Saturday, January 26, 2019

Stubs - Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky (1943) Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Kenneth Spencer, John W. "Bubbles" Sublett, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay by Joseph Schrank. Based on the musical Cabin in the Sky, book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John Latouche, music by Vernon Duke, as produced by Albert Lewis in association with Vinton Freedley (New York, 25 Oct 1940). Produced by Arthur Freed Runtime: 98 minutes. USA Black and White Musical

A lot has been made from the success of Black Panther (2018), the first nearly all-Black Marvel film, which was a huge worldwide box-office success, though despite the Oscar buzz was not the pinnacle of the MCU. Major studios have shied away from all-Black films, prior, due to what they thought would be less than an International appeal for such stories. Truly, Superhero films were able to change that thinking.

Though they were few and far between, Hollywood studios have made all-Black films before. One of the first examples was Cabin in the Sky made by M-G-M, the then-dominant studio. Back then Hollywood would make film versions of Broadway musicals, now it seems to be the other way around. The original musical ran for 156 performances between October 25, 1940, and March 6, 1941, with Ethel Waters, Dooley Wilson and Rex Ingram in lead roles.

While M-G-M made the film, it was producer Arthur Freed who was very insistent on making it. The studio paid $40,000 for the film rights, helping to erase the $25,000 loss the Broadway musical producers took on their production. With a rather small budget of $679,000, one of producer Arthur Freed's least expensive musicals of the 1940s, the film went into production on August 31, 1942.

There were a lot of changes between the stage musical and the film version. To begin with, only Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram, who had appeared on stage, would appear in the film. Also, only two of the original songs from Broadway, "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Cabin in the Sky” would make it into the film.

Maybe this was a sign of the times, the film was given to a first-time director, Vincente Minnelli, to helm. There were no mainstream Black directors in Hollywood in 1942. Minnelli had only directed stage musicals and musical shorts, so while not a total newbie he was far from a big name behind the camera.

Replacing Dooley Wilson in the cast was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who was already famous on radio and television as Jack Benny’s man-servant on that comedian’s eponymous show. By the time he was in Cabin in the Sky, he was already the first Black American with a regular role on a nationwide radio show. He started out his career in an All-Black vaudeville revue. A song and dance man, he added comedy to his act in 1926.

Newcomer Lena Horne was also given star-billing. Horne, who had begun her career in the chorus line at the Cotton Club, had come to Hollywood via a singing career, which included replacing Dinah Shore on NBC's jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. She left that to perform in a Cotton Club-style revue on the Hollywood Sunset Strip in 1942. She would be signed by M-G-M a few weeks later. Prior to coming to M-G-M she had appeared in the musical The Duke is Tops (1938), a low-budget race movie musical, later re-released in 1943 as The Bronze Venus and; in a 1941 two-reeler, Boogie Woogie Dream, so despite rumors to the contrary, this was not her first motion picture.

The film opens with a town, somewhere in the South, all abuzz about the return of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie Anderson) to the fold. Everyone is gathered at Church waiting for him with his wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) to arrive. Petunia, unlike Joe, is a church regular on good terms with God, to whom she often prays. She’s hopeful that Joe, who now has a job as an elevator operator, will give up his gambling and womanizing ways.

At first, Rev. Green (Kenneth Spencer) wants to send the church’s Deacon (Oscar Polk) to check on the Jacksons, but is convinced that the job requires his presence. Things are progressing slowly as Petunia is ready, but Joe is still fussing with his tie. The couple, along with their neighbor and friend, Lily (Butterfly McQueen), arrive at the church. When the sinners are called to repent, Petunia is convinced that Joe is in their number but he’s not.

Having been called out of church by those he owes gambling debts to, Joe is forced against his will to take on a bigtime gambler at Jim Henry’s Paradise Club, Domino Johnson (John W. "Bubbles" Sublett). The men will stake him and it is his only way to get out of their debt since he doesn’t have the money he already owes them.

When Petunia realizes Joe is not at the front of the church to repent, she and Lily go looking for him. Her first thought is to check on the Paradise Club, but gives Joe too much credit and goes home. However, he’s not there. In the distance, she hears gunfire and knows instinctively that Joe is involved.

Rushing to the Paradise Club, she finds Joe has been shot by Domino, who has fled the scene. She takes him back to the house, where the Doctor (Clinton Rosemond) warns her to take it slow. Petunia prays over her husband, asking for God’s forgiveness. However, it appears to be too late, as Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) and three of his aides come to collect Joe’s soul. Joe, at first, thinks it is his old friend Lucius (Rex Ingram), only to learn that he’s dead and is to report to duty.

A rude awakening, Little Joe (Eddie Anderson) discovers that he's died and gone to Hell.

Petunia’s prayers, though, are answered with the arrival from Heaven of The General (Kenneth Spencer). They engage in a battle for Little Joe’s soul. Sgt. Fleetfoot (Oscar Polk) is sent to Heaven to get the judgment on Little Joe. While he’s gone, Lucifer, Jr. predicts that Little Joe’s involvement with local vamp Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) will result in his banishment to Hell. Fleetfoot arrives back with the Lord’s judgment. While he’s not worthy of going to Heaven, the Lord gives him six more months on Earth to prove his worth.

Joe’s soul is more than willing to make changes, but he’s informed by The General that human Joe will have no recollection of what has happened but assures him that he will be talking to his conscience and battling for his soul, knowing that Lucifer, Jr. will be playing to his baser desires.
When Joe, who had been thought to have died, suddenly recovers, Petunia believes it’s a miracle.

Petunia (Ethel Waters) comforts Little Joe as he recovers.

Petunia, who is a loving wife, can’t do enough for Joe during his recovery. About a month in, two of Joe’s gambling pals, Jim Henry (Ernest Whitman) and Dude (Nicodemus) come to call. They’re after the debt that Joe owes them, $6 and $4 respectively. Petunia intercepts them and makes a wager, she’ll roll them dice for double or nothing. She takes a few practice throws with the dice that Jim Henry provides. However, when she offers to let him throw, he changes them, which she, of course, notices. She takes back the dice and throws 7 and 11 and wins back the debts and chases the two away.

Using their dice, Petunia wins back Little Joe's debts from Jim Henry and Dude (Nicodemus).

Joe gets a job at a factory and fulfills his promise to buy Petunia an electric clothes washer, which he delivers to her during his lunch hour on her birthday. “Now all we need is electricity,” he tells her.
Don’t think for a minute that Lucifer, Jr. has given up on his wager. Back at the Hotel Hades, Lucifer, Jr. and his ideas men, played by Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Fletcher Rivers, and Leon James Polk are joined by Trumpeter (Louis Armstrong), who comes up with the suggestion to have Joe win the Irish Sweepstakes. A lot of money is the quickest way to turn a man into a sinner. Adding to the mix of temptations is Georgia Brown, whom Lucifer, Jr. convinces to unexpectantly go see Joe.

Louis Armstrong (l) listens as Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) gets clearance for his plan for the big guy.

At work, that afternoon, Joe receives a telegram from the Messenger Boy ('Buck' Ford Washington Lee). Alas, Joe doesn’t know how to read and assuming it is only some sort of advertisement, throws it away to The General’s pleasure. Joe goes home and misses Georgia’s arrival. She is about ready to leave when Lucifer, Jr. uses his powers of persuasion to get her to pick up the telegram and read it.

Meanwhile, Joe goes home but Petunia is out. Lily tells him that Petunia has gone to buy him some clothes. Joe starts to repair the roof, which is in the process of falling down but, to the disappointment of The General, decides to put it off for another day.

Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) proves to be a great temptation for Little Joe.

While he’s relaxing outside, Georgia Brown arrives. Joe tries to be strong but Georgia is awfully tempting. He starts to kiss her but pulls back, telling her he can’t go through with it anymore. She shows him the telegram offering him $50,000 for his lottery ticket and he thinks of all the things he can do for Petunia. He also promises to give Georgia something for bringing him the good news.

Unfortunately, that is the moment Petunia arrives home. She won’t let Joe explain and kicks him out of the house.

Domino Johnson (John W. "Bubbles" Sublett) arrives at the Paradise Club.

Later, Duke Ellington and his orchestra are playing at the Paradise Club, Domino, fresh from six months in prison, arrives. He’s looking for Georgia Brown and Jim Henry puts him off, sending him upstairs to the card game in progress. Joe and Georgia then arrive dressed to the nines and her dripping with jewelry. Joe is now a high roller, who is lavishing his wealth on Georgia and being the big man down at the Club. Not only does he buy everyone at the Club a drink, but he is also the one to have paid for Ellington’s appearance.

Domino makes a play for Georgia even though Joe is the one who brought her.

When Domino learns that Georgia is there, he makes an obvious play for her, right in front of Joe. But Petunia is also there, having come, dressed up as well, demanding half of Joe’s winnings in their divorce. She makes a play for Domino, through singing, but Joe can’t let that happen. He fights for Petunia and Domino pulls out a gun.

Petunia makes a play for Domino, which is the last straw for Little Joe.

Petunia prays for God to intervene, which takes the form of a tornado headed for the club. Despite the winds ripping the Paradise Club apart, Domino manages to fire his gun, first killing Petunia and then Little Joe.

The General (Kenneth Spencer) informs Petunia that she's made it into Heaven. Little Joe has not.

The night, which is exactly six months since Little Joe’s reprieve, has turned the Club into Purgatory. The General informs Petunia is eligible to pass through the Pearly Gates into Heaven, while Little Joe has been rejected. It is only after Little Joe repents and the Lord vouches for him that the General reverses his decision and allows Little Joe to join his wife in Heaven. The start to walk up the long stairs to Heaven.

Little Joe and Petunia ascend into Heaven hand in hand on their way to their cabin in the sky.

Little Joe then realizes that his brush with the afterlife was only a dream, and he vows to change his evil ways for good.

Little Joe recovers with Lily (Butterfly McQueen), Rev. Green (Kenneth Spencer),
Petunia, and the Doctor (Clinton Rosemond) watching over him.

Released on April 9, 1943, the film was a box office success despite some theaters refusing to show the film, especially in the South. In one incident, in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, the film was pulled after only 30 minutes by order of the sheriff. Despite the boycott, the film turned a profit, making $1.7 million in its release in the US and Canada and $234,000 in the rest of the world. With the low production costs, the profit was over $587,000. There were talks at M-G-M of doing other all-Black films, like a version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess but none ever materialized at the studio.

The film did garner one Academy Awards nomination, for Best Music, Original Song: Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) for the song "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe".

Variety, in their review of the film, complained that little had changed from the stage version, noting “In the legit version Cabin seemed constantly to be constricted by the limitations of the stage. But difficulty has not been solved in the present film adaptation. The yarn still appears weighed down by unimaginative conception, the few changes in the screen medium merely filling out the story, without expanding or developing its fantasy. In only one of two moments, such as the stairway to heaven finale, is there any apparent effort to utilize the facilities of the camera. There are far too many close-ups, particularly in the vocal numbers.”

Variety's review singles out only Ethel Waters, stating she “remains the one transcendent asset of the film Cabin, just as she was in the original. Her sincerity, compassion, personal warmth and dramatic skill, plus her unique talent as a singer make her performance as Petunia an overpowering accomplishment.”

Waters is clearly the star of the film. She began her career in Black vaudeville starting at the age of nine. At one time, she played the same club as Bessie Smith, who didn’t want her to compete by singing Blues songs, so Waters turned to ballads and popular tunes. She recorded for Cardinal Records. Her first hit was, however, for Columbia Records with “Dinah” in 1926. Her best-known song was “Stormy Weather” released in 1933, which would get to #1, her second song to reach that milestone.

She would appear as herself in Warner Bros. On With the Show! (1929), the first all-color all-talkie film released by the studio. (Sadly only Black and White prints remain.) and Rufus Jones for President (1933), a musical short, also released by Warner Bros., which also featured a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. Following her run on Broadway in Cabin in the Sky, she came to Hollywood to make Cairo (1942) at M-G-M and stayed to make Cabin in the Sky. She would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Pinky (1949).

Quite talented, Waters could be difficult to work with. John Ford, who was the original director of Pinky was fired after bumping heads with her. Elia Kazan, who took over the film, would describe Waters as a "truly odd combination of old-time religiosity and free-flowing hatred.”

There were a number of firsts in Waters’ career. The first black to have a TV Special, a 15-minute variety special on NBC on June 14, 1939. In 1969, she would be nominated for an Emmy, for an appearance on Route 66, the first dramatic performance by a black performer so recognized (male or female), as well as the first black woman nominated for an Emmy.

In this film, she seems to do it all: sing, dance, and act delivering both heartfelt speeches as well as holding her own in comedic sequences, as when she takes Jim Henry’s money playing dice. While the film is about Little Joe, it seems to revolve around Waters’ Petunia character. It’s a good thing, too. Even though everyone gives strong performances, it is her talent and screen presence that the story depends on.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, who was already known for his comedic talents, also sings and dances a little. Even though he began his career doing these things, it is good that he didn’t quit his day job to resume his career doing either.

Lena Horne is not only a good singer but she is very attractive and provides as much distraction as any man trying to mend his ways can take.

Rex Ingram seems to have a lot of fun as Lucifer, Jr. While the part is obviously a supporting one here, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role with as much spirit as he does. Louis Armstrong, the great trumpet player, gets billing over Ingram, even though his part is much smaller. I’m not sure why Armstrong was cast other than to take advantage of his fame.

The vaudeville duo of Buck and Bubbles is represented, though only 'Bubbles' John W. Sublett really has much of a role as Domino Johnson. 'Buck' Ford L. Washington plays the role of the messenger and while he has a nice sequence with Anderson, his talent as a singer and piano player is not used here. Known as the father of rhythm tap, Sublett had also been featured on stage as Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Sublett is also the one who, in 1920, gave tap dancing lessons to Fred Astaire.

Having never seen the stage musical this is based on, I don’t have Variety’s issues with the film version. For some reason, I had avoided this film for a number of years. The version I watched was one I had Tivo-ed from TCM back when the late great Robert Osborne was still the prime-time host on that channel. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what took me so long.

The tornado that destroys the Paradise Club is a recycled special effect from The Wizard of Oz.

There are a couple of bits that might remind you of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Some of the roles in Little Joe's dream are played by friends and neighbors. Even Joe realizes this in the dream itself but the scene when he recovers definitely will remind you of when Dorothy regains consciousness in that film. And the tornado that rocked Dorothy's world seems to return to destroy Jim Henry's Paradise Club. M-G-M, not wanting to waste a good special effect, did reuse, or at least use an alternative take, of the footage in not only Cabin in the Sky but also in High Barbaree (1947).

The film is very entertaining with strong performances from everyone. Not only do you get Ethel Waters but you also get Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and Lena Horne at the start of her career. Seeing Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington is sort of icing on the cake. It’s funny, it’s spiritual and it’s very, very good. I would definitely recommend that you watch this film as soon as you can.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Dragon Ball Super: Broly

Note: The following review contains spoilers for Dragon Ball Super.

Since Broly’s first introduction in Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan, he has become a popular, if divisive, character among fans. After 25 years and two prior movies, Broly is the subject of a new movie, Dragon Ball Super: Broly, which not only sees him reinterpreted by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, but also officially inserted into the Dragon Ball canon, following the events of Dragon Ball Super. Following a recent theatrical screening of the official English release, we can safely say that this film’s version of Broly is significantly improved in just about every way.

Following the Tournament of Power, Universe 7 has returned to a peaceful state. With the knowledge of stronger fighters in other Universes, Goku (Sean Schemmel) continually trains with Vegeta (Christopher Sabat) so that he can better fight them in the future. During a sparring session, six of the seven Dragon Balls are stolen from Bulma’s (Monica Rial) lab by members of the Frieza Force, which leads them to travel to the Arctic to retrieve the final Ball before Frieza (Christopher Ayres) can. When they reach their destination, however, they are forced to fight a Saiyan named Broly (Vic Mignogna), who turns out to be their strongest adversary yet.

The story is somewhat complex, though pretty easy to follow. The first part of the movie explores the origins of the Saiyans and their relationship with Frieza, specifically the events surrounding the destruction of Planet Vegeta and what led up to it. We also see the new origin story for Broly and his father, Paragus (Dameon Clarke), which provides a better motivation and context for their actions while tying them into the Dragon Ball timeline pretty seamlessly. However, there is somewhat of a pacing issue when the backstory shows Bardock (Sonny Strait), since his attempt to defend Planet Vegeta occurs very quickly after protecting his son, Goku, by sending him off-world.

When the story gets to the present day, it moves along at a better pace. It doesn’t waste too much time to get to the confrontation with Broly, but it spends enough time to properly flesh him out into a more three-dimensional character with his own personality and desires that clash heavily with what Paragus wants from him. This helps to make Broly more sympathetic and provide a deeper motivation for his anger-induced fighting abilities. Once the fight with Broly begins, the movie follows a similar trend from Broly - The Legendary Super Saiyan where the majority of the remaining runtime is spent on the fight. Unlike the original Broly movie, however, the fight is more of a tense back-and-forth, with a couple major scenery changes, that escalates to a climactic finish that, in the end, feels earned.

Broly (Vic Mignogna, left) in a fight with Vegeta (Christopher Sabat, right).

As for the animation, it’s quite simply the best that Dragon Ball media has to offer. A bump in quality is to be expected from a movie with a higher budget than a typical anime episode, but the difference is spectacular here. Largely due to a change in character designer, with Naohiro Shintani replacing Tadayoshi Yamamuro after a decades-long run on the franchise, the designs are more animation-friendly, which allows the fights to be animated with unprecedented fluidity. Even outside of the fight scenes, the vivid color palette helps everything pops off the screen as a visual feast for the eyes.

During the actual fights, every movement is very fluid and the animation is highly consistent while still retaining the feeling of hand-drawn animation. There’s a portion of the fight against Broly that’s rendered in CG, but the stylized approach to it, seemingly inspired by Dragon Ball FighterZ, helps it blend in to the point where it’s hardly noticeable. Energy moves are very flashy and in a greater abundance than Broly - The Legendary Super Saiyan, but does nothing to remove the tension of the fight. In fact, I felt a chill while witnessing Broly’s new transformation sequence, as the animation was able to perfectly capture the pure rage that built up within him throughout the fight.

Paragus (Dameon Clarke) as portrayed in Dragon Ball Super: Broly.

Of course, the English voice acting is the best I’ve heard yet for the returning characters, as the same voice actors have been playing them for over 20 years. Having seen Broly - The Legendary Super Saiyan beforehand, there was an especially noticeable improvement in Vic Mignogna’s portrayal of Broly and Dameon Clarke’s portrayal of Paragus, the latter of which sounded much less stiff and more emotive than before. I also liked the voices of the newly introduced characters, including Erica Lindbeck as Cheelai and Bruce Carey as Lemo, as they seemed to fit the characters.

If there’s one real criticism, it would be that Goku and Vegeta don’t really have a character arc to speak of. Apart from some character development for Goku at the very end, neither of them really changes in any significant way. However, since this film placed a lot of emphasis on fleshing out Broly as a character, one could argue that this was really less of a “Goku” or “Vegeta” movie and (fittingly enough) more of a “Broly” movie.

Dragon Ball Super: Broly is, simply put, the best Dragon Ball film I’ve ever seen (even if I haven’t seen very many). The story and development of Broly are both a vast improvement over Broly - The Legendary Super Saiyan and the animation shows just how far the franchise has come and how far it could continue to go with a new character designer and animator at the helm. This is a must-see for Dragon Ball fans, especially if you’ve also seen Dragon Ball Super or are a fan of Broly in general. Though the story is written in a way that could potentially be viewed on its own, it’s still not completely penetrable for those unfamiliar with Dragon Ball. That said, if you’re in that camp, I’d still recommend it on the animation and character of Broly alone.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan

If you’ve been in enough discussions about Dragon Ball, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the character Broly. Making his debut in 1993 in the non-canon film Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan (Dragon Ball Z: Burn Up!! A Close Fight - A Violent Fight - A Super Fierce Fight in Japan), Broly went on to become a rather popular character within the fandom, more so than any of the other movie-exclusive villains in the franchise, to the point where he even got representation as a DLC fighter in the recent game Dragon Ball FighterZ, a game whose roster is otherwise devoted to select canon characters as of the Dragon Ball Super anime. The endurance of Broly’s popularity would ultimately culminate in the debut of a canon version of the character in the recent film Dragon Ball Super: Broly. In preparation for the new film, we have decided to rewatch Funimation’s 2003 dub of the original Broly film (via the Broly Triple Feature Blu-ray collection) as a way to compare the two versions of the character.

While Chi-Chi (Cynthia Cranz) is trying to get him to behave in order to get Gohan into a private school, Goku (Sean Schemmel) receives a distress call from King Kai and is forced to leave via instant transmission. Meanwhile, a picnic involving the other Z fighters is interrupted by the appearance of a Saiyan named Paragus (Dameon Clarke), who tells Vegeta (Christopher Sabat) about the creation of a new Planet Vegeta (the Saiyan homeworld). As Vegeta, under the promise of fighting the Legendary Super Saiyan, goes along with Paragus, Master Roshi (Mike McFarland) ends up getting himself, Krillin (Sonny Strait), Gohan (Stephanie Nadolny) and Oolong (Bradford Jackson) on board, with Future Trunks (Eric Vale) getting on board just as the ship closes. On the new planet, Paragus introduces his son Broly (Vic Mignogna) as Vegeta’s servant. When Goku arrives, his presence causes Broly to act up, one of many signs that something is not right about the new Planet Vegeta.

While the plot is pretty straightforward, there isn’t much to it, as the bulk of the second half of the movie is dedicated to the actual fight with Broly, the aforementioned Legendary Super Saiyan. While Broly himself is indeed an interesting character, his backstory didn’t seem to have enough exploration as it could have, as while we do get to see it, his motivation for fighting Goku is rather lacking. That said, the final battle is very well-done and has some actual tension as the other fighters along with Goku try and figure out how to stop Broly, even if the reason for his downfall is a little questionable. Though the movie is non-canon, it seems to place itself sometime around the Cell Saga in the series, given the presence of Future Trunks and his participation in the events, as well as only the base Super Saiyan form being available to Saiyan characters in this story.

Goku (left, Sean Schemmel) preparing a Kamehameha against Broly (right,
Vic Mignonga) in his Legendary Super Saiyan form.

Even though animation quality in general has improved significantly since this film’s original debut in 1993, the animation holds up surprisingly well. The animation of the Broly fight is especially good, as is his transformation into a Super Saiyan that only serves to highlight his raw power. Though the voice actors have greatly improved in their performances of their respective characters over time, the voice acting still holds up as they display the experience they still had in their roles. Vic Mignogna, best known as Edward Elric in the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise, is an interesting choice for Broly, however he still manages to show great range as he plays Broly more calmly in his base form until the character begins to transform, where his performance is truly menacing. Mignogna would continue to voice Broly in the film’s two sequels, Broly – Second Coming and Bio-Broly, as well as reprise the role years later in Dragon Ball Super: Broly.

The Funimation dub also introduced a number of additional songs to its soundtrack, most notably “10’s” by metal group Pantera. I would comment on this, however I cannot since the Broly Triple Feature Blu-ray version restores the original Japanese soundtrack, for those who are curious. That said, the soundtrack was good for what it was, working with its more minimalist nature to highlight certain moments when deserved.

Dragon Ball Z: Broly – The Legendary Super Saiyan is worth giving a watch, if only to see the origins of a rather popular Dragon Ball character. That aside, while the movie is a little light on plot, what little there is is actually pretty well-written, though the main draw is a fantastically-animated battle backed by some really good voice acting. This movie is made more for existing Dragon Ball fans than non-fans, though its execution makes it probably one of the easier non-canon films for a non-fan to watch.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Bone: Out from Boneville + The Great Cow Race

In the year 1991, independent comics creator Jeff Smith launched the first issue of Bone, a comic that ran for 55 issues until 2004 and would receive immense critical acclaim. I had been somewhat aware of this comic as far back as when I was in middle school, including seeing a wild fan art of protagonist Fone Bone as well as some of the earlier one-volume collections, however I would not get around to actually reading it until a couple years ago after buying an autographed (black-and-white) one-volume collection at Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books booth at SDCC. I then understood the low-key hype surrounding this book and fell in love with the characters and setting, and since then have read the Bone: Coda and Tall Tales collections and the recently-released Smiley’s Dream Book, with the Rose comic prequel and Quest for the Spark novel trilogy on my radar as of this writing.

Cover for Bone #1, released July 1991
(from left: Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, Smiley Bone)

One of developer Telltale Games’ earliest works would be a series of games based on the Bone comic, starting from the beginning with Out from Boneville in 2005, shortly after the comic ended. A follow-up, The Great Cow Race, would be released in 2006, however the Bone saga in video game form would come to an ending there (incidentally, the latter game would also come right before Telltale’s first breakthrough with Sam & Max Save the World). With the recent shutdown of Telltale Games in late 2018, I recently decided to purchase the Bone duology while they were still available on the Steam store, playing both games shortly afterward for this review. Though the games were initially released as stand-alone product, I have decided to present a review of both games as one package.

After being run out of Boneville, the cousins Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone discuss their current situation, with the whole thing being Phoney’s fault. Soon after the three come across a map in the middle of nowhere, the three are attacked by a swarm of locusts and end up separated, while Phone Bone ends up with the map as he starts looking for his cousins. Meanwhile, a pair of rat creatures target him as they look for Phoney.

While both the comic and the game begin similarly, the game presents a somewhat compressed version of the story that still covers the same narrative beats. Though some moments that were cut arguably contributed to world building, these moments may have come across as filler when translated to a 2-hour point-and-click game. These small moments aside, the game retains the more important events, making it easy to follow for someone unfamiliar with the source. It also prefaces the story with lore that was originally divulged much later in the comic, teasing early on what sort of story the player is experiencing.

The gameplay for Out from Boneville is pretty linear, playing more like one of those “interactive storybook” games. Certain things from the comic, such as the Bone cousins running from locusts or Fone Bone’s first encounter with the character Ted, are translated as full-on minigames, though the chase sequences can be optionally skipped after failing them once. As this was Telltale’s second game overall (their first being Telltale Texas Hold’em), the more simplistic gameplay compared with their later endeavors is more excusable here.

The graphics actually hold up pretty well, as they offer a direct translation of Jeff Smith’s art style in a 3D space. This combined with the voice acting (which includes a small JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA reunion) and music gave the idea that Smith’s acclaimed comic had really come to life. I especially liked the casting choices for the Bone cousins, though I would give praise to those who had voiced multiple characters at once and managed to make them all sound and feel distinct from each other. A minor gripe on the technical side of things was the occasional glitching on some characters’ heads, wherein they did not seem to know whether to look in a neutral direction or the one intended by the developers, though otherwise things went pretty smoothly.

Soon after the Bone cousins are reunited in the town of Barrelhaven, Phoney and Smiley Bone have to work off a debt at the local tavern while Fone Bone pursues his romantic feelings towards Thorn. Meanwhile, Barrelhaven is getting ready for the Cow Race, in which Gran’ma Ben races against a herd of cows. Phoney sees this as an opportunity for a quick buck, collecting bets with the promise of a “Mystery Cow” that is fast enough to outrun Gran’ma Ben.

Compared to Out from Boneville, the game manages to retell the same basic story from the comic while shuffling things around a little to suit a mechanic where you have to shuffle between Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone for the majority of the game, completing certain tasks to move the plot forward and influence what happens to each character. Some small filler not present in the comic is also added in order to aid this mechanic, including the introduction of a handful of side characters not present in the source material (they do, however, still include some side characters who had a fair amount of screen time in the comic).

Despite these differences, while the story was still pretty easy to follow and hit all the major moments from the comic, I ended up having to use the in-game hint feature a bit more often in order to get through it. As The Great Cow Race came directly before Sam and Max Save the World, Telltale’s aforementioned first major hit, this acts as sort of a precursor to the increasingly-complex logic puzzles that series would go on to be known for.

I didn’t find anything wrong with the game on a technical level, though I would note certain changes in the voice cast. Most of the voice actors from the first game return here, however Wendy Tremont King, the original voice actress for both Gran’ma Ben and Thorn, was replaced with Bridgit Mendler and Susan McCollom, who voice Thorn and Gran’ma Ben respectively. The change is noticeable after playing both games back-to-back, however the two try their best to sound like King while delivering their own unique performances that improve upon what she had started.

Though among Telltale’s lesser-known work, Bone: Out from Boneville and Bone: The Great Cow Race are both enjoyable games in their own right. After having read the comic, it’s a bit disappointing that the game adaptation never got past the second arc of the story, though as they are, the two games are worth playing through for Bone fans to get a taste of how things might’ve been. For non-fans, I would also highly recommend reading the Bone comic itself, as the One-Volume Edition isn’t too hard to come by. Either way, as the fate of Telltale’s games in digital storefronts is uncertain, I would recommend picking up these games on Steam while you still can.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Stubs - Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie (2018) Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones Directed by Jon S. Baird. Screenplay by Jeff Pope. Based, in part, on AJ Marriot’s book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours. Produced by Faye Ward. Runtime: 97 minutes UK Color, Biography

Once one of the most famous comedy duos in Hollywood history, Laurel and Hardy were no longer making movies by 1953. Instead, they were appearing live on stage in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is this tour that is the backdrop for Stan & Ollie, a biopic that was released late last year.

Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) have a confrontation with
Hal Roach (Danny Huston) on the set of Way Out West. 

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly give spot-on impersonations of the famed comedy team, with Coogan taking the role of Stan Laurel and Reilly Oliver Hardy. While the film concentrates on the pair who are somewhat slowed by age, the film also offers a behind-the-scenes look at the boys in their heyday on the set of Way Out West (1937), and the famous dance number to The Avalon Boys performance of J. Leubrie Hill's "At the Ball, That's All.”

In the film, Laurel and Hardy do stage versions of sketches from such films as Berth Marks (1929), County Hospital (1932) and Way Out West, with a reference to The Music Box (1932) thrown in for good measure. If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Laurel and Hardy, then I would strongly recommend you search out these films on disc or YouTube so that seeing the reenactments will mean more to you.

By 1953, Hardy and Laurel were getting long in the tooth but they could still bring the laughs.

I can not say enough about Coogan’s and Reilly’s performances. They really bring these real-life characters into the modern world. You get a sense of their friendship and their disagreements. The film seems to take great care to present a faithful version of not only 1937 Hal Roach studios, with Danny Huston playing Roach, but also early 1950s England. There are little details that this film catches, including James Finlayson (Keith MacPherson), who appears in a fleeting part but is totally recognizable as the character actor who would appear in many of the comedy team’s films.

To give credit where credit is due, some of the transformation of Coogan and Reilly into Laurel and Hardy is due to the work of makeup supervisor Jeremy Woodhead and prosthetics designer Mark Coulier. Reilly was apparently covered from head to toe in prosthetics and a fat suit that took up to four hours a day to put on. The end results were apparently worth the effort as he is nearly a dead ringer for Hardy.

Despite the attention to detail, the film does take some liberties with the actual history of Laurel and Hardy. The film makes it seem that the duo had not worked together since Way Out West when in reality, that’s not true. There really was a film, Zenobia (1939), in which Hardy appeared solo and was paired with Harry Langdon (Richard Cant) during a contractual dispute Laurel had with Roach. However, rather than the end of the partnership, it was more an aberration. Together, they would move on to MGM and Fox and Laurel and Hardy would appear in more than a dozen films before their final one together, Atoll K (1951).

There are some other inaccuracies no doubt done for dramatic effect. This was not the boys' first appearance on a British stage. They, in fact, toured Britain four times in 1932, 1947, 1952 and 1954. And there was a film deal that fell through but that was during the 1947 tour, not the one as seen in the film. Still, the film seems to ring true despite these changes. Even their wives, Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) are well represented in portrayals that seem right, even though I know nothing about them at all.

Reilly and Coogan do a great job of capturing their subjects, Hardy and Laurel

The reason to see the film, even if you’re not familiar at all with the work of Laurel and Hardy, are the performances of Coogan and Reilly. They are truly great in these roles. They seem to capture Laurel and Hardy's looks, mannerisms, speech patterns as well as comedic timing. Truly a tour de force for both actors. It was as if they were born to play these roles. It’s nice to see Reilly doing such good work. Too often, it seems, he plays supporting roles to the likes of Will Ferrell [Note: both Reilly and Coogan appear in Holmes and Watson (2018)] when he is capable of doing much better work. Stan & Ollie is definitely worth going to see. And if you're not a fan of  Laurel and Hardy, it should at least encourage you to check out their body of work.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Tetris Effect

Following Ubisoft’s exclusivity contract with Tetris Ultimate, it seemed like there wouldn’t be any new Tetris games released in the US for some time until Sega managed to find a loophole regarding Puyo Puyo Tetris, though they could only import the Switch and PS4 versions, the latter physical only. I’m unsure of the current status of Ubisoft’s contract, however I was excited to see a new Tetris game, the Monstars and Resonair-developed Tetris Effect, announced for PlayStation VR at last year’s E3 press conference. Tetris seemed like an interesting title to explore VR with, as the preview material made it clear that the platform would make the backgrounds more immersive than ever. Upon finally getting a chance to play it after getting it for Christmas, I thought it was a good Tetris game on its own as well as a great VR experience.

Basic gameplay is similar to previous Tetris games, though there are some new game modes found in this version. The primary game mode is Journey Mode, a campaign that allows you to play through different levels in sets of 3-5. In this mode, you have access to the Zone mechanic, which builds up as the player clears lines. Activating Zone allows the player to temporarily freeze time and clear beyond four lines and score additional points. As potentially cleared lines move to the bottom of the matrix before all of those are cleared at once, this mechanic can also be used as a way to clean out the matrix and make things easier for you, especially as the game speed increases. Another interesting feature about Journey is that the music is also affected by your plays, increasing immersion; the music can also influence how you play, as the game speed can be affected by the tempo of the music. The tetrominos are also themed based on the backdrop, although among the game’s plethora of options is the ability to revert them into classic colors if you feel like it.

Example of gameplay outside VR.

Other game modes can be found under Effect Mode, which features classic Tetris modes as well as some new ones organized to reflect your mood. The Zone mechanic is not accessible here, though each mode has their own rules that shake things up a bit. One of the newer modes involves having to clear 300 lines while enduring random conditions that affect what you do, ranging from simply flipping the board to turning the matrix upside down and reversing controls at the same time. Some options are also designed for when you want to relax, wherein there is no Game Over. Some modes also allow you to toggle whether they go on forever (that is until you fill up the matrix), which can be useful for the relaxation options. Effect Mode also features an optional leaderboard, though you can see everyone’s level represented by an in-game avatar as it orbits the Earth.

The music of Tetris Effect is thankfully good, with each track designed to suit the visuals and tone of the level. Some tracks can even stick with you, as can the gameplay, if the game’s namesake is anything to go by. The backgrounds are also stellar with or without VR, though especially in VR, with each of them evolving as you advance through the stage. If you just want to enjoy your favorite backdrops without having to actually play the game, finishing Journey Mode unlocks the ability to do just that, in addition to allowing you to select your favorite one(s) in some Effect Mode options.

Tetris Effect is one of the best Tetris games I have played in recent years. The backgrounds and music are both very well coordinated and executed, plus the new Zone mechanic puts an interesting twist on things. The visuals are amazing and the game is perfectly playable without VR, though it is best experienced in VR if you are able to afford the headset. Either way, the game is a must-play for Tetris fans as well as a good experience for casual fans and newcomers.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Stubs - Way Out West

Way Out West (1937) Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Sharon Lynne, James Finlayson, Rosina Lawrence, Stanley Fields. Directed by James W. Horne. Screenplay by Charles Rogers, Felix Adler, James Parrott. Producer: Hal Roach, Stan Laurel. Run Time: 64 minutes. USA Black and White. Comedy

From the March 13, 1927 release of Duck Soup until the November 21, 1951 release of Atoll K, there were few film comedy duos as dominant as the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Brought together by Hal Roach, the duo enjoyed great success and are remembered for such films as the Academy Award-winning short The Music Box (1932), County Hospital (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), Babes in Toyland (1934), and Way Out West (1937). In prep for the new Stan & Ollie (2018) biopic, we decided to take a look at one of these films, Way Out West.

The film was made between late August and early November 1936, originally called In the Money, Tonight's the Night, and They Done It Wrong before it received its final title. This bears the credit, A Stan Laurel Production, a testament to the actor’s prowess not just in front but behind the camera as well. Once the understudy for Charlie Chaplin in the Fred Karno troupe, he arrived in the U.S. on the same ship. While he made some early silent films, including Nuts in May (1917), and sometimes appeared in films as a Charlie Chaplin imitator, he joined the Hal Roach studios in 1925 as a writer and director.

The movie opens in Brushwood Gulch, a small Western town. There the main saloon is owned by Mickey Finn (James Finlayson). (Mickey Finn is an old expression referring to the practice of lacing a drink with chloral hydrate, a powerful and sometimes deadly sedative, in order to do mischief to an unsuspecting dupe.) The star attraction of the saloon is the musical prowess and sex appeal of his wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne). Working for them as waitress/cleaning woman is the young and naïve Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence).

Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) is the waitress at the saloon.

Once we’ve established that relationship, Stan and Oliver are seen in transit to Brushwood Gulch. Stan is driving a mule (Dinah) which is pulling a slumbering Ollie behind him. But some rough road awakens the sleeping Ollie. While he manages to get back to sleep, it is crossing a stream that really wakes him from his slumbers.

When the raft carrying him gets detached from the donkey, Ollie starts to slowly sink into the water. Stan comes back to retrieve him, but on the way out, Ollie falls through a hole in the bottom of the river.

Stan helps Ollie after he's fallen into a hole in the riverbed.

Now soaked, Ollie continues wrapped in a blanket, while his clothes air dry. That is until they make it to a trail about two miles out of town. While Ollie dresses, Stan goes to see if he can thumb a drive.  Nothing seems to work until he shows a little leg, which gets the attention of a passing stagecoach.

Because of how they treated his wife, the Sheriff (Stanley Fields)
tells Stan and Ollie to be on the next stage out of town.

Once onboard, in tight quarters, the boys make the lone female passenger (Vivien Oakland) upset when Ollie makes a sort of veiled pass at her. When they reach the town, she is met by her husband, the Sheriff (Stanley Fields), who is not amused. He tells the boys to be on the next stage out of town, which doesn’t give them much time for the business that brought them there.

The Avalon Boys play outside the saloon.

Outside of Mickey Finn’s saloon, The Avalon Boys are performing J. Leubrie Hill's "At the Ball, That's All," which appears to catch the fancy of Stan and Ollie, and the two perform one of the more famous dance numbers to be captured on film, with apologies to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly.

Stan and Ollie dance to "At the Ball That's All."

Once inside, they explain their secret mission to Finn. They have been entrusted to deliver the deed to a gold mine the prospector discovered to the man's daughter, Mary Roberts. They assure Finn of the riches, even showing him the deed, which is a little worse for wear, having been used by Stan to cover a hole in his shoes.

Stan and Ollie get hoodwinked by Mickey Finn (James Finlayson)
and his wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne).

Finn, no surprise, doesn’t do the right thing. Instead, he convinces Lola to pretend to be Mary and allow them to take the mine for themselves. Since the boys have never met Mary, they are easy to fool. There is also a locket, which Ollie has around his neck, that he’s supposed to give Mary as well. Ollie practically has to undress completely to find it, only to discover that it has fallen to the floor.

With their mission completed, the boys go downstairs to have a drink in the saloon. They end up singing a song, "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," with Chill Wills, one of The Avalon Boys playing. Stan not only sings in a deep bass (supplied by Wills), but also in a soprano (supplied by Rosina Lawrence) to the amazement of Ollie. Meanwhile, Lola tricks Mary into signing the deed over to her.

The Boys try to get the deed back from Lola and Mickey.

On their way out, the boys say goodbye to everyone, including Mary. When they ask her name and she tells them, they figure out the ruse and go back upstairs to confront Lola. Before they do, Stan promises to get the deed back or he'll eat Ollie’s hat. There is a bit of keep away that goes on with the deed, with Lola, Mickey, Stan, and Ollie all taking turns with the paper. Finally, Stan stuffs it in his shirt but Lola locks him in her bedroom and tickles him into submission, taking the deed away from him. There is a little bit more back and forth with the paper before Mickey locks it up in their vault.

Lola tickles Stan into submission and takes back the deed.

The Sheriff finally arrives but won’t listen to Stan and Ollie, since they should already be out of town. He chases after them, shooting as they flee. Once again, when they cross the river, Ollie falls into the small hole in the river bed.

In camp that night, Ollie is once again wrapped in a blanket while his clothes dry. While they discuss their plan to sneak back into town to steal the deed back, Ollie tries to light his pipe but his matches are understandably wet and won’t spark. Stan helps out, flicking his thumb like it’s a lighter and, again to Ollie’s amazement, his thumb catches fire.

Stan gives Ollie a light using his thumb.

Before they go, Ollie makes Stan eat his hat, as Stan did not fulfill his earlier promise of getting the deed back. After a few bites around the brim, Stan appears to like it. Ollie takes the hat back, even eating a little bit himself. To the film’s credit, from then on, Ollie’s hat has several bites out of it.

Stan has to eat Ollie's hat for failing in his promise to get the deed back.

The break-in does not go off without a hitch nor making a lot of noise. Ollie tries to climb up to a building but falls through the roof. The noise they’re making awakens Finn and Lola, who sleep in separate beds and rooms. After Ollie frees himself, they discuss plan B, however, Stan blows the candlelight they're using. Once again, he sparks his thumb and relights the candle.

The break-in doesn't go well, when Ollie falls through the roof.

Armed with a rifle, Finn comes outside but doesn’t see anything.

Meanwhile, Stan and Ollie hatch the idea to hoist Ollie up to the second story window. While Ollie is in mid-air, Stan decides to get a better grip and lets go of the rope. Ollie falls to the ground. During the argument that follows, Stan manages to flip Ollie back on to the ground. When Ollie tries to retaliate, Stan lets go of the rope and Ollie falls back again.

Using Dinah, they manage to hoist Ollie up to the window but when Stan goes back to give him the tools, Ollie’s weight lifts the mule up to the landing as he plummets through the doors of the cellar. This noise, of course, reawakens Finn and Lola.

Leaving the mule upstairs, they gain entrance through the cellar coming up through a trapdoor in the floor. Mary comes out of her room and screams, causing Stan to drop the door on Ollie’s head, which is now sticking up through it.

Ollie ends up with his head through a trapdoor.

Meanwhile, Lola has gotten Finn to get up again and he comes downstairs again with his rifle. They put a bucket over Ollie’s head and Mary hides Stan in a closet just before Finn arrives. He goes back to bed, but not before sending Mary to her room. On his way out, he kicks the bucket, hurting his foot in the process.

In an attempt to free Ollie, Stan stands on the trapdoor and pulls up on his neck, stretching it to many times its natural length before it snaps back and Ollie falls through the hole.

Meanwhile, Finn goes back to bed holding his rifle and Dinah starts to eat the furniture.

Now freed, Stan and Ollie continue their quest. But Stan can’t resist a slot machine, which makes a lot of noise when it pays off. It, of course, wakes Finn once again.

In their argument about the noise, the candle again goes out and Stan lights his thumb again. Ollie, who still can’t understand how he does that, tries it for himself and is surprised when his own thumb lights up.

At gunpoint, Ollie makes Finn open the safe and hand over the deed.

His scream brings Finn downstairs and the boys hide in a grand piano. Finn discovers them in there and plays the piano so that the keys are hitting them in the face. When they can’t take it any longer, they try to get out, but Finn pushes the cover back on top of them, pushing them all the way through the piano. In the confusion that follows, Ollie takes control of the rifle and forces Finn to open the safe and hand over the deed. Then, at gunpoint, they march him back to his bed, tying him up in his sheets. Ollie suspends him from the chandelier in the room. Stan retrieves Dinah and, with Mary, beat a hasty retreat.

After their escape, Stan, Ollie, and Mary walk along the river, and Ollie and Mary discover that they are both from the South. Stan adds that he is from the south of London, and as the group sings about returning to Dixie, Ollie falls into a hole in the riverbed.

James Finlayson, who plays Mickey Finn, should look familiar to anyone who has watched a Laurel and Hardy film. The Hal Roach studios once touted Finlayson alongside Laurel and Hardy as a "famous comedy trio", as part of their All-Star Comedy series. However, his star began to fall when Leo McCarey, a staff producer at the studio, recognized the comedic potential of the Laurel and Hardy pairing. Soon, they became the focus of their own series. By the fall of 1928, Laurel and Hardy had their own series and Finlayson was reduced to a supporting role.

James Finlayson played the foil to Laurel and Hardy in many of their films.

As in Way Out West, Finlayson became the Boys’ cinematic foil, appearing in 33 of their films, including Another Fine Mess (1930), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Flying Deuces (1939), and Saps at Sea (1940) to name a few. Interestingly, his trademark mustache was actually fake, a prop.

The female support roles, played by Sharon Lynne and Rosina Lawrence, could have been played by anyone as their parts were not all that remarkable. Interestingly, both actresses would appear in Way Out West towards the end of their respective careers. Rosina would get married in 1939 and retire from entertainment. Lynn, who had begun acting in silent films, saw her career fading and she would be out of the movies by 1938.

There is not much you can say about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that hasn’t already been said. They are comedic geniuses. Even if the material isn’t always up to par, they can make you laugh. In many cases, they are as funny with the dialogue as they are with the physical humor. In Way Out West, it is the physicality that saves the day.

As Frank S. Nugent wrote in his contemporary review in the New York Times, “they would not be funny if both were fat or both skinny.” Chris Farley once commented something to the effect that everyone loves to watch the fat man fall down. In this case, it’s Ollie falling through the roof of a building or his pulling the mule off the street as he falls through the doors to the cellar. There is also the physical humor of Stan eating and enjoying Ollie’s hat, as well as his ability to light his thumb.

Let’s not forget the silly and adorable, though possibly extended, dance they do outside the saloon. That dance is worth the price of admission. If you have never seen the film before, I would recommend it for that dance sequence alone. The film has the thinnest of plots but still manages to provide a good time for the viewer.