogul Aston Reynolds (Tommy Davidson); Astro-X had also developed a new type of shuttle that recovered Fin’s father, Col. Gilbert Shepherd (David Hasselhoff), from the moon. Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) has also moved into a farm in Kansas, “April’s Acres”, where he lives with his mother Raye (Cheryl Tiegs) and son Gil (Christopher and Nicholas Shone). During the opening night of a shark-themed hotel in Las Vegas, which inexplicably houses a giant tank of sharks, a new Sharknado forms within the city, but the Astro Pods can’t stop it, since it wasn’t created from water. With the world once more in danger from the Sharknado phenomenon, Fin must once again step up to save the world.

The plot which follows is so ridiculous that I genuinely facepalmed a few times. Not only can a Sharknado now spontaneously occur without a body of water, but it can absorb the elements to become a new type of -nado. One chain of -nado transformations is a Bouldernado, which turns into an Oilnado, which then catches fire and becomes a Firenado. This Firenado is then extinguished (by exploding fire extinguishers, naturally) and touches some power lines to become a Lightningnado; we were disappointed they didn’t instead call it a Shocknado, but that might’ve been too clever for the writers. The ultimate of these transformations is a Nuclearnado/Nukenado, which contains so much concentrated radiation that the main cast should’ve honestly died from coming into contact with it.

While Fin is out fighting the -nados, the movie goes through two sub-plots. The first involves the revelation that April Wexler (Tara Reid) had not only survived the ending of the previous movie, but had also been turned into a cyborg by her father, Wilford (Gary Busey), in order to keep her alive. This sub-plot is the closest the movie gets to having familial conflict, but the context in which it's presented means it’s hard to take at all seriously. The other involves Aston and Col. Gilbert working on potential solutions for fighting the -nados, which includes introducing new isotopes to the Astro Pods (sure) and the construction of a wearable mech suit. This sub-plot, though heavily involved in the story, relies on the audience taking everything the characters say at face value.

In general, however, Sharknado 4 relies on breaking conventional logic just so the story can continue, which includes Gil surviving a Nukenado by hiding in a regular wooden barrel. The plot is also littered with convenience and contrivance, especially the final scene, in which it’s revealed that not only did Fin’s immediate family survive the events of the movie despite almost all of them being eaten by sharks, but all of the sharks involved within a chain of sharks being consumed by ever larger sharks (matryoshka sharks, if you will), culminating in a random blue whale, happened to all be the same sharks that consumed the Shepard family.

As is natural for the Sharknado series, there are plenty of pop culture references peppered in. However, the references in this movie feel incredibly forced and a lot of movie quotes often feel completely out of place, as they are completely removed from any context in which they would work. Some of the more obvious references include those related to then-relevant Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015), such as a Star Wars-esque opening title crawl and a chainsaw weapon modeled after Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, not to mention April being able to wield an actual lightsaber. One other notable reference is several related to The Wizard of Oz (1939), if only because of how long and dragged out it is. At this point, the movie even has the gall to point out how ridiculous it is:

Fin: “Follow the road! Follow the yellow brick road! I can’t believe I just said that.”

This, of course, does not excuse the fact they still went for it.

Apart from the incredibly bad special effects, and not in the fun way, there are plenty of celebrity cameos. However, these cameos are generally of a decidedly lower tier than its predecessors. Some of these include David Hasselhoff, Gary Busey, Carrot Top, Gilbert Gottfried, Steve Guttenberg, Vince Neil, Corey Taylor, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adrian Zmed, although we also see the return of Al Roker and the inexplicable addition of Chippendales strippers (notable by virtue of their prominence in the first act). Many of the celebrities are also either crushed or eaten by sharks, including Carrot Top (probably his best act in years). I’ll also mention here that the movie can be very brazen and in-your-face with its product placement, most notably Xfinity, since they reference it by name, show off a voice-controlled remote feature and almost literally rub the logo in your face.

Before I end, I'll note that if there are any fans of Lavalantula (2015), this film seems to make a reference to it that implies it's within the same universe as Sharknado.

Sharknado: The 4th Awakens marks a clear turning point in the Sharknado franchise. The story and plot are too ridiculous for their own good, the special effects are laughably bad and the references and product placement are too forced and unnatural. It may be better than its successor, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that a franchise entirely about sharks had somehow managed to jump the shark.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Stubs - Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin (2018) Starring Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Voices of Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett. Directed by Marc Forster. Screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder. Characters from Disney's Winnie the Pooh and Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, illustrated by E. H. Shepard. Produced by Brigham Taylor, Kristin Burr Runtime: 104 minutes. USA Fantasy, Comedy

Ever wondered whatever became of Christopher Robin, the boy hero from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories written by A.A. Milne? Well, look no further than this very good and very sentimental film from Disney; part of that studio's effort to make a live-action film based on a previous animated film.  In this case, a series of shorts, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966); Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968); Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974); Winnie the Pooh Discovers the Seasons (1981); and Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore (1983). The first three shorts were compiled into a feature-length film The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (1977).

This story picks up where Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too ends. Christopher Robin (Orton O'Brien) is being sent to boarding school by his parents (Tristan Sturrock and Katy Carmichael) and has to say good-bye to Winnie-the-Pooh and all of his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. He promises never to forget Pooh and Pooh does the same. Only one of them will keep that promise.

Christopher (Ewan McGregor) grows up, meets and marries Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), serves in World War I, gets a job at Winslow Luggage and together he and Evelyn have a daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher wants the best for his daughter so like he was as a child, plans to ship her off to boarding school.

While things are stressed at home, things get stressed at work as well. Winslow is going through cost-cutting measures and they expect Christopher to come up, over the weekend, with a plan to save the company 20%. This means that he won’t be able to spend the weekend with his wife and daughter at his family’s country house.

It is at this time, Winnie-the-Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) decides to enter Christopher’s childhood tree hawse door. This leads the stuffed animal into London, where he meets up with Christopher. It is this reunion that eventually leads Christopher to rethink his life and his priorities.

Winnie-the-Pooh (Jim Cummings) and Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) reconnect after decades apart.

The film is sentimental in a good way. Practically everyone has a treasured childhood possession or friend that reminds them of a simpler time. But few people have the menagerie Christopher has from his past, including not only Pooh, but stuffed animals Tigger (Jim Cummings), a bouncy Tiger toy; Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett) the slightly depressed Donkey, Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and her child Roo (Sara Sheen), not to mention Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and Owl (Toby Jones), real-life animal pals. (You might notice that missing from the shorts is Gopher, who was not in the original stories anyway.)

Ewan McGregor does a very good job as the title character. He’s a likable man who gets trapped by his life choices. You feel sorry for him as someone who has lost the sparkle that he once had when he was young and you find yourself rooting for him to get it back.

Hayley Atwell, who I’ve mostly seen in roles related to the MCU, shows that she can play much more down to earth roles. She is a supporting character here but is still able to display a range of emotions.

From what I can tell, Madeline Robin may be the first role for Bronte Carmichael. If this part is any indication, she could definitely have a career, especially as a child actor in films.

Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Pooh, Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Roo (Sara Sheen) and Kanga
 (Sophie Okonedo) carry on after Christopher Robin goes away to boarding school.

There is a real Toy Story-vibe to the lives of Pooh and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. They are continuing to go about their everyday “lives” just like they had when Christopher Robin was still there. You get the impression that Pooh gets up every morning, does his stretching and then goes out looking for Hunny; day in and day out. While Christopher Robin is never out of their thoughts, they go on without him.

While the actors who originally voiced the characters in the shorts have now died, you might be concerned about what the new voices would sound like. I’m happy to say, that while they are not exact duplicates, they are close enough that you can easily go with them. Jim Cummings, who voices both Pooh and Tigger, does a very good job replacing the originals, Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell. You won’t forget them but he does a very good tribute to them. As does Brad Garrett as Eeyore, which was originally voiced by Ralph Wright. In some ways, given Garrett’s past role on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, he is an inspired choice. The other voice actors, which include Toby Jones (Owl), Peter Capaldi (Rabbit), Sophie Okonedo (Kanga), and Sara Sheen (Roo) also do a very good job with their characters as well.

Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Christopher Robin. But please note that while this is a continuation of the Winnie-The-Pooh stories it is not really a movie made for small children, but more for the child in all of us. There is a sentimentality that young children will not understand and they may get bored. It is also rated PG, which is another sign that it is not intended for small kids. It’s a family film but for a family with children of a certain maturity.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two

Following the success of Epic Mickey, a sequel was developed for release in 2012 called Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, allowing for a second player to join in and control Oswald while the other controls Mickey. The game was released alongside a 3DS companion game titled Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, with a gameplay style closer to the Castle of Illusion series of games. After getting to play Epic Mickey 2 for myself, I found it overall enjoyable, though not without flaws.

Sometime following the events of Epic Mickey, everything is going well in Wasteland until a series of earthquakes cause considerable damage. The Mad Doctor, who claims to have been reformed, uses a horde of Beetleworx to help clean up the mess, which convinces Oswald that he may have actually changed. Distrusting the Mad Doctor, Oswald’s wife Ortensia requires the assistance of Gremlin Gus to contact Mickey for help on sorting things out.

The story, penned by comics legend Marv Wolfman, is pretty straight-forward and can keep you invested. The main driving force of the story, finding out and stopping the cause of the earthquakes, is a bit downplayed compared to the original, however this isn’t inherently bad. Regardless, I did find the big twist on who the villain is to be a tad predictable.

Gameplay is similar to that of the original game, though with some differences. Oswald joins the party with the ability to use electricity via a remote he carries with him. The remote is able to interact with certain objects to accomplish tasks Mickey could not, such as activating or shorting out mechanisms and even stunning the Blotworx enemies throughout each level. This, combined with fewer enemies being present at a time, can make levels significantly easier to get through, especially since Oswald can also revive Mickey with the remote if he’s about to die. Oswald is controlled by the AI if a second player is not in control, meaning he will perform certain actions automatically, though certain things (ex. secret actions, going through projectors) are better off performed in 2-player.

There are also fountains that can momentarily make you either invisible or
immune to thinner depending on whether you've painted or thinned nearby objects.

Sketches make a return, including a new Fairy Sketch that can allow the player to levitate an object temporarily while pushing it with paint and thinner. They also come with an improvement in how they operate, in that unlocking a Sketch once allows for infinite uses, albeit with a cooldown once it wears off before you can use it again. However, the Sketches are almost never required outside of the first time they are introduced, although the Fairy Sketch can really come in handy sometimes.

Another improvement is the major graphical upgrade. The visuals overall look more polished than they did in the previous game, making them much more presentable and better capturing the “toon” aspect of the series.

Unlike the previous game, this one features full-on voice acting, which I found to be a welcome change to allow for increased character interaction and not forcing the player to rely on quick subtitles. It is here that we also finally get to hear what many characters sound like, including Oswald, Ortensia and the Mad Doctor among others, such as the Gremlins. The Mad Doctor, voiced here by Jim Meskimen, primarily speaks in song, something pulled off well by Meskimen’s singing talent. Oswald however, voiced again by Frank Welker, for whatever reason sounds a bit like Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo! (a character Welker has voiced from the get-go); and Gremlin Gus, despite being voiced by Cary Elwes, can get annoying after a while since he will not shut up.

What Oswald the Lucky Rabbit sounds like.

Much like in the first Epic Mickey, there’s two different endings that can be achieved, the exact combination of which depends on certain actions you take during the game (because of the way I was playing, I missed some sidequests). Either way, the game teases a third at the end that will sadly never come to pass, following the closure of developer Junction Point (not to mention the unrelated shutdown of Disney Interactive) after Epic Mickey 2 underperformed.

Despite this unresolved tease and other issues, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is an overall enjoyable game. While not having the same sort of stakes as the first, the story is pretty engaging with its world-building and the gameplay is something of an improvement over the original concept. Though you cannot play as Oswald unless you are player 2, it’s interesting that he’s even playable at all. I would recommend this game to fans of the original Epic Mickey, at least to give it a shot, especially given the short-lived nature of the franchise.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Stubs - Game Night

Game Night (2018) Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler Directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein Screenplay by Mark Perez. Produced by John Davis, John Fox, Jason Bateman, James Garavente. Run Time: 100 minutes. USA. Color. Comedy, Black Comedy

Sometimes it’s not possible to catch every movie you want to see in the theater. While Trophy Unlocked supports the theatrical experience when it comes to watching first release films, it is not always possible. Either not everyone wants to see a movie or there are other things going on at the time. Such was the case with Game Night, a black comedy from New Line Cinema that was released on February 23, 2018.

Max Davis (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a couple drawn together through their love of games. They start out being opposing captains on trivia teams but end up dating and marrying while staying close with their friends Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), through regular game nights. Ryan, who is single, will bring a date, most of which with IQs that can be measured with a tire pressure gauge.

The friends gathered for the game night include Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), Kevin (Lamorne Morris),
Ryan (Billy Magnussen), Sarah Darcy (Sharon Horgan), Max Davis (Jason Bateman)
and Annie (Rachel McAdams).

Max and Annie are happy, except for one thing; they can’t get pregnant. Max appears to be the problem here and his sperm problems apparently have their origins in his anxiety about the impending visit from Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who is a successful (rich) venture capitalist. Brooks is someone whom Max never seems to be able to beat and who constantly seems to one-up his brother. He even drives the car that Max has always wanted, a red 1976 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3.

Brooks, who is in town on business, wants in on game night and invites everyone over to his rental house, promising to take this game night to a new level. Uninvited is Gary Kingsbury (Jesse Plemons), the divorced neighbor to Max and Annie. Ryan brings Sarah Darcy (Sharon Horgan), who is not only smarter than Ryan’s usual dates but is also way smarter than him as well.

Board games are not in Brooks' (Kyle Chandler) plans for the game night he's hosting.

Brooks shuns the usual board games for an interactive role-playing mystery game, which starts with the arrival of an FBI Agent (Jeffrey Wright). However, the fake game gets taken over by real events, in which Brooks is forcibly kidnapped and held for ransom. I don’t want to get too much further into the plot, as the film is only now getting a home video release, but Brooks turns out not to be everything he is supposed to be.

The rest of the movie is filled with action and humor as game players become sleuths, trying to unravel a real-life mystery and avoid being killed in the process. They are in a situation where they don’t always know who they can trust and which is a game and which is real. Even when they’re convinced things are real, they are really only part of a game and vice versa.

There is also some very good action camera work, especially in a scene with a Fabergé Egg being tossed around like a football. The establishing shots also make the scenery look like game pieces in a board game. Very effective given the theme of the movie.

The screenplay is smartly written and doesn’t shy away from adult talk, though this is far from a curse fest. The plot is a little convoluted though easy to follow. Like most screenplays, there are some holes but nothing too big to overlook. The relationships between the characters are made to feel very believable, whether its husband and wife, friends or siblings.

Jason Bateman’s comedic skills are on display here. Some of his best lines are said with deadpan delivery, adding to their effectiveness, almost as if he is improvising as he goes along. He comes from a comedy background, having appeared in TV sitcoms like Silver Spoon, The Hogan Family and Arrested Development. He’s also appeared in such films as s Teen Wolf Too (1987), The Break-Up (2006), Juno (2007), Hancock (2008), Up in the Air (2009), Couples Retreat (2009), Extract (2009), The Switch (2010), Horrible Bosses (2011) and Office Christmas Party (2016) to name a few.

Rachel McAdams has had a more varied career, starring in dramas like Perfect Pie (2002), romantic dramas like The Notebook (2004), as well as the psychological thriller Red Eye (2005). But she, too, has acted in her fair share of comedies, including Wedding Crashers (2005), The Hot Chick (2002), Mean Girls (2004), and Midnight in Paris (2011). Her Annie makes a good partner for Bateman’s Max, so much so that they seem very comfortable with these characters like they’ve played them all the time.

But this film only works if all of the cast is good and they are. Billy Magnussen does a good job playing the rather stupid Ryan Huddle. Kyle Chandler’s Brooks Davis is so on the money for the annoyingly more successful sibling that you feel for Max’s plight to always come up second best. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play Kevin and Michelle Sterling, a couple that has been together since Middle School, except for a brief patch when they were broken up. It is that missing time that results in an ongoing fight between the two of them. Finally, Jesse Plemons makes neighbor Gary Kingsbury both creepy and endearing, though more creepy than anything else.

Jesse Plemons makes neighbor Gary Kingsbury both creepy and endearing.

While the film is at times laugh out loud funny, it is still an adult comedy. It didn’t earn its R rating from the MPAA without cause. There is language, sexual references, gun violence, blood, hand to hand violence, and even a horrific death. This is not something you should sit down with your underage children to watch.

That said, if you have a chance to watch Game Night, you should. I came into the film with some expectations but I’m happy to say that it went above and beyond those.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Stubs - She Had to Say Yes (1933)

She Had to Say Yes (1933) Starring: Loretta Young, Winnie Lightner, Lyle Talbot, Regis Toomey. Directed by Busby Berkeley, George Amy. Screenplay by Rian James, Don Mullaly. Based on John Francis Larkin’s story "Customer's Girl". Producer: None Credited. Runtime: 63 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Pre-Code

Best known for his elaborate musical production numbers, Busby Berkeley also directed films, his first being She Had to Say Yes (1933), a non-dancing, non-musical Pre-Code drama starring Loretta Young. A rather forgettable film that dared to tell “The true story of the working girl.” There were a series of such films, that dealt with the “real-life” compromises women in the workforce had to make in order to keep their jobs during the Great Depression.

Between his work as the choreographer on Bird of Paradise (1932) and 42nd Street (1933), Berkeley co-directed this film, veteran editor George Amy also making his directorial debut. The production cost about $111,000 and seventeen days to shoot.

Things aren't going well for Sol Glass & Co.

When the film opens, Sol Glass’ (Ferdinand Gottschalk) clothing manufacturing company is struggling in the midst of the Great Depression. Like his competitors, Glass employs "customer girls" to entertain out-of-town buyers. However, his clients have become tired of what they describe his as unfriendly, hard-bitten "gold diggers" and have started taking their business elsewhere as a result.
Glass calls for a high-level meeting and wants Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey), one of his salesmen, to attend. Office Boy (Harold Waldridge) finds him in an out of order phone booth with one of the women from the office.

Sol Glass (Ferdinand Gottschalk) calls a meeting with his advisers, including Mr. Bernstein (Charles Levinson aka Charles Lane) and Mr. Goran (Joseph Cawthorne). In the back is Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey).

At the meeting, which includes Mr. Bernstein (Charles Levinson aka Charles Lane) and Mr. Goran (Joseph Cawthorne), Tommy suggests that they use their stenographers instead of the customer girls. Besides being fresh meat for the buyers, Tommy suggests it would be a chance for the girls to get out, have a good dinner and see a show. The idea they would sleep with the customers goes unspoken. Glass decides to give Tommy’s idea a try, as long as the girls know it’s on a voluntary basis.
Not included in Tommy’s plans is his own secretary and fiancée, Florence "Flo" Denny (Loretta Young). He doesn’t want her to be involved. Florence is portrayed as a virtuous girl who is saving herself for marriage.

Buyer  Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert) takes notice of Florence "Flo"
 Denny (Loretta Young), Tommy's secretary and fiancée.

But things don’t go according to plan when buyer Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert) sees her and wants to go out with her as part of closing the deal. Florence is willing to help her man make a sale. However, Tommy manages to change Luther’s mind by introducing him to Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn), a curvaceous member of the steno-pool who is only too willing to be used to help sales.

Flo is willing to help Tommy close sales.

Birdie, as it turns out, becomes a very successful customer girl, closing many sales, and Tommy, too, succumbs to her charms. Tommy, we’ve already been shown, is, even though engaged, a ladies’ man.

Flo goes out to dinner with a buyer, Daniel "Danny" Drew (Lyle Talbot).

When Birdie is sick, Tommy reluctantly lets Flo go on a date with another buyer, Daniel "Danny" Drew (Lyle Talbot). They have a nice time together, but it is obvious that Danny wants sex. He uses an excuse to get her up to his hotel room; he needs some letters and she has a portable typewriter. He tries, unsuccessfully, to ply her with champagne that had been sent as a thank you for his business. She turns him down. At four o’clock in the morning, she starts to leave. A contrite Danny apologizes and tells her that he has fallen in love with her. He wants to take her home but she slips out before he can get ready.

While on a business trip, Danny calls Flo because he's thinking of her.

Danny has to go on a business trip but telephones and writes to her regularly.

Maizee (Winnie Lightner) makes sure Flo knows Tommy is cheating on her.

Meanwhile, Maizee (Winnie Lightner), Flo's friend, co-worker, and roommate overhears Tommy in his office with Birdie. Under the guise that Flo can help her find something in Tommy’s files, she makes sure to have Flo see the two of them together. Flo abruptly ends their engagement.

Flo breaks off her engagement to Tommy.

To help with her self-respect, Flo tells Glass that she doesn’t want to go out with buyers anymore. Even though it had started out on a volunteer basis, Glass threatens to fire her, so she quits.

Sol Glass (Ferdinand Gottschalk) threatens to fire Flo if she doesn't want to go out with buyers.

Danny returns from his business trip and takes Flo to dinner. He’s already asked her to marry him but she hasn’t given him an answer. Danny spots Haines at another table and asks Flo if she can help him convince Haines, the last holdout to a merger, to sign an important contract, the biggest deal of his life. She is disappointed by his request, despite his offer of a $1000 commission, but agrees to do it.

She calls Haines at home and invites him out on a date. Even though he has plans to take his wife (Helen Ware) and daughter to dinner and the theater, Flo is too much of a temptation for him to pass out. He makes an excuse to his wife about a business meeting and agrees to meet her that night.

Flo has to put up with Haines' advances on their "date".

At dinner, in a private dining room, Flo teases with Haines. Meanwhile, she’s pre-arranged for Maizee to call Haines’ wife and pretending to work for the restaurant and invites her to dine with her husband. Haines is just about to put the moves on Flo when his wife and daughter show up. Flo pretends that he’s taking dictation from Haines as part of his business excuse and tricks him into signing the merger contract, which she has pretended to draft and type up.

Just in time, Mrs. Haines (Helen Ware) and their daughter show up for dinner.

The next day, Haines, who has decided to go through with the merger, complains to Danny about Flo’s methods; acting as if she really came on to him. He also tells Danny that Flo is living with Tommy, which leads Danny to believe Flo is not as innocent as she pretends to be.

At dinner that night, Tommy is seated at the next table with a couple of customer girls and a new customer. He sees Danny and Flo and is obviously jealous. Meanwhile, Danny is upset and can’t stop thinking about what Haines had said. He practically forces the commission check on her. Upset, Danny takes Flo on a drive out to the country to the mansion of a friend. There is no one home but Danny has a key and they go inside. Tommy leaves his guest and hires a cab driver (Tom Dugan) to follow them.

Inside the house, Danny forces himself on her. Flo tries to get away but finally stops resisting. However, when she asks him if that is all she means to him, Danny stops before anything happens. She tells him that she doesn’t love him and leaves the house. Tommy’s taxi has just pulled into the driveway. She asks Tommy to help her but he, too, believes that she is selling herself. Danny overhears their conversation and realizes that Flo is innocent. He confronts Tommy and forces him to apologize to Flo after punching him.

Tommy does and then leaves. Once they're alone, Danny begs Flo to marry him. He plans to take her back to town that night and be married in the morning. But Flo whispers something in his ear, most likely a promise of sex, because he picks her up and carries her back into the mansion over the threshold.

Now Pre-Code does not mean salacious as the film was rated TV-G, which means it’s safe for kids to watch. There is no nudity or sex, instead, it is hinted at and suggested, which was more than the Production Code would allow.

This is not a film in which men come off very well. They are all, and I mean all, after one thing, though they still want their women to stay virtuous. Women are no more than objects trading sex for sales in the film. Both Tommy and Danny want to have it both ways and when Flo doesn’t put out for either, they both accuse her of doing just that.

Flo, on the other hand, shows herself to be very clever about giving men the wrong impression but little else. She rightfully leaves Tommy when it is proven that he is fooling around behind her back. She has Maizee call Haines’ wife to get out of what could have been a sticky situation and manages to trick Haines into signing a merger letter.

The two men in her life, Tommy, and Danny, are not really nice to her, accusing her of being less virtuous than she really is. At the end of the film, she ends up choosing the lesser of the two evils, Danny. In what was supposed to be a happy ending, Flo supposedly gives in to Danny on the eve of their marriage. Sort of sad to see her give in to a man who only minutes before was dumping her and besmirching her character.

Loretta Young in She Had to Say Yes.

Loretta Young is good in the role. Young had been in films since she was a child of 4 starting with The Primrose Ring (1917), a silent film now lost. Along the way, she would also appear as an Arab child in The Sheik (1921), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and Loose Ankles (1930). She was just 22 when this film was released and it was one of nine she would have released in 1935. She’s pretty and poised. Young would have a long career and would eventually win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Farmer's Daughter (1947).

Lyle Talbot may best be remembered as the Nelsons' neighbor in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for ten years on ABC. However, his career began at the beginning of sound films and he would go on to appear in over 150 films as well as dozens of appearances on other TV shows, his final appearance being on Newhart TV show in 1987.

Regis Toomey would have an equally long career in films, appearing in over 180, including such films as G Men (1935), Indianapolis Speedway (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Drums Across the River (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), and The Out-of-Towners (1970). His is a familiar face, but not known for leading roles.

Hugh Herbert was a popular movie comedian. Even if you don’t know his name, you are probably aware of the absent-minded and flustered character he’s best known for playing. He would flutter his fingers together and talk to himself, repeating the same phrases: "hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo-hoo-hoo!" The catchphrase was slightly altered in the 1940s after imitators, including Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, copied it a “woo-woo”. Herbert himself changed his routine to match. Seeing him playing a letch seems to go against type.

Winnie Lightner plays Maizee in She Had to Say Yes.

Winnie Lightner, who plays Maizee, has the distinction of being the first movie performer in history ever to be censored for what she said or sang on screen rather than for anything she did visually. Her Vitaphone short in 1928 was held up by censors over the content of the songs she sang, which include “We Love It”, "God Help a Sailor on a Night Like This", "That Brand-New Model of Mine", and "We've Got a Lot to Learn." She offers one of the few bright spots in She Had to Say Yes.

The New York Times film critic, Frank S. Nugent, gave the film negative reviews but added, "The unfortunate part of it is that the picture has some bright lines and threatens, here and there, actually to become amusing. Hugh Herbert and Winnie Lightner wheedled a few laughs from the stranded Strand visitors, but the gayety was short-lived. It would have been a relief to everyone if Miss Young had only said "No!"

Nugent’s assessment is only too true. It's easy to see why Busby Berkeley is best known for his choreography and not his directing.  There are a few moments, but not enough to save this film. Being pre-Code doesn’t make the film salacious nor does it make it necessarily worth watching.