Worst of 2017: Monster Trucks

Monster Trucks

Concluding my spotlight on some of the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at Monster Trucks, one of the financial flops that kicked off the year back in January.

The plot of Monster Trucks is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young man working at a small town junkyard discovers and befriends a creature which feeds on oil being sought by a fracking company.

The screenplay for Monster Trucks was written by Derek Connolly, who also penned screenplays for movies like Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Kong: Skull Island.

Monster Trucks was directed by Chris Wedge, who has primarily worked on family-friendly animated features like Robots, Ice Age, and Epic.

The cast of the film is made up of Lucas Till (X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: First Class, MacGyver), Jane Levy (I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911), Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, Battlefield: Earth), Rob Lowe (The West Wing, Parks & Recreation), Danny Glover (Predator 2, Saw, Lethal Weapon), Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone, Bridge of Spies), and Frank Whaley (Luke Cage, Pulp Fiction, Swimming With Sharks, Broken Arrow).

The cinematographer on Monster Trucks was Don Burgess, whose credits include some significant critical and financial hits, such as Forrest Gump, Spider-Man, Cast Away, Source Code, Blind Fury, Contact, What Lies Beneath, The Book Of Eli, and Flight.

The credited editor for Monster Trucks was Conrad Buff IV, whose list of film credits includes the likes of Titanic, The Last Airbender,  The Abyss, Training Day, The Happening, Species, True Lies, Spaceballs, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The musical score for the film was composed by David Sardy, who also worked on the movies Zombieland, 21, End of Watch, Sabotage, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Reportedly, five outwardly-identical green Dodge trucks were built for the movie to play Creature’s automotive shell. One, with its engine in the pickup bed, could be driven from a position under the hood, so that the stunt driver wouldn’t need to be digitally removed from the cab.

Monster Trucks was originally produced by Nickelodeon Movies. However, as the budget spun out of control, they left the project during post-production. Ultimately, they re-joined the film prior to its release, and are given a production company credit.

According to some second-hand reports I’ve heard, the crew responsible for the driving stunts in Monster Trucks had no idea that there were going to be CGI monsters added to their work, or that the production was a kids movie: they apparently assumed that it was going to be an action movie with elaborate truck stunts.

Monster Trucks was struck with multiple release delays, due to the extensive work needed in post-production. Depending on the source, the movie is qualified as either a 2017 or 2016 film, though it officially hit theaters in January of 2017. However, it was originally set for release on May 29, 2015, making its total release delay over a year and a half.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Monster Trucks is how it wound up getting a green light in the first place. It seems beyond belief that such an odd concept would get approved with such a high potential price tag: it just doesn’t make business sense. Reportedly, it was a pet project of former Paramount head Adam Goodman, who was let go before the film came to completion (likely in part due to its disastrously expensive production). However, the real interesting tidbit about his involvement is that the story of Monster Trucks was reportedly based on a pitch from his four-year-old son, which has led to the film being additionally ridiculed.

The final production budget for Monster Trucks was put on the books at $125 million. In its lifetime theatrical release, it managed to take in a gross of roughly $65 million worldwide, making it a massive financial failure.

In accordance with its financial failure, Monster Trucks did not fare well with either critics or the audience at large. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.7/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 53% from audiences. Scott Meslow of GQ described it as “a movie so bizarre, wrong-headed, and obviously destined for failure that it practically demands further exploration.” 

It is worth noting right off the bat that the biggest reason that Monster Trucks entered the public consciousness was on the basis of its bloated budget. Basically, this movie was guaranteed to fail from the minute it started getting press coverage, and was already being predicted as one of the worst movies of the year back in January. In his Rolling Stone review of the movie, Peter Travers even mentions that the primary production company, Paramount, had already chalked it up as a loss before it even hit theaters:

Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, took a $115 million write-down against anticipated losses before it even opened. It’s like having your parents write off your college tuition because they know you’ll never amount to shit.Talk about lack of faith.

However, just because a movie is a flop, or has an outlandish concept, doesn’t mean that the film’s overall quality is necessarily bad. In the case of Monster Trucks, the film’s advance reputation, due to both its bizarre conceptualization and swollen budget, may have poisoned the well in regards to its public reception.

The movie is by no means a classic, but it does have some notable redeeming qualities. The first and biggest one, to my surprise, was the monster itself: “Creech.” I expected the CGI to look jarring and immediately dated, but to my shock, it works a lot better than I expected it to, and he blends pretty well into his surroundings. Creech is also interestingly designed with a handful of juxtaposed natural elements to be simultaneously familiar, sympathetic, and alien. Part shark, part squid, part whale, and part adorable puppy, it is an interesting beast that was clearly the result of a lot of work, and it definitely could have come out of the design phase a lot worse.

As far as other positives go, the supporting cast is surprising deep and entertaining. Rob Lowe is a blast as he channels an approximation of George W. Bush as an oil tycoon, Danny Glover is always nice to see on screen (even in a very limited role), and Thomas Lennon provides some of the better comedic moments as an ethically-compromised scientist working for a soulless oil company.

All of those positives considered, there are still some big issues with Monster Trucks.  For the most part, most of the issues boil down to the screenplay. The writing, particularly when it comes to the dialogue and characters, is sub-par, and the comedy is uneven and poorly executed as a result. Most of the characters are thin to the point of caricature, even when they are played well by their actors, which doesn’t help a movie with an already contrived premise that was in dire need of depth to give it some grounding.

The lead of the movie, played by Lucas Till, is one of the few characters who changes over the course of the story, or has any kind of depth. However, even that isn’t completely a positive: his character comes off as an aloof jerk early in the story, during the period where the audience should be identifying with him and getting on his side. While he does warm as the story progresses (particularly to his love interest), his earlier disposition is never justified or apologized for, and makes him a hard character to pull for.

Overall, Monster Trucks isn’t as bad as its reputation indicates. It is a deeply flawed movie, but it has enough positives to keep it from ever being completely boring. All considered, it is probably on par with an average children’s movie. That said, this isn’t a movie that is easy to see in a vacuum from its context: the stories surrounding its budget, production, and conception are hard to avoid, and inevitably color the film.

When it comes to a recommendation, I don’t think this is a movie that needs to be sought out by bad movie fans, because it just isn’t all that bad. At the same time, it isn’t good enough to recommend to general audiences. The stories surrounding the movies are more interesting than the movie itself, so I do recommend reading up on it, but watching it is something I would consider totally optional.

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Worst of 2017: The Circle

The Circle

Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

The plot of The Circle is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity.

The Circle was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, whose other film credits include The Spectacular Now, The End of The Tour, and Smashed, as well as a handful of episodes on shows like Master of None, Shameless, and Parenthood.

The film is based on a 2013 book of the same name written by Dave Eggers, an acclaimed writer and publisher who is probably best known for founding McSweeney’s. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, marking one of a handful of times he has written for the screen (Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are).

The impressive cast of The Circle includes the likes of Tom Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia, The Burbs, Dragnet, Forrest Gump, Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers), Emma Watson (Noah, Beauty & The Beast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Don Jon, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dick Tracy, Breakfast of Champions), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Barry, Fast Food Nation), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Aliens, Predator 2, Twister, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Club Dread, True Lies, Apollo 13, A Simple Plan, Next of Kin, Slipstream), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Who, Oculus), Patton Oswalt (MST3K, Odd Thomas, The King of Queens, Big Fan), and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Detroit, Attack The Block).

Two editors are credited for work on The Circle: Lisa Lassek (Serenity, The Cabin In The Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Community, Firefly, The Avengers) and Franklin Peterson (Safety Not Guaranteed, It’s A Disaster, Comet, Mr. Robot).

The cinematographer for the film was Matthew Libatique, whose notable shooting credits include Iron Man, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Chi-Raq, Phone Booth, The Fountain, Pi, and Everything Is Illuminated.

The music for The Circle was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most recognizable and acclaimed film composers working today. His credits include Milk, American Hustle, Mission: Impossible, Spy Kids, Spider-Man, Red Dragon, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Darkman, Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Scrooged, among countless others.

The Circle marks the final film appearance of beloved character actor Bill Paxton, who died just before the film’s release. Sadly, one of his co-stars, Glenne Headley, also passed away in 2017, just after the movie hit theaters.

A handful of last minute reshoots were done in January of 2017 after test audiences cited some issues with the characters. However, the additional footage failed to remedy the grievances, and arguably worsened the issues, which contributed to the film’s poor reception.

Interestingly, the ending of the story for the film is changed from the one present in the original novel. In the book, Mae betrays Ty, and foils his plan to bring down the circle.

The Circle was made on a production budget of $18 million, on which it grossed roughly $34 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Interestingly, it wound up being released straight to Netflix in the UK, due in part to the devastating early reviews, as well as to the lower than expected grosses in its brief American theatrical release.

The Circle premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, just days prior to its theatrical release in the United States, and the negative word spread quickly. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 23% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

In his review for The Atlantic, David Sims describes The Circle as follows:

The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.

As Sims points out, The Circle suffers from a very serious tone problem. While I don’t think it ever becomes an “absurd comedy,” it does vary quite wildly in intensity. There is also certainly a lack of clarity in regards to what the film is trying to say or advocate, which makes the vision and purpose of the whole movie muddy.  If it had been executed as a straight satire, there might have been something interesting to say about corporate identity and the modern surveillance state. However, everything in The Circle is taken to an absurd extreme beyond even remote plausibility, which makes the whole experience feel paper thin. Stretching the suspension of disbelief so far actually undercuts the biting criticisms that the work was trying to make, and the production looks ridiculous for it.

There are more than a few moments where The Circle devolves into the typical “kids these days” griping that every generation loves to levy at their successors (which is surreal in how out of place it is for a movie whose characters are supposed to be analogous to Google or Apple employees). There is also, unsurprisingly, a lack of understanding of technology, and the culture that surrounds it.

At least in my experience, the people who are most up to date with the latest technological advances are also at the forefront of defending net neutrality, and opposing mass surveillance measures. There is a difference between people selectively sharing aspects of their lives on social media and being “fully transparent,” a distinction The Circle doesn’t seem to grasp. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone really wants full transparency through social media: they want to be able to cultivate and cater their image, which is the whole appeal of the platform. There may be more public sharing involved than previous generations could imagine, but it isn’t unlimited sharing – it is deliberate and selective sharing, in order to build an outward persona.

It is a shame that The Circle devolves into an infantile exercise in slippery slope catastrophizing, because there is a seed of an interesting idea underneath all of this: there are things to be said about the modern surveillance culture, as well as how people incorporate brands into their personal identity. Unfortunately, the potentially salient points are all completely buried underneath a thick layer of Luddite ideology here.

Aside from the technological aspects of the film, there are plenty of other flaws worth addressing with The Circle. While the performances are for the most part pretty good (Boyega, Hanks, and Gillan all stand out), the characters are all one-dimensional, and are defined by a single trait or flaw: they don’t even remotely feel like or behave like tangible, realistic people. On top of that, the story of the film is almost completely without structure: instead of having a cogent arc to it, the story is just a sequence of events that happen, with very little connection between them. In an art movie, this technique might work: something like a snapshot of an intriguing life. However, for a movie that is allegedly a drama or a thriller, there needs to be some connection between events to build tension. For the most part, The Circle is just a series of unconnected fictitious TED talks, with brief intermissions. The result is a movie that feels about 20 times longer than it actually is – a dreadfully boring and mind-numbing experience.

The Circle, on the whole, feels like a movie with a rushed screenplay that needed a whole lot more work. For the most part, all of the movie’s critical errors boil down to writing issues: namely the characters, the structure, and the story. For the record, everything else is pretty good: the movie looks decent, has a fair share of good performances, and has an interesting enough premise. However, it is all built on a shoddy foundation, and the movie is a wreck because of it.

As far as a recommendation goes, there isn’t much to see here. Unless you are a tech geek and want to pull your hair out, this is a movie that should never even pop up on your radar. If you are looking for a bad tech movie with a poor understanding of the internet, Hackers and The Net are always there for you.

 

Worst of 2017: Black Butterfly

Black Butterfly

Today, I’m continuing my tour through a handful of the cinematic failures of 2017 with Black Butterfly, starring Antonio Banderas.

The plot of Black Butterfly is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul’s work and the two men begin a jagged game of one-upmanship that will bring at least one tale to an end.

As mentioned in the above synopsis, the minimal cast of Black Butterfly is headlined by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Four Rooms, The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, The 13th Warrior) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings, The Tudors, Mission Impossible III).

Black Butterfly is, notably, a remake of a 2008 French made-for-television movie called Papillon Noir. The screenplay for this American version was written by Marc Frydman, one of the film’s producers, and Justin Stanley, who had penned a handful of little-seen movies like Beneath Loch Ness, Dusting Cliff 7, and The Shadow Men.

Black Butterfly is the second film by director Brian Goodman, who has spent most of his career as a minor actor in television shows like Aquarius, Chance, Castle, Lost, and 24. His first film was 2008’s What Doesn’t Kill You, which received generally positive to mixed reviews.

The cinematographer for Black Butterfly was José David Montero, whose other credits include Apollo 18, What Happened to Monday?, The Hunter’s Prayer, and Open Grave.

The music for the film was composed by Federico Jusid, who provided scores for films like Neruda, The Hunter’s Prayer, Kidnap, Misconduct, and The Secret In Their Eyes, among others.

The production history for Black Butterfly traces back to 2012, when Nicolas Cage was reportedly set to star. However, as the production delayed, many changes occurred between the film’s conception and release.

Culturally, the image of a black butterfly is widely considered a bad omen. They are not only uncommon, but visually evocative of death and mourning due to their dark coloration. Depending on the mythology and culture, they can represent the souls of the dead, the end of a season, or a coming disaster.

The film features a cameo role by prolific exploitation director Abel Ferrara, who directed movies like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers, and The Driller Killer, among others.

Black Butterfly was released in May of 2017 to generally negative reviews. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% from critics and 45% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10. I suspect that the film released solely on video on demand services, given that no theatrical or financial information is readily available for it.

Black Butterfly boasts two very good performances from its leads: Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. For most of the movie, the onus of holding the story together is placed entirely on their shoulders, due to a generally lackluster screenplay. Both men manage to turn dialogue that could have easily sounded cringe-inducing into something mildly compelling and suspenseful – at least to a point. Both actors, who have proven themselves capable in the past, are better than this movie, and put in serious effort to elevate it. For all of Black Butterfly‘s faults, the cast is certainly not one of them.

Something that has been noted by many critics is that Black Butterfly feels familiar for audiences acquainted with the thriller genre: movies like Misery or Secret Window immediately come to mind from the synopsis alone. However, what is interesting about Black Butterfly is how it both subverts those genre expectations, as well as plays directly into tired cliches. Typically, a movie either cleverly goes down the first path, or trudges down the second: Black Butterfly straddles both paths, making for a simultaneously confusing, captivating, and frustrating experience. This is further emphasized by the screenplay’s tone, which is developed through a combination of predictable cliched lines, smug insights into the “writing process,” and non sequiturs masquerading as sapience. In the words of Vikrim Murthi of RogerEbert.com:

“Black Butterfly” communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.

By far the defining element of Black Butterfly, for better or for worse, is its cavalcade of twists. Bafflingly, even the marketing for the film relied on its twists, with the poster sporting the tagline of “A Killer Story With A Twist.” Not only does that marketing spoil the fact that there is a twist, but an audience that had seen the poster would spend the whole movie searching for the twist, which would effectively ruin the viewing experience. In any case, whether spoiled by marketing or not, the twists are a net negative when taken together: despite one debatably good one, it is more than cancelled out by a final bad twist at the conclusion, which undoes all of the previous developments of the film. The rapid twists abruptly shifting from cliche, to novel, to cliche again would give any viewer severe whiplash, and make the movie all the more tiresome.

On a technical level, there is some suspect camera work peppered throughout the film, which is likely a result of what I assume was a low budget. A number of shots and angles seem like they were filmed on cell phones awkwardly placed on tripods. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are moments where it is a bit jarring, and it is clear that camera limitations are preventing some necessary coverage. On a positive note, however, the locations are absolutely gorgeous, and provide a stunning backdrop for the story: it is hard for any given shot to not look scenic as a result.

Overall, Black Butterfly is an exemplar of how twists (and an unpolished screenplay) can hurt a film. To be honest, it is not one of the worst movies of 2017, and it was right on the cusp of making my list for the month. However, it is a more interesting failure to cover than something like The Emoji Movie, which was doomed from conception. Black Butterfly squanders real potential, sees a sharp decline in quality internally due to the degrading twists, and is a surreal juxtaposition of positive and negative elements.

As far as a recommendation goes, it is hard for me to say whether this is worth the time. The performances, as mentioned, are good and worth seeing. While the screenplay is tiresome, I think the twists would be interesting for film buffs to both praise and critique. Casual viewers would likely be less interested in this one, and should probably avoid it.

Worst of 2017: The Assignment

The Assignment

Continuing my spotlight on a handful of the regarded worst films from 2017, today I’m going to take on Walter Hill’s The Assignment.

The plot of The Assignment, according to IMDb, is as follows:

After waking up and discovering that he has undergone gender reassignment surgery, an assassin seeks to find the doctor responsible.

The central cast of The Assignment includes Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Avatar, The Cabin In The Woods, Ghostbusters), Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar, The Fast & The Furious, BloodRayne, Resident Evil), and Tony Shaloub (Monk, Men In Black, Wings).

The Assignment was directed and co-written by Walter Hill, a well-regarded action icon whose writing and directing credits include influential films like The Driver, The Warriors, and 48 Hours, as well as less-than-memorable films like Bullet To The Head and Red Heat.

Hill’s co-writer for the movie was Denis Hamill, who notably wrote the Richard Pryor movie Critical Condition and Bob Clark’s Turk 182!.

The editor for the film was Phil Norden, who cut a couple of episodes of the miniseries Broken Trail as well as a handful of small independent movies, like Blood Shed and The Martial Arts Kid.

The cinematographer for The Assignment was James Liston, who has shot numerous episodes of the current Supergirl television show, as well as films like Wrecked and Severed.

Two people are credited for the music in The Assignment: Giorgio Moroder, who is known for movies like Scarface, Flashdance, Over the Top, Cat People, Midnight Express, and a popular re-scoring of Metropolis, and Raney Shockne, who has primarily worked on TV shows like Queen of the South, Kevin Can Wait, Jersey Shore, Real World, and Project Runway.

The screenplay for The Assignment dates back to 1978, when Denis Hamill wrote the first draft. At that point, it was under the working title Tomboy, which it held almost until its release. Walter Hill was initially drawn to it because he “liked its audacity, and its potential to be … a kind of really terrific B movie.” Hill optioned it in the 1980s, but wasn’t able to put it to film for decades. However, at one point, Hill adapted it into a graphic novel, though it never saw release. Once funding came through to make a movie from the screenplay, he dropped the idea of releasing it as a graphic novel.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, director/co-writer Walter Hill had the following to say in regards to the more controversial elements of The Assignment:

“I’m not trying to make a statement about trans- or cis-male behavior. There’s nothing in the movie that doesn’t agree with transgender politics or rights, at least in my admittedly limited understanding of them…I wouldn’t make a movie that hurt transgender people. Some of them have had a tough time of it, and the last thing I want to do is make anyone’s road harder. But look, I understand the concern. Is it lurid? Yes. Is it lowbrow? Well, maybe. Is it offensive? No. I’m just trying to honor the B movies that we grew up with.”

After a poor initial showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, The Assignment received only a limited theatrical run in 2017, which grossed just over $200,000. I wasn’t able to find a production budget number for the movie, but I greatly suspect that the film failed to break even from the theatrical release. However, its primary release platform was video on demand, and it is hard to say what sort of income streaming brought in.

The reception to the movie, however, was clear: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 31% from critics and 20% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user rating of 4.5/10.

One of the handful of apologists for the film was Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com, who gave the film a modest 3/5 stars, writing that The Assignment is:

a modestly scaled B-movie by one of the best genre filmmakers of our time, Walter Hill, that has enough skill and personality going for it to make it worth checking out, even if it doesn’t quite live up (or down, depending on your perspective) to its borderline sleazy premise.

To begin with, I agree with Sobczynski that The Assignment doesn’t live up to its undeniably unique premise, though I definitely didn’t like it as much as he did. It just doesn’t do much with a really outlandish foundation, which might have made for a bizarre, over-the-top action movie. Instead, it is bloated and plodding, which isn’t helped by some really rough screenwriting.

The Assignment is, if nothing else, gimmicky in conception. Normally, gimmicks are pretty harmless, and sometimes border on ingenious. However, when dealing with a highly marginalized population and social issue as a plot device, I just don’t think it works: it comes off as an unpleasant mix of pandering to the zeitgeist, as well as skirting around reinforcing dangerous misconceptions and stereotypes. So, in this case, as much as the concept is original, I’m not sure if it can actually earn points for that. At the same time, the movie is way less insensitive than I had expected: as Hill stated in his interview, it isn’t a movie about trans people, and doesn’t delve into the issue: it is simply a revenge story, with a re-assignment surgery as a plot element. Still, the movie comes off as immensely tone deaf, and bordering on exploitative. On top of that, the movie makes the reassignment surgery itself seem kind of minor: the lead character recovers incredibly quickly, which debatably trivializes an incredibly dangerous operation. In the grand scheme of things, though, the movie could certainly done a lot worse than that.

From a film-making standpoint, this movie is exceptionally terrible. The editing and transitions are the worst I have seen since going through the IMDb Bottom 100, and stick out immensely from the rest of the movie. From what I can gather, a lot of these transitions were vestigial elements left over from the story’s translation to graphic novel, and back into screenplay form. On the whole, the jarring, cartoonish transitions contribute to a movie plagued across the board by an uneven tone, varying from dark revenge drama to some oddly-placed and poorly-executed comedic moments.

One of the most cringe-inducing elements of The Assignment is the dialogue. While it is never good, I found the writing for Weaver’s character to be particularly abysmal, almost as if it was lifted in total from the subreddit r/IAmVerySmart, However, Weaver does her absolute damnedest with dialogue that sounds like an 11-year-old imitating what they thing a smart person sounds like, and seems to have a blast with the scenery-chewing as a result.

Another big issue with The Assignment is the comic book stylizing, which pops up in a number of sequences. At this point, even comic book movies have left this technique behind: it would have been more appropriate 10 years ago, and the movie feels even more out of touch for using it. Again, I think this is a vestige from its brief life as a graphic novel, which Hill seems to have been pretty intrigued by. However, as with the transitions, it just doesn’t look right on screen. Sin City was an exception to the rule, but it seems like it is taking a long time for folks behind the scenes to figure that out.

Another element of the movie that is impossible not to note is the opening. The opening few minutes of The Assignment are, to say the least, highly distracting. Though I can understand the attempt to establish Rodriguez’s character as hyper-masculine, which is thematically key, and to get the audience to disentangle the physical body of character from their outside recognition of Michelle Rodriguez, it isn’t executed well at all.  However, despite Rodriguez’s performance (which isn’t bad), the whole effort winds up being a bit off-putting and jarring, thanks in large part to some creative masculine overcompensation. Even Sobczynski, one of the film’s defenders, admits that:

the early scenes in which [Rodriguez] portrays the male version of Frank, complete with a wildly unconvincing beard and a lingering close-up of his genitalia for good measure, do inspire a few bad laughs right when the film is trying to establish itself. For some viewers, it may never recover from that.

Overall, The Assignment is at most a temporary curiosity in the movie world: a b-movie trying to capitalize on something that was perceived to be part of the zeitgeist. However, it might have actually benefited from leaning in more, and actually getting into the politics and social issues related to trans folks. It could still be a cool action movie, and balance that with social critique. However, instead, it is a boring action movie with nothing to say. The biggest takeaway of this movie, in my opinion, is that Walter Hill has passed his expiration date, and should probably take a seat. As for a recommendation, there’s a lot here that could serve as a negative example: basically, it is an exemplar of what not to do, on a number of levels. For entertainment purposes, though, you should absolutely skip this one.

Worst of 2017: Arsenal

Arsenal

Today, I am going to be kicking off an entire month dedicated to the worst films of 2017. First up is the mostly overlooked Arsenal, featuring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack.

The plot of Arsenal is succinctly summarized on IMDb as follows:

A Southern mobster attempts to rescue his kidnapped brother.

The sole credited screenplay writer for Arsenal was Jason Mosberg, who currently has no other listed credits on IMDb.

The film was directed by Steven C. Miller, who also helmed Silent Night (the loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night), Marauders, and Extraction.

The cast of Arsenal includes Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider, Drive Angry, The Wicker Man, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, The Cotton Club, Snake Eyes, Army of One, Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, The Rock), John Cusack (Con Air, 1408, The Raven, Say Anything, The Ice Harvest, 2012, High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank), Adrian Grenier (Entourage), and Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do, Prom Night, Road House 2).

The cinematographer for the film was Brandon Cox, who additionally shot the films Heist, The Collector, Extraction, and Marauders.

The editor for Arsenal was Vincent Tabaillon, who has cut such films as Taken 2, Now You See Me, The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans, The Legend of Hercules, and Transporter 2.

The music for the film was composed by Scott Nickoley, who did extensive work for the television shows South Park, The Osbournes, and Clone High, and Ryan Franks, who provided the music for the film Bad Ass.

Arsenal was released in January 2017 by Lionsgate Premiere, a division of the larger Lionsgate production company which specializes in direct-to-streaming and on-demand releases.

The movie is interestingly a quasi-sequel to Deadfall, a mostly-forgotten 1993 crime film that also features Nicolas Cage as the character of mobster Eddie King. However, it is not clear if this was actually intended by the screenwriter, or something that Cage decided to do on his own, and was permitted by the production.

Arsenal was filmed on location in the gulf coast city of Biloxi, MS, and features a baseball game of the local minor league team, the Biloxi Shuckers. Biloxi is known primarily for its handful of casinos and resorts, as well as being the base of operations for the notorious Dixie Mafia.

Arsenal was released under a couple of alternate titles in international markets. The first is more than a little sensible, given the movie’s Mississippi setting: Southern Fury. The other title, however, really boggles the mind: Philly Fury. I’d love to know who thought that this alternate title was even remotely accurate, or why they thought it would have appealed to international viewers.

The reception to Arsenal was overwhelmingly negative: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 4.0/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 4% critics and 20% from audiences.

Arsenal, unfortunately, is one of those dreadful films that suffers from not having quite enough Nic Cage to be fun, but also having too much of him to be taken seriously.  Part of the problem is that Cage isn’t given the room to be truly crazy: he doesn’t have much screen-time, and his few sequences are far too brief for him to get cooking. In his one-star review for RogerEbert.com, Simon Abrams writes the following:

it’s hard to say what kind of performance Cage is trying to deliver since director Steven C. Miller frequently cuts Cage off before he can get going. Cage…is a scene-stealer even when he’s over-acting, like a car wreck that keeps finding ways to explode…But because he’s never allowed to cut loose, “Arsenal” never comes to life.

When Cage is given sufficient time on screen and enough slack in his chains, he tends to do something memorable (for better or worse). Arsenal is a movie that desperately needed some element to stand out and inject energy into the story, which is exactly what Cage excels at. However, it seems that Miller just couldn’t figure out how to use him and his strange, dark powers to elevate the movie.

That said, Nicolas Cage is by no means the problem with Arsenal. His performance is weird and unintelligible, to be sure, but he is hardly a fatal element here. The biggest issue, in my eyes, is the screenplay, provided by first-time scribe Jason Mosberg. As you might expect from a rookie screenwriter, Arsenal lacks a lot of the finer touches: elements like the rhythm and pacing just feel off, for instance. The dialogue isn’t terrible, though it is doesn’t really ring as organic either: it mostly just serves the purpose of moving the story along, rather than rounding out characters. The result of all of this is that the story moves its way along slowly, and it is notably difficult to identify with and invest in the cast of characters along the trek.

Beyond Nicolas Cage, the rest of the cast isn’t much to write home about either. John Cusack, for the few minutes that he shows up, sleepwalks through his role, and even looks like he is actively trying not to be recognized (always in a pair of sunglasses and a hat). Adrien Grenier, who is perplexingly the lead of the movie, just doesn’t work as an engine for a film. He is a guy who can typically slot in well in a supporting role, ideally with some kind of comedic material. Part of why he worked well in Entourage is because, somewhat ironically, he was always in a supporting role to the people around him, and didn’t have to bolster the weight of the story himself.

One of my personal pet peeves with b-movies is the uninspired and excessive use of slow motion sequences. The big A-list films tend to make decent use of slow-motion: think of Dredd or 300, where the effect is used to either cleverly imitate the effect of a drug, or enhance a memorable image that would otherwise have been lost in the action. Likewise, the more recent X-Men films have managed to use slow-mo to showcase the perspective of a speedster. These are all interesting ways to use slow-mo that fit an artistic or story-related purpose. In Arsenal, and many movies like it, slow motion sequences are included for seemingly no reason: whenever something sudden or violent happens, the action is just slowed down. The resulting images may be spattered with gore, but they are far from iconic or artistically composed. I suppose the effect is supposed to give the events more weight or gravity, but the result is usually that the movie just slows down, which doesn’t do the poorly-paced screenplay any favors.

Overall, I don’t think that Arsenal is necessarily any more or less than your typical straight to video feature. Honestly, I think the biggest reason that it attracted the critical flak that it did came from the top-heavy cast. However, it is hard not to feel that some real potential was wasted here. I still think that both Cusack and Cage have gas left in the tank, and could make for an interesting on-screen combo again. However, they really need to be in more capable hands (of both a screenwriter and director). Ultimately, the point of Arsenal was clearly to put recognizable faces on a cheap and utilitarian product, and in that regard it succeeded. The fact that anyone watched the movie or is talking about it is proof of the production’s (relative) success.

All of that said, there is absolutely no way that I could recommend this movie. It may be “successful” in purely financial terms, but it is still roughly as boring as watching paint dry. The pain of seeing Cusack and Cage so under-utilized just makes it all the worse, and more than justifies its reputation as one of the worst films of 2017.