Saturday, May 19, 2018

Shrek 2 - Could Use A Little Change

Three years after the success of the Academy Award-winning Shrek (2001), Dreamworks released the inevitable sequel, Shrek 2 in 2004. I had seen this in the theater when it first came out and loved it at the time, though I would later become burnt out on it due to overexposure. Having seen it again years later, shortly after re-watching the original Shrek, it seems to have held up well in some areas and aged poorly in others.

While on their honeymoon, Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), are summoned to the kingdom of Far Far Away to celebrate their marriage with a royal ball. Upon arrival, however, things immediately get off to a rocky start when Fiona’s parents, King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen Lilian (Julie Andrews), have differing feelings about their daughter marrying an ogre. At the same time, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), originally meant to marry Fiona, had arrived too late to rescue her from the dragon. As a result, he becomes part of a somewhat complex revenge scheme to make sure that he’s the one wed to Fiona instead of Shrek.

King Harold and Queen Lilian are surprised
to see that Fiona has married an ogre.

By comparison to the original film, Shrek 2 has a more complex and comparatively original plot with a larger cast of characters, more interesting villains and subplots which all contribute to the main plot. A major twist that comes near the end of the movie, and also contributes to the ultimate failure of the villain, is also set up with a surprising amount of foreshadowing and changes how the viewer looks at certain scenes. As the film explores life beyond the initial happy ending, its lesson is ultimately that you can be yourself and still make a relationship work, even a marriage. While rather simple, it’s pulled off rather effectively. Some of the humor in Shrek 2 is also still genuinely funny, though the cruder jokes seem to only exist to reinforce just how different Shrek was from its competition.

As befitting an animated sequel, the actual animation is a real improvement and has aged far better than the original Shrek. The character models are generally more detailed and the hair and liquid physics are comparatively closer to the real world. There’s also more detail in the backgrounds, along with improved lighting and a greater variety of locations.

With all of that said, however, it seems that Dreamworks truly did take a wrong lesson from the success of Shrek. Where the original had a rather minimal use of pop culture jokes and anachronistic references in its obviously medieval setting, Shrek 2 is absolutely filled to the brim with such references, so many, in fact, that it’s at times distracting. While some of the pop culture references predate the movie, including Alien (1979), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Flashdance (1983), others were very contemporary at the time, including Spider-Man (2002), Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Mask of Zorro (1998). Other pop culture references, however, either come out of left field, such as the O.J. Simpson murder case of all things, or feel incredibly forced, such as one throwaway reference to Garfield’s catchphrase, “I hate Mondays.”

The anachronisms, as well, are far more numerous and harder to ignore. The most noticeable ones involve Far Far Away, as its modeled after Los Angeles and Southern California in general. The kingdom has its own equivalent to the Hollywood Sign and there are fairy tale versions of several real-world businesses, including, but not limited to, Starbucks, Burger King, Gap, Old Navy, Bob’s Big Boy and Tower Records (now defunct in the US). A particular anachronism that stretches the setting further relates to the original Shrek as well. In the first movie, the Magic Mirror could be controlled similarly to a recording, but still fit within the setting. In Shrek 2, however, television just straight-up exists, including a scene where a handful of side characters watch the show Knights (itself a parody of the show Cops) and another where Joan Rivers plays an announcer at the royal ball as though it were a live broadcast.

Notably, the home video release (not viewed for this review) contains yet another reference, an extended parody of American Idol called Far Far Away Idol which not only loosely follows the format of the show, but also literally includes Simon Cowell voicing an animated version of himself as a judge. There was even a way for viewers to vote on a winner of the competition (the official winner was Doris). Since American Idol was new at the time, it only made sense that Shrek 2 would want to reference it, but nowadays it only contributes to the “Early 2000s” vibe that permeates the film.

The home video release features an extended American Idol
parody in which Shrek (Mike Myers), Fiona (Cameron Diaz)
and Simon Cowell (Simon Cowell) are judges.

On that note, as with Shrek, Shrek 2 includes a good number of licensed songs. However, the ones performed in the movie are predominantly covers, including one for “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. and two (yes, two) for “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. However, it does include some original material, including “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows, which would receive Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

While Shrek 2 has arguably had less of a lasting impact on internet culture compared to the original Shrek, its presence as a pop culture powerhouse for the time cannot go unstated. Due to how well it stood out compared to its contemporaries, Shrek 2 was highly successful at the box office, making about $920 million against a budget of $150 million. As Dreamworks’ most successful film to date, it was the highest-grossing animated film of all time until Toy Story 3 (2010), the highest-grossing animated film in the US until Finding Dory (2016) and was the highest-grossing film of 2004. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but lost to The Incredibles (2004).

The most lasting part of this film’s legacy, however, is the introduction of Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). His popularity eventually led to a spin-off film, Puss in Boots (2011) and the Netflix series The Adventures of Puss in Boots, which lasted for 78 episodes across six seasons between 2015 and 2018.

Shrek 2 introduces the popular Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

While Shrek 2 improves on its predecessor in terms of story, character and humor, the higher concentration of pop culture nods and anachronistic elements are nearly a distraction. It’s easy to see why the movie was such a juggernaut on release, but now it’s a little harder to see where the movie truly shines without consciously peeling back the outer layer of dated references that haven’t aged as well as they could’ve. After 14 years, Shrek 2 is still an enjoyable film that’s worth viewing today, partly due to its historical significance, although the original Shrek gets a slight edge for its balance of story and references.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shrek - It Ain't The Sharpest Tool In The Shed

Originally released in 2001, the original (Academy Award-winning) Shrek came out at a time when the Disney Renaissance had recently ended (and Pixar was not yet owned by them), shaking up the animation scene and putting DreamWorks Animation on the map. Shrek, based on a book by William Steig, has since become a multimedia franchise that set the tone for many of the studio’s follow-up films until the release of Kung Fu Panda in 2008, when the Shrek style of humor was falling out of favor. Though I first saw this movie when I was a kid, I had not seen it again for several years due to an overexposure to Shrek 2 and not getting around to my desire to rewatch the original until recently. While it has held up fairly decently in spite of its age, some aspects of the movie cause it to come off as rather dated.

While trying to enjoy his life of solitude in peace, Shrek’s (Mike Myers) swamp has become overrun by various fairy tale creatures who were thrown out of their homes by the ruler Lord Farquaad. Wanting to settle things with Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), Shrek is accompanied by Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a talking donkey who knows the way to Duloc, Lord Farquaad’s residence. Shrek ends up winning a brief tournament and making a deal with Lord Farquaad to retrieve the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whom Farquaad wants to marry, from a castle guarded by a dragon, in exchange for Shrek regaining the deed to his swamp.

The story of the original Shrek follows a more simplistic plotline, though this isn’t really a bad thing as it makes things easier to follow. I don’t know how much it differs from the original book, though the movie essentially takes the story beats of Disney movies at the time and places a different twist on them, with the title ogre character not exactly being your typical prince charming and yet still finding love in the end. While Shrek himself, like an onion, has a lot of layers to his character (a metaphor actually used in the movie), as does Princess Fiona, I can’t exactly say the same for Donkey or Lord Farquaad. While Donkey does have some emotional range aside from his wit, he comes off as more of an annoying chatterbox, leading characters (and possibly the viewer) to constantly want him to stay quiet for more than a few seconds. Farquaad doesn’t have much of a character either, being onscreen for less than ten minutes (someone counted [spoilers in link]), though some aspects are evident through background design and visual gags and not entirely shoved in your face.

Shrek (Mike Myers; right) explains to Donkey (Eddie Murphy; left)
how ogres, like onions, have layers.

The animation hasn’t really stood the test of time, looking more or less unfinished by comparison to modern standards, however it is still watchable. This can be attributed to all-CG animation being in its infancy at the time (the last Pixar movie to come out was Toy Story 2), though it’s evident DreamWorks Animation put effort into making the animation look good for its time. That said, the liquid effects, especially mud, haven’t aged well at all.

As for the fairy-tale setting, while it is clear it’s meant to be a medieval aesthetic, there are some anachronisms such as modeling the façade of Duloc after a modern amusement park (including a parking lot, Farquaad mascot, turnstile and souvenir photo). That said, it otherwise sticks largely true to its art direction. This movie is also surprisingly minimal when it comes to pop culture references (ex. the magic mirror acts like a game show host and there’s a quip about celebrity marriages), though one that stands out is a reference to the (in)famous “bullet time” scene from The Matrix that has been parodied to hell and back. By comparison, its follow-up Shrek 2 contains even more pop culture jokes, which means to me that DreamWorks must’ve taken the wrong lesson from Shrek’s success when deciding to turn it into an ongoing franchise.

One of many anachronisms in the movie.

The voice acting is one aspect that has held up better, primarily amongst the four main characters. Mike Myers, prior to his career nosedive, gives a memorable performance as the titular Shrek character, his iconic Scottish accent allowing him to stand out from most of the other characters. Though his character can get grating, Eddie Murphy’s performance as Donkey makes sure that you won’t forget him anytime soon. Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow also do a good job with their respective roles of Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaar, Lithgow in particular being good enough to let you believe the character has more depth than he actually possesses. Though a bit character in this film, Conrad Vernon admittedly made the Gingerbread Man memorable, which may explain his (somewhat) expanded role in Shrek 2.

Unlike the Disney films it was making fun of, Shrek makes use of a number of licensed tracks, most notably the highly-memetic Smash Mouth song “All Star” during the opening credits and said band’s cover of The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” towards the end. Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is also used briefly in one scene, though the song would later receive more association with Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy. Donkey sings parts of a few other songs at different points in the movie, adding on to the aforementioned anachronistic pop culture references, though as with the other modern references they are brief and don’t really interrupt the narrative.

To say that Shrek made a splash on the internet is an understatement. In more recent years, the first film and its sequels made a resurgence in popularity via an ironic fandom that would become more unironic as time passed, including legitimate discussion on the franchise’s overall quality. Aside from various lines from the movies becoming memes on their own, a more tasteful meme for discussion is the previously-mentioned song “All Star” getting remixed and parodied into oblivion, with Shrek usually having some presence due to association. Chief among these is YouTuber Neil Cicierega creating the “Mouth” trilogy of remix albums that heavily feature “All Star” in some capacity, going so far as to include hidden references to the song that can only be found by digging into the sound files.

Rather notably, this movie takes some influence from some bad blood between DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Once Katzenberg was booted out of Disney and went on to co-found DreamWorks SKG (of which DreamWorks Animation is a subsidiary), he would later use the Shrek adaptation as an opportunity to get back at Eisner, to the point of having Lord Farquaad act as a caricature of him. The success of Shrek and its first sequel would also indirectly contribute to Eisner being eventually let go from Disney.

Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) is a caricature of Michael Eisner.

After 17 years, the original Shrek holds up pretty well, though the animation quality (by modern standards), crass humor and dated references bog it down a bit. That said, the story and its message are still good and its characters are memorable, which makes the film watchable even today. If anything, this film has become better known for impact on internet culture, though it’s worth a look for its historical significance in feature animation (it won the first Acadaemy Award for Best Animated Feature after all) and makes for a generally enjoyable viewing. If you’re looking for a Disney parody that has better stood the test of time, I would instead suggest The Emperor’s New Groove, ironically made by Disney themselves and released just five months prior to Shrek.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

God of War (2018) - It All Begins Here...Again

After God of War III concluded the story of Kratos’ run in Greek mythology, alongside the PSP game God of War: Ghost of Sparta later that year (which expanded on a one-off line from Zeus), Santa Monica Studio made the bold move of following things up with a prequel, God of War: Ascension, which set out to expand on Kratos’ actions prior to the events of the original 2005 game. Years later, a new chapter in Kratos’ saga, also called God of War and set in Norse mythology, was hyped at E3 and I was instantly hooked from the first trailer. I was, in fact, so hyped that I pre-ordered the Stone Mason Edition, which includes several physical and digital items, among them a cloth map of the game world and a statue of Kratos and his son Atreus. After spending some time with the game following release day, I would say that this new God of War was overall worth the hype and proved to be an interesting learning experience on Norse mythology.

Some time after the events of God of War III, Kratos is in the land of Norse mythology teaching his son Atreus how to survive in the wild. After giving his late wife a Viking funeral, Kratos and Atreus go on a journey to fulfill her last wish and spread her ashes from the highest point in all the realms. This is compounded, however, when the Norse Gods start going after them for reasons Kratos had been keeping secret from Atreus.

The story is not only excellently pulled-off (the secret ending is worth it), it also explores Kratos more as a character beyond his admittedly flatter portrayal during the Greek Era. His bonding with Atreus on their journey has him acting more subdued and wiser, as well as trying to be a good father to his son to the best of his ability, though his stoicism can still lead to some funny moments. In any case, it’s interesting to see a more three-dimensional Kratos, aided by Christopher Judge’s talent and the way Atreus is handled in-game, and I can’t wait to see what more they can do with this in future games.

The graphics are absolutely spectacular, surpassing even God of War III and pushing the PS4’s capabilities as far as they can. The backdrops are gorgeous and everything manages to have lots of detail without being off-putting (unlike its PS3 predecessor, God of War: Ascension). A notable aspect of the game is that, outside of menus, the visuals are presented in one continuous shot, an effect that, along with the graphical quality, helps make gameplay and cutscenes indistinguishable from each other.

The visuals are spectacular. (From left: Kratos, Atreus)

The gameplay is both similar and different to the previous entries, different in that Kratos instead wields a new weapon known as the Leviathan Axe. This weapon has its own useful features, mainly in the ability to throw and retrieve it (much like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, as many have noted) to pull off some crazy combinations, in addition to some different abilities you can equip to the Axe for a more versatile play-style. Kratos also wields a customizable Shield (though your pre-order dictates how many options you have at the start) that works in tandem with different abilities in addition to blocking, plus his son Atreus can shoot arrows at enemies on command along with different summons for holding the button down. What makes the gameplay similar in this regard is that, despite the changes to combat, it still feels like a God of War experience, just at a somewhat closer camera angle.

A new armor and crafting system has also been introduced to the series, wherein you can customize Kratos and Atreus’ armor and weapons, as well as equip Kratos’ armaments with various Talismans that actually affect gameplay in addition to stats. Choosing the right combination can mean life or death at certain points in the game, however the exact loadout you want is entirely up to personal preference in the end. The game also features a somewhat different game world, in that it is still linear with some non-linearity, leaving itself open to including various side quests and hidden treasures to find. There’s also different realms to explore, two of which are optional, giving the player even more things to do in the game world. In general, there is so much to do in Midgard alone that after the playing through the story you’ll want to just keep exploring more and see what you get. So much so that there is now a fast travel system that involves activating special gates to warp between specified locations; whether or not this works well is up to the player.

Among the things you can find are different types of chests, each of them designed such that you can easily tell what sort of thing you will get. One of these types is the Nornir chest, which requires undoing three well-hidden seals (runes) to open, which encourages exploring the environment to see if you can find them (until you resort to a guide in some cases). One type I was not particularly fond of, though, were Nornir chests that required ringing three bells in order to undo the seals, often requiring several tries to get the timing just right. Regardless, the rewards inside are usually worth the trouble.

One thing I commend the game for is that, much like its Greek-centered predecessors, it serves as a great, if unconventional, way of learning about Norse mythology. The game is packed with information on the subject, largely contained within side conversations and hidden shrines throughout the game world that present this information in the form of stories. The way the story utilizes aspects of Norse mythology contributes to this, since, once you know more about said mythos, it’s interesting to see the game put somewhat of a different spin on certain elements. While there is so much to learn from this game alone, the way things are presented makes me want to see what else they can put into any subsequent installments.

God of War (2018) is an excellent entry in the God of War saga that should not be missed by fans and PS4 owners alike. It tells a very intriguing story that explores a different side of Kratos’ character, as well as featuring a glutton of information regarding Norse mythology that many will find interesting to learn. The quality-of-life changes to the formula help keep the series fresh and, alongside the introduction of Atreus, opens up a lot more options during combat. This game can be a good jumping-on point for newcomers, however certain aspects of Kratos’ character make more sense for those that have at least played the main entries in the series. Regardless, it’s an amazing game on its own merits that will leave players wanting more.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

After 10 years of buildup across 18 previous films, Marvel Studios has finally released Avengers: Infinity War, the movie where the Avengers finally confront Thanos. While this highly anticipated movie is a landmark event for the superhero genre, I was unable to see it until this weekend and had fortunately dodged just about every spoiler until now. With that said, Infinity War was well worth the wait, but with an unfortunately large caveat.

Immediately following the events of Thor: Ragnarok, Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his lieutenants are onboard Thor and Loki’s ship. While Thanos uses his attack on the ship to obtain one of the six Infinity Stones, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is able to send Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) back to Earth to warn others of Thanos’ arrival. On Earth, the Avengers subsequently become involved in the fight against Thanos in some form or another while, out in space, the Guardians of the Galaxy become wrapped up in the conflict after following an Asgardian distress signal.

The overall plot for Infinity War is actually pretty easy to follow in spite of the enormous cast. What helps is that the characters are actually split up in groups across multiple locations, which helps to keep the settings fresh and the encounters with Thanos and his minions unique. The execution is also a large contrast with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In Ultron, the story bogged itself down with an overly complex layering of individual plotlines and very slow pacing. In Infinity War, while there are various subplots, they’re all kept simple and to the point, which quickens the pace and allows them to more easily tie together in the end.

What also helps the pace is how Infinity War manages to incorporate humor without diminishing the tone of the story. Most of the humor comes from the various character interactions, especially when the Guardians of the Galaxy are onscreen. In the case of the Guardians it helps that they sound like how they did in their own movies, courtesy of James Gunn, who had written their dialogue despite being uncredited. Even outside of that, the movie knows exactly when to have a funny moment and when to take itself seriously, which allows the more powerful moments to stand out.

On that note, there is a rather large caveat that should be mentioned for anyone wishing to see this film. If you have not seen all 18 previous films in the MCU, you will undoubtedly become confused about one thing or another; it’s like having a test that’s inclusive to an entire school year. While Infinity War does try its best to be enjoyable in a vacuum, it features nearly every major character that has appeared in previous movies and, as a result, also involves plot threads that go as far back as Phase One. However, even if you have seen all 18 prior installments, there is a chance you will have forgotten something if you haven’t seen some of them in a while. Therefore, to get the best enjoyment out of Infinity War, it’s best to have seen all the other movies in the MCU, preferably as close together as possible.

Without spoiling much of anything, the acting from just about every character is very good. Of particular note is Josh Brolin’s performance as Thanos. Since he now has a lot more room to work with the character, he’s able to deliver an amazing, and occasionally emotional, performance that adds a lot more depth to what we had seen prior. Additionally, Thanos’ lieutenants all have distinct designs and performances, but good luck remembering their names (for the record, they are Ebony Maw, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive).

Avengers: Infinity War is a great example of a movie that can actually live up to its hype. The story is rather easy to follow, Thanos is a highly memorable and surprisingly complex villain and the movie is able to balance its humor such that powerful moments retain their impact, as well as its characters such that they are easy to keep track of. On top of that, the visual effects are absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, Infinity War will more than likely be confusing to those who either have not seen all of the previous MCU movies or are for some reason jumping into this one completely blind. I would highly recommend this for existing fans of Marvel Studios, as it really pays off for that audience, but everyone else has some serious movie watching in their future, if only to stave off confusion.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Stubs - South of St. Louis

South of St. Louis (1949) Starring Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith, Zachary Scott, Dorothy Malone, Douglas Kennedy, Alan Hale, Victor Jory, Bob Steele, Monte Blue, and Nacho. Director: Ray Enright. Screenplay by Zachary Gold, James R. Webb. Produced by Milton Sperling. Runtime: 89 minutes. U.S.A. Color, Western.

If you haven’t heard of United States Pictures before, you’re not alone. An independent studio run by producer Milton Sperling, United States Pictures produced 14 features from Cloak and Dagger (1946) directed by Fritz Lang to Battle of the Bulge (1965) directed by Ken Annakin. The studio would dabble in several genres, including film noir: Cloak and Dagger, and The Enforcer (1951) directed by Bretaigne Windust & Raoul Walsh; war films: Retreat, Hell! (1952), Merrill's Marauders (film) (1962) directed by Samuel Fuller, Battle of the Bulge; and Westerns: Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, Distant Drums (1951) directed by Raoul Walsh, and South of St. Louis (1949) directed by Ray Enright.

South of St. Louis was originally called Distant Drums, a title that would get used later, and was set to star Lilli Palmer with a screenplay by Ben Hecht. Of course, that’s not what happened. It’s hard to know what that film might have been, but that’s not the film we’re dealing with here. The term South of St. Louis is apparently a Civil War expression used to describe army deserters, though that is not really related to the final film.

The film opens in Missouri, south of St. Louis, during the Civil War. Far from the main battlefields of the war, Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders operate in the name of the Union Army. Driven from their homesteads, settlers migrate to Texas. On their way out, they pass the Three Bell Ranch which has been burned to the ground. The three owners and best friends, Kip Davis (Joel McCrea), Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott) and Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy), vow revenge.

Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott), Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy) and  Kip Davis (Joel McCrea)
find their ranch The Three Bell has been destroyed.

Despite the fact that Kip’s fiancée, Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone), wants him to go with her to the small town of Edenton, the three head to the Texas border town of Brownsville, a Union Army stronghold, to look for Cottrell. There at a bar run by Jake Everts (Alan Hale, Sr.), they find Cottrell and Kip beats him up.

Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders take a break in a Brownsville bar.

Later, Lee decides to leave and join the Confederate Army. The other two will stay behind and work to raise money to build back the Three Bell.

Lee joins the Confederate Army while Charlie and Kip keep working to raise money to rebuild the Ranch.

Afterward, Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith), a saloon singer and Rebel sympathizer, offers Kip $50 to transport a wagon load of furniture for her. Without hesitation, Kip agrees to do it and starts out immediately. However, on the way, he has an accident with a Union Army wagon, revealing that his freight is not furniture but guns intended for the Confederate Army. Kip is arrested and sent to the Stockade.

Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith) hires Kip to deliver "furniture".

On his way to the stockade, another Confederate sympathizer paid off by Rouge,  lets him go free. Immediately, a carriage carrying Rouge pulls up. She offers him a chance to work with her smuggling guns for the Confederacy from Matamoros, Mexico into Brownsville.

Rouge’s contact in Matamoros is a Frenchman, Henri Brugnon (Paul Maxey), who informs her that he has no more weapons, having sold them to Cottrell.

Meanwhile, Charlie hires a gang of men, including Slim Hansen (Bob Steele), who used to be a member of Cottrell’s gang.

Slim Hansen (Bob Steele) joins Charlie's gang after having run with Cottrell.

Some months later, Kip, Charlie, and their gang bring a load of guns across the river into Texas and find Cottrell waiting for them. A gunfight ensues, and Kip's men are rescued by a contingent of Confederate soldiers, led by Lee.

Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone) is the girl Kip leaves behind, but she moves herself.

When they arrive in Edenton with the guns, Kip goes to see Deb, who has been working as a nurse in a converted hospital. She’s happy to see him and begs him to stay with her.  Kip, however, is still determined to rebuild his ranch and continues to smuggle guns to keep making money.

After the Confederate Army recaptures Brownsville, Kip wants to return to Three Bell. Lee, who is now a lieutenant in the army, chooses to continue fighting. Meanwhile, Charlie has become more interested in making money than returning to the ranch and decides to continue gun running.

Kip returns to Edenton and asks Deb to marry him and come back with him to the ranch. Surprisingly, she turns him down, feeling that her work as a nurse it too important and decides she can’t leave. Kip goes back to smuggling, which pleases Rouge, who has fallen in love with him.

Cottrell threatens to kill Kip and Charlie if they ever return to Matamoros, so Slim suggests that they steal the shipment before it arrives. Dressed as Union soldiers, they steal the guns. However, getting back into Texas poses a problem when they are intercepted by Confederate soldiers as they cross the river. Mistaking them for Union soldiers, the Confederates open fire and a shootout ensues. While Kip and Charlie survive, they end up killing the leader of the Confederate band. Back in Texas, Lee suspects the truth and ends his long-term partnership with Kip and Charlie.

The three friends start to splinter when Lee suspects his friends have killed his fellow soldiers.

When Cottrell kills one of Kip's men, Kip resolves to kill him. Slim, who used to ride with him, warns Cottrell, hoping that warning him will help eliminate Kip allowing Charlie to become the sole leader of the gang.

Kip avoids Cottrell’s ambush, but before Cottrell can tell him about Slim's double-cross, Slim kills him.

Returning to Edenton, Kip learns that Deb has fallen in love with Lee. After having lost both his friends and his fiancée, Kip leaves for Matamoros, accompanied by Rouge. With time on his hands, Kip starts to drink heavily.

After the war, Lee joins the newly established Texas Rangers and he is sent to Brownsville to clean things up. It’s not clear what he’s supposed to clean up, but apparently, it’s his old friend Charlie’s operations, since as soon as he arrives in town, Charlie threatens him. Concerned for his safety, Deb, who is with her husband, rides to Matamoros to ask for Kip's help.

Rouge convinces Kip to help his old friend.

At first, Kip isn’t keen to get involved, but with Rouge’s encouragement, he rides to stand by Lee’s side. There is a standoff between Charlie and his gang against Kip and Lee. When Slim tells Charlie that he has a sharpshooter ready to kill Kip and Lee, Charlie can't take it and at the last minute, he joins his old friends in a shootout with his own gang.

The Three Bells stand side by side in their last gunfight.

While the three friends are victorious, a mortally wounded Slim shoots him. As Charlie lies there dying, Kip promises him that the ranch will always be called the Three Bell and that they won’t change the brand.

Later, married to Rouge, Kip returns to rebuild the ranch. When Kip mentions that they’ll need a couple of boys to help them rebuild, Rouge promises, if he gives her a couple of years, to provide them.

The fact that this is called a Western does not sit quite right with me. Westerns are often set on the American frontier during the last part of the 19th century (1865-1900) following the Civil War, in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. Typically, the subjects are white settlers vs. Indians, cattle ranchers vs. sheepherders, the coming of the railroad, cattle drives, and the like. Most of this film takes place during the Civil War, and while there is talk of cattle, we never really ever see any. No railroads. No Indians. Not that I’m against bending genres, but this one seems to be a Western only in passing.

Also, there are the bells that the three main characters wear on their spurs. Lee even continues to wear one with his Confederate uniform. Not sure what the motivation would be for three grown men to wear a little bell like that. There is never any explanation. This may sound a little old-fashioned on my part, but its a little too cute to be believable.

While I’m not a Civil War history buff, I am still dubious about the film’s historical accuracy. I always thought that Texas fell at the end of the war, rather than during it, as this film seems to suggest. Nor that Brownsville ever fell to the Union only to be retaken by the South. This film comes across more as bending history to make the movie work.

And speaking of the Civil War, the film’s protagonists are obviously on the wrong side of history. While there is no indication that none of them actually own slaves, we’re still supposed to be rooting for Confederate sympathizers. I’m not one of those PC types, but it still seems surprising that Hollywood would choose to make heroes out of them, even back in 1949. Don’t get me wrong, there can be some very compelling stories about people in this position, but sadly this isn’t one of them.

The acting is okay, but nothing really to write home about. Joel McCrea always seems to play the same sort of character, always earnest and likable. Not that I have seen all that many McCrea films, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a drunk before and he’s not all that believable as one.

Zachary Scott always seems to play the heavy, even though he starts out as a friend and ends up as one, there is a good part of the film where money has become the most important thing to him, friendships be damned.

Alexis Smith and Dorothy Malone seem to play two sides of the same character. Dorothy’s Deb is the pretty country girl who seems, at least in the beginning, to be in love with Kip. It’s only when her work and his work pull them in different directions that she ends up with another man. Alexis’ Rouge is a saloon singer, who one suspects has not been a one-woman man, but she is there to pick Kip up when he stumbles. In the end, both Deb and Rouge end up married and surprisingly it is Rouge who ends up on the ranch looking forward to being a mother.

Of all the genres, Westerns were probably the most popular in Hollywood. Relatively inexpensive to make, they always seemed to have a fan base. That said, there are several better examples of the genre out there that I would recommend over this outing. This film is sadly more forgettable than memorable. If you want a horse opera, you would be better served to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Second Look - Iron Man (2008)

Note: This review contains spoilers related to Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012).

In 2008, Marvel Studios released their first live-action film, Iron Man. Though the project was a risk for a number of reasons, its success propelled the studio to new heights and their continued success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe would help reshape the cinematic landscape, for better or worse. With their most recent film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) now out in theaters, we at Trophy Unlocked have decided to take another look back at Iron Man in celebration of its 10th anniversary and see just how well it’s held up after all these years.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), CEO of defense contractor Stark Industries, is in war-torn Afghanistan with Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) to demonstrate the company’s latest weapon, the devastating Jericho missile, to the U.S. military. Soon after, however, Stark’s convoy is attacked and he becomes implanted with shrapnel from one of his own company’s weapons. The terrorist organization the Ten Rings captures and imprisons Stark in a cave, where he is forced to construct a Jericho missile using stockpiled Stark Industries weapons. Though Tony is able to escape with aid from Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a captive doctor who helped him construct a miniature arc reactor to keep the shrapnel away from his heart, he decides to shift his company’s focus away from weapons and figure out just how the terrorists got their hands on his technology in the first place.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) before his personal transformation.

After 10 years, the story holds up pretty well. The major characters are very three-dimensional from the moment they’re introduced and while the actual dialogue was largely improvised, the characters remain consistent and true to themselves throughout. As a result, Tony Stark’s personal transformation is believable and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is a memorable villain who is very capable at using Tony’s trust in him to his own advantage. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Yinsen and Colonel Rhodes are also strong supporting characters due largely in part to how they interact with Stark and how well they serve the overall story. In addition, the plot is pretty easy to follow and is enough to keep viewers engaged for over two hours. The setting is also grounded very well within reality and the various twists and turns, while perhaps old hat at this point in the MCU, are handled well enough to enjoy this movie in a vacuum.

Along with the story, the special effects have also held up surprisingly well considering their age. The designs of the Iron Man suits, including Iron Monger, have a timeless quality to them and their interactions within the world are still convincing. One smaller scene that has aged especially well is one where Pepper Potts has to replace an arc reactor within Tony’s chest by reaching into a chest cavity to remove one wire and insert another.

Iron Man is also good at balancing its humorous and serious moments. The best way to describe this is that it’s serious when it needs to be and it’s funny when it feels appropriate to add a bit of levity to a scene. This balanced approach, along with the improvised dialogue, allows the film to include a rather famous line from Obadiah Stane. When frustrated at the inability of Stark Industries scientists to recreate the arc reactor technology, he yells, “Tony Stark was able this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” This line stands out not only for Jeff Bridges’ delivery, but also because it sums up how truly gifted Tony Stark is.

"Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!"

One thing that’s hard to discuss, however, is the music. While the score does match the tone when you can detect it, including a guitar riff that repeats a couple times, it’s not really memorable. The licensed tracks, on the other hand, especially AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, really stand out and gel well with the energetic atmosphere of the film. My only complaint with the use of “Iron Man”, however, is that they don’t play the entire track.

At the time that Iron Man came out, it was facing somewhat of an uphill battle. In order to get funding for the project, Marvel had put up the rest of their film rights as collateral, meaning that if they failed, the bank would own their remaining properties. Additionally, Director Jon Favreau’s previous film, Zathura, was a box office flop (about $64 million earned against a budget of $65 million) and Robert Downey Jr., though a talented and successful actor in his own right, was more known at the time for his past addictions and run-ins with the law. When Iron Man became both a critical and financial success, the rest of the MCU became a true possibility.

Iron Man also helped, both directly and indirectly, to reshape the Hollywood landscape. The film’s more grounded and realistic approach to a superhero movie, as well as the shifting of the character’s origin from the Vietnam War to the War in Afghanistan, helped the movie stand out from its contemporaries and gave it a more modern feeling. Tony Stark’s declaration at the end of the movie, “The truth is…I am Iron Man,” also felt fresh at the time, as unlike many other superheroes, he had forgone the notion of a secret identity and publicly embraced his image as Iron Man. The film’s role as the launchpad for the MCU also contributed toward the buildup for The Avengers, which was so successful in its unique approach to storytelling, particularly as a crossover between multiple properties, that it would change how Hollywood approached short and long-form storytelling, for better or worse.

Part of the legacy of Iron Man also involves actor Clark Gregg, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson. This movie introduced Coulson to the greater Marvel multiverse and Gregg’s performance helped the character become rather popular. So popular, in fact, that not only does Coulson show up in later films within Phase One of the MCU, but soon after his death in The Avengers (2012), he was brought back to life for a lead role in ABC’s television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which thus far has yet to make a real impact on any of the films.

Clark Gregg would get a lot of mileage out of
his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson.

On the subject of S.H.I.E.L.D., however, there is a very noticeable retcon within the MCU that’s worth mentioning. In Iron Man, the way Agent Coulson talks about S.H.I.E.L.D. makes them come off as a rather new organization that had yet to really nail down their name. Beginning with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), however, S.H.I.E.L.D. is established as having existed since WWII and named after Captain America’s weapon of choice.

Those who watch Iron Man will also notice that a short sequence takes place at the Disney Concert Hall. This small moment turned out to be highly prophetic once Disney had bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for about $4 billion. This deal would cause some friction with Paramount Pictures, who at the time had a six-picture distribution deal with Marvel Studios, save for The Incredible Hulk (2008); Universal Pictures still owns the distribution rights to the property. After Disney purchased Marvel, they later bought the distribution rights to The Avengers and Iron Man 3 (2013) from Paramount, but they still had to display the Paramount logo on those films.

Another enduring part of Iron Man’s legacy is the post-credits sequence where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to discuss the Avengers Initiative with Stark. This sequence would not only kick off the buildup to The Avengers, but also create a trend where Marvel would end every film with some kind of mid- or post-credits sequence (save for Age of Ultron (2015), which has no post-credits sequence), with some like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) reaching up to five end-credits sequences. Outside of Marvel, however, the impact of Iron Man’s post-credits sequence would eventually lead to other studios including such sequences in their films for one reason or another, which has essentially trained audiences to stay even after the movie is finished in the hopes of getting a surprise; in my own experience, I’ve seen more people complain when there isn’t some kind of post-credits sequence.

The moment that started it all.

Even 10 years later, Iron Man is not only a good superhero movie, but a great movie in its own right. The more grounded and realistic approach to the story and world help it stand out from other superhero films and the performances of the actors help the characters feel three-dimensional and their dialogue natural. The special effects still hold up well to this day, but the original score hardly feels present or memorable. Though Marvel Studios would ultimately copy a lot of elements from Iron Man for later MCU films, their first outing is still one of their best and is perfectly enjoyable in a vacuum (even with the post-credits scene). If you’re in the mood for a good action movie, Iron Man is sure to satisfy.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Stubs - Cry Danger

Cry Danger (1951) Starring: Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Erdman, William Conrad, Regis Toomey, Jean Porter, Joan Banks, Jay Adler, Renny McEvoy, Lou Lubin Directed by Robert Parrish. Screenplay by William Bowers. Based on a Story by Jerome Cady. Produced by Sam Wiesenthal and W.R. Frank. Runtime: 79 minutes. USA. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama

If you’ve never heard of Olympic Productions, it may have a lot to do with the fact that the production company, owned by Sam Wiesenthal and W.R. Frank only made one film, Cry Danger. Like many independent productions, Cry Danger was made quickly on a low budget. The initial shoot lasted about 22 days beginning on June 9, 1950, with additional shooting in late July to early August. Much of the shooting took place in and around downtown Los Angeles, CA, including Union Station and Bunker Hill.

Jerome Cady’s story was originally purchased by Santana Pictures, a company owned by Humphrey Bogart and his producing partner Robert Lord with Columbia Pictures originally set to distribute. No word how the story went from Santana to Olympic, but that is what happened. No telling what the resulting film would have been like with Bogart in the lead.

Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart in a publicity still from the film Johnny O'Clock
(1947) with technical adviser John Jake Barrett in between.

Dick Powell, however, was no slouch when it came to film noir. A one-time song and dance man in films like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, all from 1933, Powell made the transition to film noirs with Murder, My Sweet (1944) playing a character Bogart had also played, Phillip Marlowe. He would go on to make several film noirs including Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), To The Ends of The Earth (1948) and Pitfall (1948). Well-versed in the genre, Powell would turn out to be a good choice for the lead here.

Newspaper headlines welcome Rocky Mulloy home.

Powell plays Rocky Mulloy, fresh from prison having served five years of a life sentence for robbery and murder. When the film opens, Rocky is just getting off the train at Los Angeles’ Union Station where he is greeted by a newsboy hawking the paper with a headline about Rocky’s release. Outside, Lt. Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey), the detective who helped put him behind bars, is waiting for him. With Gus is Delong (Richard Erdman), a decorated, disabled ex-Marine and alcoholic, who provided Rocky with an alibi that got him released.

Rocky (Dick Powell) is greeted off the train by Lt. Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey),
the detective who helped put him behind bars, and Delong (Richard Erdman), the man who freed him with an alibi.

Gus doesn’t necessarily buy the alibi but invites the two men out for a drink. At the bar, Delong explains that he shipped out the day after the holdup, saying he was unaware that Rocky was in trouble. Delong’s story is that Rocky and he had been out together drinking with other Marines the night the robbery was committed. Gus isn’t convinced and informs Rocky that he’s putting a tail on him 24/7, hoping he’ll lead authorities to the money from the holdup which was never recovered.

First stop is a bar, where we learn Delong likes to drink.

Once Gus leaves, Delong comes clean with Rocky, telling him that he had made up the alibi, thinking that he might be entitled to a share of the loot. Rocky repeats his claim that he wasn’t part of the robbery but knows who was involved and who has the money and that he intends to find it.
Delong takes Rocky to the Clover Trailer park, where Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming) lives. Nancy is not only Rocky’s ex- but she is also the wife of his best friend, Danny, who was also found guilty of the robbery and is still in prison.

The trailer park where Nancy lives and where Rocky and Delong rent a trailer.

The first person they meet is a cute blonde, Darlene (Jean Porter), part-time model and part-time pickpocket, to whom Delong is drawn. The two men rent a trailer from the manager of the park, Williams (Jay Adler), who warns them that he doesn’t want any trouble. Nancy is thrilled to see Rocky again.

The first person they meet at the trailer park is Darlene (Jean Porter).

That night, Rocky goes to see Louie Castro (William Conrad), a racketeer who had engineered the holdup. Rocky accuses him of a frame-up and demands Castro pay him $50,000, the amount he had been offered to participate in the robbery. Castro refuses. He claims not to have the money. Rocky will settle for $5000 as a down payment. Instead, Castro gives Rocky $500 with which to place a bet the next day on a fixed horse race. The horse will pay 8 to 1 which will get Rocky some money for now.

Louis Castro (William Conrad) gives Rocky a racing tip rather than a payout.

Later that night, Rocky is shot at by an unseen assailant at the trailer park. Nancy begs Rocky to drop the matter, but Rocky instead goes the next morning to see Arthur Fletcher, a witness that provided damning evidence against Rocky at his trial. However, he finds out from Alice (Joan Banks), Arthur’s wife, that he’s dead. Alice tells him that Arthur received $5000 soon after the trial, which Rocky assumes was a bribe from Castro.

Arthur Fletcher's widow, Alice (Joan Banks), seems to fancy Rocky.

Alice makes a play for Rocky, but instead he calls Castro to find out how to place his bet. He’s instructed to go to a hotel's cigarette stand to place the bet and is instructed to see the bookie (Hy Averback) downstairs in the delicatessen for the payout. The bookie, who comes out of the backroom, complains about the payment saying no one considers that he’s got a wife and kid at home.

While Rocky, Nancy, Delong, and Darlene are out celebrating Rocky’s good fortune, Gus shows up to let him know that the money is part of a heist. Trying to prove his innocence, Rocky takes Gus back to the delicatessen, but the proprietor acts like he’s never seen him before and informs them there is no backroom, which Gus and Rocky find is true. Upstairs, there is a different woman working the concession and has no idea what he’s talking about. When they fail to find the other woman who took the bet, Gus takes Rocky downtown to police headquarters.

Gus shows up to ruin Rocky's celebration, which includes Nancy (Rhonda Fleming) at left.

Gus calls Castro, who claims he’s never seen Rocky, which Gus knows is a lie, having followed Rocky since his release. Still, he’s reluctant to believe Rocky’s story, though he does let him go.

Soon after he gets back to the trailer park, Delong and Darlene leave to get a drink. They are, however, mistaken for Rocky and Nancy by Castro's thugs. In a hail of bullets, Delong crashes the car and Darlene is killed instantly.

After the shooting, Gus brings in all of the suspects, including Castro.

Gus brings Rocky, Nancy, and Castro in for questioning, but can’t get any answers from any of them. He lets them go, though he holds on to Castro. When he returns to his car, Castro finds Rocky waiting for him.

Rocky is waiting for Castro to come out of police headquarters.

Incensed, Rocky takes Castro to his office and forces him at gunpoint to lie down on the desk. He then plays Russian roulette with Castro until he admits where his half of the loot is hidden, in a safe under his desk. Castro also reveals that Nancy has the other half, as Danny, unlike Rocky, agreed to participate in the holdup and committed the murder.

Castro eventually confesses to Rocky about his half of the money.

Rocky instructs Castro to call Gus to arrange for a confession, Gus instead calls his thugs, who leave to come to his office. Afterward, Rocky calls the real Gus. When the police arrive, the thugs engage them in a shootout on the sidewalk out front.

When the police get to Castro’s office, Rocky informs Gus where half of the money is, but claims not to know where the other half is.

Nancy wants to run away with Rocky and confesses that she has her husband's share of the loot.

Back at the trailer park, Nancy wants to run away with Rocky. He tells her that they'll need money and she admits that she has Danny’s share of the money. When Rocky asks how she could have remained silent when he was sent away to prison, she admits that she was afraid of Castro. She also confesses to shooting at Rocky to stop his snooping. Still, she claims she still loves him and begs him to run away with her. Rocky agrees and they split up to pack. But once he’s outside her trailer, Gus is there. Rocky tells him about Nancy's deception and while Gus goes inside to arrest her, Rocky walks quietly away.

Released by RKO on February 3, 1951, the film received positive reviews, though there is no information on its box office. Variety noted that "All the ingredients for a suspenseful melodrama are contained in Cry Danger…”

There is a lot to like about the film, starting with the cast. Dick Powell seems to be in his element as Rocky. He’s just tough enough and snarky enough to carry off the part. Not a forbidding figure, Rocky is driven by his anger over having been wronged. He doesn’t let much stand in his way, even Castro, played by William Conrad.

No stranger to crime dramas, Conrad appeared in The Killers (1946) as one of the assassins sent at the beginning to kill Burt Lancaster’s Swede character. He had also appeared in such films as Body and Soul (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Tension (1949), and Dial 1119 (1950). Conrad would become a radio actor, playing Marshal Dillon on the long-running radio production of Gunsmoke (1952-1961), and eventually have his own TV show, Cannon (1971-1976). Conrad is used to playing the heavy, no intended joke about his weight, and he’s good here as Rocky’s foil.

Nicknamed the “Queen of Technicolor”, Rhonda Fleming was known for her pale complexion and flaming red hair. She acted in films beginning with In Old Oklahoma (1943), but her big break came in Spellbound (1945) directed by Alfred Hitchcock followed by The Spiral Staircase (1945). She would also appear in Out of The Past (1947). Her first starring role came in Adventure Island (1947), a low-budget action film shot in color. She would then star opposite Bing Crosby in her first Technicolor film, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949).

Even in black and white, Fleming is still a beautiful woman and a fine actress. Nancy is a little one-dimensional, though Fleming does her best to make the most out of her. The twist at the end seems a little anticlimactic, but that’s not her fault.

Richard Erdman made a career as a supporting actor, appearing in 160 film and television productions over the years. His first appearance was in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and his most recent appearance was in the sit-com Community (2009–2015), as one of the elder students. Here he makes a good sometime partner for Rocky. He’s a good actor but he doesn’t steal focus from the star. Erdman does, however, get to deliver one of the better lines in the film.

Darlene LaVonne: You drinkin' that stuff so early?
Delong: Listen, doll girl, when you drink as much as I do, you gotta start early.

Jean Porter came to Hollywood at the age of 12 in 1934 from Cisco, Texas. While she would never achieve stardom, she did appear in such films as The Youngest Profession (1943), Bathing Beauty (1944), Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), Till the End of Time (1946), and in The Left Hand of God (1956). She did attract the attention of director Edward Dmytryk, who ended up as one of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy Era. They would stay married from 1948 until his death in 1999. Porter is more eye-candy in this film and except for minor characters, she is pretty one-dimensional.

The film is good but not great. While Rocky’s journey is interesting it is somewhat short and to the point. There are a couple of diversions along the way to keep it from being too straightforward but there really is nothing all that unique about the story. Wrongly accused man gets out of prison and seeks revenge on those that put him there. In this case, it’s Castro, who is 60% legit (sort of like being a little pregnant) and doesn’t want to give Rocky his due.

The twist, and you pretty much have to have one for film noir, is that the woman he loves and who claims to love him back is also responsible for putting him away. It’s a good one but not as shocking, perhaps, as it could be.

If you’re a fan of film noir, then you should like Cry Danger. While it doesn’t hold up as one of the greats of the genre, it is still good and fun to watch. I would recommend it if you have not seen it.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.