Wolf (1994)

Wolf (1994)
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I first heard about 1994’s “Wolf” through the We Hate Movies podcast (it was a little before my time). I am pretty sure that I had seen images and clips from the movie before, specifically of Nicholson in the werewolf makeup, but in general I hadn’t heard anything about this film before I came upon their review. That particular surprised me, because it has a huge cast for 1994: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and James Spader were all pretty big names at the time.

The movie did make money (131 million total on a reported budget of 70 million), but I suspect it has faded into obscurity due to much higher expectations than it delivered. Director Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson had scored in the past with “Carnal Knowledge,” and hopes were that their reuniting would spark magic. Unfortunately, Nichols’s magic from “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” waned through the 1980s and early 1990s, and “Wolf” proved to be no exception. The critical reaction was mixed, and far from the knockout that was surely anticipated. It certainly didn’t help financially either that the movie opened between the releases of “Speed” and “The Lion King”: both bigger, more successful, and more exciting movies.

wolf2Many complaints at the time about “Wolf” centered around the fact that it lacks the traditional action and horror that one would expect, despite a few good Nicholson moments. Some put the blame on the script for lacking energy, whereas other put it on Nichols as the man with the final word on the film. It is generally agreed that it was an experimental and new take on a werewolf movie, but it is a mixed bag among critics and audiences as to whether it worked or not.

wolf wolf 1993 real : Mike Nichols Jack NicholsonIt seems that the most memorable scene from “Wolf” is a bathroom sequence shared between Spader and Nicholson, in which Nicholson’s wolf-mad character fires Spader and then pees on his shoes in a display of dominance.

One of the biggest complaints about “Wolf” is the ending, which was the result of extensive re-shoots after the initial one tested very poorly. Personally, I think it is far too long, and could have said in 30 seconds or less what it ultimately conveyed in almost 2 minutes. Also, and this is another huge issue with the film as a whole: the wolf puppet looks absolutely ridiculous. You can see it for yourself here:

In any case, it is shocking that this the best ending that they could come up with after over 6 months worth of delays for re-shooting. It also really feels like the third act was manifested out of thin air: it just doesn’t feel right, particularly in its pacing. James Spader, however, is really fantastic in the third act, probably the only redeeming aspect of it.

There are a number of things this movie does really well. Most notably, it builds suspense spectacularly with the cinematography and sound, as well as with the performances . That said, there’s not much payoff, which means that the constant buildup just drags down the pacing. Still, it isn’t so bad to the point of being distracting, but just enough to be disappointing.

Overall, I didn’t hate this movie. It certainly hasn’t aged well, but compared to CG-heavy werewolf movies from more recent years, that cheesy-looking puppet wolf is holding up pretty damn well for over 20 years down the line. The casting, not just of of Nicholson as a werewolf, but the whole cast from James Spader to Christopher Plummer, is just perfect. They all work well together, and they all of the principal players get a chance to shine. The makeup on the film is generally pretty good (which is no surprise, as acclaimed makeup artist Rick Baker was in charge), something that is key to any werewolf movie. However, the writing and directing really hold it back, in the sense that it subverts audience expectations in a bad way: there is never really any extensive werewolf rage to be enjoyed, except in very brief spurts. It is mostly about business culture, which is certainly not what people were in the theater for.

wolf4That said, I respect the attempt to do something different with “Wolf.” It is a unique take on a werewolf story, and has more depth in the concept that you would expect. However, it isn’t executed as well as it could have been, which leaves it in a half-committed no-man’s-land between horror and suspenseful drama, not quite succeeding at either. It might have just had too high of aspirations to be able to succeed at what Nichols and company wanted to do with it.

I definitely understand why this has been a movie more or less lost to the ages: 1994 was one hell of a year for movies, and this is not a good enough film to stand out from the pack. Even though this isn’t a really bad movie, it definitely failed to live up to expectations of critics and audiences in just about every possible way.  This is another movie where you can’t help but wonder what could have been if a different creative team had gotten a hold of it.

I recommend checking out the urinal scene between Spader and Nicholson, which is definitely the highlight of the flick. It might be worthwhile to look up some clips of the ridiculous wolf puppet, but even the context of the movie to be much fun. Spader is pretty great in the third act, but that probably isn’t worth sitting through the whole film. Outside of all of that, this is an absolutely forgettable flick. It isn’t necessarily bad, but at best only a hair above mediocre.

 

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Leprechaun 3

Leprechaun 3
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A few years ago, I spent a Halloween doing a full watch through Warwick Davis’s infamous “Leprechaun” franchise. Like most bad movie people, I was already very familiar with the first and fifth installments (“Leprechaun: In The Hood”), but I was curious about the rest of them.

For the most part, they are pretty forgettable. I can’t speak for the new WWE reboot of the franchise (“Leprechaun: Origins”), but “Leprechaun 6: Back 2 The Hood” and “Leprechaun 2” were nearly unwatchable and definitely the worst of the bunch that were out at the time.

“Leprechaun 4” is deserving of a rewatch/review post to itself: essentially, it is a generic sci-fi movie that has the Leprechaun cut in in lieu of an actual alien creature. It is a little bizarre, to say the least.

However, none of the Leprechaun movies (including the original and “In The Hood”) have stood out in my memory quite as much as “Leprechaun 3,” and I’m surprised it doesn’t get more attention.

As with a number of horror movie sequels, “Leprechaun 3” has a ridiculous, gimmicky setting to try and make the story new and interesting (see: “Jason Takes Manhattan”). In “Lep 3”, that setting is none other than Las Vegas, NV.

The more I have thought about it, the more I love the concept of this movie. Leprechauns are all about wishes, luck, and wealth: where better to throw one than Las Vegas? However, the setting is only the surface of what is notable about this flick.

In a baffling turn, the plot of “Leprechaun 3” actually primarily centers around a person who is bitten by Warwick Davis’s creature, who slowly (and inexplicably) starts to become what I can only describe as a “were-leprechaun.” Yeah, that’s the kind of movie we are dealing with.

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As I mentioned, it has been a few years since my “Leprechaun” marathon, so I was curious as to how much I might have forgotten about this film, and if I was perhaps remembering it more fondly as a good-bad movie than I should have. So, I just gave it a re-watch, and here are some of my thoughts on it after a second viewing.

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I totally forgot how this movie began, and what brought the Leprechaun to Vegas in the first place. A one-eyed man (who I don’t recall from the second movie) wanders into a pawn shop in Vegas with the Leprechaun, in it’s dormant stone form, dragging behind him in a raggedy sack. He then sells him to the pawn broker for 20 bucks and disappears. The broker then almost immediately awakens the Leprechaun by removing his cursed medallion, to the shock of no one. Then, the rhyming starts. I almost forgot just how horrible and distracting the lazy and cringe-worthy rhyming dialogue was in these movies.

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Perhaps the only thing worse than Warwick Davis’s lines in these movies are the ones given to everyone else. Here’s an interaction from the film, for instance, after a young boy discovers a woman whose car has broken down:

“Have you ever blown a rod before?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The engine, I meant”

Oh come on now, that is a bit of a stretch (to say the least). And this is less than 5 minutes into the film, in one of the first lines of dialogue introducing central characters. It doesn’t exactly go up from there, either. Speaking of which, that “young boy” (who supposedly isn’t old enough to walk on a casino floor) looks like he is almost 30.

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Here’s another thing I forgot: the internet hilariously plays a really important role in this 1995 movie. I am a total sucker for movies that include the internet before anyone knew much about it, and this one is no different. The internet in this movie is basically just a poorly animated storybook and guide to everything Leprechaun (and Were-Leprechaun) related.

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Another thing that somehow slipped my memory: one of the main characters is a skeevy magician, who is played as hammily as possible by an actor named John DeMita, who primarily does voice acting nowadays for video games and English dubs of anime series (“Final Fantasy XIII-2,” “Naruto”).

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The leads of the film are the aforementioned 30 year old supposed teenager, who becomes hooked on gambling / becomes a were-leprechaun, and his love interest: an ambitious magician’s assistant. Other notable characters in the unnecessarily and shockingly large cast of “Leprechaun 3” include an over-the-hill roulette dealer who lusts for the beauty of her youth, a casino worker who is in debt to the mob, and, strangely enough, the pawn broker from the opening. Somehow, the Leprechaun winds up stuck in that pawn shop for over half an hour of run time, making the broker a mildly important player in the film. His theft of one of the Leprechaun’s coins is the catalyst of the entire casino-centric story.

When the Leprechaun finally does make it to the casino, the movie somewhat sidetracks as he starts taking out most of the accessory cast while his last lost coin continues to change hands. The most notable of these deaths is of the roulette dealer, who wishes for youth and beauty. As with any sort of crafty and devious wish-granting creature, it quickly goes sideways on her when Leppy tracks her down. This is one of those things that is easier to show than to tell:

There are just no words to describe how ridiculous that is. I have to admit, though, that’s kind of what I assumed happened off screen in “Willie Wonka.”

The whole middle act of the film is basically Warwick Davis hamming it up in the casino, killing off characters, and continuing with all of the worst rhymes that the writers could think up. The best of all of these deaths is definitely the magician’s, who bites it towards the end of the movie in a unique take on the classic “sawing a person in half” trick.

Of course, I have to get into the whole “were-leprechaun” plot. It turns out that it was a little different than what I remembered: the main character is turned into a were-leprechaun because he both bitten and is exposed to Leppy’s blood, which is apparently toxic and burns like acid (very xenomorph-like). Other than that, it is about exactly what you would expect: he starts wearing bad prosthetic facial hair, freckles magically appear on his face, and he starts rhyming incessantly in a fake Irish accent. It is pretty annoying in the moment, but hilarious to look back on.

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There is a particular segment of the film that I forgot about in which the magician’s assistant and co-lead, Tammy, is possessed by the lost coin after the casino boss makes a wish to sleep with her. The coin is stolen again before anything happens, but the whole segment has massively uncomfortable undertones. The casino boss is almost immediately killed afterwards by Leppy, who summons a killer sex robot from his TV, which is one of the more bizarre cases of instant karma in film that you’ll ever come across.

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The finale, of course, features some extensive Leprechaun battles between Leppy and the were-creature, and features lines such as:

For pulling this trick,

I’ll chop off your dick!

and

Cut her nose,

and I’ll hack off your toes!

and

Power to power

You have much to learn

Taller or shorter

I’ll make you burn!

I can’t emphasize this enough: every single line between these two central characters in the last act is like this. Back and forth, back and forth: constant. Again, this is as annoying as anything in the universe to sit through, but I am laughing my ass off thinking about it now.

The Leprechaun is ultimately defeated with the creative use of a flamethrower, but only after he fails to lure Scott, the were-leprechaun, to join him on what he literally refers to as “the green side.” Scott is magically cured of his were-leprechaunism after the bout for reasons that aren’t exactly clear meaning that there’s a happy ending for Tammy and Scott. However, the last line has to be overdone, inappropriate, and cheesy, so the writers decided to rip off the last line to “Casablanca.” I can’t even begin to go into how much is wrong with that.

So, does “Leprechaun 3” hold up as a good bad movie? Honestly, it is way better than I remembered (on a good-bad level, of course). The characters are all hammed up to the max, the plot is the perfect sort of nonsense. I would recommend this one over the original or “In The Hood” in a heartbeat. In general, this is a movie that bad movie lovers should not miss by any means. The only big problem with it is the casino boss sequence’s sexual assault overtones, which could have been fixed really easily with a quick rewrite. It isn’t just unnecessary for the story and shitty to include, but it also messes with the whole tone of the movie. With that caveat, this is a solid good-bad movie recommendation from me.

It’s A Disaster

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Brock, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
It’s A Disaster
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Pitch:
“A bunch of people are at a dinner party when some sort of biochemical attack occurs, and they all wind up trapped together. They don’t like each other very much, so it doesn’t go very well. David Cross is in it, and it is a definitely worth a watch.”

Background:

“It’s A Disaster” is a dark comedy written and directed by Todd Berger, following a number of contentious couples who are trapped at a brunch by an unfolding chemical disaster.

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Todd Berger

Todd Berger has an assortment of writing, acting, and directing credits for things such as “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters,” and “Southland Tales.” His most acclaimed film apart from “It’s A Disaster” is the only other one on which he has served as writer/director: “The Scenesters,” another dark comedy that he did 3 years prior to “It’s A Disaster.” It is about a serial killer who targets hipsters, and a vigilante plot to stop him. That film won a number of awards at film festivals such as Slamdance and the Phoenix Film Festival, but didn’t get a whole lot of exposure beyond that.

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“It’s a Disaster” has a number of recognizable faces in the cast, such as David Cross (“Arrested Development,” “Mr Show,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”) and America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty,” “End of Watch”). However, the majority of it is made up of members of the comedy troupe The Vacationeers, who specialize in comedic shorts and features (including Todd Berger’s other feature film, “The Scenesters”).

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Reception of “It’s A Disaster” was mixed: despite a number of awards at film festivals (New Orleans Film Festival, Bendfilm Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival), Rotten Tomatoes has it scored at 77%, with a critic’s average rating at 6.3. The audience score is 59% with an average score of 3.4, and the IMDb user rating is 6.5.

The film’s poster, lampooning the historical Kitchener / Uncle Sam recruitment posters, is probably as well regarded, if not better, than the film itself. The image of a man in a hazmat suit with a glass being ominously thrust towards the observer ties in incredibly well with the film’s plot and tone. If that doesn’t get you to watch the film, then it probably isn’t meant for you.

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Review:

“It’s A Disaster” is very heavy for a comedy, even a dark one. It bounces from being a more-or-less lighthearted tale of bickering, cheating couples to incorporating murder plots and contemporary fears of domestic terrorism. It is still good without any doubt, but the tone is far from steady or even.

David Cross, as expected, is fantastic in the film. He is one of the funniest actors out there today in the realm of black comedy, and this film really allows him to show some of the range of what he is capable of. The rest of the roles in the movie are pretty clear-cut, though they definitely all devolve into different shades of panic over the course of the film.

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The writing, particularly for the dialogue, is fantastic. The characters definitely have distinctive voices, and their interactions are always entertaining. In a film with a number of twists, there are also some great subtle hints threaded throughout the film in the dialogue, which is always good to see. That said, the characters become increasingly cartoony and unbelievable as the story moves on, but I think it adds to the surreal feel of the film as a whole, so it isn’t excessively distracting.

When it comes down to whether I can recommend “It’s A Disaster,” it is really a tough call. As I mentioned, this is a really heavy film that deals with a horrifying situation as the plot progresses. The interpersonal humor is all pretty funny for the bulk of the film, but things get exponentially more bleak in the last act. If anyone is a big fan of David Cross (particularly “Todd Margaret”), then this film is a must see. In general, I think anyone who can handle “Todd Margaret” would enjoy this film, as the tones are definitely similar.

Plotopsy Podcast #8 – Small Soldiers

Small Soldiers
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Recently, I read a book recounting the story of the early days of DreamWorks, called “The Men Who Would Be King” by Nicole LaPorte. The book features extensive insight into the many DreamWorks features produced during the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen years of the company. One of the most interesting of these that I specifically recounted from my childhood was “Small Soldiers,” a movie that I really enjoyed at the time it was released. However, it was a critical and financial disappointment for the company, despite being technically successful. To understand why the film was so poorly received and regarded at the time, there is a fair amount of background information worth reading into.

“Small Soldiers” was conceived from an interesting mix of envy and greed. Pixar and Disney released the smash hit “Toy Story” in 1995 to massive acclaim and fortune not only on screen, but also from lucrative toy and merchandise tie-ins. In response, the team at DreamWorks struck up a deal with Hasbro to do tie-in toy merchandise for a series of films. DreamWorks notably had a historical axe to grind with Disney, due to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s rocky relationship with Michael Eisner, and the fact that many animators at DreamWorks were poached from the great mouse. Topping “Toy Story” would have been nothing short of a major triumph and vindication for the company. And so, “Small Soldiers” was the first of these Hasbro tie-in features released, and the expectation of it was to match or surpass the “Toy Story” acclaim and fortune earned for Disney and Pixar.

In a recent review of “Small Soldiers” by Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic), numerous similarities to “Toy Story” are specifically pointed out from the movie, and they are pretty undeniable. However, “Small Soldiers” is definitely a very different beast than the lofty and light-hearted “Toy Story”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those sequences were the result of not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the DreamWorks brass.

Joe Dante, a B-movie and cult director who had seen success with movies like “Gremlins,” “Piranha,” and “The Burbs,” was attached to direct “Small Soldiers.” In retrospect, this was probably a misstep for a film that was intended to primarily to serve a youth audience. Even “Gremlins,” arguably his most family friendly movie at the time, is a good deal darker than your typical blockbuster family fare. It can certainly be said that the darkly comedic ultimate product of “Small Soldiers” is a creation born from Joe Dante’s influence.

A number of writers ultimately worked on the script for “Small Soldiers.” First, the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had struck big for Katzenberg on “Aladdin,” worked on the film. Those two continued to work for DreamWorks on a number of other films, including “The Road to El Dorado” and “Shrek,” before working extensively on the “Pirates of the Carribbean” franchise for Disney. The other writers who later worked on the screenplay included Adam Rifkin, who penned the hit “Mouse Hunt” for DreamWorks in the previous year, and Gavin Scott, who co-wrote “The Borrowers” in 1997 for Working Title.

On May 21, 1998, less than two months before the release of “Small Soldiers” in theaters, an expelled High School student named Kip Kinkel murdered his parents and committed a school shooting in Springfield, Oregon. This sparked a lot of public conversation about the marketing of violence to children, and some believe that this event caused the film to be more harshly criticized than it might have been otherwise.

Not helping the matter, the final product of “Small Soldiers” was far more violent than expected: promotional materials even had to be altered (most notably the poster, in which a gun was reportedly digitally removed from Chip Hazard’s hand). The movie was ultimately slapped with a PG-13 (the only DreamWorks movie to get the rating), which caused a stir given it was being marketed with the Burger King equivalent of a Happy Meal. This also theoretically limited its financial potential by keeping young children out of the theaters, which certainly didn’t go over well with DreamWorks. This also understandably further opened up a lot of questions about violent products being catered to children, which almost certainly negatively affected many reviews of the movie.

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“Small Soldiers” has a deep cast of comedic character actors that provide a lot of the comic power of the film, including David Cross, Jay Mohr, and Dennis Leary. However, it is undoubtedly not a product suitable for young children, not only because of the violence, but because the humor is rather dark and laced with social satire that they couldn’t possibly get. The PG-13 rating is certainly justified, in any case. The movie’s cast also notably features a pre-fame Kirsten Dunst, and, sadly, the last screen performance of Phil Hartman.

small3Phil Hartman, beloved comedic actor of “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Groundlings” comedy troupe fame, has a bit role in “Small Soldiers” as the moronic father of Kirsten Dunst’s character. Tragically, Hartman was murdered by his wife just before the release of “Small Soldiers,” making it his last live action theatrical role.

small5A number of references to Joe Dante’s movie “Gremlins” are hidden throughout the movie (including a direct reference to the Gremlin ‘Gizmo’), as well as numerous nods to classic B-movies. Dante got his start in film cutting B-movie trailers for Roger Corman, and has maintained his connection to B cinema to this day. His website, Trailers From Hell, is essentially a love letter to the old school B classics, featuring trailer commentaries from lauded B-movie writers, directors, and special effects masters such as Stuart Gordon, Eli Roth, Rick Baker, Lloyd Kaufman, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and himself.

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The special effects and designs for the action figures in “Small Soldiers” were done by legendary creature creator Stan Winston, and includes a mixture of practical and computer generated effects. This same technique earned Winston massive acclaim on “Jurassic Park” only a handful of years before. The figures themselves are particularly impressive, as you can see on display below:

The voice acting cast of “Small Soldiers” is incredibly deep, and features a rogues gallery of notables. Outside of Tommy Lee Jones, there are a number of alums from “The Dirty Dozen” that make up the Gi Joe esque Commando Elite, including George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The Gorgonites feature voices from Frank Langella, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Even the Barbie analogues impressed into service by the Commando Elite late in the film feature the voices of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

“Small Soldiers” was created during a time in which DreamWorks functioned as a massive multimedia company, with interest in film, video games, animation, and music. Appropriately, DreamWorks attempted to milk every last drop from films released during this time period, and “Small Soldiers” was no exception. The film got a soundtrack that featured rap remixes of classic rock songs, a DreamWorks video game, and a slew of tie-in toys from the DreamWorks arrangement with Hasbro. In theory, “Small Soldiers” was intended to be a family movie with massive crossover potential that would provide proof of the DreamWorks multi-media model. Of course, that isn’t what it wound up being, to the disappointment of many.

So, why was “Small Soldiers” such a disappointment? Honestly, I think that the hands-off style of DreamWorks, which operated its live action with a “power to the artists” mentality reminiscent of United Artists, really burned them with “Small Soldiers.” I don’t think that the marketing team and the brass in general quite grasped the dark creature that was being created with “Small Soldiers”, or maybe they were just incapable of reigning it in for whatever reason. If DreamWorks had it set in their mind that they wanted a “Toy Story”, they probably should have hit the panic button the minute that military-grade microchips and hostage situations popped into a draft of the script. Also, there probably should have been more thought put into giving the film to a guy known for creating dark genre movies in Joe Dante. Secondarily, part of the issue with the film was just timing: releasing on the heels of a school shooting was something outside of their control, and didn’t do them any favors in the press or with critics.

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Now, this is a case where I actually like “Small Soldiers.” I think it is a pretty enjoyable dark comedy in the vein of “The Burbs” if you can divorce it from its context. The “Toy Story” connection, the extensive and inappropriate marketing campaign, and the general social atmosphere around the film all really contributed to the generally negative reception movie if you ask me. I would recommend giving it another shot if someone hasn’t seen it in a number of years: I think it holds up pretty damn well, and is far more clever than it has any business being.

That is all for today’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Check in next week when I’ll be covering another DreamWorks flick, Sam Mendes’s “Road to Perdition.” Make sure to like Misan[trope]y Movie Blog on Facebook and subscribe to the (Plot)opsy Podcast on iTunes to keep up with all of the latest updates.

Headhunters

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
Headhunters
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Pitch:
“It is one of those movies where people are not exactly what they appear to be at first. They really grow, and you learn more about who they are at the same time. Apparently a lot of people are racing to remake this movie, so we’ll probably see an English-language version before long. It has that one guy from “Game of Thrones” after he got really big. It is cool to see people go back and still do foreign movies after they have ‘made it.”

Background:

“Headhunters” is a Norwegian film from 2011 directed by Morten Tyldum, who at the time had only worked on low-budget Norwegian movies and television shows. However, in 2014, he directed the Academy Award and Golden Globe best picture nominated film “The Imitation Game,” and earned an Oscar nomination for himself for best director himself. However, it is unlikely that Tydlum would ever have been attached to “The Imitation Game” without the wild critical and domestic financial success of “Headhunters” in 2011: this is without a doubt the film that put him on the map.

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“Headhunters” has been sold to over 50 countries outside of Norway, which is the most of any Norwegian film in history. In addition to this, it currently holds the record for being the highest grossing Norwegian movie of all time. As Hannah mentioned, the rights for an American remake were purchased by Summit Entertainment before it ever hit theaters.

The best known actor in the film by far is Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays the character Jaime Lannister in the wildly popular HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” / “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series. In “Headhunters,” he hauntingly portrays a disgruntled ex-military tracker (y’know, a head hunter), and brings his relative star power from “Game of Thrones” to the picture (the film released after the show’s first season in 2011).

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The lead of the film, an art thief who lives beyond his means and winds up in well over his head, is played by a Norwegian actor by the name of Aksel Hennie, who recently appeared in the 2014 Brett Ratner directed “Hercules” with Dwayne Johnson and John Hurt. Apart from that, his career prior to “Headhunters” was very much similar to Tyldum’s: he had a fair number of credits, but primarily limited to Norwegian films.

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“Headhunters” is based on a successful 2008 crime novel of the same name (Hodejegerne) by the prolific Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, who is best known for his “Harry Hole” series of novels.

The film gained enough notoriety for one of the stunts, a dramatic car crash, to be tested for feasibility on the hit American TV show MythBusters. Unsurprisingly, they found surviving the wreck as depicted was not realistically possible.

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“Headhunters” was a significant critical success upon release, earning a 92% on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator and an assortment of award nominations, including a Saturn Award win and a BAFTA nomination.

Review:

“Headhunters” is one of those films that sets itself up as one thing, and then twists in a completely unexpected direction at the end of the first act. It is the same element that many love about movies like “Psycho” and “From Dusk Til Dawn”: it rapidly subverts your expectations, and send you into a state of panic along with the characters in the film.

The movie keeps up a hearty pace after the initial twist, but does slow down after an intense game of cat and mouse ends with one of the most intense car crashes to grace a screen. It almost changes genres from one act to the next, but it is certain to never lose your attention. There is also one absolute common thread throughout the movie: a looming sense of suspense.

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Both Coster-Waldau and Hennie deliver fantastic performances, and play off of each other very well in the cat and mouse scenario of the movie. Also of particular note is Synnove Macody Lund, who turns in an impressive performance for a rookie effort. However, Coster-Waldau definitely shines the brightest of anyone, almost single-handedly creating the menacing tone of the film with his role.

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“Headhunters” gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. If you can handle watching a movie with subtitles (I know that is a turnoff for some), then this is one that you should absolutely catch. The performances are good, the twists are well-executed, and despite a couple of bumps, the pacing is continuous and consistently entertaining.

It’s hard to say what kind of movie “Headhunters” is, because it would fit within many genres. The basis is a crime and thriller, but it also has a lot of drama and lots of action.

– Aksel Hennie, Lead Actor

It’s an exciting thriller that will constantly surprise and trick you, but it also has an interesting main character and it’s very dramatic.

-Morten Tyldum, Director

Hackers

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Brock, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
Hackers
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Pitch:
“‘Hackers’ made me want to paint my keyboard different colors. This is the future we are going to be living in. I love this movie.”

Background:

“Hackers” is a 1995 movie that has achieved cult classic status, particularly in internet communities, for its hilarious depiction of a group of hackers and their unrealistic use of the internet. The movie provided break out early roles for Angelina Jolie, and to a lesser degree Matthew Lillard.

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“Hackers” director Iain Softley has done very little else of note, with the exception of the Kevin Spacey movie “K-PAX” in 2001 and the movie “The Skeleton Key” starring Kate Hudson in 2005. IMDb lists two movies directed by Softley that have yet to be released: “Curve” and “The Outcast.” Neither film currently has a release date scheduled, however.

The cast is a veritable rogues gallery of notables. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller lead the way, with Fisher Stevens, Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Selma”), Lorraine Bracco (“The Sopranos”), Matthew Lillard (“Scream”, “The Descendants”, “SLC Punk”), and even magician Penn Jillette  and pop singer Marc Anthony filling out the lower rungs of the cast. Miller and Jolie wed soon after the completion of filming, which is a frequent footnote and fun fact attached to the film.

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Perhaps the most telling thing of all about this movie can be gleaned from looking at the writing credit. “Hackers” was penned by one Rafael Moreu, whose only other writing credit is for the much maligned “The Rage: Carrie 2.” Despite the reception of the script, apparently there was a lot of research put into the script by Moreu, some of which shows up on screen. A number of the character pseudonyms are nods to famous hackers and computer engineering icons (“Babbage,” “Emmanuel Goldstein”), and the central supercomputer in the story is named after William Gibson, an acclaimed and influential science fiction author who coined the term “cyberspace.” It is also reported that members of the cast and crew of “Hackers” spent time attending real hacker meetups and conferences while making the movie.

The marketing campaign for “Hackers” included, of course, a website. The design was made in such a way as to give the appearance that it had been hacked by outsiders. This included a number of snarky graffiti messages on top of the promotional materials. One in particular reportedly read “see ‘The Net’ instead,” a reference to the now equally notorious 1995 cyber-thriller starring Sandra Bullock.

Review:

I admittedly had somehow never seen this movie before, but its reputation precedes it. It is regarded nowadays as a classic bad movie, one of a subset of movies about the internet before anyone really understood how it worked (“The Net” gets the honor of being in this category as well).

Honestly, I’m not even sure where to start with this thing. The dialogue? The fashion? The music? Lorraine Bracco? There is a whole lot bad about this movie.

The first and probably biggest issue with “Hackers” is the script, which is a mixture of word salad techno-jargon and cheesy 1990s counterculture idioms. As mentioned in the background of the movie, the writer reportedly spent a fair amount of time around hackers while he was writing and preparing this movie. I can’t help but wonder if the hacker community was playing a lengthy practical joke on the production, intentionally feeding Moreu word salad and bad information. I mean, that certainly sounds like the kind of thing the internet community would do nowadays. In any case, the lines that make it into the movie are often cringe-worthy and nonsensical, something that is emphasized by the fact that most of the cast clearly has no idea what they are talking about.

Speaking of cluelessness in the cast, Lorraine Bracco deserves a specific call out for her performance. Even though her character is supposed to not understand computers in the story, it is clear that she is incredibly out of place in this movie. She doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but her deliveries when she is on screen are just abysmal. She just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cast, and it stands out like caps lock.

Fisher Stevens plays the antagonist in the story, and is probably the most entertaining element in the movie. He goes well over the top in his portrayal of a sold-out master hacker who holds no loyalties and looks down on the world (“The Plague”). His skeevy condescension comes out in every line he speaks, and it is hilarious.

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Wendell Pierce, who is best known for his starring roles in the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme,” plays a secret service agent who is tasked with taking down hackers. He is definitely in a smaller role in “Hackers,” but his ability to integrate comedic timing into serious roles really comes out in this movie.

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“Hackers” was more or less the breakout movie for both Angelina Jolie and Matthew Lillard. It is fascinating to see how different their roles are in this movie, and how they reflect their ultimate career trajectories. Lillard, unsurprisingly, provides comic relief: setting the groundwork for him to eventually show up in countless stoner movies, as well as “Scream” and the “Scooby Doo” live action films as Shaggy. The way he pulls off the cyberpunk fashion in “Hackers” almost certainly contributed to him landing the lead role in “SLC Punk” as well. Jolie, on the other hand, is probably the most even-keel (and bland) character in the film. Admittedly, I am not a fan of Jolie’s acting: I have never seen anything where she shows much range, and she seems to rely on shallow action leads. In that sense, though (having a career based on being a shallow lead), “Hackers” provides as legitimate of a foundation as you could ask for.

Not everything about “Hackers” is bad, though. There are some pretty interesting sets, and there is some intriguing editing here and there. It is also a very colorful movie for better or worse: I thought it worked pretty well personally. There are a number of “cyberspace” sequences that were created through a mix of practical effects and traditional animation that actually look pretty ok (better than if they had dared CG in 1995).

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“Hackers” is a movie I can definitely recommend to computer nerds and bad movie fans as an unintentional comedic masterpiece. To other audiences, I don’t they would appreciate the film as much, but they might still be able to have fun with it. There is a relevant quote from Roger Ebert’s surprisingly positive review of the movie:

The movie is smart and entertaining, then, as long as you don’t take the computer stuff very seriously. I didn’t. I took it approximately as seriously as the archeology in “Indiana Jones.”

I agree that if you turn off your brain, this is a pretty enjoyable movie. It also benefits a bit from the nostalgia factor it has nowadays, but the flip side of the coin is that all of the floppy discs make the movie hilariously archaic.

As a side note, I highly recommend the We Hate Movies episode on “Hackers” for a more in depth look at the plot.

State of Play

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
State of Play
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Pitch:
“It is an absolutely formulaic thriller movie, but executed really well. Like, somebody had a concept for this movie, and pulled it off exactly as they wanted it. The movie is like a really good hamburger: all of the elements are simple, but it is definitely enjoyable”

Background:

“State of Play” is based on a successful and highly acclaimed six-episode BBC serial of the same name from 2003, which featured notable actors such as James McAvoy, Jon Simm, and Bill Nighy, and David Morrissey (among others).

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The American film adaptation of “State of Play” is directed by Kevin Macdonald, known for acclaimed films such as “The Last King of Scotland” and “Touching the Void.” However, the film is reported to have been passed on by acclaimed directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Brian De Palma, Richard Linklater, Ang Lee, and Edward Zwick.

The casting of “State of Play” was somewhat of a revolving door during pre-production, resulting in a number of delays. Initially, it was intended to be a reuniting of the “Fight Club” duo of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. However, delays from the 2007 writers’ strike led to scheduling conflicts, which inevitably led to more delays and conflicts, ultimately resulting in the two central roles going to Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck after both Norton and Pitt had to back out. The rest of the deep cast features Jeff Daniels prior to his resurgent role in “The Newsroom,” Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, and Robin Wright. However, the all-star American casting was criticized by some media outlets in the UK (most notably The Independent), in particular because none of the brilliant original serial cast were asked to return for the film.

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As mentioned previously, “State of Play” went through extensive re-writes throughout production, passing through a variety of hands. Included among the writing credits are Tony Gilroy of the “Bourne” series and “The Devil’s Advocate,” Matthew Michael Carnahan of “Lions for Lambs,” and “The Kingdom,” and Billy Ray of “Volcano,” “Shattered Glass,” and “Captain Phillips.” Although not ultimately credited, Peter Morgan of “The Queen” was also brought in at one point for rewrites.

“State of Play” features an Academy Award nominated cinematographer in Rodrigo Prieto, who has lofty credits including “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Babel,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Argo,” and “21 Grams.” Elsewhere in the crew is prolific casting director Avy Kaufman, who assembled casts for movies like “Lincoln,” “AI,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Life of Pi” (as well as another Clerk’s Pick: Scotland, PA).

Review:

“State of Play” is a slow-burning movie that incorporates interesting elements from action movies into what is without a doubt a political / journalistic thriller. There are a number of frenetic, tense sequences that feel like they are pulled from a Jason Bourne movie, whereas most of film bears significant similarities to dark, political dramas like “House of Cards.” It makes for a really interesting and tense watch, to say the least.

Director Kevin Mcdonald specifically cites “All the President’s Men” as the primary inspiration for the movie’s direction, and odes to that film and the Watergate scandal are scattered throughout the movie. However, as I mentioned previously, I think “State of Play” feels and looks far more like the recent, lauded American adaptation of “House of Cards” than anything else. This is particularly interesting, given the “State of Play” BBC serial drew a lot of comparisons from critics to the earlier, original 1990 BBC version of “House of Cards”, creating a curious sort of ouroboros between the two properties.

One of the most impressive aspects of this movie, in my opinion, is the stellar performance by Ben Affleck. “State of Play” immediately predates his recent renaissance: the very next year saw the release of his second directorial feature “The Town,” which I credit as the start of his revival into prominence.

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The casting in general for “State of Play” is top notch, and features a number of memorable performances. Outside of Affleck and Crowe, Jason Bateman particularly stood out to me despite having a very small supporting role in the movie. His skeevy character manages to bring a little bit of comic relief into the movie without ruining the tone or distracting from the story, which could easily have happened with someone else in the role.

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The cinematography in “State of Play” is absolutely fantastic. Just as the story splits time between the political world and journalistic world, the shooting styles differ depending on the focus of the scene. Parts that center on Russell Crowe and the journalists resemble the shaky, handheld style that Rodrigo Prieto later used in “Argo”, whereas the political side of the movie is filmed in pristine, well-lit high definition.

“State of Play” is a pretty solid recommendation from me, particularly for anyone who is dying for more “House of Cards.” The pacing is probably too slow for people expecting an action-packed movie, but I think the tension is well built throughout the film. I admittedly would have preferred to see the initially intended Pitt / Norton version of the film, but Crowe / Affleck are definitely on point here.